When the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame opened its metaphorical doors in 1969 (the downtown museum’s actual doors were built much later) its inaugural class of inductees included legends such as Bear Bryant and Joe Louis. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame tuned up in 1986 by honoring the likes of Hank Williams and Nat “King” Cole. The Alabama Writers Hall of Fame will hold its first induction ceremony next Monday night in Tuscaloosa. You may be surprised how elastic the notion of fame has become.
There have been professional writers in Alabama for a lot longer than there have been professional musicians or sportsmen, but only last year did the impetus for acknowledging the state’s most famous literati reach fever pitch. (Okay, maybe not a fever, but there was at least a guy named Pitschmann involved in the process.)
The two organizations leading the effort to establish a Writers Hall were the Alabama Writers’ Forum, for which poet Jeannie Thompson is executive director, and the Alabama Center for the Book, headed up by master librarian Lou Pitschmann. They assembled an advisory committee of scholars, arts volunteers and, yes, writers to cull the ranks of nearly two centuries’ worth of Alabama authors down to an even dozen.
The top of the heap is impressive indeed for it consists of Harper Lee, the gentlewoman of Monroeville whom we all thought had only one book in her and who proves us wrong July 14 with the release of Go Set A Watchman, a novel she actually wrote in the 1950s before her magnum opus, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Some years ago, I attended a Writers’ Forum event at the Birmingham Museum of Art and actually felt a disturbance in the force when the esteemed Ms. Lee materialized out of nowhere to stand in the back of the room and silently beam her approval of the goings-on. Oddly, perhaps emulating the baseball superstition of not acknowledging a no-hitter in progress, no one sitting around me admitted that they’d actually seen her that day. Suffice to say, I’d love to see the security camera footage sometime.
Coming next on the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame list is another writer who has sold a few hardcover copies in his time, Professor Rick Bragg, whose hard-scrabble memoir All Over But The Shoutin’ may not have put Possum Trot on the map, but certainly kept it there.
After these two marquee names, the buzz factor sorta plummets. For example, there’s Zora Neale Hurston, who may or may not have been born in Alabama in the first place. It’s not just that her prose was often controversial (the African-American author opposed integration and gave her characters heavy rural dialects), but her bio tout on the Writers’ Forum page by way of the Encyclopedia of Alabama website admits, “None of Hurston’s novels met with absolute acclaim.” You’d think a minimum of one absolutely acclaimed novel might be necessary to qualify for a Hall of Fame.
Then there’s Helen Keller. Certainly a charter member of the Deaf and Blind Hall of Fame or the Radical Alabama Socialist Hall of Fame, but writing? It turns out that she did indeed have a bestseller in her, and it was her 1903 autobiography The Story of My Life written when she had only 23 years of material to work with. Unfortunately, that was the only bestseller she’d have, global runaway success though it may have been, and she was never able to fulfill her dream of making a living as a writer. By the time she died in 1968 she was famous around the world, but maybe not so much for the books.
If you want to know a famous Alabama writer of the 19th century, the Hall of Fame’s two initial offerings may tax your recollection. First up is Johnson Jones Hooper, to whom no one referred as J.J. Moving to Alabama when he was 20, Hooper published his first short story eight years later in 1843. His go-to character was a Tallapoosa County denizen named Simon Suggs, who appeared in a number of Hooper tales, according to the bio, “putting gunpowder in his mother’s tobacco pipe and finagling his way into land grabs.”
The screenplay practically writes itself.
Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, ostensibly “the most successful Alabama writer of her time,” represents the distaff side of the 19th century. Her fame soared with a novel of domestic fiction entitled Beulah, which sold a blistering 22,000 copies in its first nine months of publication in 1855. That tome’s unavailable on Amazon, but several of her later novels are surprisingly including her blockbuster St. Elmo, which I was disappointed to learn did not inspire a 1985 film starring Demi Moore and Andrew McCarthy.
I guess I’m being a little hard on the inaugural class of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. After all, it includes Andrew Glaze, our current state poet laureate still getting it done at the tender age of 95, and Sena Jeter Nusland, the poet laureate of Kentucky though born and reared right here in Birmingham. If I have any point of contention with the list, it’s the number of Alabama writers on it that wound up abandoning Alabama. Unless I miscounted, I see only four of the 12 inductees (Helen Norris Bell, Professor Bragg and, lately, Ms. Lee and Andy Glaze) as Alabama natives whose mail would still come to the Heart of Dixie.
Can you still be an Alabama writer if you don’t live here anymore? That’s a question I’d love to put to Harper Lee, who famously divided her time between Monroeville and Manhattan in her heyday. Of course, were she to actually appear at the Hall of Fame ceremony, I’d probably instead ask the question firing imaginations all over the free world: just how the heck do you set a watchman?