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Writers pack Lyon Hall to discuss inspiration of work

As part of the Southern Literary Trail three Demopolis natives and writers spoke to a packed house at Lyon Hall about the influence that the city has had on their writing.

William “Billy” Cobb, Bert Hitchcock and the Rev. Rusty Goldsmith spoke about how they use the people they knew while living in Demopolis and transform them into characters in their works.

“Demopolis has helped to provide me a setting for most of my work,” said Cobb, the author of “Coming of Age at the Y” and “The Hermit King.” “I change the name of the town, and I change the name of the people — and I don’t always write about real people — but it’s a place that I know.

“I know how the sidewalk smells in the summertime, and I know what it’s like to get caught in a blackberry bush. All of the experience that I had here, I know; that’s a part of my memory.”

Cobb is the son of the late Sledge Cobb. He graduated from Livingston State College (now the University of West Alabama) in 1961 and began teaching at Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo) in 1963.

“The characters, the people, are personified for me as the basic human types, the universal characteristics — Biblical and otherwise,” said Goldsmith, “I know a person that I may not be able to close my eyes and say, ‘OK, now, who is greed?’ but if I think long enough, there is going to be somebody who pops up that I can use their image, their actions, their history that helps me flesh out what that is about.

“When I think of human nature, I usually don’t think about the modern people, the people that I currently know. I think about the people that I experienced that impacted me as a young person.”

Goldsmith is a minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, having lived in Demopolis until 1961. During his time as rector at St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands in Huntsville, he delivered a series of famous sermons inspired by Demopolis.

“I’m more of a scholar than a writer,” Hitchcock said, “but I think it is the sense of history I got from Demopolis that affected me. There was a past, and I’m not talking about the antebellum, white-column history, because I disagree with a lot of that. There were non-American events. The French were here, and I think there was a certain awareness of history and the cosmopolitanism that existed in this little place that I would not have gotten in any other place.

“I’ve become a literary historian. I do a lot of research in history. Some of that can be traced to growing up among this little group of people.”

Hitchcock is the Hargis professor of American literature at Auburn University. He attended Demopolis High School in the mid-1950s.

The panel discussion was attended by about 100 people who were seated in the drawing room and parlor of Lyon Hall.