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The Book as Cultural Icon

Millbrook Literary Festival
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat May 19th, 2018

Painter Duncan Hannah

Despite some minor tickling from the heavens on canopied tents, the sun shone down on speakers from whose lips golden wisdom shone during this year’s 10th Millbrook Literary Festival. The opening program featured Native American poet Joseph Bruchac who read engaging poems about Native place names in our region as well as piquant poems of personal observation. He read in Micmac and Abenaki languages, even performing an amusing rap poem with the audience enthusiastically speaking the refrain in Abenaki. Bruchac’s poetry is many-sided as it encompasses both personal and public subject matter.

Poet Gold Wilkerson, Dutchess County Poet Laureate, presented awards ranging from early elementary school to senior adults. Her warm voice, clear elocution, and message of hope offered inspiration to aspiring writers. Jennifer Donnelly spoke amusingly about the wives of Henry VIII. This is a young adult novel that offers a wife’s perspective on the tragic situation. The self-portrait by each wife provides a refreshing point of view. Most reviewers have concluded that the real stand was Jennifer Donnelly’s Anna of Cleves and the audience was lucky to have her there.

The Timothy Leary Project with Devin Lander and Jennifer Ulrich, both librarians, discussed the Timothy Leary Archive at the New York Public Library. Lander had access to the archive of numerous articles on Leary from his days in Millbrook and Ulrich explored the vast archive of Leary's letters, artifacts,and memorabilia in New York to portray Leary as an iconoclastic mystic. 

Jana Laiz presented a slide-show about the life of Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman who sued the early colonial government and became the first free African American woman in the United States. Mumbet possessed an amiable dignity and frank sense of truth. This was a fascinating story and Mumbet’s unusual life is in the process of being turned into a major film.

Kira Wizner, proprietor of Merritt Bookstore, interviewed Duncan Hannah after he read a few short excerpts from his diaries of New York City life in the nineteen seventies, Twentieth Century Boy, while in the basement there was standing room only for the publishing agents speaking on “How to Pitch Your Book.” Lacking a sense of practicality, I was mesmerized by Hannah’s gentle, whimsical humor and his affable geniality. Hannah began his voluminous diaries at the age of 16, yet they only solidified into storytelling at 18. His early inspiration at 16 was how Jack Kerouac transformed his friends into mythological characters. As a migrant rock-band drummer from suburban Minneapolis, Hannah landed in Manhattan when it was still a center of art because of cheap rent and emergent artistic circles. The trajectory of the diary selection focuses on the process of becoming an artist. He read entertaining anecdotes of introducing Andy Warhol to the Talking Heads and hanging out with David Hockney, who advised him to jettison painterly gimmicks and just plainly paint the truth he found in himself. Hannah had to take a year off from painting for the book project in a field that “he doesn’t have a horse.” If this book does well, there may be a sequel about the decade of the 1980s.

Local legend Michael Korda’s concluding talk, “A Life in Books,” offered an arcing history about publication since the Roman Empire to his own experiences as editor of Jacqueline Suzanne and Harold Robbins who loved being a celebrity but hated to write. Korda devised a strategy to detain Robbins in a hotel room where he would not receive a major meal until he slipped ten acceptable pages under the door to him. Korda was proud to have edited William L. Shirer, David McCullough, Ronald Reagan, and especially the autobiography of Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son. He spoke about his own twenty-four books briefly. Korda’s observations were part memoir, part essay about how books remain the foundation of civilization. Throughout his lecture, Korda conveyed bemusement, hope, and an optimistic outlook about the future of literacy, even in a troubled world. Korda was the oracle incarnate of humanistic wisdom, summing up how books can engender the luminous life: "Culture is not a final product--it is always changing."

In the library basement there was a poetry workshop, a workshop on nature writing, and a seminar on the omnipresent topic of weather. I have attended nearly every one of the ten Millbrook Literary Festivals and I conclude that this was the liveliest and most interesting of all the Festivals.