Lawrence Ferlinghetti Accepts the 2005 Literarian Award

November 16, 2005

Garrison Keillor (host): It’s my honor to introduce for the purpose of introducing somebody else a woman of letters who has written just about everything that a person can write. She’s written poems and fiction. She has written plays, plays that are actually produced. She’s written screen plays that are actually produced, “Fresh Kill,” and has written fiction. In fact, she has sat in a dark room, as many of you are sitting here tonight, and waited for her name to be announced as a nominee for the National Book Awards. Unfortunately, it was not a book with a really award winning title. It was a great book but Dogeaters? Gangster of Love. Better title. Please welcome Jessica Hagedorn. [Applause]

Jessica Hagedorn (introducing Lawrence Ferlinghetti): He’s a funny man. That’s Minnesota for you. Good evening, everyone. This year, the National Book Foundation decided to create the Literarian Award in order to recognize and honor the people who have dedicated their lives to loving, nurturing, publishing and making great literature available to a wider audience in America. I feel an enormous sense of hometown pride in introducing tonight’s recipient of this award. He is a beloved poet and prolific author, a visionary publisher, and after all these years, still the hippest and coolest bookseller around. [Applause]

Yeah. Coney Island of the Mind his best known, best selling collection of poetry is considered a modern classic. He founded City Lights, the legendary San Francisco bookstore in 1953 with Peter Martin. Soon after, he launched City Lights Publishing House. His courageous publication and defense of Allen Ginsburg’sHowl led to his arrest on obscenity charges. The trial and his subsequent acquittal brought national attention to the San Francisco renaissance and the literary movement known as the Beats. As you can read in the program, this historic First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work.

I was 15 years old, fresh off the boat from the Philippines, when the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, took me on my first outing to City Lights in North Beach, a glamorous, grown up, and to my feverish teenage mind, delightfully dangerous destination. I’ll never forget that it was close to midnight, yet the cozy, colorful bookstore was humming with activity. Scruffy bohemian types lounged about downstairs, browsing through the paperback books and the latest issues of Umbra andEvergreen Review. The friendly staff didn’t seem to feel the need to pressure anyone into buying. Poetry by Lorca, Neruda, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, plays by Samuel Beckett and LeRoy Jones, novels by Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey and James Baldwin, William Burroughs. Quite a boys’ club, right?

Teenage me was in heaven. After that first night, I kept going back, sometimes alone or with one or two likeminded book-loving teenage rebel pals. City Lights was our haven, a sort of funky alternative school for kids like us who dreamed of becoming writers and artists. The welcoming beautiful energy in this independent unpretentious first class bookstore has much to do with the poet and activist who is its public face. To this day, City Lights remains a vibrant San Francisco literary landmark and a Mecca for writers and readers from all over the world. Thanks to his unflagging vision and generous open spirit, the Press continues to thrive, publishing a remarkable list of cutting edge authors while keeping many hard-to-find books in print.

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation, it gives me great pleasure to present the first Literarian Award for outstanding service to the American literary community to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

[Applause]

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: For a while, I thought we were on “Prairie Home Companion”. I don’t have half the wit that Garrison does, that makes me a halfwit. Anyway, I am honored indeed and I’m also glad to have published a book by my introducer.

What is a “literarian” anyway? Sounds a bit old school, doesn’t it? A smart friend of mine said, “It’s for old guys.” Well, it’s for young guys of both sexes and many colors to carry forward the tradition of great literacy. I come from a New York generation which was before the Beat Generation, a generation that assumed that you would know the allusion when you referred to such things as Prufrock or Stephen Daedalus or Maud Gonne or Godot or Penelope’s unraveling her knitting at night or Dover Beach or Walden Pond or “lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d”. The absence of Third World writers, authors of color, from the list is shocking but, at that time, nobody even thought of such a thing back then, in the last white century.

Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesToday it’s a cliché at this point. But faced with the dumbing down of America, the literarian is really an endangered species. It is not true that President Bush believes that anyone caught reading a book should be banned from government but the barbarians certainly are at the gates and our commercial dominant culture welcomes them. The dominant American mercantile culture may globalize the world but it is not the mainstream culture of our civilization. The true mainstream is made, not of oil but of literarians, publishers, bookstores, editors, libraries, writers and readers, universities and all the institutions that support them. That is the real mainstream of our civilization.

It will survive, if anything survives, after the electricity goes off and electronic civilization fades away, when Nature strikes back in retaliation for what the dominant culture is doing to it. Coming to your local theater soon, the day after tomorrow. See you at the show.

I’ll end with a poem I wrote just before 9/11:

Are there not still fireflies?
Are there not still fireflies?
Are there not still four leaf clovers?
Is not our land still beautiful, our cities
Never bombed by foreign invaders,
Never occupied by iron armies speaking iron
tongues?
Are not our warriors still valiant, ready to defend
us?
Are not our Senators still wearing fine togas?
Are we not still a great people in the greatest
country in all the world?
Is this not still a free country?
Are not our views still ours, our gardens still
full of flowers, our ships with full cargoes?
Why then do some still fear the barbarians coming,
coming, coming in their huddled masses?
What is that sound that fills the air, drumming,
drumming?
Is not Rome still Rome?
Is not Los Angeles still Los Angeles?
Are these really the last days of the Roman Empire?
Is not beauty still beauty and truth still truth?
Are there not still poets? Are there not still
lovers?
Are there not still mothers, sisters and brothers?
Is there not still a full moon once a month?
Are there not still fireflies?
Are there not still stars at night?
Can we not still see them in bold night signaling
to us our so-called manifest destinies?

[Applause]

Thank you.

 

Norman Mailer Accepts the 2005 Medal for Distinguished Contribution in American Letters

Presented at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 16, 2005
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York

Garrision Keillor (host): Toni Morrison has won so many awards and prizes it is easier to talk about the ones that she has not won like the Heisman Trophy, the Cy Young Award. To the best of my knowledge, at least, she has not. She has won this prize and the other one and the one named for Joseph Pulitzer and she has, of course, won the prize where the phone call comes in the morning from the guy with the Swedish accent. You must wonder which of your friends would be capable of doing this to you. This year it is 35 years since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Please welcome Toni Morrison. [Applause]

Toni Morrison (introducing Norman Mailer): Thank you. Thank you. Actually, several people ought to be standing here next to me to complete this recognition of Norman Mailer’s career. No one perspective can voice or even successfully accomplish it. Certainly, there should be someone who experienced World War II. There should be another with very keen memories of the Vietnam era. A third who fell under the sway of Muhammad Ali. There should be a fourth who understood the interior void of a death row inmate, how attractive death is to a killer, even or especially if it is his own.

Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesSuch a collection of readers and writers who prize the carnivorous intelligence accompanied by huge and provocative talent would underscore what I believe to be simply undeniable, that the history of American literature in the 20th and early 21st century would be both depleted and inaccurate, minus the inclusion of the work of Norman Mailer. [Applause]

In fiction, nonfiction, polemic, literary criticism, he has plumbed war, Hollywood, the CIA, death row, politics, moon shots, his gaze as wide as his intellect is passionate. Well, loud and justifiable praises of his prowess as a writer, however, competes with some rather violent objections to some of his views. I have to say I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race, [Laughter, applause] which I have to say even he admits to.

But at the very least, excoriating this particular writer’s view is a battle worth engaging. It is not a pseudo-struggle with a sly dissembling antagonist who hides behind the pale pose of the mediocre. Norman Mailer is nothing if not a worthy adversary. If one thinks of America as a charged field, Mailer is one of its tallest lightning rods. It has always seemed to me that the body of his work is very much like the America he loves and chastens.Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images Like the country, the man, the writer, is fascinated by the romance of violence. Like the country, he is confrontational in his despair of American military confrontations. Like the country, he is routinely disrespectful of borders, trespassing literary genre and classifications with glee, innovative, creating new vocabularies as he merges the traditional with the new. He is willing to dissect the imperial demands of his own ego while he deplores the demands of the national ego, endlessly confessional, offering his feelings and experiences to help educate and shape those of others.

Generous, intractable, often wrong, always engaged, mindful of and amused by his own power and his prodigious gifts, wide spirited. Like the nation itself, sui generis, a true original. I think you would agree that for a writer this prolific, this able with language, he should have the last word. So let me quote it. If, as he has said, “Writers are the marrow of the nation, its nutrient,” then as a nation, as readers, we are healthier, stronger, smarter, more resistant, perhaps even more honest because of him. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Mailer.
Norman Mailer, Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

Norman Mailer: It’s a curious night. First I was cursing Larry Ferlinghetti because he was saying all the things that I’m going to say and then I was being honored by Toni Morrison whose gift, I think, was to show me, since she was talking about me, her gift was to show me that I am obtuse about women. [Laughter] Which reminded me of my wife because my wife can hear 50 paeans of praise and one small criticism and all she will ever remember is the small criticism.

So I’m obtuse about women but wary of them. At any rate, I thank Toni Morrison for her prodigious generosity. On my best days, I have that high an opinion of myself but not on my worst ones.

Now, here comes the speech, the speech for which I cursed Ferlinghetti. Something interesting happened with this speech on the way to the occasion which is that I forgot it. We were ten minutes away from my home and I shrieked and said to my wife and one of my sons, “We have to go back. We have to go back. I put my speech in the wrong suit jacket.” It never happened to me before. May it never happen to me again.

All right. In these years, I’m feeling the woeful emotions of an old carriage maker as he watches the disappearance of his trade before the onrush of the automobile. The serious novel may soon be in danger of being adored with theHarold Augenbraum and Norman Mailer, Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

same poignant concern we feel for endangered species. There is all but unspoken shame in the literary world today. The passion readers used to feel for venturing into a serious novel has withered. Indeed, how many of you even in this audience do not obtain more pleasure from an egregiously cruel review of a good novel in the New York Times than from the art involved in reading that good but serious book?

Meanwhile, we are told that literacy is improving and more novels are being read than ever before. That may be true. It is just that the vast majority of such successful fiction is all too forgettable. The purpose of a great novel is not, however, to cater to one’s passing needs but to enter one’s life, even alter it. So the great novel will kill no time on airplane trips. They are not good page turners. They are in danger of becoming a footnote to our technological, cybernetic and advertising worlds.

Alberto Vitale and Norman Mailer. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesNature’s rude beast has appropriated the marketplace. The good serious novel, and most certainly, the rare great novel, is now inimical to the needs of this marketplace. The most dedicated novels of the future are lucky, therefore, to have the same lack of relation to the ambitions and greed of the world as fine poetry offers today. So too will the serious novel be seen as doing little harm provided it is kept on that high shelf we save for family whatnots.

If these gloomy predictions are correct, let us look at least at what we may be losing. Civilization has become a dangerous vehicle, hurtling toward a fate that could be dire. Is it not by now a giant who can no longer see? It is too blind in its ambitions and blind in its wars. Its great limbs do not coordinate with each other. Theology is one of those limbs, is helpless before the unanswered questions of the holocaust, even as formal religion insists on an all good and all powerful God. While fundamentalists are gung ho in their manic rush to godly judgment, liberals are in a state of woe before their increasing powerlessness.

Norris and Norman Mailer. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesThe great light of the Enlightenment which fortified their sense of entitlement over the last three centuries is now a flickering light. The military would do well to become familiar with the works of Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí since war has become surrealist.

What then can a great novel offer such a world? It is possible that the novelist, if his or her talent is deep, may even unravel enigmas that major disciplines are not ready to approach. Our field, our ground, our illumination does not derive from disciplines which have hardened over the centuries to advancing one chosen field of inquiry at the expense of others. We are bound to no discipline but the development of our own experience or, if we are fortunate enough to find it, our vision. So a gifted few may even be ready to explore experience far into moral advances that are not available to other professions.

On the other hand, novelists are rarely heroic. Gawky, half formed, shy, perverse, spoiled, vain in their youth, so too can their vision be astigmatic. Nonetheless, the best do look to honor the profound demands of their profession by offering insights with which goodreaders can enrich themselves on the meaning of their lives. Whose comprehension of society is not more incisive after reading Proust?Judith Miller and Norman Mailer. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImagesWho does not know more about language once James Joyce is encountered? Who says that compassion has not been deepened by living in Tolstoy’s novels?

So where are the future Tolstoys, the future Joyces, Dostoevskys, Prousts? In the interim, let me salute the award winners who are yet to be honored on this evening. May they startle us with the breadth and power of their vision. May there be a Theodore Dreiser or a Herman Melville among them. I would say thank you for this award you are giving me tonight and I would add one coda: Would the English nation have been as great in surviving without Shakespeare? Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity today if not for James Joyce? Thank you.

 

 

 

William T. Vollman Accepts the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction

ANDRE DUBUS III:

Good evening. I will be very brief. It was a true joy and an honor to read through this mountain of books these last four months. I thank the National Book Foundation and Harold Augenbraum for allowing me to do this. I want to publicly thank my hardworking judges, Rikki Ducornet, Cristina Garcia, Thomas LeClair and Anna Quindlen. They worked hard. [Applause]

William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images).

At this point in the evening, I’m so nervous I’m about to throw up and I’m not one of the finalists. So I’m going to get right to it. The finalists for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction are:

  • The March by E.L. Doctorow, published by Random House
  • Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, published by Pantheon
  • Trance by Christopher Sorrentino, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Holy Skirts by René Steinke, published by William Morrow
  • Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, published by Viking Press.

The winner of this year’s National Book Award for Fiction is Europe Central by William T. Vollmann.

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN:

I thought I would lose so I didn’t prepare a speech. Well, let’s put it this way: When I was in elementary school, they showed me a film loop about burned corpses being pulled out of ovens. I was really horrified, and later on I understood that I was partly German. I thought, you know, am I somehow guilty for this? I mean, I probably have relatives over there who had something to do with the Third Reich. How could this possibly be?

William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction. (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)
William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction.  (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)

I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what that book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

I’m very grateful to my wife for being here. I want to thank my agent, Susan Golomb, for all her hard work on my behalf. I’m so grateful to Paul Slovak and Viking for taking care of me for so many years. Thanks to the National Book Foundation. I never expected this honor. Thank you. [Applause]

GARRISON KEILLOR: 

It’s good to see a big prize go to a very nice young man. Thank you all for this evening. Thanks to all of our sponsors for putting on this wonderful festive occasion. Thanks again to all of the judges for doing the hard work. Congratulations to all the nominees. Good night.