At 88, Dan Wakefield has had a slew of life experiences. Here are just a few: He’s the best-selling author and screenwriter of Going All the Way, he befriended writers Kurt Vonnegut and James Baldwin, he chose to face death for the sake of better writing and he played a role in reporting the civil rights movement. One might say he would have enough to create a compelling and interesting podcast series about those life experiences, and that is precisely what the collection titled Naptown, Season One: A Memoir of the 20th Century produced.
Over the course of a year, Wakefield and Susan Neville, a Butler University English professor, spent hours at Butler’s Irwin Library and on Wakefield’s front porch as they recorded 10 episodes, with the help of an Indiana Humanities Action Grant, the Ayres Fund of Butler University, the Demia Butler Chair Fund and Neville’s dedication.
Wakefield grew up in Indianapolis’s Broad Ripple neighborhood then left for New York and Florida before finding his way back to the Hoosier capital later in life. On his unique journey he befriended some of the 20th century’s most prominent writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, Anne Sexton and James Baldwin, and he also had his own influential impact on the nation’s journalistic and literary landscape. Wakefield has been a writer since the 1950s, and the Naptown podcast creates a timeline that is engaging and easy to follow through the decades.
Each Naptown episode focuses on various historical events that Wakefield has experienced, and Neville describes his memory of them “as though they took place yesterday.” For example, in episode five, Wakefield recalls Ernest Hemingway’s advice that “in order to be a good writer, you [have] to have been shot at” and describes traveling to Israel in 1955 to put himself at risk. Because Syrians were firing upon fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee, Wakefield joined one of the crews, hoping to come under attack. That never happened, but he had other interesting experiences in the Middle East, such as interviewing Golda Meir, working as a shepherd in the Negev Desert, dining with Bedouins and eating his reporter’s notes when he was in danger of being imprisoned as a spy.
The mission of the podcast cannot simply be reduced to the extraordinary experiences that Wakefield retells, though; it’s much deeper. Wakefield spends time sharing the lessons he’s learned and often speaks to the current state of the world. He discusses, for instance, how he began his journalism career as a civil rights reporter for The Nation, The Atlantic, Esquire and The New York Times. But he also explores how, even though he was immersed in the civil rights movement, he was in his 80s before he fully understood the racism and erasure of Black culture that permeated his childhood and endures today.
Wakefield feels as though “there’s a big hole in our history,” and the Naptown podcast sets about to fill it. At the end of his final interview of season one, he says, “So I guess that’s everything I know.” While that’s not true, of course, the conversations between him and Neville do serve as time capsules, preserving important events from the past that shed light on the issues we face today.
The Naptown podcast received support from an Indiana Humanities Action Grant. To learn more about our grants, visit our website.
Katie Noble, Indiana Humanities’ summer communications intern, wrote this post. Katie is a senior at DePauw University studying political science and philosophy.