Studs Terkel Accepts the 1997 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Picture credit: Robin Platzer

Don Logan: Good evening to all of you. I was afraid that when Wendy said there was something wrong with the microphone that she was going to blame it on CNN because Ted Turner is in town, and as you know, since he’s in television business, I thought maybe he was throwing a little jab at us here since we’re the print side of the business.

It’s a great pleasure to be up here tonight and see the faces of so many good friends and colleagues. Seeing you here in record numbers, I must add, proves that what the media has been reporting is true. That all that our industry cares about is the bottom line. Only the bottom line tonight is books. Great books. The thrill of discovering them is what drew us to publishing in the first place. And the challenging of publishing them is what keeps us going. That’s why it’s so gratifying to be a part of this splendid celebration because The National Book Foundation is all about great books. The great books that have been honored tonight with the National Book Award, and the great books yet to be written.

It was to nurture these books that the Foundation was established nearly nine years ago. Our most visible task has been the stewardship of The National Book Awards which today, I am proud to say, are regarded as our nation’s preeminent literary prize. Once more, thanks to the support of so many publishers and booksellers, the National Book Award back list is not only thriving, it has become a unique literary legacy accessible to readers everywhere.

With less fanfare, but equal success, we have been pursuing another mission as well. Nurturing the books that are waiting to be discovered by people like you and me. To that end, our Foundation works with dozens of partners across the country to bring together National Book Award authors with readers of all ages and backgrounds. In inner cities, and rural communities, at settlement houses, at Native American reservations, in elementary schools and libraries. These programs provide opportunities for thousands of ordinary adults and children to do something extraordinary, to participate in the world of books. Invariably they discover what all of us already know, that reading a great book can change your life. Even more important, some of these readers make another thrilling discovery, that they have the power to change our lives as well by writing great books of their own.

Of course, great books can also change the life of a nation, which is one of the reasons we are here tonight, to honor Studs Terkel and his twin legacies to American letters – the invention of the genre known today as Oral History, and perfection of the genre in a series of books that give voice to ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, 20th Century America.

Now Studs Terkel doesn’t call himself an oral historian, and he’s far too modest to claim a record of unparalleled achievement. So that’s why I’m giving this speech tonight, because Studs Terkel’s contribution to American letters have changed forever the way we view our history and ourselves. No one has produced oral history that speaks to the human condition with the same insight as Studs Terkel. No one has dared explored with the same empathy the social, racial, economic, and generational issues that so often divide our nation. And no one has challenged us with the same fervor to consider who truly makes history and what their place should be in the life of America. It is to celebrate these achievements that The National Book Foundation honors Studs Terkel tonight. But first, a few words about the man.

Studs, you must know, is not his real name. (laughter) You know, I have to tell you this because he’s been around so long that they are kids who think that James T. Farrel, named Studs Lonnigan after him. In fact, he came into the world as Louis, here in New York City some 85 years ago, whose parents were immigrants. His father a tailor and a man of few words. His mother, a fiery entrepreneur who dreamed of something more than dressmaking. When Louis was nine, his mother moved the family to Chicago where she became the proprietor of the Wells Grand Hotel. And he became Studs Terkel.

Of course, becoming Studs Terkel was more than just of moving and assuming a new name. His transformation began in the lobby of his mother’s hotel where at the age of nine he discovered, which is probably his greatest gift, the ability to listen. It was there that he first began listening to the conversations of his mother’s guests: tool and die makers, coppersmiths, chefs, boomer firemen, and master carpenters. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober, almost always impassioned. They argued the great issues of the day, politics and poverty, war and work, race and the racing form.

Now any boy would have found these debates entertaining, the boy who was becoming Studs Terkel found them enthralling. In his ears the words resonated with the rhythms of real life, with the truth as they had experienced it. The more he listened, the more he wanted to hear. And the more he heard, the more he wondered why some people are embittered, and others are redeemed by the same difficult circumstances. He wondered why again, thirty years later, when he recorded some interviews in South Africa for WFMT, the radio station in Chicago, which has broadcast his daily programs for the past 45 years.

Andre Schiffrin, who had just published Yon Midrol’s Report from a Chinese Village, happen to read these interviews and he was immediately possessed by one of the truly brilliant ideas in the history of post-war publishing. He asked Studs Terkel to write a report about an American village, namely Chicago. That book, Division Street: America, published in 1967, was unlike any work of history or journalism that American readers had ever encountered because unlike other writers, Studs chose to tell his story in the words of working men and women, and in their words alone, no data, no analysis. Just unvarnished conversation about the events and the issues that shaped their lives. What’s more, his book made no claim to objectivity. By his likes, in fact, objectivity seemed undesirable because it is so often synonymous with received notions and official truths.

Instead, what Studs aimed to reveal is the unofficial truth about 20th Century America. A truth best expressed, as he has written, by the non-celebrated one on the block who is able to articulate the thoughts of his or her neighbors. As documents of the experiences and perceptions of non-celebrated people, each of the oral histories that’s followed Division Street: America is unparalleled.

Where else but in his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, The Good War can we gain so many profound insights into World War II? And where, but in Working, a finalist for the National Book Award, can we find a sharper focus on what we do all day, and how we feel about it.

In fact, ordinary people voice extraordinary observation in all of Studs’ books. We hear their painful recollections, and hard times. His classic oral history of the depression. We share their regrets and longings in both American Dreams and The Great Divide, books that chart our nation’s changing notion of success. We empathize with our confusion and fear in Race, his landmark report on the American obsession. And we embrace their embattled but unbowed spirit in Coming of Age, his study of the elderly.

That Studs Terkel’s books recount the history of this century through the voice of ordinary Americans is a single achievement in itself. That their voices are so vivid is another. A tribute to his uncanny ability to connect with others and to transform their conversations into unforgettable narratives. But what makes Studs Terkel’s oral histories so riveting and so deserving of a place of prominence in American letters is not just their power to reveal the unofficial truth about our history, it is their power to reveal the unofficial truth about us all. For as everyone here must know, it is virtually impossible to read a book by Studs Terkel without recognizing within its pages the very essence of ourselves. That is the power of all great literature.

And it is to celebrate that power that The National Book Foundation honors Studs Terkel tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to introduce Studs Terkel and to bestow upon him tonight on behalf of my fellow board members of The National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which comes with a $10,000 dollar cash award from the Foundation’s board of directors. Thank you, Studs.

Terkel at the National Book Awards. All photos: Robin Platzer

Studs Terkel: Thank you very much. Thank you. I’m glad that Don Logan mentioned Andre Schiffrin because he’s the man who turned my life upside down. I was in Chicago 30 years ago minding my own business. I got a phone call from Andre Schiffrin suggesting I change my line of work. That was unusual, since I was 55-years old at the time. And I was engaged mostly as a radio disc jockey, and as a Chicago gangster in soap operas. And Andre suggested early retirement from those endeavors and a new line of work. And so, in the words of Jack Jefferson, in Great White Hope, he says, “Here I be for better or for worse.” And it simply proves that if you hang around long enough, anything is possible.

And so I was thinking, listening to Don Logan, I thought that more than a touch of irony to this pleasant occasion. I am, after a fashion, being honored for celebrating the lives of the non-celebrated. For reputedly lending voice to the face in the crowd. Now this is much of what oral history is all about, it’s been with us long, long before the feather pen and ink. Long before Gutenburg and the printing press. I guess it’s been with us since the first Shaman, for the first communal fire called upon the spirits to offer a tribal tale, to reveal a hidden truth.

No accident that Alex Haley in working on Roots, visited the lands of his forebears, Gambia, to meet the Greeos, the tribal storytellers. It was Henry Mayhue, a contemporary Dickins, who sought out the needle workers and shoemakers, the street criers, the chimney sweeps, all those et ceteras. And one year, 1850, he put forth a million words, their words, in the Morning Chronicle. He gave voice to these groundlings who were so often seen like well behaved children, seldom heard in the respectibles of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. In reading that morning newspaper they were astonished, they had no idea these et ceteras, who had for so long submissively and silently served them, thought such thoughts; and what’s more, felt that way.

E.P Thompson pointed out that, may you reject the tempation to “varnish matters over with sickly sentimentality, angelizing, or canonizing the whole body of workers of this country.” Instead of speaking of them, as possessing the ordinary vices and virtues of human nature. And listen to Mayhue, it’s a public gathering in October, 1850, a gathering of tailors, and he says, “it’s easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug sea coal fire, with our heart’s well warm with final port.” It’s easy enough for those of us to enjoy these things daily, to pay that poor’s rates and love thy neighbors as themselves. But place the self-same highly respectable people on a raft without sup or pipe on the high seas, and they would toss up who would eat their fellows.

Morality on 5,000 pounds a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing than morality on slop wages. It’s no action on Nelson Algren, who won the very first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950, always expressed his admiration for Henry Mayhue, especially for his classic, London Labor and the London Poor. Now to me this book has been scripture and Mayhue has been my North Star, in a way he has. Nor was he the last one so engaged in this adventure. It was Zora Neil Hurston who has been established already as an anthropologist and folklorest. She was a disciple of Franz Foaz, who during the great depression, was a member of the WPA, Writer’s Project in Florida, at the pay of $27.50 every two weeks, engaged in a similar adventure. She was getting the words of former slaves, children of slaves, and their children’s sharecroppers. She celebrated their lives in their own words.

And there were scores of such writers working on the project back in those days doing similar work under the auspices of Big Government. And here then is another ironic touch, parenthetically. It was the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal, best remembered by the much maligned acronym WPA, and other such alphabet agencies that saved self-esteem, the livelihoods, in many cases, the lives, of the daddies and the granddaddies of those who most condemned Big Government today. In the case of a stunning forgetfulness, sort of a case of suffering from a national Alzheimer’s Disease.
Now what distinguishes the work, the work we do today from that of our pioneers, is the presence of machine, the ubiquitous one, the tape recorder. I know of one other person who is as possessed by the tape recorder as I’ve been these past 30 years. A former president of the United States. (laughter) Though our purposes may have been somewhat different, the two of us have been equally in its thrall. Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians. (laughter) I tape, therefore I am. (laughter) And I hope that one of these two so possessed me maybe further defined by a paraphrase, “I tape, therefore they are.” Now, who are they? Hardly worth a footnote in our histories. Who are they whom the bards have so seldom sung? Who built the seven gates of Thebes? When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gall, was there not even a cook in the army? And here’s the big one, when the Armada sank, you read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?

And that’s what I believe oral history is about. It’s about those who shed those other tears, who on rare occasions of triumph laugh that other laugh. Now consider some of the heroes of our day, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. There’s an arbitrary few I’ve chosen, about four of them, out of a multitude of such heroes. Florence Scala, a Chicago housewife. Now Florence is trying to save her rainbow colored community. The very neighborhood where Jane Adams had lay down, or cast down her bucket many years before, fighting to save the soul of her city. And she lost to the power brokers. And now there are miles of cement where the cars whiz by like crazy, where once there was a place which like Molly Malone was alive, alive-o. Yet Florence Scala in her defeat experienced a revelation of sorts. “That’s when I lost the feeling of idolatry,” she says, “I had for some people. I felt because they were nice people they could never make a mistake. I found out that they are the ones that can hurt you the most. That we prepare at all times for imperfections in everyone. We, people like me, have to feel equal to everyone. I haven’t become cynical, simply realistic.”

E.D. Nixon. Former Pullman Car Porter, President of the NAACP, Montgomery, Alabama chapter. It was who chose Rosa Parks as secretary to do what she did that summer afternoon. It was he, E.D. Nixon, Pullman Car Porter, who chose that young pastor from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr., to become the head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, thus drum major of the bus boycott of 1954. The rest, as they say, is history.

C.P. Ellis, former Grand Cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan, Durham, North Carolina chapter. A poor white all his life, having a hard time of it. One piece of bad luck after another, barely making it one day to the next. He said, “I worked my butt off, never to seem to break even. I abide by the law, go to church, do right, live for the Lord, everything’ll work out.”It didn’t work out. Kept getting worse and worse. And he’s starting to talk to me quicker and quicker, more emotionally. “I began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I had to hate somebody. Can’t hate America, cause you gotta see it to hate it. You can’t see it. You’ve gotta have something to look at to hate, so I began to blame the Black people. So I joined the Klan. My father said it was a savior to the white race. I’ll never forget that night. They put the white robe on me, and my hood, and I was led down the hall and knelt before an illuminated cross. It was thrilling. Me, this poor little ol’ boy, Claybord Ellis, a nobody, felt like somebody.”

Except that funny things were happening on his way to these forums. “One day I was walkin’ down the street and a certain city council member sees me comin’ and I expect him to shake my hand because the night before on the phone he told me I was great, breakin’ up that demonstration. And then he sees me comin’ and he cross to the other side of the street. Oh, shit, was I being used? Then I see a Black man walkin’ down the street as raggedy as me. Is he the one givin’ me a hard time? That’s when I began to wrestle with myself. It was one daily revelation after another.” And he worked, C.P. Ellis as a janitor at Duke University. And he became a member of the union, very active. The union 80% Black, mostly women. He decides to run for a full time job as business agent of the union. He begins his campaign speech and the Black women shout him down. “Sit down, Clayborn Ellis, we know all about you.” And that’s when he whispers to me, his voice takes on a note of awe, he says, “They elected four to one. Would you believe that,” he said. “They didn’t know me.” And then he says, “Today, I walked in where these women, these Black women, and we sat, we faced these professional union busters, college men, and we hold our own against them. And now I feel like somebody, for real.”

And lastly there’s Jean Gump. Jean Gump, middle class, suburban grandmother, devout Catholic, head of the local PTA, head of the village’s League of Women’s Voters. One day, Good Friday, 1986, she did something respectable people just don’t do. She and three young companions, young enough to be her grandchildren, disciples of Dorothy Day. She says, “We commemorated the Crucifixion of Christ entering a missile site near Holden, Missouri. We banged at it with a hammer, poured our blood over it and sang hymns. We hung a banner on the chain link fence we cut through; swords and a plowshare, an act of healing. We’ll study war no more.”

Terkel delivering his remarks upon receiving the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

She was arrested, refused to recant, refused to pay her fine, and for a couple of years, she was number 03789-045 at a Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Free at last, she is still at it. She explains it so matter of factly, with a great deal of humor. She said, “What I did on Good Friday in Holden, Missouri is only expressing my Christianity. This is God’s world, okay? We’re stewards on the earth, aren’t we? I think we’re pretty bad stewards. Call it a legacy if you want, I want to offer my grandchild life, that’s all. We all want a crack at it, I think he has a right to have a crack at it too.” And then she says a crazy thing. “You know, many think I’m crazy,” she says. “I have never been so hopeful in my life. If I can change my way of thinking, anybody can.”

Now in none of these cases was there one overwhelming moment of epiphany. There was no Damascan Road they traveled nor was any struck by a blinding light. No, it wasn’t that. It was a accretion of daily revelations and the discovery where the body was hid, moments of daily astonishment. The stories told of Diogalof, you may have heard the stories. They’re gay Diogalof, the Bally impresario who’s never satisfied, always discontented. And poor Nimschinski, he may have been cocktoe. He would say, “What do you want of me, master?” And Diogalof, in a world-weary tone, put his monocle deep under his eye, says, “Umtanunwa, astonish me.”

Well, my moment of ultimate astonishment happened about 25 years ago. It was at a public housing project, a young mother, and I don’t recall if she was white or black, because it was mixed. I remember her as young, as pretty, skinny, bad teeth, I remember that. The first time she’d ever encountered a tape recorder. These little kids are hopping around and about, they want to playback, a replay, ‘wanna hear their mama’s voice in the machine. So I press the button and they howl with delight, but she suddenly puts her hands to her mouth and gasps, “I never knew I felt that way before.” Bingo. Jackpot. Not only was she astonished, but I was overwhelmed and astonished. And such astonishments have been forthcoming from the et ceteras of history ever since the year one. And there’s more, much more where that came from.

Clifton Fadiman Accepts the 1993 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Al Silverman (introducing Clifton Fadiman): I found myself not long ago in a quaint New England secondhand book store where I bought a copy of a book by Catherine Drinker Bowen titled Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. When I got home I discovered, nestled within its pages, a graceful little essay on the book by one Clifton Fadiman.

Among its several hundred well-chosen words, Mr. Fadiman referred to this Bacon biography as being of interest not merely to scholars but, he wrote, “to the curious, intelligent reader.

Clifton Fadiman’s whole life, it seems to me, has been a lightening rod for the curious, intelligent reader, that person intoxicated by the written word, willing to become engaged by both popular art and literature–the two of course often fusing into one.

It started for Kip–that’s the name everybody calls him by–when he was nine years old and had begun keeping a journal of what books he read. He remembers one entry in particular, a three-word literary judgement on Edgar Allen Poe: “Poe is prudish.”

At age twenty-three, fully unprudish, Fadiman served at Simon & Schuster for ten years, ending as its chief editor. For another ten years, from 1933 to ’43, Kip was book critic of The New Yorker. Then came another ten-year stint; (he says he always liked to keep jobs in ten-year increments), this as the host of “Information Please,” the most erudite and entertaining show ever to be heard on radio. His ten-year-and-gone routine was disrupted when he became an editorial presence with The Encyclopedia Britannica, where he remains a presence to this day. And in 1944 he became a member of the board of judges of the Book-of-the-Month Club. So he is coming up to his fiftieth anniversary with the Club.

In his alleged spare time over the years, Kip has translated two volumes of Nietzsche that stayed in print for twenty-five years, compiled hordes of distinguished anthologies for adults and children, written hundreds of essays, including at least fifty Introductions to novels by such as Tolstoy, Conrad, Melville, and Stendhal. His lifetime of reading and then writing about what he has read, has influenced and inspired generations of readers.

Today, in his ninetieth year, Kip has eased off a bit on his commitments. He still reports on six or more submissions a month sent to him by the Book-of-the-Month Club. He can no longer read these books because his eyesight has failed him, but the Club sends him taped readings of these manuscripts, and he listens to them all and reports on them in the inimitable Fadiman style.

I was priveledged to see that style at work for seventeen years, and it was like a lifetime of inspiration for me. At those Book-of-the-Month Club judges’ meetings, Fadiman was the commanding figure always. With every book under discussion he offered reactions tinged with wit and humor and some skepticism. But he treated every book with tolerance and seriousness. And through those years he was a discoverer. It was he, for instance, who urged a novel called The Catcher in the Rye on his colleagues. “That rare miracle of fiction,” he called it, “a human being created out of ink, paper, and the imagination.”

What Kip Fadiman always asked of a book was first, did it have lucidity, and second, did the book have a mind behind it?

Framed over his bed back in Florida are four lines in Anglo-Saxon from a tenth-century poem called “The Battle of Maldon.” These lines express this man’s life.

Mind shall be firmer
Heart shall be keener
Mood shall be more
As our might lessens

The National Book Foundation proudly presents this medal and a $10,000 cash award from the Foundation’s Board of Directors to Clifton Fadiman for his distinguished contribution to American letters.


Clifton Fadiman: It may be that this heart-moving tribute and award which the Foundation is giving me is simply a tribute to my Darwinian powers of survival. I think it’s one of the characteristics of our culture that if a man or woman can stick around long enough to become an oddity, he or she will either appear on an Oprah Winfrey show, or some respected body of American citizens will give him or her a medal, and that is what happened in my case.

Now I must be rank about the pleasure I take in receiving this award. I know from having looked at many of the Academy Award ceremonies what the proper thing is to say. I know that I should take this medal and I should say I would like to share this medal, I would like to share this medal with my six great-grandchildren and the man who fixes our refrigerator. But, ladies and gentlemen, I am not a paragon of virtue. I am a very selfish and very human person, and I must tell you candidly, or as they say on the air, frankly, I must tell you frankly that I take great personal pleasure in getting this award. I intend to take this medal, take it home, share it with no one, and use it to stroke my ego at regular intervals.

So there you have a confession of utter selfishness. I cannot help being made happy by this award and I may as well say so. However, that is a selfish emotion, though a human one and a natural one. But I also feel another emotion which is perhaps self-regarding, and with the three or four minutes at my disposal I want to tell you what I mean. It turns on the meaning of the word “profession.”

There are a certain number of trades or occupations that we apply the word “profession” to, not a great many-the law, medicine, religion, architecture, teaching, certain of the arts and sciences, one or two more. These we call professions. And we call them professions because those who engage in them profess something beyond their necessity to earn a living. Bankers, politicians, and street sweepers, though they may all have individual probity, and indeed many do, particularly the street sweepers, are not professionals in that sense because they do not subscribe to a code which goes beyond the necessary making of a living and the securing of an annual profit. There are certain trades or occupations which are not professions in the sense that the law is one, or medicine, but which occasionally partake of the “professional.” That is, the people engaged in these two trades, while their first objective is to earn a living and secure a profit as big as may be legitimate, are nevertheless motivated by something that has very little to do with any benefit that may come to them as individuals. They feel a certain communal responsibility. In the case of doctors, for example, that communal responsibility is actually made concrete in the Hippocratic oath that doctors swear by. And lawyers, architects, certain kinds of writers and scientists, men of religion all obey, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes vaguely, a code which goes beyond their own selfish necessities. And even when they transgress that code-some lawyers are crooks, some religionists are hypocrites-even when they transgress that code, it is a code that they know they are transgressing.

I think among the non-professions, there are two of which you can say that they are, as it were, infected or tainted by professionalism. The first, which I shall not enlarge upon, happens to be a trade that I have been interested in for many decades, the wine trade, which began as a trade intended to please-and I must use a politically incorrect word-to please gentlemen. The other trade, or perhaps a conglomeration of trades, is the book business-book publishing, book writing of course, book selling, book distribution.

Seventy-one years ago, I got a job with a small, struggling firm known as Simon & Schuster. I understand they are still active. Max and Dick, in the histories of book publishing, are thought of as having inaugurated new methods of promoting, advertising, and selling, and that is true. But people forget that it was Max and Dick, really, who helped editors like myself to select the best books we could possibly get. They published a great many books of ordinary quality. So I learned from Max and Dick, and Alfred [Knopf], what being a professional book publisher is. Now, back of the desire of the best publishers to publish the best books lies something even deeper, and something perhaps now as concrete, and that is a love for the English language. Book publishing, book selling, book distribution, book advertising-all the trades connected with the whole business of books-all these depend upon the resources of the English language, the resources which enable it to produce intricate forms such as the novel, the poem, the biography, which tells us something of the truth of the human condition. I have known many publishers and writers in my time, and the ones whom I respect most are the ones who have the most professional sense of their responsibility to do something more than merely sell books.

In my opinion, the National Book Foundation consists of men and women who represent those in the publishing trade who are most conscious of that responsibility, of that sense of the “professional.” And I think that the annual awards programs they present are symbols or emblems of their faith in good books and in the resources of our magnificent tongue. Each year, what they are doing here is not merely bringing together a group of like-minded friends to enjoy a good dinner and to give awards to three very distinguished writers.

What they are really doing, I believe, is making a statement about the English language, which at the moment is being subjected to so much-what shall I say-tainting, infection, whatever it may be. The time has come for us, it seems to me, to defend our English tongue, and the work of the National Book Foundation is important in doing so.

So these annual awards are a statement of faith. And I take great pleasure in being selected as a small part of that statement, a transient part, an ephemeral part, but nevertheless a part. And I must also add that I thank you for your patience in listening to these halting and inadequate words.

Eudora Welty Accepts the 1991 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Presented at The National Book Awards Ceremony on November 20, 1991.

Eudora Welty: When I was about nine years old, a newspaper advertisement appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal inviting children to write a jingle and win a prize, in praise of a product named Jackie Mackie Pine Oil. It must have been a household lubricant, for use on sewing machines and squeaky hinges and the like. Whatever it was, an invitation was all I needed: I responded.

In my jingle, Jackie Mackie worked a spell. I turned him into a magician. My instinct was right, in one respect. A jingle, as well as a poem, a story, does involve magic. My jingle won first prize, and my mother said she wasn’t surprised. Jackie Mackie sent me a check for $25. The time was that of World War I. I remember because my prize was converted into a War Bond, helping to defeat Kaiser Bill.

But all writers here will understand the important thing I was finding out: the joy of sending something you had written out into the world. You discover that somebody – not your mother – at the other end will actually read it. Whatever happens to it, this written word that goes forth from you now exists. It has a life of its own.

I loved from the first, as a child, the act itself of writing. The act could not be separated from the story. They spring up, grew, and came along, together. Each story became, for the time being, my teacher. So what serious writer could ever come to the end without starting another, starting anew?

The editors and the publishers, and the literary agents who have entirely made it possible for my work to appear, for my work to continue, I shall think of out of the clearest of vision and with love. Some of them are present here tonight. Those who are no longer in the world are present to me in spirit.

My father and my mother, my two brothers, would have been expecting it of me to make a better speech than I am making, to express their pride and my gratitude in this moment, all in one. That too supports me.

It is for all these people that I practice my art.

Yes, I regard writing as an art, an art of communication. We each in our own way will keep on with, and practice as well as we can, what it can keep teaching us to do. There are more stories to write-always more.

To The National Book Foundation I would like to say that your wonderful prize tonight is wonderful too in not being an end in itself. It can encourage an 82-year-old. It’s now on to the next story. In the prospect of working emerging – or for that especially – I now most deeply thank you.

Former Chairman of the National Book Foundation Board of Direcotrs Joel Conarroe with Eudora Welty. All photos: Robin Platzer

James Laughlin Accepts The 1992 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters


James Laughlin: The first book I published, in 1936, was 208 pages long and it cost me $396, including the binding. I didn’t know how to design a jacket, and I forgot to tell the printer to number the pages. It sold for $2, and that wonderful woman Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart took 150 copies. I sold a few more by driving around New England badgering the bookstores. There were no reviews that I can recall.

It was an anthology called New Directions in Prose & Poetry and was printed by the Otter Valley Press in Brandon, VT, the country shop where we Harvard boys printed our undergraduate literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate. There were 700 copies. A note on the copyright page said, “Contributions of or on experimental writing and all allied subjects will be read with interest by the editor, if return postage is enclosed.” There was an elaborate dedication “to the editors, the contributors & the readers of Transition” – that was the great international magazine edited by Eugene Jolas in Paris, which first published Joyce and Gertrude Stein – “who have begun successfully the REVOLUTION OF THE WORLD.”

In those days the prospects for “the revolution of the word” were not very bright. The Depression had frightened New York publishers away from unsalable experimental writing, and there were, I think, only five literary magazines that were interested in it, among them The Little Review, The Dial and a most important publication called Others.

What was “experimental writing?” The content list of that first anthology gives a fair idea. It included Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Boyle, E. E. Cummings, Dudley Fitts, Eugene Jolas, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, John Wheelwright, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky.

Oh, I’ve forgotten one important name: Tasilo Ribischka. Who was Tasilo Ribischka? A contributors note explained, “He is an Austrian now living in Saugus, Mass., where he is a night watchman at a railroad grade crossing; this gives him lost of time to think.” Guess who. Tasilo was me. When I had some particularly droll piece to publish, I signed it Tasilo Ribischka.

Laughlin with his wife Gertrude Huston at the National Book Awards. Photo credit: Robin Platzer

The man who suggested that I become a publisher was poor old Ezra Pound. I call him “poor old Ezra” because he had such a wretched life in his older years. In his 50’s he developed paranoia that led to anti-Semitism and an enthusiasm for Mussolini. He was indicted for treason because of the wartime broadcasts he made from Rome; he was never tried, but spent 12 years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, “a guest of the Government,” as he liked to put it. But when I first knew him, in 1934, when he accepted me as a student in his “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, Italy, no one could have been more kind – it was Pound who found publishers and patrons for Joyce and T.S. Eliot – or more generous in sharing his knowledge of literature with young people.

New Directions was born one morning in Pound’s study, when he was going over some of my poems, in the spring of 1935. He was crossing out most of my words. Finally, he said: “Jas, you’re never going to be any good as a poet. Why don’t you take up something useful?” “What would that be?” I asked him. “What would be useful?” He thought for a moment and suggested, “Why dontcher assessernate Henry Seidel Canby?” (Canby was the editor of The Saturday Review, who always gave Ezra’s books bad reviews.) “I’m not smart enough,” I told him. “I wouldn’t get away with it.”

He thought some more. “You’d better become a publisher. You’ve got enough brains for that.”

He promised that if I could learn “to print books right side up,” he would let me be is publisher and would persuade his friends to let me do some of theirs. And that’s how it worked out. He gave me his book Kulchur, William Carlos Williams gave me his collection of poems A Glad Day, and Djuna Barnes allowed me to reprint Nightwood.

I knew absolutely nothing about publishing. But I found that printers, binders, reviewers and people in bookstores, like Frances Steloff, were wonderful and patient teachers. The first year, when I was still finishing Harvard, New Directions was a one-man operation. I did everything. I worked with printers and binders around Cambridge, stored the books in my college room, and in the Harvard reading period I drove as far west as Omaha calling on the bookshops. Most of those lady buyers had never than heard of Pound or Williams, but they took pity on the nutty young man and bought a few books. When Alfred Kazin reviewed Williams’ White Mule in The New York Times Book Review, the book took off and I was able to reprint it.

Over the years it has been the New Directions authors themselves who have been my best advisers. They directed me to friends who had unpublished manuscripts, and one led to another. Williams put me in touch with Robert McAlmon and Yvor Winters, the critic at Stanford. Later on Kenneth Rexroth, the San Francisco poet, who was a Buddhist anarchist and had read every good book in most every language, enlisted the poets Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose Coney Island of the Mind became a rage with the students and sold 100,000 copies, my first best seller.

When there were more books than I could manage alone, I inveigled unemployed poets into working for me. The wage scale, as I recall, was $1 an hour; but that bought quite a bit in those days. Delmore Schwartz and his wife, Gertrude, ran the office in Cambridge. Delmore was heroic; one night when the Charles River flooded, he carried a ton of books from the cellar up to the kitchen.

Now, 57 years later, the situation for experimental writing – or call it advance-guard writing, if you will – has totally changed. There are dozens of very competent small presses all over the country and scores of well-edited little magazines that are eager to publish writers whose work is unconventional. Beyond that, many of the commercial houses are willing to take a chance on novels that defy all the rules of traditional fiction. Huge schools of creative writing in the colleges turn out hundreds of poets who sound like Wallace Stevens.

The advance guard is no longer isolated. I think I first got wind of the change in the air in the 1960’s when the stories of Donald Barthelme came out in The New Yorker and were promptly published in book form by Little, Brown and Company.

Thanks to the professionalism and dedication of my colleagues, the team that runs New Directions, I have been able to leave the operation in their hands and be free as a bird to travel or go skiing for long periods. They liberated me to run Intercultural Publications, with its four-language journal, Perspective; to do cultural exchange from Europe to Japan; to develop the ski lifts at Alta, Utah; to be an adjunct professor at Brown; to lecture on modern poetry in nearly a hundred colleges. And thanks to those who turn the wheels, I’ve been able to give time to the Greek and Latin classics that enrich my life, doodle my eccentric verses, sit in the sun on the terrace of our house in northwest Connecticut meditating on sunyata, the “sacred emptiness” of the Buddhists, or just watch the sheep in the meadow munch grass.

It took 23 years for New Directions to get into the black. But I’ve enjoyed the situations that every publisher must envy. No trips to the bank to beg for a loan. Little worry about the bottom line. If a good manuscript came along that I feared wouldn’t sell muck, we could do it.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the industry of my ancestors, the canny Irishmen who immigrated in 1824 from County Down to Pittsburgh, where they built up what became the fourth largest steel company in the country. I bless them with every breath.

Toni Morrison Accepts the 1996 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters



TONI MORRISON: There is a certain kind of peace that is not merely the absence of war. It is larger than that. The peace I am thinking of is not at the mercy of history’s rule, nor is it a passive surrender to the status quo. The peace I am thinking of is the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one—an activity that occurs most naturally, most often in the reading/writing world we live in. Accessible as it is, this particular kind of peace warrants vigilance. The peril it faces comes not from the computers and information highways that raise alarm among book readers, but from unrecognized, more sinister quarters.

I want to tell two little stories— anecdotes really—that circle each other in my mind. They are disparate, unrelated anecdotes with more to distinguish each one from the other than similarities, but they are connected for me in a way that I hope to make clear.

The first I heard third or fourth-hand, and although I can’t vouch for its accuracy, I do have personal knowledge of situations exactly like it. A student at a very very prestigious university said that it was in graduate school while working on his Ph.D. that he had to teach himself a skill he had never learned. He had grown up in an affluent community with very concerned and caring parents. He said that his whole life had been filled with carefully selected activities: educational, cultural, athletic. Every waking hour was filled with events to enhance his life. Can you see him? Captain of his team. Member of the Theatre Club. A Latin Prize winner. Going on vacations designed for pleasure and meaningfulness; on fascinating and educational trips and tours; attending excellent camps along with equally highly motivated peers. He gets the best grades, is a permanent fixture on the honor roll, gets into several of the best universities, graduates, goes on to get a master’s degree, and now is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at this first-rate university. And it is there that (at last, but fortunately) he discovers his disability: in all those years he had never learned to sit in a room by himself and read for four hours and have those four hours followed by another four without any companionship but his own mind. He said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do, but he taught himself, forced himself to be alone with a book he was not assigned to read, a book on which there was no test. He forced himself to be alone without the comfort of disturbance of telephone, radio, television. To his credit, he learned this habit, this skill, that once was part of any literate young person’s life.

The second story involves a first-hand experience. I was in Strasbourg attending a meeting of a group called the Parliament of Writers. It is an organization of writers committed to the aggressive rescue of persecuted writers. After one of the symposia, just outside the doors of the hall, a woman approached me and asked if I knew anything about the contemporary literature of her country. I said no; I knew nothing of it. We talked a few minutes more. Earlier, while listening to her speak on a panel, I had been awestruck by her articulateness, the ease with which she moved among languages and literatures, her familiarity with histories of nations, histories of criticisms, histories of authors. She knew my work; I knew nothing of hers. We continued to talk, animatedly, and then, in the middle of it, she began to cry. No sobs, no heaving shoulders, just great tears rolling down her face. She did not wipe them away and she did not loosen her gaze. “You have to help us,” she said. “You have to help us. They are shooting us down in the street.” By “us” she meant women who wrote against the grain. “What can I do?” I asked her. She said, “I don’t know, but you have to try. There isn’t anybody else.”

Both of those stories are comments on the contemporary reading/writing life. In one, a comfortable, young American, a “successfully” educated male, alien in his own company, stunned and hampered by the inadequacy of his fine education, resorts to autodidactic strategies to move outside the surfeit and bounty and excess and (I think) the terror of growing up vacuum-pressured in this country and to learn a very old-fashioned skill. In the other, a splendidly educated woman living in a suffocating regime writes in fear that death may very well be the consequence of doing what I do: as a woman to write and publish unpoliced narrative. The danger of both environments is striking. First, the danger to reading that our busied-up, education-as-horse-race, trophy-driven culture poses even to the entitled; second, the physical danger to writing suffered by persons with enviable educations who live in countries where the practice of modern art is illegal and subject to official vigilantism and murder.

I have always doubted and disliked the therapeutic claims made on behalf of writing and writers. Writing never made me happy. Writing never made me suffer. I have had misfortunes small and large, yet all through them nothing could keep me from doing it. And nothing could satiate my appetite for others who did. What is so important about this craft that it dominates me and my colleagues? A craft that appears solitary but needs another for its completion. A craft that signals independence but relies totally on an industry. It is more than an urge to make sense artfully or to believe it matters. It is more than a desire to watch other writers manage to refigure the world. I know now, more than I ever did (and I always on some level knew it), that I need that intimate, sustained surrender to the company of my own mind while it touches another’s—which is reading: what the graduate student taught himself. That I need to offer the fruits of my own imaginative intelligence to another without fear of anything more deadly than disdain—which is writing: what the woman writer fought a whole government to do.

The reader disabled by an absence of solitude; the writer imperiled by the absence of a hospitable community. Both stories fuse and underscore for me the seriousness of the industry whose sole purpose is the publication of writers for readers. It is a business, of course, in which there is feasting, and even some coin; there is drama and high, high spirits. There is celebration and anguish, there are flukes and errors in judgment; there is brilliance and unbridled ego. But that is the costume. Underneath the cut of bright and dazzling cloth, pulsing beneath the jewelry, the life of the book world is quite serious. Its real life is about creating and producing and distributing knowledge; about making it possible for the entitled as well as the dispossessed to experience one’s own mind dancing with another’s; about making sure that the environment in which this work is done is welcoming, supportive. It is making sure that no encroachment of private wealth, government control, or cultural expediency can interfere with what gets written or published. That no conglomerate or political wing uses its force to still inquiry or to reaffirm rule.

Securing that kind of peace—the peace of the dancing mind–is our work, and, as the woman in Strasbourg said, “There isn’t anybody else.”

David McCullough Accepts the 1995 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

New York, November 15, 1995

David McCullough with his wife Rosalee Barnes, at the 1995 National Book Awards. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
David McCullough with his wife Rosalee Barnes, at the 1995 National Book Awards. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

Jonathan Newcomb, President and CEO of Simon & Schuster: Nearly half of the almost 200 million adult citizens in the United States today are neither proficient enough to write a simple letter nor able to read and understand a bus map. Even more are illiterate when it comes to basic mathematical skills or the fundamentals of our country’s rich and diverse history.

Unquestionably, there is a widespread crisis in American education today. The United States may be the world’s epicenter of scientific and medical advancement, the arts, and entertainment, yet as a whole, we are a land where something is amiss with how we teach our children. Our students’ understanding of civics and history and scores in fundamental literacy, mathematics, and science are disappointing.

As the world’s largest educational and English-language book publisher, Simon & Schuster is very much involved in trying to fashion solutions to there problems. Along with other publishers and a growing number of companies in other fields, we are committing a vast range of creative resources to bring about a real difference in attitudes and achievement rates.

Although I thought I understood the challenges facing education in America today, I was not prepared for what I heard on November 15, 1995. It was on that night that David McCullough was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, one of the most prestigious honors an author can receive.

In accepting the award, David, without the benefit of notes, made an extraordinarily poignant speech about perhaps the most vital aspect of education in America today…our understanding of who we are as a nation, our understanding of American history. His message was an emotional and intellectual call to arms on behalf of a subject too frequently lost and forgotten in our classrooms. Everyone there was moved by the clarity and significance of David’s words, delivered with force and compassion, sparkling with inner conviction and outward challenge.

Publishers that we are, the Simon & Schuster contingent who hung on David’s words that autumn night decided that we should share his message with and audience greater than the five hundred or so who had gathered to salute a distinguished historian. We want to join him in emphasizing to the students, educators, and parents of this country the importance of studying history.

As David McCullough argues, history informs us where we come from as a people and as a nation, what we have done, and why. It provides us with a map, often imprecise in its details, taking us from our beginnings to where we are now. And if we are good enough students, it can serve as a blueprint for who we truly want to be and are capable of becoming.


David McCullough: Thank you. Thank you so very much. I feel more pleased and honored by this award than I can adequately say. I want to express my gratitude to the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation and to the Reader’s Digest Association and to all of you.

I am also deeply appreciative of the help and encouragement I’ve been given by a great many people over the years, several of whom are here tonight.

I am indebted above all, in countless ways, to my family: my mother and father, Ruth and Christian Hax McCullough, my brothers Hax, George, and James McCullough, and to my own five children, Melissa, David, Bill, Geoffrey, and Dorie, all of whom have played a part in my work and given me the best of reasons to keep working. And above all to my wife, Rosalee Barnes McCullough, editor-in-chief, mission control, strong partner, and best friend, the finest person I know. And by far the best dancer.

I am hugely indebted to an inspiring teacher, Vincent Scully of Yale; to my old friends and former fellow editors at American Heritage, Alvin Josephy and Richard Ketchum; to Peter Schwed, Dick Snyder, Michael Korda, Sophie Sorkin, Frank and Eve Metz, all of Simon & Schuster who have been my publishers from the start; and to my friend and literary agent, Morton Janklow, who has been, in recent years, one of the spirited, refreshing sides of a very different life as my work became better known, and who has given me some of the best advice I’ve had from anybody about many things besides books.

I must also thank for their shining example and friendship writers Conrad Richter, Walter Lord, Barbara Tuchman, Bruce Catton, Paul Horgan, and Wallace Stegner.

And let me include, too, how much I owe to the throbbing, steadfast city of my childhood, wartime Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and to this, the greatest of our cities, New York. Like so many of you, I couldn’t wait to get here. It was here I got my start, here I discovered that wondrous window on the world and on the nation’s past the New York Public Library, here, with the Brooklyn Bridge, that I found a story like no other.

It is seldom that anyone ever receives so handsome a tribute as I do tonight, or is offered the opportunity to address so distinguished an audience with such influence as you have on our country. So I wish to speak about something much on my mind.

We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.

The situation is serious and sad. And it is quite real, let there be no mistake. It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at the national memory. While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of site and out of mind. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.

Warning signals, in special studies and reports, have been sounded for years, and most emphatically by the Bradley Report of 1988. Now, we have the blunt conclusions of a new survey by the Education Department: The decided majority, some 60 percent, of the nation’s high school seniors haven’t even the most basic understanding of American history. The statistical breakdowns on specific examples are appalling.

But I speak also from experience. On a winter morning on the campus of one of our finest colleges, in a lively Ivy League setting with the snow falling outside the window, I sat with a seminar of some twenty-five students, all seniors majoring in history, all honors students-the cream of the crop. “How many of you know who George Marshall was?” I asked. None. Not one.

At a large university in the Midwest, a young woman told me how glad she was to have attended my lecture, because until then, she explained, she had never realized that the original thirteen colonies were all on the eastern seaboard.

Who’s to blame? We are.

Everywhere in the country there are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education. Our school system, the schools we are responsible for, could rightly be charged with educational malpractice.

Can we expect some jolting national alarm to sound? Will there be in these remaining years of the 1990s some sensational event like Sputnik in the 1950s, to shock us into a realization of the true nature of the situation? Probably not.

But something must be done. And we can begin by asking a few fundamental questions.

Do we really care about standards of performance any more?

Are we read to accept the reality that in a government of the people it is not some longed-for leader who will save the day? If we’re looking for leadership, the place to look is in the mirror.

Too many teachers have little if any real understanding of what they’re teaching, let alone that vitality and passion for the subject that makes a great teacher so effective. If you think back to your own time in school, the courses you liked best and did best in were almost certainly the courses taught by the teachers you liked best. And the teachers you liked best were almost certainly those who were excited about the material and conveyed that excitement to you.

We have to start training teachers to teach history-and grade school teachers especially. We have to begin early with children. The earlier the better. We have to get back to basics. And let’s not be quite so bedazzled by the information revolution, by all the glittering promise of information highways.

Information isn’t learning. Information isn’t education. We have to have better teachers and we have to have better books.


We need better textbooks. We need more and better biographies for beginning readers. Too much of what’s written as history for our children is contrived by committee. It’s an assembly and it’s deadly. It reminds me of the old piano teacher’s lament, “I hear you play all the notes, but I hear no music.”

So why bother? “That’s history,” is the expression now. That’s done with, junk for the trash heap. Why history?

History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for. History is-or should be-the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.

At their core, the lessons of history are largely lessons in appreciation. Everything we have, all our great institutions, hospitals, universities, libraries, this city, our laws, our music, art, poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work, provided the creative energy, provided the money, provided the belief. Do we disregard that?

Indifference to history isn’t just ignorant, it’s rude. It’s a form of ingratitude.

I’m convinced that history encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, gives us a sense of the relative scale of our own brief time on earth and how valuable that is.

What history teaches it teaches mainly by example. It inspires courage and tolerance. It encourages a sense of humor. It is an aid to navigation in perilous times. We are living now in an era of momentous change, of huge transitions in all aspects of life-here, nationwide, worldwide-and this creates great pressures and tensions. But history shows that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn. This nation was founded on change. We should embrace the possibilities in these exciting times and hold to a steady course, because we have a sense of navigation, a sense of what we’ve been through in times past and who we are.

Think how tough our predecessors were. Think what they had been through. There’s no one in this room who hasn’t an ancestor who went through some form of hell. Churchill in his great speech in the darkest hours of the Second World War, when he crossed the Atlantic, reminded us, “We haven’t journeyed this far because we are made of sugar candy.”

Now history isn’t just good for you in a civic way. It isn’t just something you take to be a better citizen. It does do that, and that in itself would be reason enough to stress its importance. “Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free,” Jefferson said, “expects what never was and never will be.” And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that.

But, I think, what it really comes down to is that history is an extension of life. It both enlarges and intensifies the experience of being alive. It’s like poetry and art. Or music. And it’s ours, to enjoy. If we deny our children that enjoyment, that adventure in the larger time among the greater part of the human experience. We’re cheating them out of a full life.

There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: “Tell stories.” The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest of all mysteries-time and human nature.

How lucky we are. How lucky we are to enjoy in our work and in our lives, the possibilities, the precision and reach, the glories of the English language. How lucky we are, how very lucky we are, to live in this great country, to be Americans-Americans all.