When I was in graduate school at Iowa State in the late 1980s I hit a period, during my second year, where a little homesickness set in. So I did something to remind myself of the place and people I was missing: I bought a Confederate flag and affixed it to my desk in the office, which I shared with 10-15 other MA students.
Some of my colleagues were, I think, appalled, and it was suggested that this was a symbol of slavery and racism. No, I said. I’m not a racist – it’s simply a reminder of home. I don’t think I used the word “heritage,” but from the outside what I was saying probably sounded exactly like what defenders of the flag are saying today.
In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and in her short stories Carson McCullers seeks again and again after the same goal: to discover why love is so difficult to find and even more difficult to keep….
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (image courtesy Goodreads)
Carson McCullers’ literary reputation has always been rather fragile as her work has an amorphous quality that makes her difficult to classify as a Southern writer even though her work has deep Southern roots. A true Southern eccentric, her work bears the earmarks both of Southern Gothic and of what would later come to be called dirty realism. At the same time her work carries forward the autobiographical strain of Thomas Wolfe, though McCullers’ particular focus is that most powerful and enigmatic of emotions, love. In one way or another, every work by Carson McCullers is a love story. Sadly but not surprisingly these stories are in one way or another stories of love lost. That is partly because McCullers seems to be trying, as autobiographical writers do, to work out the questions in the lost loves of her own life. Still, it would be unfair to say that her fiction is only a sort of self-administered therapy; the best of her works show us love as the rightful goal of human endeavor. Continue reading →
For our founding fathers, “people” was a euphemism” that meant “rich white men.” Sadly, the same is true for many of our current leaders.
It’s been a momentous couple of weeks. Obamacare won a key victory, and as a result it’s going to be much harder for Republican politicians to roll it back in the future. There is a great deal wrong with the Affordable Care Act, to be sure, but at least it represents the acknowledgment that the general health of the nation’s citizens is a legitimate government concern.
The Confederate flag – specifically, the famous Stars & Bars battle jack – and the deeply ingrained racism it represents took a major ass-whipping. No, striking a symbol of treason and prejudice won’t make racism go away – any more than electing a black president did – but it’s a meaningful symbolic victory in a long cultural war. If that flag flies on the grounds of the statehouse, it’s an express acknowledgement to everyone that it’s okay to celebrate a “heritage” built on slavery. Continue reading →
On Friday June 26, James Obergefell, who was prohibited by the state of Ohio from listing himself as the surviving spouse on his husband, John’s death certificate, was granted a victory by the US Supreme Court in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. He spoke for about four minutes on the meaning of the decision for himself personally as well as for the country. My favorite part of his remarks was this explanation:
“It’s my hope that the term ‘gay marriage’ will become a thing of the past, that from this day forward it will simply be ‘marriage.’ And our nation will be better off because of it.”
Elsewhere in the crowd, in an Arkansas Razorbacks t-shirt and green John Deere baseball cap, my friend, Wes Givens, made a short post to Facebook:
James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….
The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)
From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.
Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading →
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)
Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).
I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.
Whether it flies over the state house in South Carolina, or flaps from the back of some redneck’s truck in Southern California, this motherfucker has got to get pulled down, burned, and gone from our ways…
(Picture taken at Grover Beach, California in January, 2015)
As a performer and storyteller, Virgil Runnels became a working class hero because he was a man of the people.
My best friend Jesse and his family were huge pro wrestling fans. I was pretty young at the time – no more than 10, probably – and I remember the Saturday, sitting in the living room at Jesse’s watching Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, when they announced that The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes, was coming. I had no idea who he was, but Jesse’s mama nearly had a conniption. I deduced, from all the whooping and hollering, that this was a big deal. And it was not good news for The Nature Boy, Ric Flair.
We were working people, all of us, up and down Reid Rd., out Eastview Dr. and down to the end of the dirt lane where I lived with my grandparents. We were not especially enlightened on most matters, and it wasn’t hard to get a good argument boiling over a topic like whether or not wrestling was fake. Later on I’d work all this out, but getting a glimpse behind the curtain never dulled my love for what is now known as “sports entertainment.” Continue reading →
In Ellen Foster Kaye Gibbons offers a flawed if compelling coming-of-age tale with a narrator who is by turns a believable rural North Carolina 11 year-old and – on occasion – an author remembering her 14 year-old self upon whom her character is based.
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (image courtesy Goodreads)
A book like Ellen Foster can be described in multiple ways which all mean the same thing: semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age, bildungsroman. This, Kaye Gibbons first novel, published during the wave of “women’s fiction” promulgated by the publishing industry in the 1980’s (others in this wave included Lee Smith, about whose work I’ll write later this year, and Ellen Gilchrist, about whom I won’t) is a quirky little book and has a great deal of charm. It certainly deserves much of the praise it has received. The story, told by the remarkably matter-of-fact narrator, “Ellen Foster,” (the first name is real; the last Ellen’s own construct based on her experiences), is a model of economy, covering as it does the deaths of Ellen’s mother, father, and maternal grandmother, as well as Ellen’s time living with first her parents, then one of her teachers, then her grandmother, then an aunt.
There are two matters to discuss about Ellen Foster. The first is the remarkable quality of the narration. It is really quite good: engaging, touching, occasionally laugh out loud funny. The second is the content of this story. How much is novel, how much is memoir? That question is the more intriguing, as it raises interesting questions about the wall between fiction and nonfiction. Continue reading →
“That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant. Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it.” – Lillian Smith, Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)
Books come to us in all sorts of ways. Some come assigned; some come recommended; some come by accident. Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South, came to me in that third way. I was browsing the “sell off” books at my local library when I came across this powerful novel and decided to buy it based solely on the title – which may or may not have come from the Billie Holiday classic about lynching. Once I had decided to divide my reading year into world lit/Southern lit groups, StrangeFruit became a natural choice for the latter group. Following as it does Peter Taylor’s brittle, elegantA Summons to Memphis and Harry Crews’s over the top Southern Gothic nightmare A Feast of Snakes, Strange Fruit is a book that synthesizes both of those views of the South – though it was written 40 years before the former and 30 years before the latter works.
This is a book with a remarkable history. Vilified as obscene, there were numerous attempts to ban the book. The controversy made the book a best seller, in fact the best selling novel of 1944. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt became a champion of the book. Perhaps, as has often been noted, the greatest outrage over the book came when it became known that the author was a Southerner – and a white woman. A generation later, of course, a Southern white woman would become a national heroine – eventually a national treasure – by writing much the same story – only in a more saccharine treatment. Continue reading →
When a writer combines washed up All-American football players, sexually frustrated former majorettes, a rattlesnake roundup, a racist, rapist sheriff, and dog fighting and sets it all in the rural South, one expects pretty much what Harry Crews gives us – a darkly tragicomic tale that delights even as it gives one the willies.
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews (image courtesy Goodreads)
And perhaps that’s an important point to make about this novel. What makes A Feast of Snakes a powerful read is that for both those who like their Southern lit on the Gothic side, there’s plenty of the grotesque, eccentric, and sinister. For those who, like me, appreciate the economy of style and and cold-blooded examination of those in the lower ranks of the 99%, Harry Crews offers a novel that both delivers plenty of weirdness and plenty of honest examination of the wretched. From snake handling preachers to body building lawyers, this is a book with a little something for everyone. Continue reading →
We humans are what we are, even if some parts of our nature aren’t always what we wish they were—our attitudes toward race, sex, and sexual orientation, our propensity for violence, our gawping at car wrecks, and our desire to stare at, and in some cases mock, those who are different.
A hundred years ago human oddities were collected in traveling freak shows. Monkey-boys, half-man/half-woman, fat ladies, dwarves, the tattooed and pierced, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, and people who bit the heads off live animals. Some became famous, like the dwarf Tom Thumb, who was billed as an adult when still a child and started drinking and smoking cigars at seven to support the illusion, or John Merrick, the Elephant Man, a beautiful man trapped in a horribly deformed body, and Grady Stiles, a horribly nasty man trapped in a horribly nasty body. Continue reading →
Like other Southern writers of his generation (Walker Percy and Shelby Foote come immediately to mind), Peter Taylor explores the lives of upper class Southerners searching for some clue to unlock the terrible allegiances Southerners of a certain background feel to family, home, and tradition – and for what it costs to free oneself of those allegiances.
A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (image courtesy Goodreads)
After the sort of manic energy I encountered in Daniel Forbes’s Derail This Train Wreck, I decided that I wanted something more – at least seemingly – sedate. I found it in the first of my Southern authors from the 2015 reading list, Peter Taylor. Best known for his short fiction (every short story writer should study The Old Forest and Other Stories for examples of how the short story is done well), Taylor is a Tennessean from exactly that sort of upper class background I mention above – and he explores the pain associated with breaking free of such a background with all its attendant traditions and constraints – as brilliantly as do those contemporaries, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. A Summons to Memphis is in a very real way the story of a trial: the trial of being a scion of privilege in a place where such a plummy birth carries within it the seeds of destruction for all lucky enough to be such fruit. Continue reading →
Honoring those who died in service doesn’t mean forgiving those who put them in harm’s way.
Today America honors its war dead, those who gave their lives in the service of freedom – not only ours, but in many cases they died to save innocent people in far-flung corners of the globe. This isn’t idle rhetoric, either. Ponder what the world might have been like had the Allies lost World War II.
Unfortunately, in recent years I have grown more cynical about “freedom” and those who died for it. Continue reading →
What Forbes is after is not easily achieved: he seeks to portray both a society in crisis and the life of a person who, in crisis himself, still strives to draw public attention to the social crisis in hopes of saving, if not himself, at least that society. Derail This Train Wreck is a ray of light in a world going dark.
Derail This Train Wreck by Daniel Forbes (image courtesy derailthistrainwreck.com)
Derail This Train Wreck is a book of our times. It has elements of the near future dystopian tale so popular in our times. Its political satire veers between the somberly apocalyptic vision of a Truthout piece and the tongue in cheek irony dripping humor of an article from The Onion. And its domestic/romantic plot line (a failed relationship and the struggle of the parties to reorient their lives) is the stuff of which our lives and those of many we know is made. That Daniel Forbes has been able to weave these disparate elements into a narrative that is not simply cohesive but compelling is to his great credit – and the reader’s delight. Continue reading →
Here’s how it feels at the end of the spring semester for a longtime-journalist-turned-college-writing instructor:
I love working with college students, and I hope the feeling is mutual, for at least some of them, anyway. There’s no workplace I’ve ever found that’s more invigorating than the classroom.
But I work with freshmen only, and anymore, they communicate by liking, by following, by tweeting, by texting, and by slinging words and/or photographs and/or video on communications platforms I’ve never heard of. Most of the students I work with don’t understand—or, at best, dimly grasp—the value of what I encourage them to learn. Subject-verb disagreement? Fused sentences? Comma splices? Sentence fragments? The parts of speech? I’ve always (perhaps naively) believed these and related topics are the bedrock of good writing. Continue reading →
Several weeks ago, I was asked to provide a biographical entry on myself for a staff profile on S&R. I put some thought into it, wrote it, submitted it.
It just so happened that at the same time, I was deeply into rereading Carol Gilligan’s “In a Different Voice,” which is an important work about which I will eventually write much more here. Bio written, I picked up Gilligan and was immediately struck by something. Expressed in various ways throughout the book, a primary theme was that women tend to define themselves primarily in terms of relationships they are in. Continue reading →