On Tuesday evening, May 14, I had the special pleasure of receiving an award from the Society of Midland Authors. Every year in May, the Society holds a banquet in Chicago at which it bestows its annual book awards in six categories—adult fiction and
nonfiction, juvenile fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and biography. The awards have gone to some highly decorated authors and to some who have never received an award before, and to many who never received one again. But always, the awards recognize the best that Midwestern literature had to offer in the prior year. I have served many times over the past 20 years as a judge for those awards, in either adult nonfiction or biography, and I have had the privilege of announcing the award a few times. I have bestowed the award on people like Garry Wills (James Madison) and Kathleen Norris (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography).
In addition to the book awards, the Society has incorporated into its ceremonies an award for literary criticism by absorbing it from the now defunct Friends of Literature. And, when the board feels there is a deserving recipient, it also provides a Distinguished Service Award to someone members feel has made significant contributions to the organization. As was noted the other night, there have been stalwarts in the past—more than a few of them, it seems, because the Society in 2015 will celebrate its centennial. Established in 1915, benefiting in its earliest history from a honorary visit by William Butler Yeats, the Society’s founders and early members included the likes of Vachel Lindsay, Harriet Monroe, Sherwood Anderson, Edna Ferber, and Carl Sandburg. How do you beat that combination? The century that followed brought more luminaries—Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, and Scott Turow, among them. I am sure I am missing many others, but you get the point. We counted among our membership the best of the Midwest, and they have often spoken to us, and speak to us still, at monthly programs and yearly banquets. As president of the Society, from 1997-1999, I once paired Scott Turow and Jacquelyn Mitchard for a program on “Hitting the Jackpot with Your First Book.” The Society hit the jackpot, too, with a splendidly lively program.
In the midst of this rarefied company, it is a bit humbling to get any award at all. But the board felt my time had come because I had served, at various times, as president, vice-president, membership secretary, treasurer, book judge, and board member, not to mention newsletter editor. It was pointed out that I gave the newsletter its current name, Literary License. That was not hard. The title came in one of those moments one suffers of instant illumination. Big deal: It happens to writers all the time, right? Well, not exactly. It happens after a writer lets his brain cogitate on a problem long enough that all the bad ideas drift to the bottom, like silt in the river, fertilizing and facilitating the one good idea that finally rises to the top.
And I guess that’s mostly why I got this honor. It’s not about me, at least not completely or even primarily. It’s about the inspiration and perspiration involved in wanting to see to it that a deserving organization that has long been an essential part of the Chicago and Midwestern cultural scene gets to last into a second century, to respond to new challenges. Because the Society is an organization into which writers with at least one published book “of literary merit” must be invited, it is precisely the type of organization that is capable of stumbling into irrelevance if its leadership allows the membership to age and mellow until no one can remember its heyday anymore. In the late 1990s, as membership secretary, I would hunt down new authors eligible to be invited, and bring dozens of nominations to each meeting of the board of directors for approval, to assure that the pipeline was full of new blood, and the organization stayed fresh and relevant, and it did and it has. That tradition of recruitment of those often less noticed has continued under other leadership for more than a decade since I served as president, and I don’t worry about it so much anymore. New members join every year.
Still, I can’t say as many responded to our invitations as I might have liked. As my late friend Timothy Unsworth once told me, “Jim, there’s a high nut factor in any group of artists.” I learned that first-hand one day when a prospective member contacted me. “Is it too late to join?” the person wanted to know. He had a letter of invitation I had sent him, but it had gotten lost in his mail pile until he had rediscovered it, two years later. I told him there was no statute of limitations on such an invitation. The guy joined. Years later, when we awarded the biography prize to Sam Weller, for The Bradbury Chronicles, he related a similar incident during his work with Ray Bradbury. At Bradbury’s home in Los Angeles one day, Welller stumbled upon a $200,000 royalty check buried in a mountain of papers. When he reported it to the author, Bradbury merely said, “I wondered where that was.” Some of our nuts are very prosperous. And a quirky joy to work with. I am simply proud to have had the opportunity to help such an organization survive.
As for my own service to SMA, some of it was simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In April 1999, as I was completing my term as president and contemplating a more relaxed role as a mere past president and board member, Tim Unsworth called to say that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Tim was the treasurer and wanted to know if I would be willing to take the job off his hands while he dealt with his medical challenges, which ultimately overcame him. He clearly felt I was the one he could trust to take over and do the job right, but it had not been what I was looking forward to.
On the other hand, how could I refuse?