- Maurice Manning
This is a story I couldn't make up, but it involves Wyatt Prunty. The story is personally moving and also bewildering; it is about friendship and whatever follows us beyond friendship. None of it would have happened without Wyatt. The blunt backdrop: our country has a persistent and deepening anti-intellectual tic. Our national habit, increasingly, is to sneer at intelligence, to dismiss depth and sophistication as forms of elitism. If this stance can be called a mindset, we are suffering for it. For thirty years, however, Wyatt Prunty has been orchestrating the antidote, a subtle, eloquent, and sustained rebuke. The Sewanee Writers' Conference is, above all, a community in which intellectual, literary, and human values are shared, savored, and advanced, for the sake of art, but beyond even that. It is a forward-moving organic creation that draws on both tradition and innovation. The Conference provides a time and a place to be together, to learn, and to reach beyond, and then, a year later, to return for more. The lesson I've most richly valued from my membership in this community? The life of the curious and deepening mind cannot be parted from affection, affection for our fellows and the world around us. And so here begins a telling of this pilgrim's involvement in the tale.
"Y'all need to have a baby as soon as possible." That was about the second thing Tony Earley said to me the first time I met him at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in July 2011. Tony was a veteran of the Conference; I was a new pup that summer. But we had much in common, and a deep friendship was born. Our evenings were topped off by playing music with Claudia Emerson and her husband, Kent Ippolito. I don't think I'll ever forget the sound of Claudia's voice rising in song. This was the communal vibe I yearned for in the months-long interim between Conferences, and what I savored in the precious present while it lasted. [End Page 731]
At the Conference in 2014 I was sitting next to Claudia during a lecture and was occasionally scribbling down a few notes. She gave a dismissive glance at the drugstore ink pen I was using and nudged me. "Don't you think you should use a more serious writing instrument?" Her question unbound a flood of memory. All of a sudden I had an image of myself as a young child sitting in my great-grandmother's room. I had a dried-up fountain pen in my hand, and I was scratching it across a piece of paper. I could not read or write yet; I was mimicking the sound of writing, dragging the dead nib around the page. I'd remembered this occasionally through the years, but now it suddenly seemed more vital. I told Claudia about this memory. And I also told her about a recent dream I had. My father and I were trying to find where my great-grandmother was raised. We arrived at a farm that had a dogtrot barn. We told a man we were looking for Lillian. He pointed through the dogtrot that was lit up with morning sun. She was back there in the yard, a little girl playing in the flowers, circa 1885. She would grow up and raise my father and then have a hand in raising me. In reflecting on this vivid dream, I told Claudia that I thought it means we must imagine living beyond our biological life, and that we must live with a clear connection to our ancestors and also to our descendants. By my count, I said, we might imagine the average human life is about two hundred years.
This was an especially weighted thing to say to Claudia in the summer of 2014. She was gravely ill. A couple of weeks after the Conference I received in the mail from Claudia a choice Pelikan pen—indeed a serious writing instrument, large and formal-looking in the hand. She also included a poem called "A Life Beyond," which she dedicated to me, and which recounts part...