By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – It’s a pilgrimage of sorts: Every year writers, publishers, editors and readers make their way to the hometown of William Faulkner to talk about the book and its connotations.
This year’s Oxford Conference for the Book opened Thursday. Months ago it was planned to be dedicated to Barry Hannah, the University of Mississippi’s writer-in-residence since 1982. Hannah died Monday at age 67.
“We all wish we had been here under different circumstances,” said Ivo Kamps, chair of the English department at Ole Miss. He said when organizers learned of Hannah’s death, they initially considered canceling the three-day event, but “moving forward with the conference allows us to mourn his loss together.”
Chancellor Dan Jones announced the dedication of a tree in the university’s Quadrangle in memory of Hannah. Similar honors also were bestowed on Josephine Haxton (Ellen Douglas) and the late Willie Morris, both of whom also served as writers-in-residence at Ole Miss.
The conference began with “Common Bond: A World of Books and Book People” and continued with a celebration of poetry. Ole Miss English professor Beth Ann Fennelly offered ancient Chinese advice for writers: “He who reads 100 poets sounds like 100 poets; he who reads 1,000 poets sounds like himself.”
A panel discussion of writing on politics included Ole Miss journalism professor Curtis Wilkie, “Vanity Fair” national editor Todd Purdum and “New Yorker” senior editor Hendrick Hertzberg.
Hertzberg, a former Carter White House speech writer, said the unbiased journalism championed in the 1900s is giving way to an activist mind-set.
“I’m trying to change the world, but I’m honest about it,” he said.
Wilkie drew a distinct line between commentary and reporting.
“Journalists … have a right to our opinions,” he said. “But we are taught to keep our opinions … out of our reporting. The most important thing we have as journalists is our credibility.”
Author John Grisham regaled several hundred listeners at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts with memories of other Oxford writers.
He recalled Morris’ dinner parties and the New York writers they brought to Oxford. He credited Larry Brown, who was frequently rejected before becoming a phenomenon, with inspiring to stick with writing long enough to get published.
Grisham laughed at the memory of a hair-raising night when horror novelist Stephen King spent the night at his house.
Grisham recalled Hannah as “a very generous mentor. As an artist he was fearless. As a friend he was loyal.
“The death of a writer means the completion of a body of work; it does not mean the silencing of his voice,” he said. “We will always have Barry Hannah’s words and stories to treasure.”
“Thacker Mountain Radio,” Oxford’s live weekly program of music and literature, drew a standing-room-only crowd. After some of Hannah’s favorite music – played in part by his guitarist son, Barry “Po” Hannah Jr. – and some “whacked-out” literature, in the words of host Jim Dees, the musicians closed the tribute with Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
The Oxford Conference for the Book continues today and Saturday. For details, log on to www.oxfordconferenceforthebook.com.