Literary highlights 

Chapters from the festival.

Franklin (right), Bishop Felton May.
  • Franklin (right), Bishop Felton May.

Our third author session of the day, and our third standing-room-only crowd. It was late afternoon on Saturday, the second day of the third annual Arkansas Literary Festival, and the Darragh Center at the Main Library was beyond full with a diverse crowd that had come to hear John Hope Franklin, the eminent African-American historian who recently published his autobiography.

We’d come early and gotten a front-row seat, and two women shared a piano bench to our right. A man and his son, maybe 6 years old, took a spot on the floor several feet behind us.

“Come on up here,” one of the women urged them. “I always put my children on the front row of any speech, any demonstration, anything.”

Smart woman, we thought. Later, after Franklin began taking questions, we found out who she was: Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine.

That’s the really wonderful thing about the Arkansas Literary Festival: It’s big enough to attract some first-rate, in-demand authors, but small enough that poignant moments with hometown celebs are not only possible, but almost a sure thing.

Festival officials didn’t have attendance numbers by press time, but Katie McManners, development director for the Arkansas Literacy Councils, which sponsors and benefits from the festival, said she could say “with confidence” that attendance was up this year.

A lunchtime affair with Ray Lampe, who goes by the sobriquet “Dr. BBQ,” kicked things off Friday at the River Market pavilion area. The event featured food from Whole Hog and an audience of barbecue hobbyists eager for Lampe to share his wisdom.

Lampe, who was a barbecue hobbyist himself until five years ago, when he starting hitting the competitions heavy, read a little from one of his two books, “Dr. BBQ’s Barbecue All Year Long! Cookbook.” But the best part, besides getting to eat Whole Hog ’cue, was the question-and-answer. Lampe hit home with us when he was asked what his three favorite barbecue restaurants were: Tops on the list was Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City. Wow, ours too. We immediately headed over to the book table to plunk down a credit card and charge $35 for his two books, get them signed and send one off to our brother out east, where the ’cue isn’t nearly as good as ours.

The rotund and bearded Lampe was as laid back as you would expect a griller and barbecuer to be. He proclaimed his plate of Whole Hog “really good,” though he indirectly took exception to a couple of the sides we were offered with lunch when he told the audience he doesn’t believe in cole slaw and potato salad for side items. He’d rather have Texas-style pinto beans, cooked for hours, or corn on the cob, though he acquiesced to an audience member who told Lampe he’d like her potato salad.

Lampe said he’d recently visited North Carolina, where the mostly vinegar sauce is unknown in these parts and where he hit 22 barbecue joints in five days. Not a one had beer. We would have liked to exclaim, “No beer with the ’cue?” but we quickly recalled that they don’t have beer at Whole Hog, and they didn’t Friday during Lampe’s reading. But they did have some tasty lemonade.

Saturday we rolled into downtown in time to hear political writer Joe Klein (the “Anonymous” who penned “Primary Colors”) discuss his newest book, “Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid.” We stood with the overflow in the lobby of the Darragh Center and listened to Klein lament the takeover of politics by consultants who convince candidates and elected officials that they shouldn’t dare to challenge the voters with frank talk about complicated issues. The Gettysburg Address delivered today, Klein said, would spark news stories about how Lincoln was pandering to veterans and trying out a new, shorter speaking style, and would quote experts and poll numbers to analyze whether it worked or not. Sad, but true.

After Klein came Garry Wills, a prolific author and historian who’s written about subjects as diverse as Richard Nixon and St. Augustine. A devout Catholic, his newest book is “What Jesus Meant,” which criticizes both the right and the left for claiming their political programs align with Jesus’ will.

Speaking Saturday, also to a packed crowd, Wills took on the religious, military and government figures who claim the war in Iraq is a “Christian” war. Jesus absolutely distanced himself from earthly politics and espoused a separation of church and state, Wills said. He talked about the hypocrisy of Christians who rail against homosexuality based on the prohibition in Leviticus, but don’t have a problem ignoring that book’s other laws against, say, wearing cloth made from two different fibers, or approaching the altar of the Lord with your glasses on. And constantly asking “What would Jesus do” is ridiculous, he said.

“If Evangelicals try to do what Jesus did and they try to walk on water, we’re not going to have too many Evangelicals left,” he said.

After Wills came historian John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus at Duke University and author of “From Slavery to Freedom,” who in his late 80s (he’s now 91) decided it was time to write his own story. Franklin appears frail, and moves slowly, but his voice and his words made clear any frailty is strictly physical. The room was in awe, and justifiably so.

Franklin spoke Saturday about writing his autobiography — how instead of relying on his own memory, he approached the project as he would any other biography or history. He tracked down unpublished census information to pin down the names and locations of childhood friends and neighbors in his tiny Oklahoma hometown. He looked through newspaper clippings to determine the program of a concert he attended in the 1930s.

“I was about to put George Gershwin in Tulsa until the records corrected me,” he said. “I was writing my autobiography, not ‘A Million Little Pieces.’ ”

That evening brought Pub or Perish, the low-cost alternative to the Literary Festival’s swanky Saturday night soiree. This year’s event nixed the “crawl” feature of previous years, and instead camped out at Mallard’s Bar at the Peabody. Another capacity crowd gathered to hear local writers (and one festival poet, Beth Ann Fennelly) read from their own work.

Though Pub or Perish ran long thanks to an over-exuberance in booking by the host (Arkansas Times editor David Koon), some writers’ over-exuberance with regard to the 10-minute time limit and a slight delay while a lectern and microphone were hustled in by the always-attentive Peabody staff, PoP 2006 was even bigger this year than last, eventually boasting a standing-room-only crowd. If listener response was any gauge, highlights of the evening were a hilarious essay about a testicular cancer scare by local blogger Matt Reed (husband of Times editor Jennifer Barnett Reed), an ode to alcohol by Dem-Gaz writer Philip Martin, and the work of poet Fennelly, who brought the house down with a poem about lusting after the shirtless joggers on the Ole Miss campus, who emerge on the first warm day of spring. Though the audience dwindled as the night wore on, those who split early missed some of the best readers of the night, including Comanche poet Stuart Hoahwah and essayist Joy Ritchey, who wrote about her longtime and often unrequited love of silent men. The evening ended with a rollicking party at Mallard’s, hosted by the Oxford American, with editor Marc Smirnoff providing the music — the same Southern-fried mix of country, blues, rock and other genres that has made their annual music issue famous.

Sunday’s perfect weather brought people out again, and we wrapped up our own slate of events at a shared reading by three of Arkansas’s greatest writers: Donald Harington, Jack Butler (who now lives in Oklahoma, but still counts) and Kevin Brockmeier. Brockmeier read a haunting fable about a man who buys God’s overcoat at a thrift store. Butler read from a novel in progress, about a man remembering his childhood in the Mississippi Delta, and Harington read a hilarious passage from “Butterfly Weed” about the country doctor of Stay More, Ark., venturing to St. Louis in search of a medical diploma.

What we enjoyed almost as much as the writing was the contrast among the three men: Brockmeier, young, thin-fingered and precise; Butler, rugged and middle-yeared; and Harington, the older eccentric professor.

After Harington finished, someone asked the three which writers they liked or were influenced by. Brockmeier answered first.

“I come well prepared for this question,” he said, pulling out a list of his 50 favorite books, the current top 10 marked with asterisks. “I brought copies for everyone.”

We took one as the session ended, and tucked it into one of the books we’d brought to get autographed. We looked it over as a friend of ours, a rabid fan of Butler’s since he spoke at Governor’s School 18 years ago, calmed his knocking knees long enough to shake the man’s hand. And we discovered as Butler opened our well-thumbed copy of “Hawk Gumbo and Other Stories” that he’d already put his name on it, back in 1988 when we bought it from the Hendrix bookstore. “Why don’t I update that for you,” he said.



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