Pietà

Many years ago at a small college in a big, square Midwestern state I was a young visiting writer who had published a couple of books that nobody read, except some committee members who had awarded me, amazingly, a prestigious literary prize. The first book, a collection of dark stories set in the Appalachian Mountains, where I grew up, had been praised for its “bleak, taut style”—the word they used then was minimal. My second, a novel, was based on my own childhood spent living in a camper with my father, a disabled coal miner, a drunk, and a great storyteller, after my mother vanished—another story altogether. In any case, I had been able to broker my slim success into an adjunct teaching job but had been completely astonished when a formal letter from the president of Beacon College had arrived, inviting me to come for a very lucrative visit ($5,000, half my salary) to this school I had never heard of. I was invited to present “the Eugenia Barnes Pullman Lecture on the Arts.”

What did it mean, “on the arts?” I wrote back. Could I talk about writing? Literature? Could I read from my own work? Certainly, a Dean Blake Wigmore wrote back. Was Dean Blake Wigmore a man or a woman? Impossible to tell. In any case, the dean further informed me that “the Eugenia Barnes Pullman Lecture on the Arts” had been endowed by the family of one of their former students, a talented painter who had died “tragically young” of leukemia. It was meant to celebrate “the role of the arts in a Christian education and a fully realized life.” The Pullman family had also endowed several scholarships in Eugenia’s memory; the Pullman scholars and the entire Pullman family would be present for my lecture.

So far, four such lectures had been delivered, by the following:

1. The theologian Karl Otto Dietrich

2. The composer Reginald Lamb

3. The poet Louise Nicholson, herself a graduate of this college

4. The biographer A. O. Pratt

Well, I thought, if all these people had found something to say on this subject, I could too. I didn’t know a damn thing about a Christian education, but I was all for a “fully realized life.” In fact, I could buy a used car—a whole car—with the money. Yes, I wrote back. And would I also be attending classes? Visiting a writing workshop, perhaps?

No, and no, the dean replied. There was no writing workshop.

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