Greensboro, North Carolina, is that true American anomaly – a place where there seem to be more people writing serious books than reading them. Pick your flavor – literary fiction, poetry, history, biography, memoir, true crime, sci fi and fantasy, young adult, chick lit, historical fiction, literary and music criticism – and you’ll find serious practitioners toiling quietly, often unaware of each other, in this sleepy city with a population of 225,000, five colleges, just a handful of surviving independent bookstores, and no formal literary scene to speak of. As with so many things in the South, you need to understand a bit of history before you can begin to understand how this curious state of affairs came to be.
Greensboro’s literary DNA winds back to the Civil War, when William Sydney Porter was born here in the summer of 1862. After doing three years in a federal penitentiary for embezzlement, Porter relocated to New York City and began churning out short stories under the pen name O. Henry. Though he is still read today for his clever plots and twist endings, the man suffered no illusions that he was producing high art. Writing, he once said, “is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and pilsener. I write for no other reason or purpose.” Admirably clear-eyed, but he should have gone a bit easier on the pilsener. He died of cirrhosis at the age of 47. Today his name graces a prestigious short story prize and the plushest hotel in his hometown.
Jump forward to the 1930s, when the esteemed poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, a member of the literary Fugitives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, came to Greensboro to teach a summer session at what was then called the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. A number of Ransom’s colleagues and star pupils from Vanderbilt eventually made their way to Greensboro to teach, write and hang out, among them Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. Only Jarrell stuck for the long haul, joining the Woman’s College English faculty in 1947 and staying on it, off and on, until he was fatally struck by a car near Chapel Hill in 1965. To this day, no one knows for sure if his death was an accident or a suicide.
Shortly after arriving in town, Jarrell dubbed the Woman’s College campus “Sleeping Beauty” and gushed to his friend Lowell about the place’s cardinal virtue: “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” Unlike more famous literary meccas, such as New York City, Provincetown, Iowa City, Key West, Oxford, Miss., and even the nearby “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, unassuming Greensboro may be the best of all possible worlds for a writer – an under-the-radar place where one can work in peace, but can also find camaraderie and support from others engaged in what will always be a grindingly lonely pursuit. The gifted southern journalist and biographer Marshall Frady once explained to his editor at Harper’s magazine, fellow southerner Willie Morris, why he preferred living quietly in the South to basking in the dazzle of New York City:
I’ve never been too sure that it is benign for a writer to spend any great length of time in the company of New York’s estate of appraisers from afar and traffickers in reactions and responses. Because maybe you start after awhile writing from those secondary vibrations, instead of from the primary pulses and shocks you can’t afford to lose. Perhaps writers ought to be scattered out over the land… more or less lost in the life of the country, not special aesthetic creatures apart from most men but only another suburbanite, another townsman, another farmer, who just have this secret eccentricity of an obsession to write…
Frady’s words resonated with me when I first read them 30 years ago and they still resonate with me today. The reason, no doubt, is that when I wrote my two published novels I happened to be working as just another newspaperman in Greensboro, and the place left me alone wonderfully to do my “real” writing when I wasn’t working my day job. It was, as Jarrell had learned half a century before me, a dream set-up for a writer.
The year Jarrell died, as it happened, the creative writing program began offering a Master of Fine Arts degree at newly renamed UNC-Greensboro, now a co-ed school. The small faculty was headed by the poet Robert Watson, the short story master Peter Taylor, and Fred Chappell, prolific writer of poetry, fiction and criticism who would become the state’s poet laureate and a renowned nurturer of young talent. Chappell, now 75, is retired from teaching but he’s still writing and still living on a shady street a few blocks from campus.
“The MFA program has exploded,” he told me recently. “A lot of the writers don’t leave town after they graduate, they stick around. There’s always somebody to drink with even though there’s never been a satisfactory literary bar in this town.” Echoing Jarrell’s discovery, and mine, he added, “People leave you alone if you want them to.”
One writer who stuck around is Drew Perry, who graduated from the MFA program in 1999, still lives near campus, and recently published This Is Just Exactly Like You, which has been short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. I asked Perry why he didn’t go off to New York after getting his degree. “Because I was incredibly poor and I didn’t have anything to show publishers,” he said, adding that the short stories he wrote to get his MFA were “not ready for prime time.”
So he stayed in Greensboro, working on stories and a novel, doing home repair jobs, eventually landing a gig teaching creative writing at nearby Elon University in Burlington. Eventually he started placing stories in literary journals, and in the fall of 2008 an agent signed him up. Six weeks later Viking bought his novel at auction. Perry is now married to Tita Ramirez, a fellow student at UNCG, and they have a 3-month old son, Tomas.
“I still have that community of support,” says Perry, who grew up in Atlanta and earned a degree in advertising from the University of Georgia, where he took his first creative writing courses as an undergraduate. “My neighbors in Greensboro are the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. It felt like the MFA program continued after I graduated. What I learned (at UNCG) is that there’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and writing. I love Greensboro and, yes, it’s too sleepy. There’s nothing specific to recommend it. But it’s just big enough and it’s just small enough.”
Candace Flynt, a Greensboro native and early graduate of the MFA program, still lives in town, writing fiction and memoirs. And then there’s a whole flock of writers who have nothing to do with the MFA program. Parke Puterbaugh, who is now enjoying a major success with his book Phish: The Biography, about the popular jam band, said, “If you’re sufficiently motivated and self-directed, Greensboro’s a nice mid-sized city with decent bars, restaurants and culture – but not an overwhelming mix of things to swamp your concentration.” Bill Trotter is the wildly prolific and versatile author of histories, biographies, novels, reviews, essays and, for good measure, columns about computer games. His philosophy: “Adopt a blue-collar attitude and write for whatever and whoever will pay you for your time, sweat and expertise.” Mark Mathabane was teaching at N.C. A&T State University when his memoir about growing up in South Africa, Kaffir Boy, became an international best-seller. Jerry Bledsoe was working as the local newspaper columnist when he wrote a true-crime book called Bitter Blood that became a #1 New York Times best-seller. The late Burke Davis lived here while writing many of his more than 50 published works of history, fiction and biography. Robert Watson still lives here, as do the accomplished writers Marianne Gingher, Lee Zacharias, Michael Gaspeny and too many others to name.
Orson Scott Card, two-time winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and best known for Ender’s Game, is perhaps Greensboro’s one brand-name author. He’s also a prolific contributor to a local free weekly newspaper called The Rhino Times, in which he writes copious, cranky musings on everything from current politics to cookies, squirrels, movies and global warming.
Today Greensboro itself is something of a Sleeping Beauty, less a true city than a well groomed but slightly overgrown town. It is a thoroughly middling place, blessed with mild winters, governed by aggressively moderate leaders, populated by citizens whose civic pride and self-satisfaction can sometimes shade toward smugness. The town is located squarely in the center of the state’s rolling Piedmont, midway between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic beaches, a place so at-home in its own skin that it never developed the big-league pretensions of Raleigh to the east or Charlotte to the west. It’s content with its new minor-league ballpark and downtown public library, its respectable symphony orchestra, its one renowned art museum.
Most of the state’s bold-face writers live or teach in the Triangle, including Reynolds Price, the novelist Lee Smith and her essayist husband Hal Crowther, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons and many others. It was there, in the writer’s mecca of Hillsborough, that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette dared to publish a novel in 2002 that lampooned his neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus. The ensuing literary cat fight – there were charges of everything from elitism to homophobia, the two unpardonable sins of our age – merited several buckets of ink from the Raleigh News & Observer. Such hot-house foolishness would be unthinkable in lukewarm, mannerly Greensboro.
Or maybe Greensboro’s exposures to the limelight have left its residents – writers and non-writers alike – relieved that the town is so rarely in the news. It was in downtown Greensboro that four black students from N.C. A&T State University had the audacity to sit at the whites-only F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in February of 1960, a gesture that enraged many whites, inspired many blacks, and helped ignite the civil rights movement. And it was in Greensboro in November of 1979 that five communist organizers were shot dead by Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis at a “Death to the Klan” rally, leaving the city deeply traumatized. These two visitations of klieg-light glare were, respectively, noble and brutal; they were also utterly out of character in this city that has always prided itself on its willingness to compromise, to accommodate, and to get along. Greensboro, after all, is the site of one of the South’s first universities built for African-Americans during Reconstruction, and it was one of the first Southern cities to willingly and peaceably integrate its public schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954. Greensboro, as Marshall Frady wrote about South Carolina in a slightly different context, “seemed merely to lack the vitality for any serious viciousness. It was as if its defense were a colossal torpor.”
Torpor is a funny thing. While most people find it stifling, many writers find it alluring, even necessary. The cliche of the writer toiling in his remote shack, much like the reality of Philip Roth toiling in his remote New England retreat, are two equally valid illustrations of the writing life’s solitary nature. And Greensboro’s genial brand of torpor goes a long way toward explaining the place’s allure to writers – both to the young ones who keep coming here to launch their careers, and to the established ones who work here, quietly, often apart, usually alone. There’s a sense here that if your writing is not always avidly read by your neighbors, at least its making is regarded with genuine respect by them. Al Brilliant, owner of one of the town’s few surviving independent bookstores, expressed this perfectly: “People treat writers as workers here.” Not as special aesthetic creatures, not as eccentrics or pariahs or freaks, but as people who work hard to make worthwhile things. That’s an intangible but vital thing for any writer to feel, and I’ve lived in dozens of places in America where it was utterly absent, and sorely missed.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that in a country of flowering creative writing programs, UNCG’s is consistently ranked among the top 25 by Poets & Writers magazine. While this is not the place to debate the merits of such programs – are they incubating genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? – there is no doubt that the UNCG program’s rich history and its continuing reputation for quality are a spring that keeps replenishing the city’s literary life.
“One thing that’s really strong with our program is the sense of community,” says Jim Clark, who came to Greensboro in the 1960s to organize textile workers and now runs the MFA program and edits its respected twice-yearly literary journal, The Greensboro Review. “We bring in people like Robert Pinsky and John Irving and Joshua Ferris, and the town people come to these events. We do writing workshops for all ages, from at-risk kids to the elderly. We do benefit readings to raise money for the Food Bank and for homeless people. We’ve tried to organize a community of writers that extends beyond the campus.” He waved at the nearby neighborhood known as College Hill. “There’s people out there who sit on their porches and talk about books, and drink together, and peck away in their rooms.”
To most people, that probably sounds like a working definition of colossal torpor. To a writer, it sounds like heaven.
(Image: Carolina Theater (1927), 310 South Greene Street, Greensboro, North Carolina, image from sminor’s photostream)