David Madden (’57) doesn’t just talk; he tells. What starts as an explanation quickly gives way to narrative as he gestures, pauses, scans the listener’s face for reaction, digresses, interrupts his digression to quickly speculate about the origin of a quote, makes a quick dart over to an entirely different subject, and masterfully navigates back to the original thread to bring it full circle. It’s a wildly entertaining ride. Fifteen minutes into a response, he stops and laughs: “I’m sorry not to be more forthcoming.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that he sees storytelling as the central thread in his work. Madden, who lives in North Carolina, returned to his alma mater and his hometown of Knoxville this spring to receive UT’s Accomplished Alumni award and give a Writers in the Library address, both in conjunction with the acquisition of his papers by UT Libraries Special Collections. It was a fitting celebration of, in the words of Dean of Libraries Steven Smith, “a career of wonderful scope and brilliance”—one that includes not only novels, short fiction, drama, poetry, textbooks, and literary criticism, but also teaching, acting, and Civil War scholarship. And it’s a career that’s still going strong. At the age of eighty-two, Madden has eight or so projects in various stages of completion, including a book of essays about the Civil War—The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction—that’s slated for release this fall.
Madden credits his East Tennessee grandmother for introducing him to Appalachian storytelling. That influence quickly grew to include the popular culture of the era. “I wasn’t a very good reader. It was the movies, and radio drama, and the oral storytelling tradition. Those were the things that got me started,” he says.
“I think I got into poetry indirectly, through movie magazines that quoted lines of poetry. I think one of them was called Love Letters. My love of classical music came from seeing Western cowboy movies with Johnny Mack Brown, because they were using the “Fingal’s Cave” overture of Mendelssohn. This music sounded very impressive to me. And then in the movies, when they would do the preview, even before I became an usher at the age of thirteen, but certainly after I did—” After a dramatic pause, Madden’s voice drops and projects across the room. “JAMES M. CAIN’S FAMOUS NOVEL COMES TO THE SCREEN! MILDRED PIERCE, STARRING JOAN CRAWFORD! And I saw this book, and I saw this name across the book, and I thought I’d like to do that. It was an ambience, and writing words was kind of in the flow.
“I liked the idea that I could hold people in the palm of my hand from the age of three. And it wasn’t ego so much as just sheer pleasure. So years later, I realized from “Kubla Khan” by [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge that it was what I call now the pleasure dome effect. When you’re under the pleasure dome, under the spell of the storyteller, you don’t exist. The world around doesn’t exist. There’s only one world, there’s only one person, and that’s the storyteller and the world the storyteller’s creating.
“When I give readings, I’m still a kid sitting on the front steps, three years old, telling stories.”
That same sensibility informs all Madden’s work—especially his teaching, which holds to “a very strict focus on the art of writing.” While many writers undertake teaching as a supplementary career, it’s been a central element for Madden from the beginning. His bachelor’s degree, earned at UT, was in education (he went on to earn an MA in creative writing from San Francisco State University and attend the Yale School of Drama on a fellowship). He is the founder of Louisiana State University’s graduate and undergraduate creative writing programs, where he served as writer in residence for forty-two years.
“So it’s this enormous respect for the process, the art of it. Not art for art’s sake—although I’m very artistic in my outlook—but it’s art for the reader’s sake…. There’s no such thing as art aside from the reader.”
His own literary education had an unconventional start. As a junior at Knox High School, he was named one of three winners in a 1949 UT playwriting contest, with his winning play, Call Herman in to Supper, produced in Ayres Hall. That experience led him to study with Joe Baldwin, who was an instructor of playwriting at UT. At around the same time he was encouraged to take his poetry to Robert Daniel, who in turn suggested that he take his stories to yet another UT professor, C. P. Lee. “I was told to go to his apartment, which was near the railroad tracks, the second floor of a florist. And I took a stack this high, and—He loves to tell this story…” Madden pulls himself up taller and takes on the character of his teacher answering the door: “‘…and I saw this pile of paper, and I thought, what’s that? And then underneath the pile there’s a little guy!’
“And he taught me more in thirty minutes about creative writing than I ever learned thereafter. I liked a lot of teachers, but none of them ever came close to those, who were my teachers at UT before I ever came there.”
Those connections played a major role in his decision to have his papers go to UT Libraries. “I have a sentimental, romantic attachment to Knoxville and therefore to UT and to the people I remember who were friends as well as teachers, and the idea that what I write is going to be here, in this town and this school.
“I always felt that Knoxville was bizarre, exotic, romantic, fascinating, and I would look at buildings or places and almost idealize them—like That’s important—I don’t know why that’s important, but it is. That building, that road. Sharp’s Ridge. The tower of Ayres Hall that I see from a distance, and in which my first play was produced later. And Knox High School is just totally exotic—I was in the last graduating class.”
He gestures first toward his head, then his heart. “There’s a bit of Knoxville there, a bit of Knoxville there. But there is a different kind of unity. They’re all there. I’m sitting here not in pieces, right? I’m eighty-two. And it’s not pieces of my eighty-two years—I’m breathing as I speak, and that breathing includes everything from the day I was born and before—and, from a Christian point of view, from creation.”
He stops, smiles, and takes a deep breath, ready for whatever’s next.
David Madden’s most recent book is a collection of stories, The Last Bizarre Tale (UT Press, 2014). His forthcoming book is The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction. You can view Madden’s Writers in the Library Address at tiny.utk.edu/madden and learn more at davidmadden.net.
Photo by Blake Madden