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For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
March 22, 2004
Mrs. Bush's Remarks at the White House Symposium Classic American Stories
White House Salute to America's Authors
The East Room
10:37 A.M. EST
MRS. BUSH: Good morning, everybody. Good morning, welcome to the White House. I'm so excited about today's great program. We're going to celebrate three very remarkable American authors, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. And we have a very distinguished group of musicians and authors and actors who will bring their work to life for us today. So I want to thank everybody who is participating in today's program. Thank you all very, very much for enlightening us today.
I also want to recognize Mrs. Cheney. Thank you so much for being here, Lynne. Lynne, I know, included Flannery O'Connor's name in her alphabet book, A is for Abigail, an alphabet book of amazing American women, so I know she loves Flannery O'Connor's work. If you wonder, Flannery O'Connor was in the "W," for women -- for writers, women writers.
We're also really thrilled to have Senator Alexander here. Thank you so much for being here to join us today. And we have Elizabeth Welty Thompson and Mary Alice Welty White who are here honoring their aunt, Eudora Welty. Thank you all for joining us.
And then welcome to the students from Gonzaga High School and from Benjamin Banneker High School. Thank you for joining us today. These are two English classes that have joined us who are great English students, and we know you will love this today. I think you will really like it all.
There's a saying that life is nothing more or nothing less than the sum of the stories you tell about it. For these authors, storytelling was their life. Throughout their careers, they explored a common geography, the American South. And they revealed to the world that most uncommon terrain, the mysterious terrain of the human heart.
Though he is viewed as a literary revolutionary, Truman Capote gained this reputation in a traditional manner, by moving readers through the power of his words. He started writing when he was nine years old and he said, "Some people have an instinctive feeling for jumping in the water to swim. I had the instinct to write."
Whether telling about an orphaned boy and an eccentric spinster in the Grass Harp or the enchanting, self-absorbed Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or exploring the criminal mind in In Cold Blood, Capote gave breath to a wind that, in his words, "gathers and remembers all our voices then sends them talking and telling through the leaves and the fields."
A Catholic writer in the Protestant South, Flannery O'Connor wrote about the wind, too. But for her, it took on its biblical meaning as the spirit of God. And yet, in spite of her intense religious convictions, O'Connor harshly condemned writing that was merely pious. She demanded of herself higher stakes.
She used mordant satire to encourage civil rights and to condemn racism. She created a world where good and evil battled one another for the souls of good country people. In her lifetime, O'Connor was criticized for the bleak content of her stories. Where she saw revelation and redemption others saw loss and betrayal. She faced her critics head on and unapologetically writing, "It requires considerable courage at any time in any country not to turn away from the storyteller."
Lastly, we come to Ms. Welty. That's all one has to say, Ms. Welty. She is as famous for her sense of humor and her personal grace as for her remarkable stories and photographs. She gained her love of writing and books from her mother, who was an avid reader. Chestina Welty once raced back into a burning house to save a set of Dickens. She took Eudora to the library when she was nine years old and she told her that she could read any book she waned, and Eudora did. Ms. Welty said, "Two by two, I read library books as fast as I could go, rushing them home in the basket of my bicycle. I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with books themselves, the cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms."
Ms. Welty never shied away in her life or in her art from taking risks, including the risk of love. She acknowledged this fact herself, writing, "I have been told both in approval and accusation that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart and skin of another being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It's the act of a writer's imagination that I set most high."
So today we're going to get to hear how each of these writers transformed the literary landscape with heart, soul and imagination.
Now, it's my pleasure to introduce Dana Gioia, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Chairman Gioia is fond of saying, a great nation deserves great art. The President and I strongly agree. Mr. Dana Gioia. (Applause.)
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MRS. BUSH: Thanks to everyone. Thank you all very, very much for entertaining us with these great songs and for enlightening us about these writers and for your terrific readings from their books. Thank you very, very much. It has been a really wonderful morning.
We've learned a lot about all these writers. We've learned that their themes touch us all, that their characters are people we know -- or, maybe in the case of Flannery O'Connor, people we're glad we don't know -- (laughter) -- and that their lessons are timeless.
When she was in the tenth grade -- I thought the students might be interested in this -- Flannery O'Connor wrote a poem called "First Book," and this is what she wrote. "When man was just a caveman, in the prehistoric age, his mind began to wander, and his bean began to rage. To think that he had all these years, been lonesome, dumb, and tough, without a spot of culture to make him not so rough. He took his brain within his hands and pressed it hard and tight, until within his feeble mind, there shone a spark of light. Thus inspiration came to man, and he without delay, wrote down the words she told him to on slides of stone and clay. And when the masterpiece was done, he called his friends to come look, they asked him what he named the thing, he said with ease, 'a book.' Thus the ancestor of books was born on slides of stone and clay. How far removed was that old book from those we have today? And since we have the chance to read let's take it while we can, how far removed are we today, from prehistoric man?" (Applause.)
Thank you all very much. Thanks for these great stories and for telling us about these great American writers. Thank you all. (Applause.)