In Memoriam: Winston Groom, Author of Forrest Gump, Believed in the Human Spirit
I was saddened to learn of the passing of my longtime friend Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, who died at his home in Point Clear, Alabama.
I first met Winston in 1962 at the University of Alabama where we studied creative writing under Professor Hudson Strode. At the time we were self-conscious about reading our first, raw attempts at fiction to the class. Neither of us had any idea we'd give in to a literary calling. When Winston was editor of The Mahout, the college humor magazine, he included me on his staff—not to write but to sell ads, an assignment at which I failed miserably.
In 1980 we were reunited by Willie Morris, who as writer in residence at the University of Mississippi invited Winston to address his class. Morris had assigned Winston's novel Better Times Than These.
I had not seen Winston since we graduated from the University of Alabama. He'd received an Army ROTC commission and served in Vietnam. He said that after serving in combat he had a rough emotional recovery. Returning to Mobile he lived alone in a hunting cabin for several months. When he emerged from the swamp his mother made him attend a social event at the Mobile Country Club. He was standing on a veranda when a gentleman engaged him in conversation. The stranger happened to be the publisher of the Washington Star, who after hearing of Winston's wartime experiences offered him a job on the spot. Winston told him, "I majored in English but I don't know anything about writing for a newspaper." No problem, the publisher said. Touched by Groom's story, he sensed his potential.
A few years later, in 1976, the same publisher invited Willie Morris to write a guest column for the Star during the Bi-Centennial celebrations. Winston was assigned to help Morris get around Washington. During late-night bull sessions Winston shared stories of his military service, and Willie declared, "You have a book in you!" Morris obviously realized that to exorcise his demons Winston had to write this novel.
When Willie completed his assignment in D.C., Winston quit his job, and followed Morris to Bridgehampton, N.Y. Morris wasted no time introducing Winston to James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, and Irwin Shaw, author of The Young Lions. With their support and encouragement Winston soon completed his novel Better Times Than These.
Other well-received books by Groom were Conversations with the Enemy: The Story of PFC Robert Garwood (1982), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; the novel Gone the Sun (1988), and Kearney's March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847.
But Winston surprised everyone, including himself, with Forrest Gump. He told me that he was seized by the story, not to say obsessed, and wrote nonstop in a creative frenzy.
In 1995 Winston returned to Oxford promoting the sequel Gump and Co. Sitting on a balcony overlooking the square, he told me about his trials with Paramount Studios. His contract for rights to the movie Forrest Gump entitled him to a percentage of the profits, but the studio's system of accounting failed to show a profit. Winston said, "I won a settlement by threatening to stand on the steps of Congress and tell reporters, 'Forrest Gump may not be as smart as people in Hollywood, but a movie that brings in half a billion dollars can't help but make a profit.'" This statement sums up Winston's personality. Like Forrest Gump he could overcome any obstacle with a determined and obstinate sense of humor.
Winston was somewhat overwhelmed by the response to Forrest Gump. But in my opinion he shouldn't have been. His personality reflected Gump's clear, honest view of the world and faith in human nature. It was Winston's voice I heard in Forrest Gump, not the other way around.
Lawrence Wells is the author of In Faulkner's Shadow: A Memoir, recently released by University Press of Mississippi.