Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

A History of the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration: A Personal View

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

A History of the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration: A Personal View

Article excerpt

For the last quarter-century, Natchez has been the home of one of the most far-reaching and unique humanities conferences in the nation-the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration (NLCC). Considering the storied history of Natchez and its important role during the nation's colonial and antebellum periods, the location of this event is appropriate. While there are other "lecture" series on university campuses in Mississippi, none rivals the NLCC in terms of diversity of topics, disciplines, numbers of participants, or size of its audiences. It is unique because its original sponsor and host institution was a two-year community college, CopiahLincoln based in Wesson, Mississippi, with a campus in Natchez. Even its title-"Celebration"-has a ring of distinction befitting historic Natchez.

There is an interesting story behind the conception and realization of such a successful academic venture. In 1989, Carolyn Vance Smith and Dr. Howell C. Gamer represented Copiah-Lincoln (Copiah-Lincoln Community College) at a national conference at the University of Texas in Austin on teaching excellence. Inspired by that environment, Smith asked her colleague, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do something like this in the literary arena back at Copiah-Lincoln Community College Natchez?" Gamer immediately realized that the dynamic Carolyn Vance would need no further encouragement to pursue that goal. She first consulted with colleagues at the Mississippi Historical Society, and then with their encouragement and the support of the Copiah-Lincoln Community College administration, she organized the first Natchez Literary Celebration, which took place at the historical Eola Hotel in the spring of 1990. Appropriately, the theme was "The Natchez Trace: A Literary Legacy."

Recording the history of the NLCC is an honor. We can consult the voluminous and detailed records of the NLCC available in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, but since I participated in a variety of roles in all twenty-four of the Celebrations thus far, I feel more than qualified to describe them, the atmosphere in which they took place, and their impact upon the state of humanities in Mississippi.

While credit for the success and lengthy tenure of the NLCC can be explained by the contributions of dozens, if not hundreds, of people, unquestionably one particular individual deserves the lion's share of credit, and that is Carolyn Vance Smith. An indefatigable leader with vision and an inexhaustible supply of ideas, she has marshaled the resources of a small community college along with those of the Natchez and Adams County to convert a dream into a reality. Her creativity and sensitivity are apparent throughout the evolution of the NLCC. No matter how we choose to measure its remarkable success, we encounter her imprint at every tum; her generous and patient husband Marion Smith was by her side, or sitting on or near the front row at virtually every session and invisibly assisting behind the scenes. This assessment of Carolyn Vance Smith's crucial role may embarrass her, but those who have worked with and beside her can verify its validity.

It is difficult, indeed, to describe the positive reaction to the inaugural Celebration by participants, academic audiences, and the Natchez community without appearing to exaggerate. By any and every measure, it was an unqualified success. Appropriately, the theme of the first Celebration was "The Natchez Trace: A Literary Legacy." A receptive audience of 400-plus packed the mezzanine meeting room. Robert V. Remini, the world's most noted authority on Andrew Jackson, departed from his manuscript and held his listeners spellbound as he expounded on the impact of Natchez to Jackson's career. The night before, Remini had received notice of the death of his brother. It was a dramatic scene as Remini rushed from the podium amidst a standing ovation for the drive to the airport.

Eudora Welty, however, provided the most memorable presentation at of the conference with her reading of "A Worn Path" before a capacity luncheon crowd at the Carriage House. …

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