BOOKING THE BEST: CONFERENCE FOUNDER ARLIE HERRON RECALLS HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In 1981 two Chattanooga professors, together with the Arts & Education Council, established the Conference on Southern Literature. The intent was to bring authors and their admirers together in a non-academic setting, allowing the readers to hear their literary heroes reading their works and taking part in panel discussions. The authors were also available for meeting their fans, chatting about literature and autographing books.
The first five guest authors were Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Cleanth Brooks, Andrew Lytle and Margaret Alexander. In subsequent years, Jim Dickey mesmerized attendees with readings from Deliverance, William Styron recalled the segregated society of his boyhood and Shelby Foote called for history to be constructed like the thrilling narrative that it is.
After its smashing debut, the Conference was embedded in Chattanooga cultural life as a biennial event, drawing 1,000 people from over 30 states with each occurrence.
At the same time, Cleanth Brooks and Louis Rubin began thinking about making Chattanooga the headquarters for an organization that would to encourage excellence and recognize distinction in Southern writing, soon to be known as the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Why Chattanooga, over more obvious locations like Sewanee, Virginia or Chapel Hill?
"The universities most active in contemporary Southern letters...[were] associated with a particular group of writers, and we did not want the fellowship to fall under the aegis, however benevolent, of any one group," Louis Rubin explains. "Moreover, although we ourselves were academics, our hope was that in years to come the Fellowship would be comprised principally of novelists, poets, and playwrights, without a predominantly academic character."
Dr. Rubin's participation in the 1987 Conference on Southern Literature confirmed their choice in Chattanooga.
"The efficiency with which the Conference was promoted and operated, the widespread support it enjoyed within the Chattanooga community, the fact that it was a civic and not an academic undertaking, and equally that it was not identified with any one school or group or coterie or particular kind of Southern writing-these were very impressive," recalls Dr. Rubin.
In due time the Fellowship of Southern Writers was formed and started meeting in conjunction with the Conference, holding their meetings on the UT-Chattanooga campus and bestowing awards and inducting new members before Conference audiences. In the two decades since, Fellowship members, new and old, have come to cherish this gathering as a reunion of old friends and an opportunity to forge new relationships.
"For me the Conference is like one big unpredictable, emotional, important family reunion: I get the feeling I'm meeting cousins (both writers and readers) connected to me by literature, history, geography, all the complex mystery of southernness," notes novelist and Fellow Josephine Humphreys. Clyde Edgerton sees it as "a chance to feel at home among stories." To Ellen Bryant Voigt, the Conference is "...a big family reunion, but with much less quarreling."
The 2011 Conference on Southern Literature will mark 22 years of a collaboration that has launched careers, inspired words, sparked friendships and recorded history. Over 75 prizes have so far been awarded to emerging and established writers; thousands of students and teachers have relished the opportunity to work with writers in the classroom; April has been named Southern Literature Month in Chattanooga.
But perhaps most importantly, amidst the growing trend towards decreased reading among all ages, the AEC Conference has encouraged people to pick up a book and (re)discover the power of the written word. "Story-tellers need story-hearers (and vice versa), says novelist Allan Gurganus. "This eco-system is less regional than it is eternal, essential."
Be a Part of It!
Join us for the 2011 Conference as we celebrate, and continue to write, the story of this magical partnership between the AEC and the Fellowship of Southern Writers.