This is a story I couldn’t make up, but it involves Wyatt Prunty. The story is personally moving and also bewildering; it is about friendship and whatever follows us beyond friendship. None of it would have happened without Wyatt. The blunt backdrop: our country has a persistent and deepening anti-intellectual tic. Our national habit, increasingly, is to sneer at intelligence, to dismiss depth and sophistication as forms of elitism. If this stance can be called a mindset, we are suffering for it. For thirty years, however, Wyatt Prunty has been orchestrating the antidote, a subtle, eloquent, and sustained rebuke. The Sewanee Writers’ Conference is, above all, a community in which intellectual, literary, and human values are shared, savored, and advanced, for the sake of art, but beyond even that. It is a forward-moving organic creation that draws on both tradition and innovation. The Conference provides a time and a place to be together, to learn, and to reach beyond, and then, a year later, to return for more. The lesson I’ve most richly valued from my membership in this community? The life of the curious and deepening mind cannot be parted from affection, affection for our fellows and the world around us. And so here begins a telling of this pilgrim’s involvement in the tale.
“Y’all need to have a baby as soon as possible.” That was about the second thing Tony Earley said to me the first time I met him at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in July 2011. Tony was a veteran of the Conference; I was a new pup that summer. But we had much in common, and a deep friendship was born. Our evenings were topped off by playing music with Claudia Emerson and her husband, Kent Ippolito. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound of Claudia’s voice rising in song. This was the communal vibe I yearned for in the months-long interim between Conferences, and what I savored in the precious present while it lasted.