“It’s what occupies the space of a literary life outside of New York,” wrote a wistful Richard Ford in the New Yorker in 1998, remembering neither Yaddo nor Shakespeare & Co., but the 1977 Southern Methodist University Literary Festival in Dallas. This was the glittering annual colloquium where Ford first met Raymond Carver—and where Carver first met his second wife, Tess Gallagher—where Cheever, Styron and Bellow headlined readings and their liquor-soaked afterparties. Alas, due to lack of funds and other bureaucratic hurdles, the Fest has lain dormant for over a decade.
Now, thanks to some enterprising students, the SMU LitFest is revived. Writers Michael Narducci, April Wilder,Tracy Winn, Scott Blackwood and (to my great honor) I descended on Dallas to participate in two days and nights of readings, panels, one-on-one student meetings and everything’s-bigger-in-Texas cocktails. Wilder wasn’t aware of the Festâ€™s storied past before she arrived, but was impressed from opening lunch to closing drinks: she described the students as “menacingly sophisticated, craft-wise”" and was charmed by literary enthusiasts who turned out in droves: “This was not your usual half-bored crowd—an eye on the clock, an eye on the door—slamming booze and stuffing egg rolls into their mouths to keep from talking. We gathered there to celebrate literature, to quietly announce that the written word matters, whether on a Kindle or a tattoo. We were there to give thanks.”
Such was not always the case back in the LitFestâ€™s golden age, when, as novelist and SMU professor C.W. Smith recalls, a drunk James Dickey stood up at the podium to read and declared, “You’re all a bunch of assholes.” Smith remembered John Updike, on the other hand, as “a consummate gentleman, always willing to talk and meet with students. He was courtly, approachable, just super.” The Southwest Review editor-in-chief and professor Willard Spiegelman remembers bringing Elizabeth Bishop to campus: “She was everybody’s white-haired grandmother in a mink coat.”
(Before we get to the rest of Kirsch’s letter, we should mention that’s Prof. Smith in the photo above…)