Preserving Community Through Reading
As part of the Big Read, Dr. Zipf leads a walking tour, which began outside St. Mary’s Church. Photo courtesy of the Preservation Society of Newport County
No one understands the power of place better than the Preservation Society of Newport County. The not-for-profit is charged with maintaining 11 historic properties, including the famous Newport mansions. Since the town draws much of its character from these architectural treasures, it made sense for the Preservation Society to further explore the physical, historic, and human elements of community during their Big Read program. Focused on Thornton Wilder's Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the program is using the works' common themes to build connections between Newport and its residents. We chatted with Project Director John Tschirch and Project Coordinator Caitlin Emery via e-mail about Newport's Big Read.
NEA: Why did you choose Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Ray for this year’s Big Read?
TSCHIRCH AND EMERY: The Preservation Society and the Newport Public Library chose Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey for a few reasons. First, because of Thornton Wilder’s local connection; he lived in Newport during his service in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWI and featured the city and its inhabitants in his 1973 novel Theophilus North. Second, both works provide us with the opportunity to discuss the meaning of community, the roles individuals play within communities, and the ways in which physical and cultural landscapes express community identity. By linking the two works to the life and history of Newport, we’re hoping to celebrate Newporters’ interest and pride in their own community.
NEA: What has been your favorite event so far?
TSCHIRCH AND EMERY: We really enjoyed Dr. Catherine Zipf’s walking tour of Newport’s Fifth Ward and the city’s Irish heritage. She did an excellent job exploring different aspects of the Irish community including where they worshiped, worked, and lived.
We also enjoyed Dr. Littlefield’s talk on Wilder’s literary legacy. She used pictures, videos, and music clips to discuss his career and to explore some of his works in-depth, really engaging the audience through different media.
That being said, we really have to commend all of our co-coordinators. We’ve enjoyed working with all of the different organizations to create a series of programs that is engaging, educational, and fun. Working with the different historic organizations, libraries, schools, and community organizations has really fostered a spirit of collaboration.
NEA: Do you see any connections between Peru or Grover’s Corners and Newport?
TSCHIRCH AND EMERY: Newport, despite its size, maintains the feeling of a small town---and truthfully, you can see the human condition in any place.
NEA: It struck me that while part of the Big Read’s mission is to preserve great American books and make them relevant to 21st-century readers, the Preservation Society is doing something similar: preserving a great American city yet making it a vibrant, contemporary community. Do you agree with this parallel of balancing tradition with progress? Or do you see a different connection?
TSCHIRCH AND EMERY: We definitely agree---preserving the past makes the present and future all the more interesting.
NEA: Newport has figured prominently in many books, from The Age of Innocence to Moonlight Becomes You by Mary Higgins Clark. Do you have a favorite literary rendition of Newport?
TSCHIRCH AND EMERY: We both really enjoy the way The Age of Innocence captures the spirit and essence of Newport; Theophilus North does an excellent job exploring the cultural complexity and the historic layers of the city.