The title of North Carolina native Jason Mott‘s “Hell of a Book” — recent winner of the National Book Award for fiction — reminded me of a story (possibly apocryphal, though perhaps not probably) about the acclaimed writer and UNC professor Max Steele.
A former student sent a copy of his new novel to Max for a blurb. Read it, hated it, wrestled with how to comment without dishonoring himself. His solution: “Damndest book I ever read!”
I hope the author was pleased — after all, that’s how Faulkner (in a letter to his Aunt Bama)– described his own “The Sound and the Fury.”
“When [Richard Wright] learned I was from Chapel Hill he assumed immediately that I knew Paul Green, with whom he had written the play Native Son. He said, ‘The sleepiest man I ever saw.’ He laughed and talked and laughed that laugh which he later admitted was his first line of defense, though it felt that afternoon like offense. He claimed that Green would go to sleep when they were writing dialogue for the most exciting moments in the play. ‘I’d say a line and look over and there Paul would be asleep.’
“Five years later when I was again in Chapel Hill, teaching, I met Hugh Wilson, a cousin of Paul Green’s, who told me how exciting and dangerous those weeks were when Wright was in town working with Green on the play. ‘Of course he couldn’t stay at the Carolina Inn and there was no other place, so we got him a room down on Cameron Avenue in that big Victorian house behind those two giant magnolias. When the Ku Klux got wind he was there in a white neighborhood, they put out word they were going to kill him. Wright never knew that. Night after night Paul and I walked shotgun on that block. Paul would go up Ransom and I’d go down Cameron for a block or so and then we’d walk back and stand on the corner awhile, then patrol again. All night. I don’t know how Paul could write the next day’….”
— From “Richard Wright: The Visible Man” by Max Steele in the Paris Review (Fall 2003)