restricted access Forward to the Past: The SLF Album
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Afullhistoryofliteraryfestivalsandreadingshasyettobewritten,but with her book, The SLF Album: An Informal History of Notre Dame’s Sophomore Literary Festival 1967–1996, LindaDeCiccocontributesone small portion. And I expect a complete study to be written one day, since there now seems to be an appetite in the academy for this sort of historical work. See, for instance: Gerald Graff, Professing Literature (1987); Andrew Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (1993); and D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach (1996). The rise of creative writing, along with its trailing literary festivals and visiting writers, has been a subject of conflict in academic settings overthedecades,sinceithighlightsthepedagogicaldivideoftenfound in English Departments – the competition between living literature and supine texts, practice and theory. As D. G. Myers writes in The Elephants Teach, a history of creative writing in universities since 1880, “A devotion to literature has aroused suspicion (and stirred contempt) on the part of literary scholars for a hundred years and more.” And the foregrounding of literacy, rather than orality, is thrown into confusion when writers read; it’s forward to the past. When one considered “readings” in academic settings pre-1960, one usually thought of poets and poetry. Consulting the record cataForward to the Past: The SLF Album 312 313 logues of the time (Caedmon’s, especially) to see what sort of writers wereofferedonvinylplatters – poetsoverwhelmthelist – confirmsthis impression. Poets read their verse aloud. Some novelistic exceptions come to mind: Twain, Dickens, Faulk­ner. In most American towns there was a remnant of the lyceum tradition, part of the adult-education movement of the nineteenth century, related to Chautauquas, where the famous and not-so-famous personages declaimed from a public stage. There, prose writers would turn up. There are histories of the Chautauqua movement (see, for instance, Harry P. Harrison and Karl Detzer, Culture Under Canvas (1958)). The well-known Lincoln-Douglas debates were part of a larger public cultural scene; not as well known is that their length rivaled how long Elizabethans stood in the pit during one of Shakespeare’s plays. The growth of literary readings, “festivals,” of one sort or another at universities, grew alongside the mushrooming, during the seventies and eighties, of graduate creative writing programs. Before then their history is spotty. Notre Dame had two summer writers’ conferences, involving English Department faculty writers and professors such as Ernest Sandeen, Lou Hasley, John T. Frederick, John Frederick Nims, and Richard Sullivan, among others, in the 1950s. When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, in Kansas City, Missouri , Allen Ginsberg and a small entourage (Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso,Irecall),readinalocalbar;theyhadagreedtoreadatsomeone’s home, afterward, to accommodate the youth (myself included) who were too young to be admitted to the bar. Ginsberg was used to such haphazard venues. The San Francisco poetry renaissance was chiefly an oral phenomenon, readings in cafes and small bookstores leading theway – casual,unorganized,quasi-spontaneous,alotlikethepoetry that got read. 314 That Ginsberg “reading” may have been the first poetry reading I ever attended. There weren’t that many at the state university I attended in the mid-sixties. The Jewish Community Center in Kansas City had a series (a service such centers provided in many towns), and I did go to those. It brought literary culture to the wider community; there wasn’t a lot of competition at the time, though one of Kansas City’s own had just won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, and that had been reported locally (James Tate, The Lost Pilot (1967)). This wasinthemid-to-latesixties,quitenearthestartof NotreDame’sSLF. I’m sure the young students who started the SLF were reacting to the same things at large in the culture. In the Midwest, this was “new,” rare, seemingly in opposition to the dominant atmosphere of getting and spending, conforming and coping: poetry for free, or almost. And poetry led the way (except at the SLF). I’ve been trying to recall the first writer of fiction I ever heard read. I had heard Edward Dahlberg read, but never any of his fiction. It may have been myself, insofar as when I was a graduate student at Columbia University, in 1968, we were expected to give a public reading, and I drew the short stick to read first. Erica Jong followed, reading poetry. That was in 1968, the glorious annus mirabilis of the Festival at Notre Dame, when everyone attending was a “big name.” Columbia brought in writers to our classes, but they did not read: W.H. Auden, Isaac...


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