By: Ed Southern
The Writingest State is known for its writerly communities, often centered around colleges: Jackson County and Western Carolina University; the UNCG crowd in Guilford; whole hosts of writers in Buncombe and Orange*; New Hanover County and all the UNC Wilmington folks (many of whom will be at the 2022 Fall Conference).
Not a one of North Carolina’s other 99 counties, though, can claim what Columbus County can.
Columbus County, NC, with a population of 50,623 in the 2020 U. S. Census, produced not one writer who won the National Book Award.
It produced two.
A. R. “Archie” Ammons was born on the family tobacco farm outside Whiteville in 1926. He left Columbus County first for the Navy in World War II, and then for Wake Forest College, before it moved from Wake County to Forsyth. He first won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1973, for his Collected Poems, 1951 – 1971, and again in 1993 for Garbage. He entered the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2000, and died the following year.
Jason “Jason” Mott was born in Bolton and, of course, won last year’s National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Hell of a Book. Unlike Ammons, who spent most of his adult life teaching at Cornell, Mott still lives in Bolton, very near where he grew up.
Many of you will pass through Bolton on your way to Wrightsville Beach for the Fall Conference, where Mott will deliver the Keynote Address and teach a class on “The Fundamentals of the Novel.”
Mott and Ammons are not the only North Carolina writers to win the National Book Award. Asheville-born Charles Frazier won in Fiction for Cold Mountain in 1997; Greensboro’s Randall Jarrell won the 1961 award in Poetry for The Woman at the Washington Zoo; Allen Mandelbaum, later to teach at Wake Forest, won for Translated Literature in 1973; and Nathaniel Mackey, now teaching at Duke, won for Poetry in 2006.
They are NC’s only NBA-winners to hail from the same county . . . and one of the state’s least populous counties, at that.
In fact, Columbus County has to have the highest National Book Awards-per-capita in not just the state, but the nation.
And people think New York is the center of the literary world.
* When some writers from Minnesota tried to dispute North Carolina’s claim to be the Writingest State several years ago, they challenged me to name “nationally accomplished” North Carolina writers, not including those in the Triangle or the mountains. That’s a bit like challenging the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, not including Jordan and Pippen . . . but losing anyway.