Celebrations of writers
by Christine Frantz, Holly Hartman, Laura Hayes, Ann-Marie Imbornoni, David Johnson, and Beth Rowen
Want to honor your favorite author? Attend the festival devoted to the writer of your choice. Some festivals have more scholarly leanings, with the emphasis on lectures and discussions. Others include performances, music, parades, and masquerades. So here is just a sampler of a few literary festivals.
The Father of English Poetry is honored with an annual pilgrimage from London to Canterbury in April and a festival in late June–early July. The five-day festival starts with a leisurely walk along the Pilgrim's Way from Rochester to Canterbury. Pilgrims can join the festival for all or part of the route and will be entertained by minstrels, jugglers, and bards. The journey culminates with a specially commissioned dramatization of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
In Spain, the memory of Cervantes is honored with the Book and Rose Fair, a custom that began in 1926. On April 23 (the date of Cervantes's death) every man offers a rose to his lady, and in return she gives him a book. In Barcelona, the St. James Square and main streets are lined with stalls selling books, and there is an exhibition of roses in the Palace of the Autonomous Government. UNESCO chose April 23 for World Book Day in honor of this celebration and Shakespeare's birthday.
England, Canada, and Elsewhere?
Pick a state, any state (or country for that matter)—and you'll probably find a Shakespeare festival. The biggest one in North America is held in Stratford, Ontario, and features performances of the Bard's works, as well as others playwrights, from April to November. And of course, the original Stratford-upon-Avon in England has year-round performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company and also boasts plenty of Shakespeare-related activities, as well as a music festival.
The Poe House and Museum of Baltimore holds an annual celebration of Poe's birthday (held on the weekend nearest January 19). Events for the celebration—"The World's Largest Celebration of Poe's Birthday"—include poetry reading, short plays, music, and a toast. Poe's death (October 7) is commemorated by the E.A. Poe Society with a brief ceremony at the gravesite and a lecture.
Broadstairs, Kent, England
The town of Broadstairs is on the coast of southeast England, east of the great cathedral city of Canterbury. Charles Dickens visited Broadstairs regularly, enjoying the sun and healthful sea air—his novel David Copperfield was mostly written there.
This connection with the famous author is commemorated by the town every June. The festival, which was established in 1937, lasts for nine days and features over 60 events, both free and ticketed, including a parade, a Victorian music hall, a country fair, and bathing parties (sea bathing, that is). For those competitive types, there are croquet matches and even duels! Victorian melodramas are performed, and visitors are encouraged to come dressed in all their Dickensian finery.
For one weekend a year in early December, The Strand Historic District in downtown Galveston, Tex., is miraculously transformed into the London of Charles Dickens's time. Ladies and gentlemen dressed in 19th-century garb stroll the streets as costumed vendors peddle their wares and a variety of musicians, jugglers, and other performers put on impromptu entertainments. Special highlights include:
- The Queen's Parade: Bagpipers and beefeaters accompany Queen Victoria as she greets the crowd from her garland-draped horse-drawn carriage.
- Dickens Costume Contest: Festival goers compete to see who is the best dressed Victorian. (Those who come to the festival in full Victorian costume are admitted free.)
- Dickens Holiday Ball: Guests enjoy waltzing and light refreshments by candlelight.
- The Royal Menagerie: Her Majesty's petting zoo is opened to the public.
- Holiday concerts and readings of Dickens's works.
National Tom Sawyer Days is a week long festival of events held in Hannibal, Missouri and dedicated to that town's most famous son, Mark Twain. Held in July, the festival features events taken from Twain's books, including a fence painting competition, and Tomboy Sawyer competition. There is also a pet show, Tom and Becky competition, arts and crafts show, tricycle races, entertainment, and a street fair.
- Tom Sawyer Days
Aberdeen, South Dakota
For one weekend a year, The Emerald City can be found in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Festivities include "roving Oz characters," storytelling, music, theatrical performances, lectures, a costume contest, a writing contest, a "Toto Look-a-Like Contest," magic shows, art exhibits, collectibles, and live weather reporting.
Oz author L. Frank Baum lived in Aberdeen for less than three years, from 1888–1891, but his published writing career began there, when he served as editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Baum wrote a popular fantasy column and reported on local happenings, such as a devastating cyclone, that likely made their mark on his The Wizard of Oz. Sadly, Baum also wrote anti-Indian editorials that some believe incited hysteria that led to the nearby 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. The Aberdeen Oz Festival now features activities that commemorate the region's Native American heritage. Numerous other Oz festivals center on the 1939 MGM movie musical. Aberdeen's is the only one that focuses on Baum as a writer and celebrates regional history and culture.
New Orleans, Louisiana
One of America's most admired authors, Nobel laureate William Faulkner, is remembered by several literary festivals. The Words & Music: A Literary Feast is held around September 25 (Faulkner's birthday) in New Orleans, where he wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, in 1925. The festival includes a writer's conference, series of concerts, and dinners featuring New Orleans cuisine. The winners of the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition are also announced.
Each July, the English Department and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, hold the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Faulkner lived in Oxford for most of his life and was a special student at the University of Mississippi in 1919 and 1920. The conference includes the popular Faux Faulkner contest, where contestants imitate the Pulitzer-Prize winning author's unmistakable style.
A four-day literary festival held in January in Eatonville, Florida, honors Zora Neale Hurston, the prominent Harlem Renaissance writer. Hurston grew up in Eatonville, the first incorporated black town in the United States. The Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, features writing workshops, lectures, a street fair, as well as plays, dance performances, and concerts.
Bath Literature Festival
The Bath Literature Festival is a themed nine-day celebration of literature held in March. The festivities have concentrated on print and performance. The 2001 festival included appearances by contemporary authors Beryl Bainbridge, P.D. James, Philip Pullman, and John Mortimer, but Bath's literary past was not neglected and Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Mary Shelley, and James Boswell were also explored.