Sunday, April 25, 2010
#52 Nashville/Music City Footnote II
Nashville ... 'tis a silly place. It's Camelot and, pace Monty Python, Spamalot both at the same time. Two separate but equal kingdoms. Wonderfully schizoid. On the one hand there's the city as the "Athens of the South," with an actual full-size replica of the PARTHENON in Centennial Park to prove it. (Another Greekism, hubris, might also come to mind here.) There it is, right across West End Ave. from Vanderbilt University. But the latter is only one of literally dozens--think Boston or the NC "Triangle" hereabouts--of higher-learning institutions dotting the landscape.
The crown-jewel, my doctoral alma mater, was founded by steamship-mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, the "Commodore"--a strictly honorary title like chicken-mogul Harlan Sanders' Kentucky "Colonel"--in 1873. Might as well have been called "Vanity" U, because once he had bought up the little Methodist college on the west side of town; had donated his money and his name; he and his family had little to do with it after that. Unlike those other trickle-down tycoon-clans like the Carnegies and Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts have never been great philanthropists, even unto "poor-little-rich-girl" Gloria. For example-- sort of a "NEWS FLASH!"--the Obamas just visited the spectacular Biltmore House this weekend on their romantic getaway to Asheville. They were doubtless the only ones who got in without paying the pricey entrance fees. That monument to gilded-age excess nearly bankrupted that line of the Commodore's progeny, which has been trying to catch up ever since Biltmore was almost but never quite "built" to this day. They were always good at spending, not giving.
The University is most noted today for its top-ranked MEDICAL SCHOOL/med-center--two Nobel laureates (seven total, incl. other departments)--and its #1 ranking (last week's USNews) in grad-school EDUCATION, due in large part to the purchase and full incorporation a couple of decades ago of the venerable Peabody College for Teachers next-door. A long-time partner. Tipper Gore got her M.A. there; Al was Vandy Law. But in my day it was ENGLISH. It was the home of the still-influential New Critical School for the study of literature (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren), and the "Fugitive Movement" in poetry, producing three U.S. Poet laureates: Alan Tate, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Penn Warren again. "Red" Warren is the only author, in addition, to win the Pulitzer for both poetry (twice) AND fiction: the novel, All the King's Men (1947). My "convention-buddy" James Dickey, Pulitzer-prized poet and movie-star-manque in his novel-to-movie, Deliverance, hailed from those heady environs too.
Let me pause over the former. He was no crowd-rouser like John Forsythe, but Robert Penn "Call-Me-Red" Warren was a hit nonetheless when we were able to bring my fellow Vandy alum to our little college in the late 70s. Still active, he was then working on a libretto ( !) for a collaborative operatic version of his famous novel (truly a man for all genres). Called Willy Stark, it was presented on PBS a few years later, and is now on DVD. During his visit to campus, we were able to screen the original, Academy-Award-winning movie-adaptation of All the King's Men (1949) with Broderick Crawford (Best Actor winner) et al., as yet unsullied by the disastrous re-make of several years ago, with Sean Penn (relation?) in the Willy Stark/Huey Long role.
As for my association with wild-man James Dickey, it'll have to wait for a later post. As for the luminaries on the other side of town--Nashville's Spamalot, if you will--I need to get back to the great clash/crash of cultures that occurred on that fall morning in 1968 where driveway + sidewalk + street met in near-deadly triangulation for the two people involved. And so I shall, right now. (more).