David Madden, writing to all the great writers

Paul Clark

Saul Bellow, James Dickey, Arthur Miller – David Madden has known them all. He’s spoken to or corresponded with other literary lights such as Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty.

John Updike, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen King and Joseph Heller have all written back or been in touch. Shelby Foote, Gail Godwin and Doris Betts are among the scores of writers that Madden has written to or spoken with.

Madden, who lives with wife Roberta Madden in a charming 1915 house near Black Mountain’s downtown, has written 13 novels and collections of stories, some four dozen nonfiction books in literary studies and the Civil War. He’s the author of numerous poems, plays, personal essays and memoirs. Retired from LSU as the Robert Penn Warren Professor of Creative Writing, Madden is founding director of the United States Civil War Center, created by a resolution of the U.S. Congress.

In April, he was honored by the University of Tennessee, in his hometown of Knoxville, for donating his large archive of manuscripts, letters and other materials, all dating back to 1944. Keeping him company at home, however, is an extensive library of books, written by friends famous and not. In a large repository built behind his home, in tall library stacks that line the walls and segment the middle, Madden also keeps his own work, including a vast library of essays he has written about other writers.

His plays are there, as is a photograph of a teenaged Madden, looking very much the part of the young journalist in his heavy suit and serious expression. At the time, Madden said recently inside his library, he wanted to look like the writers he admired – Thomas Wolfe, Albert Camus, Tennessee Williams and James Joyce, among them. Though his birthday July 25 will make him 83 years old, his face is much the same today.

The letters he exchanged through the decades with dozens of writers, many of whom he asked to contribute essays to books he was compiling, have moved on to UT. But the stories behind them remain, pouring from his lips.

“I got kind of used to it after a while,” he said of corresponding with so many famous writers. “But I never got so used to it that there was never a slight thrill” when he’d see a letter from one of them in the mailbox.

In 1968, Madden began 24 years of teaching at Louisiana State University. Living near him in Covington for a while was the writer Walker Percy, author of “Love in the Ruins” and other novels.

“He got on the faculty for just a quarter. I think his daughter was going to LSU,” Madden said. “He was a very quiet fellow. He would hold these deep philosophical discussions at his house. I don’t think he realized how deep into philosophy I was. I kind of wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to ask him.

“Anyway, he was very friendly to me. He wrote a comment on my novel ‘Bijou,’ which is about being a movie usher in Knoxville, at age 12. Percy told him he thought it was better than “Huckleberry Finn.” “So naturally, I’m well-disposed to him,” Madden said.

“Anyway, I’d see him in the hallway (at LSU), going to class or the bathroom or wherever. He would walk close to the wall, with his head down, in a kind of saunter. He was a very handsome fellow. One time he said, ‘David, how do you write a novel?’ I’m so naïve that you can ‘get’ me anytime you want me. But he wasn’t trying to ‘get’ me. So I took him at his word and started telling him how to write a novel.

“Afterward, I realized what he meant was, he was writing a new novel, it was like he didn’t know how to write a novel - which is exactly what every writer feels. When you start a new novel, you think, how do you write a novel?”

In 1954, 22 years old and newly married to Roberta, wrapping up his career at UT, the playwright Tennessee Williams (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) came to Knoxville, Madden said, “to bury his father, who was living in the same ratty hotel that my alcoholic father was living in. Well, I thought, ‘I’d like a glimpse of Tennessee Williams.’

“So I went there (to the hotel). I didn’t want to disturb the family, so I went outside the big iron gate of this very famous, big cemetery, where I saw a funeral going on.” Deciding he’d located the right funeral, Madden saw the silhouette of a short man he recognized as Williams. Madden watched as the playwright nervously stepped forward and back, a moment that Madden would write about later.

That day, Madden called the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, where he learned Williams was staying. No one by the name of Tennessee Williams was registered, but Thomas Lanier Williams – the writer’s given name – was there. “So I said, can I speak with him?” Madden recalled.

“I said, ‘Mr. Williams, I’m a great admirer of yours, and one of my plays is quite a bit like yours” (an adaptation of “Cassandra Singing,” Madden’s second non-serialized novel) “and I’d like to talk to you about plays.’ There was music in the background, and I thought, (he’s) is having a party the day he buries his daddy!

“I said, I don’t want to bother you, and he said ‘well, come on up.’ What he had on was a TV show, The Tonight Show. And he was wearing the red pajamas that Marlon Brando wore in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ while we talked.”

In 1959, Madden was a graduate student in the School of Drama at Yale University. Ayn Rand, a Russian-born American novelist, came to speak. She wrote the book “The Fountainhead,” which in 1949 Warner Brothers made into a movie starring Gary Cooper. Madden loved the movie, didn’t care for the book, but he went to hear her anyway.

Rand “was really tough,” Madden said. “All these young kids trying to pin her down, ask her all these embarrassing questions.”

She wasn’t interested, he said. If they wanted to talk about her ideas, she’d entertain those. But she made it clear that she didn’t care what the students thought about her as a person.

“After it was over, she walked up this aisle,” Madden said, “and in the meantime, a woman rushed in from the snow, with snow sparkling on her fur coat, long blond hair like Dominique (Francon, a major figure The Fountainhead). She planted herself, arms akimbo right next to me in the aisle, and said, ‘Is Ayn finished?’ I said ‘yes, but here she comes.’

“She (Rand) walked right into the open arms of this woman who wasn’t Dominique - it was a total stranger who hugged her. And there’s this little Ayn Rand, this famous tough woman, caught up in this she-bear. So I wrote this up in an article in the next Yale Daily News. I bought my attitude toward ‘The Fountainhead’ into play.”

“My editor at Random House, who was editing my first novel, (later) said ‘I just got word from Bennett Cerf that Ayn Rand said if you publish that novel by that David Madden, you’ll never publish another novel by me.’ So I had the distinction of Ayn Rand trying to shut down my first novel.”