Sewanee turns 150

The University of the South, more popularly named Sewanee for the town beside which it stands, just celebrated its sesquicentennial with honorary degrees, a ceremony conducted in Latin, and no doubt some life-affirming toasts of bourbon and branch water.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press chronicled the proceedings, which culminated with a Founder’s Day address by Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek magazine, who said, “Let us be bold and tell it straight. Some of our founders were not the men we may have wished them to be. But then are we, you and I, the people we wish to be?”

Well, we aren’t slaveholders and people who wage war on our own country, but nobody’s perfect.

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One of the interesting facets of Sewanee is its affiliation with playwright Tennessee Williams. Williams died in 1983, and when his will was probated, he made a curious bequest, leaving about $10 million to Sewanee yet putting the fund under the control of the “chairman of the creative-writing department of Harvard University.” The problem was that Harvard had no “creative-writing department.”

I was teaching Expository Writing at Harvard in 1983 with fellow Tennessean Richard Marius, and over some bourbon and branch water of our own we joked that our department was obviously more creative than Harvard’s English Department, so we should be the ones to decide how Williams’s money should be spent. That never happened. Somehow Harvard handed the money off to Sewanee, and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference continues to this day.

The curious aspect of the bequest is that Tennessee Williams did not attend the University of the South, although his grandfather, the Reverend Walter E. Dakin, attended the University’s School of Theology. Williams was offered an honorary degree shortly before he died, but he was sick and could not attend the ceremonies. No one knows if Williams even ever laid eyes on the college.

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