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Thu, April 24, 2014

The Southern Literary Trail


February 19, 2009

Next month marks the first Trailfest, a celebration of Southern authors in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.

When I lived in Southern California, I had an acquaintance who loved Southern literature so much that she made a trip to the Deep South solely to visit the homes and hometowns of some of her favorite authors: Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eudora Welty, among others. Before going, she imagined, somewhat romantically, that some sort of established tour of these towns must exist. This was more than a decade ago, and although she had a great time on her trip, she was surprised to find there were no such tours. This year, however, there is one. The Southern Literary Trail bills itself as the "nation's only tri-state literary trail," but its Alabama project director, William Gantt, says it's the only multi-state literary trail he knows of in the United States.

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Tennessee Williams.
In March, as part of Trailfest '09, every "trail community" in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia will present plays, movies, tours, and discussion panels that explore the masterworks of Southern literature and honor their authors. Alabama will celebrate some of its more famous native writers, such as Ralph Ellison, Lillian Hellman, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Eugene Walter, William March, William Bradford Huie, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Gantt, a native of Demopolis, grew up hearing stories about playwright Lillian Hellman, whose family is from the small town. He said they wanted to "do something" to celebrate her life and work, as well as the town that inspired so much of her writing. Gantt says the idea for the trail came from a shared sentiment among several of Alabama's small towns with literary ties. "It was kind of like suggesting the obvious," he says. "We got in touch with some of the other Southern cities—some of which have literary festivals and offer tours of these old houses—and said 'why not put an umbrella over all of this?'" It didn't take long for Gantt and others to reach out to Mississippi (home to William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams), and Georgia (Margaret Mitchell, Flannery O'Connor, Alice Walker, to name a few).

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Lillian Hellman, in an Irving Penn photo from 1947.

Many of the events are guaranteed to offer a stiff shot of Southern charm. Among the scheduled events: The F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery (in a house where the couple lived) will host its annual gala with a theme based on Scott's novel Tender Is the Night on Friday, March 6 (period attire is encouraged). Lillian Hellman's play The Autumn Gardens will be performed in Demopolis on Friday, March 13. On Saturday, March 21, the historic Pillars Restaurant in Mobile will feature a menu from the recipes of Eugene Walter, including a readers' theater performance of Walter's humorous writings (reservations are deemed "essential" by trail organizers). The following Saturday, March 28, the town of Monroeville will host a daylong celebration of its most famous natives, Harper Lee and Truman Capote, which is scheduled to include a talk by town locals who grew up with the authors, followed by an old-fashioned picnic on the town square, la To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Southern Literary Trail's web site, www.southernliterarytrail.org, is designed to resemble a homemade scrapbook. Gantt and his fellow organizers traveled to most of the locales, taking photos with film stock that gives an old-fashioned feel to their pictures of these already lovely old homes and towns. You can search by author, state and town, or date. As the site suggests, "The Southern Literary Trail is designed as a self-guided experience. But no traveler to the South is ever alone. Ask any Southerner about a hometown and the response will be abundant."

Although organized travel resources in some of these tiny towns are still scarce, the site offers a list of places to start when searching for food or lodging. A downloadable calendar of events provides phone numbers and other contact information for each town. For more information on Alabama trail events, contact Alabama project director William Gantt at 297-8849. —Christina Crowe

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