The Tom Wolfe Seminar at Washington & Lee University: Elizabeth Strout

OliveKitteridge_TP_flat_1500HFor the past few years, I’ve been attending a wonderful spring program at Washington & Lee University called the Tom Wolfe Seminar. This two-day event is endowed by Wolfe’s 1951 classmates from WLU and each year brings a well-known writer to Lexington, Virginia (just 30 miles from where I live) to deliver a lecture. The first time I attended I heard Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz. Two years ago Colum McCann was the guest and last year’s visitor was Jennifer Egan.

This year the series brought Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge and, more recently, The Burgess Boys. The seminar is a little expensive—although in addition to the lectures it includes an open-bar reception, dinner (with free-flowing wine), and a nice lunch—but because Strout is a former teacher of mine from my MFA program, I decided to go again this year.

The event began with introductions in WLU’s Lee Chapel. The program director introduced Tom Wolfe who then spoke for a few minutes. Wolfe is 83 and I must say that his age shows. But he then gave way to Strout, who spoke eloquently on her subject: “Olive Kitteridge: What purpose does she serve.” I really enjoyed this, and it turned out that the answer is multi-pronged. Olive is a mirror. Olive speaks the truth when sometimes we are unable to. Olive helps discover the truth in others, because you never know what’s going on in their heads. One of the things that I especially loved is Liz’s insistence that Olive is MADE UP. Unlike some authors who say that their characters take on a life of their own, Liz was in control at all times. That’s so honest, and one of the great things about her work.

There was a book signing for the public and then a private reception only for the registered participants in the seminar. This year the reception was held in Lee House, the beautiful residence of the university president, and was hosted by President Kenneth Ruscio and his wife Kimberly. The reception was lovely and was a first opportunity to meet the other seminar participants. That event was followed by a dinner, this year held in the great hall of the Science Center.

Day Two of the seminar began with coffee and donuts (a major food group from Olive Kitteridge) but really kicked off with Marc Conner’s discussion of the book: “The Form of Trauma: Olive Kitteridge and the American Scene.” Conner gave a brilliant lecture two years ago on Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and this talk was also excellent. Among other things, he looked at ways in which two earlier story cycles, Joyce’s Dubliners and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, might have influenced the writing of Olive Kitteridge. I had to smile at this because it echoed in some ways the talk I’ve given many times about Joyce and Anderson and what modern practitioners of the story cycle owe them.

Conner was followed by Psychology professor Karla Murdock. I had not heard Murdock speak before, but her talk was also excellent. She looked at the personalities of some of the characters, especially Olive and her husband Henry, and also looked at the role that the reader’s own experience must bring to an understanding of the book.

The program concluded with a panel discussion with Strout, Conner, and Murdock, and then the lunch. A very enjoyable weekend.

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