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Allan Gurganus: Telling the Story from Birth

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 2/9/2003. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

When I visited his home in Hillsborough, Allan Gurganus and I talked about his growing up years in Rocky Mount, 50 miles east of Raleigh. Best known for his acclaimed novel "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," he is now one of the country's most accomplished writers. His beautifully crafted stories are enchanting and often make you both laugh and cry your heart out.

He told me how, as a child in Rocky Mount, he had the support of a remarkable group of schoolteachers and arts patrons without whom he could never have become a writer. "Those extremely brilliant ladies," he explained in vintage Allan Gurganus-style, "were exemplars of a certain kind of high intellectual seriousness that has not been seen in this country with George Bush as president in many a year."

In this part of the interview, I asked him to describe himself during those school days back in Rocky Mount.

Allan Gurganus. Photo by Chris Seward, 2003.In Allan Gurganus's words:
As a person who is reaching the age where you lose the car keys and can't remember where you parked and all that stuff, I have to say that I think I was probably smarter when I was in the third grade than I have ever been and I will ever be. I've been faking it ever since that, but that was the pinnacle. I was very dramatic. If a teacher had to go to a funeral or a wedding or a dentist appointment, instead of losing a day's pay, Cynthia Thorpe would send me up to Mrs. Wilson's room and they would just close the door and I would keep the class enthralled for two or three hours. I was just making it up. I was telling the story from birth.

I was something of an exaggerator. For instance, I saw in the Compton's Encyclopedia a picture of Jack London, and then I saw a picture of the natives of Tierra del Fuego, which I then thought was pronounced "del Fu-go." And at show-and-tell, I showed the picture of Jack London in a leather jacket on the deck of his sloop, and said, "This is my Uncle Jack, who is a sea captain and who had been visiting us for the weekend and had taught me how to speak the language of these people, " and I pointed to Tierra del Fuego.

And so they inevitably said, "Well, say something." And I would say, you know, what do you want to hear? "What time do we go out for recess?" Igo wyow weebee dow yow. But what's odd is that they were retentive enough to remember certain words, so over the course of the year I literally invented a language and I began to teach other children how to say it correctly.

Of course for a man like my father, to have this little door-slamming, tantrum-prone, neurasthenic flibbertigibbet as a child could not have been easy. But happily, I was also very articulate, very presentable, totally eager to please, because I was desperate for the kind of approval from the larger world that I was not getting at home, especially from my father. So it was very important to me to have people in the community who had faith in me and my stories and told me so.

I may have been seen as a sissy or as a flit, but the way I protected myself was to make myself central to everybody else's pleasure and happiness. I guess some people have greatness thrust upon them; I wheedled my way into it. I remember sitting in junior high school when I was in the seventh grade, and I was sitting in an assembly watching these dreary speeches by people who I knew were inherently witty, but really seemed pretty stupid talking about, you know, honoring the traditions of the class or buying a bench for the class gift. I don't know, it just seemed absolutely dull. And I thought to myself, "If I could ever get on the stage, I would know how to liven this up." It was almost as if I saw my calling was to goose everybody in the school.

So I managed to become the nominator for Margaret Dudley for the secretary of the class. That got me on the stage, and I did an outrageous stunt that was a comic speech. I took a bird cage onto the stage with a stuffed bird in the cage. The fiction was that it was a trained parakeet that was going to say the campaign spiel. But at the podium, I pulled the string so the bird fell off the perch and died right in front of everybody. And I reached in the cage and got the bird out and I began to alternately praise Margaret Dudley and weep over the death of the bird.

I mean, only somebody who was just totally desperate would or could have done this. It was like Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis or Steve Martin. It was so outrageous, the unintentional effect was it completely threw every speech that had ever been made completely in the shade. It also set endlessly heightened standards for me as a performer, and so it became essential to have me on stage, because I was always going to do something entertaining.

I think the greatest thing I did -- it was when Elizabeth Taylor was making "Cleopatra" and she was in the process of leaving Eddie Fisher for Richard Burton, and it was all anybody was reading about. She would be in the fisheye makeup and the hairdo, ... and she had already taken Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds, so she was considered something of a tramp to begin with.

But I restaged "Cleopatra" in the high school auditorium with a very good-looking girl as Cleopatra. She was wearing only a halter and harem pants on a pallet carried by the entire football team with their shirts off. And all the football players were wearing women's bathing caps, so they looked even more brawny and athletic than they were. There was somebody scattering rose petals in advance and then somebody sweeping them up afterwards.

Her entrance into the auditorium, I can still say it was one of the happiest moments in my very happy life. The response was just, it was just fabulous. It was truly fablelike in the original sense of fabulous. And we had the whole thing played out.

The biggest Victorian of all our teachers was the Latin teacher, Louise Parker, and I feared her wrath more than anybody else because "Caesar and Cleopatra" was very much her domain. I was called to the principal's office and told that Ms. Parker wanted to talk to me. She was then in her 60s, very much the old maid, and I went in expecting to have my head cut off and handed to me on a platter.

And she sat down and she said (he uses a pinched, nasally voice), "I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for interesting students in the Classics. I see my enrollments surging next year on account of this fascination with Caesar and Cleopatra and Latin." It was just incredible. I thought I was going to be expelled for it.

Allan Gurganus website:

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