Co-Lin unveils unique collection of Natchez inspired literature

Published 12:03 am Sunday, September 4, 2016

NATCHEZ — Over the centuries, Natchez has inspired many writers to literary excellence.

Works from authors including Richard Wright, Greg Iles and Eudora Welty will now have a home together at the Carolyn Vance Smith Natchez Literary Research Center. The center will also house the collections from all the years of the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.

The founder of the NLCC, Smith retired as the director of the annual literary conference in 2015.

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She will serve in a volunteer capacity with the research center as both an advisor and as a special benefactor for the center.

“We decided we were going to open a center in her honor upon her retirement a year and a half ago,” Co-Lin President Ronnie Nettles said. “We wanted to dedicate it in her honor for all of the tremendous work she has done on the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration for almost 30 years.”

The collection will be housed at the Willie Mae Dunn Library at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez and will be opening this month. Among the first events at the center will be a series of lectures hosted by the Natchez Tricentennial committee.

“(Smith) is very knowledgeable about Natchez history, particularly the wide body of literature that has been generated with a Natchez connection,” said Beth Richard, Co-Lin Natchez library director. “Carolyn Vance Smith came to me (two years ago) proposing the Willie Mae Dunn Library create an archive based on the materials generated by the NLCC for, at that time, the past 25 years.

“She had been contacted over the years by researchers working on projects that wanted access to some of these materials so the idea to organize and preserve the materials led to the idea of the archive.”

Smith said she was flattered Co-Lin decided to name this collection in her honor. She said she hoped people would come take advantage of the materials.

“There are so many people that might think, ‘Oh, Co-Lin, that’s just the two-year college for freshmen and sophomores,’” Smith said. “No. This college is for the community. You do not have to have a Co-Lin connection to come use the library or the materials in the new center.”

Since 1990 when the first Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration took place, Smith said many scholars and professionals have produced original works for the NLCC. Those works have now been digitized thanks to help from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as well as the National Park Service, Smith said.

“There are so many materials that are primary — not located anywhere else,” Smith said. “Anyone interested in literature, film or the thousands of photographs we have collected through the years can have a wonderful time.”

Nettles said he believed the NLCC portion of the collection will be a great asset.

“It will provide access to all of those historical documents, events and activities of the past, which I think will be even more important later when people look back on the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration,” he said. “People who are interested can come to the library and learn a lot.”

The second mission of the center is to collect books by people from Natchez or people who have visited the bluff city and been inspired by it. Smith said this encompasses thousands of books. So far, the collection is in its infancy but is still impressive, Smith said.

“Naturally my favorite ones are the ones that mention Natchez over and over — I am such a lover of this community,” Smith said. “It starts with the beginning of the Frenchmen who came here 300 years ago and went back to France and wrote about us.

“And it comes forward with books related to Natchez through almost every decade from the 1700s forward.”

Smith said she does have a favorite part of the collection.

“My favorite is someone who has always been my idol, and that is Eudora Welty,” Smith said. “She is not from here, but she visited and loved Natchez.

“It is thrilling to see Natchez in her works. For her work to be studied around the globe, and for our town to be mentioned over and over is special.”

One particular story that stands out is “A Worn Path,” which is part of Welty’s collected works. There is a video of Welty reading the story in the collection.

“It is about an elderly woman, who is poor, walking the Natchez Trace into Natchez around Christmas time,” Smith said. “She is very dignified, has a mission, pulls her head up and walks. People befriend her on the streets of Natchez and she gets the medicine (for her dying grandchild) and is able to go back home.

“Within a month or two, she has to do the whole thing all over again. It is a recurring story of everlasting love.”

Greg Iles has done the Natchez community a service by setting many of his novels in the town, she said.

“You can be in an airport in London, England, and there is a copy of ‘Natchez Burning,’” Smith said. “Things like that are thrilling as a book lover and a Natchez lover.”

The center will also house rare historical materials mentioning Natchez. These materials will be available by special arrangements with the library staff.

The lectures planned for later this month are a part of the Natchez Tricentennial celebration’s lecture series, Legends & Lore.

The first lecture will honor the 1700s with two programs beginning at 5:30 p.m., Sept. 12. Jim Barnett, former site director of the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, will speak about the European travelers who wrote about Natchez, including Le Page du Pratz.

Dunbar Healy of New Orleans will speak about his ancestor, William Dunbar, who kept a journal about the 1803-1804 expedition from Natchez up the Red River, assigned by President Thomas Jefferson.

The 1800s will be honored at 5:30 p.m., Sept. 19. The first program will be presented by Kathleen Bond, superintendent of the Natchez National Historical Park, and it will be about William Johnson. Johnson was a free black man who kept a detailed diary of life in Natchez for 16 years.

David Sansing of the University of Mississippi will present on Joseph Holt Ingraham, author of “The South-West by a Yankee” and dozens of novels.

The 1900s and 2000s will be the focus of a Monday, Sept. 26 beginning at 5:30 p.m. lecture. Dennis Harried, formerly of Co-Lin, will speak about Richard Wright, Natchez author of works including “Black Boy” and “Native Son.”

Susanne Kirk Tomlinson of Jackson will present on Iles and the use of Natchez in his novels.

“I hope people will come for the Legends & Lore that are intentionally being presented in the center,” Smith said. “It gives us an opportunity to show people what we have and also ask for advice and support.”

Richard said the center’s collection is very much a work in progress and will be constantly growing.

“The Carolyn Vance Smith Natchez Literary Research Center will be open to the public and is funded through the Copiah-Lincoln Community College Foundation,” she said. “Donations of both relevant Natchez literary materials and tax deductible monetary gifts to the foundation designated for the foundation are welcome.”

For more information, contact or 601-446-1101.