2012 Thomas Wolfe Lecture
“The greatest pleasure of all is the way her work lingers, the way it stays with you and becomes part of the way you see the world. What makes her work durable and memorable is, of course, the news it brings about who we are and why we should matter to one another.” With these words of praise, Creative Writing faculty member Pam Durban introduced fellow novelist Josephine Humphreys to receive the 2012 Thomas Wolfe Prize and to deliver the annual lecture on October 2 in the Genome Sciences Auditorium on campus.
The evening began with ceremony befitting the occasion. Chair Beverly Taylor welcomed the audience, then Terry Roberts (Ph.D. 1991), Executive Director of the National Paideia Center, brought greetings from The Thomas Wolfe Society. Heather Wilson, Thomas Wolfe Scholar class of 2016, enjoyed the honor of placing the Thomas Wolfe medal around Humphreys’ neck. When introducing Humphreys, Durban described her “potent combination of a steadfastly compassionate voice coupled with what Toni Morrison calls ‘unblinkingness,’ the writer’s commitment to look until she sees, and not to look away, no matter what she sees.”
In her lecture remarks, the South Carolinian traced her connection to “both Carolinas,” reminiscing about her years studying at Duke with Reynolds Price (2007 Thomas Wolfe Prize recipient) who later talked of the “constant wise beauty” of her writing. Her more current connections with North Carolina center around the meticulous and extensive research she did for her novel Nowhere Else on Earth (2000), which explores the history of the Lumbee Indians in Robeson County, NC during the Civil War; more specifically, she delves into the lore surrounding Henry Berrie Lowery and his gang. Many fans of the novel, including some who helped with her research and understanding of the Lumbee culture, were in the audience to honor Humphreys and her accomplishments.
Readers and critics have celebrated each of Humphreys’ novels. Dreams of Sleep (1984) won the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best American first novel; Rich in Love (1987) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a movie version of it, starring Albert Finney, was released in 1992. The Fireman’s Fair (1991) was also a New York Times Notable Book, and Nowhere Else on Earth won the Southern Book Award. Other honors include a Guggenehim Fellowship, The Lyndhurst Prize, and a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Thomas Wolfe Prize recognizes a writer who has made a significant contribution to writing in the humanities and whose work befits the ambition and scope shown by that of Thomas Wolfe. The range of Humphreys’ fiction and her insistence upon exploration of the human spirit make her a deserving recipient.
The Department continues to be grateful to the generous donors who endowed the prize money and to Ben Jones (Class of 1950) who provided the medals for the Thomas Wolfe Prize. In addition, the Department thanks the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program, established by alumni Allen and Musette Morgan, which sponsored the lecture and events.
Previous recipients of the prize include Tom Wolfe, Larry Brown, Elizabeth Spencer, Pat Conroy, Ellen Gilchrist, George Garrett, Fred Chappell, Reynolds Price, Robert Morgan, Roy Blount Jr., Lee Smith, and Al Young.