U-M honors Hopwood, the 'father' of generations of top authors
Like basketball scouts hunting superstars, the agents are on the lookout for future best sellers and blockbusters. They're looking for Hopwood Award winners, knowing the track record of past recipients.
Many of those who became part of Hopwood's legacy will gather at U-M this year as the University celebrates the program's 75th anniversary with a series of events to showcase their life's work as well as Hopwood's.
The Hopwood Room hums with University of Michigan writing students sharing ideas and chocolate chip cookies around an oak roundtable once used by Avery Hopwood, the most successful Broadway playwright of the roaring '20s. The small library is filled with books and other work written by winners of the nation's oldest and largest collegiate prize for creative writing.
Books lining the shelves include such literary classics as "Death of a Salesman," as well as the 2005 best seller "The Historian." Some of the winners also produced wildly familiar films: "Body Heat," "The Big Chill," "The Shootist," "Where the Boys Are," "The Misfits," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Superman" and the more recent "State of Grace" that starred Sean Penn.
The common thread: the varied work was composed by writers who won a Hopwood Award while attending U-M. Avery Hopwood's legacy continues to grow. To date, the program has awarded 3,039 prizes totaling more than $2.1 million. Many winners refer to the prize as the first public validation of their writing talent, the tangible achievement they needed to pursue their work seriously.
Students meeting in the Hopwood Room marvel over how classmate Jesmyn Ward won $16,900 worth of prizes last spring. Master of Fine Arts student Nani Mun arrived at U-M from California (by way of South Korea) for a shot at a Hopwood.
"When I was looking at colleges, one of the big criteria was the funding, so you look at all the awards and contests they offer and the Hopwoods really stand out and definitely helped me choose U-M," Mun said.
Derek Mong of Ohio won his first Hopwood, $6,000 for poetry, calling the size of his prize "unheard of" in the world of poetry.
Seventy years earlier, aspiring playwright Arthur Miller won a $250 Hopwood, enough to pay his room and board for a year and keep him at U-M on the way to becoming one of the best-known writers of the 20th century.
Prior to Hopwood, creative writing was not widely considered a serious educational pursuit, Delbanco said. But when a large amount of money is attached to something, Americans take notice and the Hopwood Awards "put a foot in the door, then wedged it open in perpetuity" leading to the creation of other prizes as well a large number of creative writing programs across the country.
In that sense, Delbanco said "Hopwood is really the father of us all," including the past 30 years of growing creative writing programs nationwide.
"He had an unerring sense for entertainment. Hopwood was the Neil Simon of his time," said Delbanco, the Robert Frost Collegiate Professor of English who chairs the award committee. "When he imagined the awards, it was authentically an innovative idea, and now one that's steeped in tradition. It was a wholly new idea and today people in the literary world know what it means. The cachet is at least as important as the cash."
The Hopwoods have gone to generations and inspired more gifts so the contest has grown from eight prizes totaling $13,000 in 1931 to 79 awards prizes totaling more than $160,000 last year. This year marks 75 years since the Avery and Jule Hopwood Awards in Creative Writing began with a $313,836 endowment set up in the years after Avery Hopwood's death in July 1928.
At age 39, still a young man at the height of his popularity, Hopwood decided to create a contest at his alma mater that would attract and develop the best young writers of the future. While he was popular enough to have four shows on Broadway at the same time, Hopwood aspired to create truly great and memorable writing, something he felt he never did on his own with profitable though largely forgotten plays such as "Ladies' Night (In a Turkish Bath)."
Hopwood, a 1905 U-M graduate who popularized the phrase "gold diggers" for a play by the same name to be performed by the U-M Theatre & Drama Department this February, wanted students competing for Hopwood awards to "be allowed the widest possible latitude'' and asked that "the new, the unusual, and the radical … be especially encouraged."
Miller, who won his Hopwood Awards in 1936 and 1937, would go on to write the classic "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," standard texts in American literature classes to this day. Miller died in 2005 but a U-M theater is being built in his honor.
Other Hopwood winners who went on to become part of a Who's-Who of writers of the last three generations include Max Apple, John Ciardi, Mary Gaitskill, Robert Hayden, Laura Kasischke, Jane Kenyon, Howard Moss, Frank O'Hara, Marge Piercy, Ronald Wallace and Nancy Willard.
One of the most recent winners, Elizabeth Kostova, who won two Hopwoods (in 2003 and 2004), is still riding high on the best-seller list for her debut novel "The Historian." As part of the celebration, Kostova will conduct a reading at U-M's Rackham Amphitheatre.
Here are some highlights of the other planned events, films, plays, readings and talks the Hopwood Awards program is planning in collaboration with the U-M School of Music and Theatre & Drama Department, the Department of English, the Office of the Vice President for Communications and the Special Collections Library:
• Jan. 24, 3:30 p.m., Rackham Amphitheatre. The Alice Fulton Poetry Reading at the Hopwood Underclassmen Award Ceremony. Fulton's work has been included in five editions of The Best American Poetry series and in the 10th Anniversary edition, The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997. She is a past faculty member of the U-M Department of English. She was recently named the Ann S. Bowers Professor in English at Cornell University. (http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/af89/)
• Hopwood Film Festival. During winter term, the University will screen films inspired by Hopwood himself or written by Hopwood winners. "Gold Diggers of 1933," the iconic film based on Hopwood's play "The Gold Diggers," will be the first. The film starred Ginger Rodgers, Joan Blondell and Dick Powell and contained such classic tunes as "We're in the Money." U-M English rofessor Peter Bauland will teach a mini-course on the films. Open to the public, the films will be shown Monday evenings in the Michigan Theater at 7 p.m. Here are the films:
• Jan. 30, "Gold Diggers of 1933."
• Feb. 6, "The Misfits." Screenplay by Hopwood winner Arthur Miller.
• Feb. 13, "Bonnie and Clyde." Screenplay by Hopwood winner David Newman.
• Feb. 20, "Body Heat." Screenplay and directed by Hopwood winner Lawrence Kasdan.
• Feb. 8, 8 p.m., at the Special Collections Library, 7th Floor, Hatcher Graduate Library. A lecture and reception will be held for the opening of the exhibit, "Avery Hopwood's Legacy: Literary Descendents at Michigan." The exhibit of photos, books and papers by Hopwood Award-winning authors Henry Van Dyke, Nancy Willard, Marge Piercy and Emery George will be on display daily, open to the public, and will run until June 24.
• Feb. 9-12, Avery Hopwood's "The Gold Diggers." Under the direction of Philip Kerr, the U-M Theatre & Drama Department's performances of Hopwood's widely popular, long-running 1919 play will take place at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, 8 p.m. Feb. 10 and 11, and 2 p.m. Feb. 12. The performances will feature live music by Phil Ogilvie's Rhythm Kings, with musical direction by U-M professor and music historian James Dapogny.
• Feb. 10, Panel Discussion: "Avery Hopwood, Then and Now," Michigan Union Kuenzel Room, 2 p.m. Hopwood scholars Jack Stanley and Jack Sharrar and playwright Bruce Kellner will participate in a panel discussion on Hopwood's impact and legacy, moderated by Delbanco and Philip Kerr.
• April 6, 5 p.m ., Residential College Auditorium. A reading by Hopwood winners Elwood Reid and Porter Shreve. Reid is the author of the novel "If I Don't Six" and the short story collection "What Salmon Know." His latest novel is "D.B." (Doubleday, 2004). Shreve's first novel, "The Obituary Writer," was published by Houghton Mifflin in June 2000. "Drives Like a Dream"(Houghton Mifflin, March 2005) is his second novel.
• April 21, 3:30 p.m., Rackham Auditorium, Hopwood Graduate and Undergraduate Awards Ceremony with Hopwood Lecture by Charles Baxter. Baxter is the author of four novels, four collections of short stories, three collections of poems, a collection of essays on fiction, and is the editor of other books. His most recent novel is "Saul and Patsy," Pantheon 2003, and he has recently published the essay collection "Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction," Graywolf Press, 1998. Charles Baxter was on the U-M English Department faculty for 13 years. (http://www.charlesbaxter.com/)
• April 22, 10 a.m.-noon, Shaman Drum Bookshop. Release of The Hopwood Award: 75 Years of Prized Writing and signing of works by Hopwood Awardees. Marking the history of the Avery Hopwood and Jule Hopwood Award, the U-M Press will release its compendium of works by Hopwood Award-winning writers of note, "The Hopwood Awards: 75 Years of Prized Writing," edited by Nicholas Delbanco, Andrea Beauchamp, and Michael Barrett with an introduction by Delbanco.
• Winter 2007, MQR Hopwood Special Edition. The winter 2007 edition of the Michigan Quarterly Review will feature works and essays by and about recent Hopwood Award-winning authors. The edition will co-edited by Nicholas Delbanco and Laurence Goldstein.
Contact: Joe Serwach