Athens, Ga. – Three writers whose works examine the conflicts that have shaped the South in its recent past and a songwriter who wrote the sound track to post-World War II America will be honored at the 2011 Georgia Writers Hall of Fame ceremony March 22 at 10:00 a.m. in the Rotunda of the University of Georgia Miller Learning Center. Melissa Faye Greene and Natasha Trethewey, along with posthumous honorees James Kilgo and Johnny Mercer, will be inducted.
Leading up to the March 22 induction, an author’s forum is scheduled for March 21 at 4 p.m. in the Miller Learning Center Reading Room.Greene and Tretheway will participate, along with English professor Judith Ortiz Cofer and Phil Williams, recently retired assistant dean for public affairs in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, both inducted in 2010.English professor Hugh Ruppersburg will moderate.
“The 2011 class of inductees into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame is exemplary,” said P. Toby Graham, director of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library and deputy university librarian. “These Georgians have enriched our lives and serve as a source of pride for our state. The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame is honored to celebrate their literary and creative contributions.”
The UGA Libraries established the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2000 to recognize Georgia writers, past and present, whose work reflects the character of the state-its land and its people. It is housed in the Hargrett Library. For more information, see www.libs.uga.edu/gawriters.
Greene’s award-winning books Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing chronicle dramatic episodes in the civil rights movement in Georgia. Focusing on individuals who played important roles in these events, Greene illuminates issues and conflicts that shaped the state in the latter half of the 20th century.
Greene is one of a growing number of authors who write literary nonfiction. She uses the basic elements of fiction-themes, eloquent prose, characterization, plot development-to tell the story of important episodes in the state’s and the nation’s recent history. Although her articles in the New Yorker, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, Ms., and other publications demonstrate her gifts as a journalist, she excels in longer works.
Praying for Sheetrock was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council and UGA Libraries), among others. A panel of judges under the aegis of New York University cited the book as one of the top 100 works of American journalism in the twentieth century. It also was adapted as a play and performed in the spring of 1997 by Lifeline Theater in Chicago.
Similar interests are evident in Greene’s second book, The Temple Bombing (1996). The book was also a National Book Award finalist and won several awards, including the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Greene also has written Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster (2003) and There Is No Me without You (2006).
Trethewey, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2007. Her works forge an intersection between the historical and autobiographical. In poems that are polished, controlled, and often based on traditional forms, Trethewey grapples with the dualities and oppositions that define her personal history: black and white, native and outsider, rural and urban, the memorialized and the forgotten. The daughter of a black mother and a white father, Trethewey grew up in a South still segregated by custom, if not by law, and her life astride the color line has inspired her recovery of lost histories, public and private.
After her parents’ divorce, six-year-old Trethewey moved with her mother to Atlanta, returning every summer to the Gulf Coast, where she split time between the homes of her mother’s family and of her father, who was then living in New Orleans, La. Here she began to discover the complexities of her essential duality-when she was with her father she could pass for white and be treated more equally than when she was among her mother’s people. Trethewey also began to write during these years, at her father’s urging.
Trethewey’s young adulthood was ruptured by violence and tragedy, in 1984 when her mother was murdered. Nineteen-year-old Trethewey, who was finishing her freshman year at UGA, where she was an English major and a varsity cheerleader, turned to writing poetry to deal with her grief.
Trethewey completed her B.A. degree at UGA in 1989, and in 1991 she earned an M.A. degree in English and creative writing at Hollins College (later Hollins University) in Roanoke, Va., where she studied with her father, a professor there. By the time she earned her M.F.A. degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1995, Trethewey was starting to publish, and her work has since appeared in the country’s most prestigious literary journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry in both 2000 and 2003.
Trethewey was the fourth African-American poet, and UGA’s first graduate outside of journalism, to win a Pulitzer Prize. In early 2008, she received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for literary excellence. In 1999, Trethewey’s watershed year, Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove selected the manuscript for Domestic Work as the winner of the inaugural Cave Canem Prize, an annual award for the best first collection of poems by an African-American poet. The collection was published the following year by Graywolf Press, and in 2001 the book won a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the Lillian Smith Book.
Trethewey’s attention to lost histories finds full expression in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006). The collection’s three parts-elegies to the poet’s dead mother, a ten-sonnet persona poem in the voice of a black soldier fighting in the Civil War and a final section of autobiographical poems-emerge from Trethewey’s desire to remedy historical amnesias. As an adult, Trethewey learned that the guards of the Confederate prison at Mississippi’s Ship Island were the Louisiana Native Guards, the Union army’s first official all-black regiment to serve in the Civil War-a fact never mentioned by tour guides or historical plaques during her annual childhood visits.
Kilgo, an essayist and novelist, wrote with a reverence for the natural world and a deep and abiding sense of family and history. His essays on hunting, nature, family, and personal introspection won him national attention, and his novel, Daughter of My People, earned him the Townsend Prize for Fiction.
Kilgo was born and grew up in Darlington, S.C. He received his undergraduate degree from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., and earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English from Tulane University in New Orleans, La. Kilgo joined the UGA faculty in 1967, where he received five Outstanding Honors Professor awards and the Honoratus Award for Excellence in Teaching. He directed the creative writing program from 1994 to 1996 and retired from teaching in 1999. Kilgo, who battled cancer for more than ten years, died in 2002 at the age of 61.
Trained as a scholar in American literature, Kilgo wrote his doctoral dissertation on novels about World War II and taught courses in American and southern literature. Dissatisfied with scholarly writing, Kilgo began to write creative essays in the late 1970s, at first in the form of hunting columns for a local newspaper.
Kilgo would later write longer essays that chronicled his gradual disenchantment with hunting. What attracted his interest instead was the comradeship he enjoyed with friends he made while hunting and the experience of nature itself. Kilgo organized these essays into his first book, Deep Enough for Ivorybills (1988), in which he uses hunting to discuss how certain experiences in the natural world have enriched his life.
Devotion to family gains full voice in Kilgo’s 1998 novel, Daughter of My People, based on a story from his own family history. In this novel Kilgo explores the deep paradoxes and ironies of the heritage of race in the South and of the United States-a history whose very divisions are built on connections and kinship. In Hart Bonner he creates a character whose conflicts with family history, his own prejudices, and the racism of his region are emblematic of southern and national history. In recognition for this book, Kilgo received the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 1998.
Georgia provided the inspiration that made Mercer one of America’s most popular and successful songwriters of the twentieth century. Between 1929 and 1976 Mercer penned lyrics to more than 1,000 songs, received 19 Academy Award nominations, wrote music for a number of Broadway shows, and co-founded Capitol Records. Perhaps best known for the 1961 Academy Award-winning song “Moon River,” Mercer also took Oscars for “Days of Wine and Roses,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” and “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” These movie hits reflected Mercer’s ties to the Hollywood studios, but the lyricist also wrote songs that became popular because of their commercial appeal, including “Jeepers Creepers,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Glow-Worm,” “Goody Goody,” and “Hooray for Hollywood.” Time and again Mercer drew upon his Georgia heritage for song ideas.
Mercer was born into the fourth generation of Mercers living in Savannah. His family’s origins reached back into the colonial era, and he boasted links to the city’s postbellum immigrant experience as well. His grandfather George Anderson Mercer Sr. practiced law in Savannah. Mercer’s father, George Anderson Mercer Jr., played baseball at UGA and returned to Savannah to join his father’s law firm. In 1927 the collapse of the Florida real estate boom brought down the family’s fortunes. Instead of going to college, Johnny Mercer joined a troupe of amateurs competing in New York City’s New Amsterdam Roof Theater in 1927. Their performance placed first. Convinced that he had a future in show business, Mercer moved to New York. He soon made his mark composing lyrics and songs for variety shows. Mercer’s southern heritage brought a genuine sound to New York’s songwriting district, Tin Pan Alley, as the nature of America’s popular culture was changing from a world of sheet music to one of radio broadcasts, sound recordings, and movie musicals. Hollywood provided Mercer with numerous opportunities as a lyricist for several studios.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mercer was involved with such propaganda films as The Fleet’s In (1942), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), The Sky’s the Limit (1943), and Here Come the Waves (1944). Despite their unabashedly patriotic plots, the films contained such Mercer gems as “I Remember You,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “My Shining Hour.” Many of these songs, including “Tangerine,” “How Little We Know,” and “Hit the Road to Dreamland,” remained popular in the postwar period as standard fare for lounge singers.
In 1942 Mercer co-founded Capitol Records in Hollywood. Under Mercer’s presidency, Capitol’s innovative marketing strategies revolutionized the recording industry. As a symbol of its success, the company built a new office to look like a stack of 45 rpm records just off Hollywood Boulevard on Vine Street. With the sale of Capitol to EMI, Mercer and his partners made millions. Out of his share of the proceeds, Mercer sent a check for $300,000 to a Savannah bank in 1955 to pay off the remaining debts from the failure of his father’s G. A. Mercer Realty Company. He explained his actions as clearing his father’s name, but the settlement reflected a deep sense of southern honor.
Biographical information for this article comes from the New Georgia Encyclopedia (www.georgiaencyclopedia.org), which is housed at the UGA Libraries. Please visit the site for more information on the authors and to see suggested readings.