If you showed up at 6:30 Sunday night you were late. The line of people to hear David McCullough and Nathaniel Horwitz speak at 7:30 snaked two-abreast down the 100-foot walkway from the Featherstone Center for the Arts to the parking lot.
When the doors opened at 6:30, the early birds filled two-thirds of the 250-seat venue. Standing Room Only kicked in by 7 pm. Some came early and picnicked; others came early to get parking. Everybody came to pay homage to McCullough and the late Tony Horwitz, PulitzerPrize-winning authors and men of high character.
The crowd was intent, purposeful. You could feel that to a degree not common at an average speaking event. This one had been planned last winter. Both men had top-selling books fresh on the market. McCullough’s, “The Pioneers” is a wonderful description of the settling of the Ohio Territory as the Midwest was called in the late 18th century, mostly by Massachusetts men- including two from Edgartown.
Horwitz had “Spying on the South,” a lyrical, humorous and true account of a nearly two-year odyssey through the South, replicating the journey Frederick Law Olmsted (yes, the Central Park guy) took in the late 1850s as an often undercover correspondent for the New York Times.
On May 27, the world got stunning news that Howitz, 60, had unexpectedly died. On Sunday night, Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz, 23, former footballer for the Vineyarders, MV Times writer, Harvard grad, and biotech brainiac, filled in for his dad, The event kicked off the sixth annual Islanders Write conference.
“Yes, this is going to be a powerful evening. We wanted to be here for both of them,” Cathy McCulloch, a native Washingtonian and summer resident here, said before the speakers took the stage. Tony Horwitz grew up in Washington, D.C., as well and he and the McCullochs were pals from way back.
McCullough, 86, and Horwitz the Younger worked it perfectly. Now if you’ve seen McCullough in action, you know he can work a room. With his self-deprecating humor and exquisite timing against the oft-droll Horwitz interview questions about “The Pioneers,” the ensuing wit and wisdom relaxed the room. Horwitz went into a yes or no speed quiz with questions like “Would you have flown in the Wright brothers’ first plane?” a reference to “The Wright Brothers,” a McCullough bestseller. (The answer: an unhesitating “no”).
The conversation then turned to Tony Horwitz and his work including “Midnight Rising,” a gripping story of John Brown’s raid on the Harper’s Ferry, Va. armory. “That was a dark story and Dad struggled with it. He had developed a history-writing genre in which his voice was present. He enjoyed that. I think it’s why he went back on the road (Spying on the South),” he said.
Horwitz then offered the audience an opportunity to speak about his father’s work or to offer tributes to him. He got both, but voices only halted and faltered when talking about the man. Sam Low remembered a hitchhiking experience with Horwitz. Jonathan Lipnick remembered 15 years of Sunday morning softball and the zany Horwitz game reports. Nicole Galland spoke of Spying’s reverberations on her own Southern journey.
And so it went, a bit like an Irish wake without the whiskey: Everyone is still sad but they all feel better for having talked about it.
There is a full slate of Islanders Write events Monday at Featherstone beginning at 8 am. Click here for a complete list of Monday’s panels.