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A Literary History of San Miguel

Looking back, it seems a writers’ conference here was inevitable. Long before the current scene of writers’ gatherings in San Miguel, the town has been luring writers to its colonial courtyards, glorious sunsets, and quiet writing studios for many decades. It was emerging as “the creative crossroads of the Americas” long before we thought to call it that.

Cosio del Pomar, the Peruvian painter and writer who founded the art institute at Bellas Artes in 1938 and the Instituto Allende in 1950, is the author of six books including studies of colonial Mexican and Peruvian painters, the painter Paul Gauguin, and the biography of a left-wing Peruvian activist.

Neal Cassady in San Miguel de Allende 1967

Neal Cassady in San Miguel de Allende 1967

In the 50s and 60s, the Beat writers moved in and out of San Miguel and frequented the infamous La Cucaracha bar when it was located on a corner of the jardin. Neil Cassady, who was thinly disguised in Jack Keruac’s On the Road as Dean Moriarty, died here in San Miguel. (In an “Homage to the Beats” weekend we produced several years ago, Neil’s son, John, visited San Miguel for the first time. In a moving ritual, we took him to the railroad tracks where his father’s body had been found. Legends vary about the circumstances of Neil Cassady’s death.)

Vance Packard, whose breakthrough exposé of the advertising industry, The Hidden Persuaders, sold over a million copies, came to San Miguel in 1957 and made it his home base for more than twenty years. Clifford Irving, a fine novelist who, unfortunately, is best known for his unauthorized biography of Howard Hughes for which he spent some time in prison for falsely claiming to have interviewed Hughes, wrote several of his later novels here.

Gerald Green spent considerable time in San Miguel in the 70s. He wrote many novels, the best known being The Last Angry Man, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie. He wrote the script for a critically acclaimed 1978 TV miniseries, Holocaust, that won eight Emmy Awards and was credited with persuading the West German government to repeal the statute of limitations on Nazi War crimes. Green was awarded the Dag Hammarskjold International Peace Prize for literature in 1979. Green was also a writer, producer, and director for NBC News where, 1952, he co-created (with Dave Garroway) NBC’s The Today Show.

Gary Jennings wrote his acclaimed novel Aztec here in San Miguel. According to local lore, no one believed him when he told his drinking buddies that he was writing a novel. Jennings’s long novels are justly praised for their rich detail and exhaustive research. Jennings even learned Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

San Miguel was a writing retreat for short-story writer and novelist Hal Bennett, who chronicled life in the segregated American South from the black man’s perspective.

In the 1980s, the most well-know writer in town and the organizer of readings and gatherings for writers throughout that decade was Robert Sommerlott. He helped to found the San Miguel chapter of PEN and organized regular readings at Bellas Artes. Sommerlott is the author of at least a dozen books including non-fiction history books, studies of occult experiences, and a guide to writing fiction.

Charles Portis lived in San Miguel while he was writing his legendary novel, True Grit.

Patricia Goedicke won numerous prizes for her fiction and poetry. Her husband was Leonard Wallace Robinson, who wrote for the New Yorker and was the book editor for Esquire Magazine. They lived in San Miguel, and Patricia taught at the University of Guanajuato until they returned to the States in 1981.

W.D. Snodgrass, Photo by Penn State

W.D. Snodgrass, Photo by Penn State

Acclaimed screenwriter Bill Wittliff who adapted Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Lonesome Dove for a television mini-series and wrote the screenplay for The Perfect Storm, can still be seen in San Miguel, where he spends a part of each year. Kathryn Blair lived in San Miguel while writing her historical novel, In the Shadow of the Angel, often called “the Gone with the Wind of Mexico.” Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, W.D. Snodgrass lived in San Miguel part time for many years, as did Joe Persico, who partnered with former U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell to write Powell’s autobiography, and whose many books also include Morrow: An American Original; Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial; and Roosevelt’s Secret War.

San Miguel was part-time home to the celebrated Mexican writer, Daniel Sada, winner of both the prestigious Herralde Prize for his novel, Almost Never, and the National Prize for Arts and Sciences.

Others who have lived and worked in San Miguel more recently, some of whom are still here, include Victor Sahuatoba, a Mexican novelist and poet who has been a key organizer of literary activities in San Miguel for several decades; Alice Denham, the only Playboy centerfold feature who published a story in the same edition, and whose fiction and non-fiction books include Sleeping with the Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the 1950s and 60s, and Secrets of San Miguel; prolific writer Wayne Greenhaw, winner of the Harper Lee award for fiction, and for whom the Literary Sala Community Fund is named; Beverly Donofrio, who wrote Riding in Cars with Boys, which became a movie starring Drew Barrymore; Tobias Wolff, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; Carl Franz, who wrote the beloved People’s Guide to Mexico; National Book Award finalist Ron Hansen; Pete Dexter, who won the National Book Award for fiction in 1988 for his novel, Paris Trout; Mary Morris, who’s travel memoir, Nothing to Declare takes place partly in San Miguel and was written while she was living here; Maruja Gonzales, who won the Ibargüengoitia Prize in 2004 for her novel, Los Empeños de Consuelo, a very funny book; Laura Juliet Wood, whose poems have appeared in many journals and her own collection, All Hands Lost; Writers’ Conference co-founder and Director, Susan Page, who, in the 90s, wrote five bestselling books about relationships, all perennial back list favorites and all still in print; Tony Cohan, whose account of discovering and moving to San Miguel in his bestselling On Mexican Time helped persuade who knows how many Americans and Canadians to move here, and who continues to turn out popular books; Judith Hill, who, in addition to writing exceptional poetry, is legendary in her ability to teach others to love it; and John Scherber, a prolific writer whose works include a mystery series that takes place in San Miguel.

Indian author Kiran Desai won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award for her novel, The Inheritance of Loss in 2006. She and her mother, Anita Desai, also an award-winning novelist and humanities professor at MIT, still spends part of each year in San Miguel.

The much beloved and Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mary Oliver, used San Miguel as a retreat for many years. Laura Fraser, author of An Italian Affair, has a home in San Miguel, and Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden spent several summers here. Novelist and poet, Elizabeth Rosner, divides her time between Berkeley and San Miguel.

Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros

Our current literary scene includes Sandra Cisneros, winner of the PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction and the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, and whose House on Mango Street has become a classic in school classrooms across the U.S. Sandra keynoted the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in 2011. Her most recent memoir, A House of My Own, garnered her a major book tour in the U.S. with appearances on all the major talk shows.

Before Gerry Helferich began writing non-fiction books, he spent twenty-five years working as an editor and publisher at various houses in New York City, including Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, and John Wiley. Since then, he has written four critically acclaimed, award winning, and bestselling books of nonfiction, including Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin and Stone of Kings: In Search of the Lost Jade of the Maya.

Jennifer Clement is the President of International PEN, the first woman to hold that office. Her recent novel, Prayers for the Stolen, won several prestigious prizes. She is the author of two other novels, the acclaimed memoir, Widow Basquiat (on the painter Jean Michel Basquiat and New York City in the early 1980s), and several books of poetry. She founded San Miguel’s Poetry Week in 1995, still a popular event that takes place here every January.


San Miguel Chapter of PEN

In 1979, Peter Elstob founded the San Miguel chapter of PEN International, an association of writers with 145 Centers in 104 countries. Promoting friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers everywhere, PEN represents the conscience of literature, and vigorously defends writers worldwide who have been persecuted for their work. In 1987, San Miguel PEN began their popular Winter Lecture Series to raise funds for their heroic efforts. San Miguel’s Lucina Kathman has been a PEN International Vice-President since 2003.

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This snapshot of San Miguel’s literary legacy is probably not complete, but provides a solid picture of the rich soil in which the seeds of our present writers’ conference were planted. (Send us additions to this history that you know of!)