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Literary Lexington

May 20, 2008 |  4:59 pm

Stellaslexington

When in Lexington, Kentucky, stop by Stella's Deli at the corner of Jefferson and Ballard and you've got a good chance of catching sight of Gurney Norman, James Baker Hall or Bobbie Ann Mason noshing on the fare, all made from local ingredients. If my timing had been different -- if I hadn't arrived after they'd closed on Saturday -- I could tell you how delicious the food is, or show you a photo of the senior Kentucky literary figures. 

Hall and Norman studied at the University of Kentucky (UK) before becoming Stegner fellows at Stanford University in 1960. In fact, four Kentucky students won the prestigious Stanford creative writing fellowships in just three years, and Hall attributes their success to the passion and ambition of one writing teacher, Robert Hazel.

"He knew Phil Roth -- he called [him] Phil. And Bill Styron, he called Bill. And he claimed to know a lot of people that he did or didn’t know by first name. And it was dazzling, it was dazzling. We had never, ever imagined living in that world. We didn’t know what it was."

It's interesting that so many writers from this state university in Kentucky all imagined they could enter the world of the literary elite, just on the power of one emissary -- that they imagined it, and then they did it.

"He made us think that we lived in that world, that we were ... that we were compatriots, that we were brothers, were William Styron and Phillip Roth. And they weren’t ... They weren’t in textbooks; they were in our conversation. Does this make any sense? They were in our conversations. And John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, and all of the Southern writers, and Frank O’Connor—they were our kin. They were our preceding generation or preceding two generations. They were where we came from. And it was not academic; it was nothing academic at all. It was one big family that he was the patriarch of."

The fact that I ended up in Lexington at all is due to the big, wide generous litblogging family, in the persons of Gwenda Bond (Shaken and Stirred) and her husband, writer Christopher Rowe. From their house, it's just a short walk, past beautiful architecture and friendly neighbors, to the center of downtown. We lunched outside (photo 6 in this slideshow from the local newspaper, the Herald-Leader) and watched bikers race. The sun shone. Dogs romped. It was lovely.

We went out for dinner then stayed out later than we should have at a bar with live bluegrass music, where I availed myself of -- what else? -- Kentucky bourbon.

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