Literary Celebration is remarkable

Published 11:57 pm Monday, May 5, 2008

At its recent annual meeting in Starkville, the Mississippi Historical Society presented its Award of Merit to the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration “for its remarkable contributions to the study of literature, history and culture since its establishment in 1990.”

The founder and co-chair of the celebration, Carolyn Vance Smith, was scheduled to receive the award, but a rare March snowstorm that blanketed northern Mississippi prevented her from driving to Starkville. Because it has been my pleasure and honor to participate in all 19 of the celebrations, I felt compelled — in her absence — to explain to fellow members of the society why the NLCC was highly deserving of this signal recognition. Of course, I spoke extemporaneously and no transcript of my comments exists, but I ask a moment of personal privilege so that I might share some of my praise for the celebration, its founder, and its co-directors Kathleen Jenkins, Jim Barnett and Marie Antoon

Inclusion of the word “remarkable” in the award citation was entirely appropriate. While some otherwise good, legitimate words, “awesome,” for example, have lost their meaning through overuse, “remarkable” has not. Indeed, the NLCC is truly remarkable: worthy of notice, unusual, and extraordinary.

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While so many of its characteristics deserve this description, I begin with the three most obvious. It is truly remarkable in that for 19 years the quality of the speakers and programs, the size of the audiences and the amount of financial support from the Natchez community have remained consistently high. Over an academic career of some four decades, I have observed and participated in dozens and dozens of conferences in all parts of the 48 contiguous states, and I never cease to be amazed at the quality of the presenters attracted to Natchez. And these speakers rarely fail to register surprise at the size and diversity of the audiences and at the level and types of community support.

Also remarkable are the wise and productive decisions made by Carolyn Vance Smith and her co-chairs, beginning with the very first celebration with the selection of Gov. William Winter as the perennial director of proceedings. It’s worth a trip to Natchez just to witness his oratorical skills. Then in 1994 came the inauguration of the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award — a feature that has brought so many nationally famous authors to Natchez. Another popular decision was the addition of cinema in 2001 the mix; the Literary Celebration became the Literary and Cinema Celebration. The next year the first Horton Foote Award for distinction in screen writing was added.

There seems to be no end to the generosity of the Natchez community. In 2006 it was announced that a $100,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge grant had been matched by gifts from Natchezians and other Mississippians. From its inception, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the state-based NEH affiliate, has supported the celebration with significant grants, and more recently, so has the Mississippi Arts Commission. While Copiah-Lincoln Community College initially was the sole sponsor of the celebration, soon Natchez National Park, Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Mississippi Public Broadcasting became co-sponsors. An advisory board, presently composed of a truly diverse group of 50 men and women from many walks of life and regions of the state and nation, assists the co-chairs. Student attendees benefit from William Winter Scholarships as well as from William and Harriet Vance Memorial Fellowships.

As I travel around the country I find it difficult to describe the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration without exhausting my supply of superlatives and appearing to engage in a bit of hyperbole. George Gershwin could have written his song about it; to borrow his phrase, “its wonderful, its marvelous.” Yes, as the Mississippi Historical Society declared, it is indeed remarkable.

John D. W. GUICE is a professor of History Emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi.