"Call Me Paul": The Long, Hot Summer of Paul Green and Richard Wright

Article excerpt

My life with Paul has had many surprises. And the thing that surprised me most was an indication of my lack of understanding and appreciation of the extent of his commitment to civil rights. I had no idea he had the boldness and the originality and the human understanding to come out more strongly than anyone else in the state on a very unpopular question, which we used to call in those days, "the Negro problem." I was constantly being not only surprised but scared by the things he would say. Really. I joked about it, but I expected almost any night to wake up and find a cross burning on the front lawn. And maybe I was rather disappointed that it didn't happen!

--Elizabeth Lay Green, The Paul Green I Know

As to my letters ... [n]o doubt there are personal matters in them, but what the heck!--all of us make our records on earth such as they are and they are irrevocable anyway and why try to control them after the fact. So, so far as I am concerned they are wide open.

--Paul Green, in Laurence Avery, ed., A Southern Life:

Letters of Paul Green, 1916-1981

IN 2001, I WAS FORTUNATE TO HAVE COME INTO MY HANDS A MANUSCRIPT by North Carolina native James R. Spence, author of two books, The Making of a Governor: The Moore-Preyer-Lake Primaries of 1964 and Portrait of a Place and Time: Recollections of a Farmer's Son. The almost three-hundred-page typescript, then titled "Young Paul Green, The Years 1894-1937," covers the life of this North Carolina playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and social activist from his childhood through the opening of his best known work, the symphonic drama The Lost Colony, which has been performed in Manteo, North Carolina, every summer since 1937, except for the years of World War II when blackouts were ordered along the eastern coast. Green, a contemporary (and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill classmate) of fellow North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe, is, like Wolfe, one of the original playwrights of the Carolina Playmakers. Spence's biography of Green is based on interview conversations the author conducted with the writer and members of his family; other recorded interviews with Green; excerpts from Green's diaries; quotations from letters and telegrams in the Paul Green Papers; and various biographical sources, from Elizabeth Lay Green's biography of her husband, The Paul Green I Knew, to Bette Davis's autobiography, in which she talks about her first role as a vixen, which happened to be in the first movie that Paul Green worked on, Cabin in the Cotton (1932).

Upon being asked by the Spence family and the Paul Green Foundation to pursue publication of the deceased author's manuscript and in proceeding through the various editing stages to prepare it for submission to a publisher, I realized that James Spence relied most heavily on Paul Green's own words to tell the story of the playwright's auspicious beginnings: Spence quotes extensively from interviews with the writer (his own, as well as those of Rhoda Wynn, Billy Barnes, and Jacquelyn Hall, all conducted in the 1970s), from Green's diaries, from letters written by Paul Green, and from Green's writing about writing and about his life in his own essays and sketches collected in several volumes of the Green canon. Thus, the book is largely an autobiographical biography. The book's author is clearly an admirer of the writer and of the man. I became an admirer as well, even as I found the flawed (more interesting) man within Spence's idealized hero, and my own work on a later piece of the Green biography, events that occurred beyond the scope of Spence's manuscript, also explores this writer through a variety of lenses--his own words, as well as historical and biographical sources that together tell a multi-faceted tale.

H.L. Mencken's essay "The Sahara of the Bozart" came up a few times in Spence's interviews with Green, and Spence addresses Green's achievement of "watering" the South's cultural and artistic desert with his own work. …