Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, and Conversations

Newbery Acceptance Speech: M.C. Higgins, the Great

“I think I remember you,” I said.

“Surely,” he answered. “Your brother, Buster, went to school with my boy, Don.” When I looked on blankly, he was quick to say never mind. “What I wanted to tell you,” he said, “was that we are all so proud of you. And I want you to know—we are aware of the significance of this award in the lit’ry world.”

I was speechless and near to tears when the gentleman, whom I still couldn’t place, grinned and patted my hand.

“I wasn’t going to tell you this,” he said, “but I was the one, against my wife’s will, who let you charge our potato chips and those of a slew of your friends on your dad’s account each lunch-noon. You remember me now? When you were in fifth grade? And I had the grocery?”

I nodded, a flood of memories of wooden shelves to the ceiling and glass counters of candy coming to me, clear as water.

“I knew you’d remember,” he said, “and I’d like to think that through that small indulgence, I was one who helped you get your way in life.”

I am certain he was one, as were many others. And I told him as much.

Experiences such as that are some of the small wonders of receiving this award. And through all of the kindness shown me in relation to it, nothing has so moved me as that reception in my home town. All of my mother’s Perrys turned out, looking as usual absolutely different from other people, black or white. For Perrys you can single out of any crowd by that mysterious combination of furious intelligence and shrewd humor seen in their eyes. I hope I resemble them, if only slightly. But they are stand-offish from all others at the best and worst of times. At my party, they were no different, never quite overcoming their Midwestern shyness. I like them a lot.

That look they have says to me that Perrys are here today because through thick and thin we knew how to survive—that there would always be at least one of us to remember those who had gone before. And when my own mother, Etta Belle Perry Hamilton, told me after having read M.C. Higgins, the Great that young M.C. atop his outlandish pole was no less than a Perry in disguise, I knew she had to be right. For M.C., too, knew well how to survive.

No book of mine was ever in more danger of being a failed labor of love than was M.C. Higgins, the Great. None was to bring me more pleasure, and pain, in the writing. I had worked through one chapter of M.C., another, and another when abruptly nothing more of it would come to me. So I put the manuscript aside, trusting my instinct which warned me I wasn’t yet ready to write this one. What is instinct but a natural, primordial aptitude for foreknowledge and forewarning? Call it Muse or ‘in the mood’ if you like, but I trust it equally with reason and understanding. I know that the one will not work without the others. Instinct, then, is that sudden capacity for limited precognition, that half-conscious idea that inexplicably causes a writer to be absolutely certain there is a perfect story waiting just up ahead.

So it was that over the years M.C. was never far back in my mind, although other books intervened. Then imagine the day in New York in early 1972 when I burst in on my editor and shouted the news that I had this wild, barefoot youth atop a forty-foot steel pole on the side of a mountain’s called Sarah’s. And if this weren’t enough of a really swell story idea, at the summit of Sarah’s Mountain was a spoil heap left from strip-mining the land, and this heap was moving relentlessly an inch at a time toward the kid atop the pole. Moreover, to cap the whole thing off, I had this incredible red-headed family of six-fingered vegetarians who were capable of healing mountains.

Picture if you will Susan Hirschman: my editor’s capable smile seemed to thin on hearing the news. Her cautious-kind reply was, “I can’t wait to read it, Virginia.”