Great Authors Who Pass Through Louisville, and the History They Bring

June 6, 1944. It’s one of those dates we remember—like July 4, 1776, or Dec. 7, 1941, or Sept. 11, 2001. The invasion of the French coast at Normandy on that day 69 years ago was the beginning of the end of the long, bloody international conflagration now known as World War II. It’s fitting that we take note of the events of that day because they made a fundamental difference in the shape of our current world.

Here in Louisville, our newspaper carries a vivid account written by Hoosier journalist Ernie Pyle after he walked along the beach following the invasion. Pyle, who would himself be a casualty of the war in 1945, paints a poignant story of the ordinary things that victims of D-Day carried with them—from photos to unsmoked cigarettes. I don’t know why, but the image of a tennis racquet, still in its frame and undamaged, seems most bittersweet. Obviously the GI who carried it was full of hope for happier times and games on the courts of a liberated France. 

The tragic statistics about World War II were perhaps the strongest message that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson left with a large audience Tuesday evening. Atkinson, who recently published The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, delivered the Filson Historical Society’s Gertrude Polk Brown lecture at The Temple. The war in Europe lasted six years and one day; over the course of those years some 60 million people died. The United States, which was in the war for just three and a half years, had a population of 130 million and lost over 400,000 soldiers. The losses of the Soviet Union were far greater: In a nation of 160 million the combined military and civilian deaths passed 25 million.

Atkinson’s timely discussion came as the generation that fought World War II enters the sunset. Currently only about 1.4 million American veterans are living (out of 16 million who fought), and their average age is 92, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We pause today to salute them. It’s as simple as that.

Rick Atkinson’s popular lecture was just one of many such events that take place every year in our city. Louisville has hosted a number of notable writers in a variety of forums. Certainly the Gertrude Polk Brown lecture, named for the late widow of distillery executive George Garvin Brown II, has drawn outstanding historians in its two-decade history. Some of these including David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert K. Massie, David Eisenhower, Evan Thomas and David Halberstam. On June 25, Civil War expert James McPherson (The Battle Cry of Freedom and War on the Waters) will deliver the Brown lecture, again at The Temple.

The best-known local author series is also one of the most widely seen. The University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum, which has been produced by Mary Moss Greenebaum since its inception in May 1996, is viewed all over the country as the PBS series Great Conversations, thanks to KET. This series features not only notable authors, but also nationally recognized interviewers—a double whammy. And what a list it is. A few of the names on the guest roster include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elie Wiesel, astronaut John Glenn, Sen. John McCain, historian Henry Louis Gates, jazz great Winton Marsalis and John Updike. (You can read the entire list here.) The 2013-14 season will begin on Oct. 16 with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the most key heroes of the civil rights movement.

Other venues for notable authors include all of our local universities, Carmichael’s Bookstore (which often co-sponsors other events) and the Louisville Free Public Library.

Louisville’s tradition of hosting notable writers goes well back into the 19th Century. Charles Dickens spent a memorable night at the original Galt House hotel in April 1842. He compared the well-known hostelry to the finest hotels in Paris. He had less kind things to say about his tour of the river city, which was made memorable by the hordes of pigs that wandered through its streets. Dickens stayed here only a few hours, and pushed on west.

Forty-two years later, in February 1884, Oscar Wilde, author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, addressed a large audience at the city’s Masonic Temple at Fourth and Jefferson streets. Wilde arrived during the worst flood the city had since since 1832, and he had little good to say about America or its great cities. In Cincinnati, where he spoke before journeying to Louisville by rail, he declared: “I wonder that criminals do not plead the ugliness of your city as an excuse for their crimes.”

Somehow America survived Mr. Wilde’s put-downs. And other authors—John Steinbeck, E.B. White, and William Faulkner, among them—would make their way to Louisville in years to come.

Keith Runyon is a veteran Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

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