La Bella Fontana

Report from Bellefonte PA, by Helen Fontana Bechdel

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Writers make mark on town

London had its Bloomsbury district, famously inhabited by Virginia Woolf and friends. But Bellefonte also has a writers' colony, presided over, perhaps, by the benevolent spirit of Sylvia Beach, who spent summers here at her grandmother's home on Spring Street before moving to Paris in 1919.

As owner of the book store Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia nurtured many writers, but her greatest contribution to the literary world was publishing James Joyce's "Ulysses," a manuscript that no American publisher would touch. She closed her store in 1945 after a Nazi officer tried to buy her last copy of "Ulysses."

Of working writers in town, the most prolific must be Millie Ragosta, who, when I first met her in the late '70s, was under contract with Doubleday. Although she has edited her father's memoir and written a weekly column and countless articles, her specialty is historical and romantic fiction. At last count, her novels numbered 13.

I treasure my copy of Millie's "The House on Curtin Street" because of its ties to local history and its stated purpose: "For the people of Bellefonte ... and for all women who dare to attempt great things."

Minerva Stewart, the heroine of the novel, is based on the real-life Minerva Parker, the architect of the actual house on Curtin Street. Real names and places add an element of pleasant surprise.

Award-winning poet, essayist and biographer Julia Kasdorf teaches creative writing at Penn State and maintains an intense writing schedule of her own. Much of Julia's writing draws on her Mennonite background and is infused with themes both earthy and ethereal. Among her works are "Eve's Striptease," "Sleeping Preacher" and "The Body and the Book."

Cecil Giscombe, winner of the Carl Sandburg Award for Poetry, recently moved to Bellefonte and, like Julia, teaches creative writing at Penn State. He also writes with a strong sense of place, in collections such as "Here," "Into and out of Dislocation" and "Giscombe Road."

And then there is the Bellefonte Writers' Group, which now mostly meets online, but for years got together every month at the Hofbrau. Of the original members, the most esteemed would be Rob Gannon, whose death ended a brilliant career in science writing.

Chuck has moved south, Bird has flown west and, when last heard from, Linda was levitating in India. Amy, Lindy, Karen and I keep each other posted on our latest projects.

Sylvia Beach and I crossed paths briefly in Paris in 1960. Though she died in 1962, I like to think her spirit here is still alive.


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