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North Carolina on the Map and in the News

N C L R ONLINE

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CELEBRATING ALLAN GURGANUS, “OUR AUTHOR”

I think I can best celebrate Allan Gurganus by telling the story of the publication of Allan’s Good Help by the North Carolina Wesleyan College Press in the months before Alfred Knopf published Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All nearly thirty years ago.1 In the summer of 1987 Wesleyan’s administration decided to sponsor a college press and asked me to direct it. In my plans for the Press, I had discounted the possibility of publishing work by Allan because of his ties to New York agents and his need to make money from his writing. We weren’t in a position to pay him what he could earn in New York. In addition, at the time Allan offered us the typescript of Good Help, the North Carolina Wesleyan College Press could hardly be said to exist. We had not yet published anything, and as its Director, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about publishing. Publishing Allan’s story Good Help gave us a good shove toward being a Press. His gift was not just generous, it’s a good illustration of his affection for this area, what he called in a letter to me “my adored community,” meaning, I then supposed, the people who had nurtured him in Rocky Mount when he was growing up. For the NCWC Press, this gift was truly “Good Help.” Allan didn’t just hand us the typescript of Good Help and go home to New York. He stayed with it and worked at all aspects of its publication, from design to distribution, writing me letters of suggestion and complaint when he couldn’t be in North Carolina. As we planned the design of the book, we realized that Allan had skills as a visual as well as a literary artist. Consequently, and not knowing what we were asking, we asked him to provide a series of drawings that would enhance the narrative. Allan was enthusiastic about doing this, finding in doing the drawings “a personal revelation,” his ideas about “line and narrative now happily commingled.” This particular contribution made Good Help, along with Blessed Assurance,2 unique among Allan’s books, the text and drawings playing off one another. This produced a book that now seems a tribute to Allan’s skills in both the literary and visual arts. Poker-faced, the book’s title page simply reads “With Illustrations by the Author.”

1

2

Allan Gurganus, Good Help (Rocky Mount: North Carolina Wesleyan Press, 1988); quotations from this edition cited parenthetically; Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (New York: Knopf, 1989).

Allan Gurganus, Blessed Assurance (North Carolina Wesleyan Press, 1990); later included in White People (New York: Knopf, 1991).

COURTESY OF ALLAN GURGANUS AND LEVERETT T. SMITH, JR.

by Leverett T. Smith, Jr.

Distribution was quite another problem. Did we have mailing lists? Well, sort of. There was a very general “Arts” mailing list at the college, but basically, we had little idea how to tell the world that we had a book to sell. Allan provided us with his mailing list, adding name after name, and to our delight, many wanted to buy the book. A mailing list started to form around these names. But Allan was never really happy with our efforts at distribution, complaining at one point that only his friends were learning about the book. Because he had many friends, we did sell out the edition, but the problem of distribution stayed with the press for the rest of its life. Our conversation about distribution did produce a keynote of the whole enterprise. In the midst of a page-long discourse on various methods of distribution, Allan stopped to ask, “We’re all making this up as we go, no?” We certainly were.

ABOVE A Blessed Assurance illustration by Allan Gurganus,

featuring Vesta Lotte Battle

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

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