Thank you, Dean Richardson, for that warm introduction. And thank you to Kendall Dunkelberg, and thanks to your staff for all of the heavy lifting and logistics that I know will make this Eudora Welty Symposium such a success.
It is an honor for the University Press of Mississippi to be a part of this gathering. I want to thank our board members Nora Roberts and Tom Richardson for their longstanding guidance and care for the Press. As well I want to thank interim president Allegra Brigham and outgoing president Claudia Limbert for stalwart faith and commitment to our publishing mission. These are trying, even destructive economic times for university presses in the South. But thanks to the unwavering support of MUW and all the state universities in Mississippi working in consortium now for forty years, University Press of Mississippi has emerged from a storm stable, strong, and poised to thrive.
Optimism. I doubt there could be a more timely theme for a symposium to explore. The American spirit has always been madly optimistic. Consider that first truly American literary voice, Huckleberry Finn, saying, “I don’t take no stock in dead people.” Or the World War II American soldier’s untranslatable challenge to his old world enemy’s demand for surrender, one word—Nuts. Even Judge McElva’s statement, I am an optimist, comes to us after the depth of economic depression and from profound, irreversible family distress.
And yet in a century that may no longer be ours we find optimism under assault as never before. We endure a 24/7 news cycle crying division and mayhem. From crisis on crisis, real or manufactured, more and more of us are unplugging, tuning out, circling in our own suburbs of isolation and alienation. We are led to perceive in a cynical light that the time-tested machinery of the Republic no longer functions. And when we hear optimism expressed we are wary; it does not ring true, and smacks of some sinister agenda. Where is hope? And can we really wait longer than twitter’s 140 characters to see hope brought to fruition?
But wait just a minute… This year’s Eudora Welty Prize winner rescues something from the teeth of a hurricane to teach us about optimism. About practical, applied, do-or-die optimism. About the only possible answers being hometown kindness, neighborly comfort, and when times seem darkest and most unbearable, plain old love. Ellis Anderson never meant to write this book. She was a silversmith, an artisan and freelance writer working on a novel in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. And then came Hurricane Katrina. From the rubble of her town she never walked away, never stopped rebuilding, never hesitated to give and uphold. Every time I speak with her I know I must strive to become a better human being. And reading her book I am even more convinced of it. 72 new authors every year I have the privilege of meeting and helping as marketing director at University Press of Mississippi. I have never been so bolstered. Under Surge, Under Siege: The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina is a rare, special book. Join me please in congratulating and welcoming Ellis Anderson, this year’s Eudora Welty Prize winner.