Southerners have trouble ruling out the possible. What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course…. – Walker Percy
The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy (image courtesy Goodreads)
At long last the time has come to talk about Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman both on its own merits as a great Southern novel and in relation to my novel The New Southern Gentleman and about Percy’s influence on both me and on that novel.
As promised, let me talk first about my relationship with Mr. Percy. In 1984 I was a doctoral student completing a creative dissertation which became (several years later) the novel mentioned above. I was in contact with an editor at one of the major publishing houses in New York who liked my work and kept pushing me to write something/anything that would please the new masters of publishing, the corporate entities who were swallowing up the old family owned publishing houses left and right and for whose decision making power they had shifted from editors to marketing departments. He liked my manuscript, but he figured it would not fly with marketing (he was right; the novel only appeared years later from a small, independent litfic house in California). Because of the similarity in the title of my work and the title of Mr. Percy’s masterpiece, he wrote to me and suggested I write to Walker Percy. Continue reading →
The soon to be released Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman will be an interesting experiment: a sequel that seeks to explode the mythology surrounding her only other work, the ubiquitously revered celebration of high-minded Southernness, To Kill a Mockingbird. How that will go down with the myriad Atticus Finch acolytes is what will make or break both the novel and perhaps Lee’s reputation as a writer….
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy HarperCollins, NY Times)
By now anyone within reach of media of one stripe or another knows that Harper Lee, the long reclusive and now aged and fragile author of one of, if not the the most beloved of American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, is now, at long last, bringing out a second novel, a work which is both a sequel to Mockingbird and, at least in the minds of early reviewers, a sort of rebuttal of that myth of Southern race relations.
However, such questions, and the arguments they have fostered, seem, at best, pointless now. Go Set a Watchman will be released 07/14/2015. And Chapter 1 of the novel is already available from numerous sources for those seeking a preview. What remains, then, is to consider the work – which probably must be done both on its own merits and in terms of its relationship with its iconic descendant. Continue reading →
When I worked in public relations, we called the process “big footing.”
If we knew some damaging or negative news was likely to break on a given day, we would plan our own announcement and hope it would big enough to divert attention from – or “big foot” – whatever announcement was likely to -play poorly with the press and the public.
Given the convenience of the Internet and social networks, the process of “big footing” is even stronger today, and sometimes it takes place without a push from a PR or communications pro.
During the epidemic of denial regarding the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, accurately described as PTSD-like by my friend Sam, the genius editorialist Ta-Nahisi Coates published an open letter to his son, in which he struggles with the violent and psychologically disturbed position of so-called “white” people regarding “non-white” people, and the consequences of that position. It reads like a letter he wishes someone had sent him during his youth, surviving the streets of Baltimore.
His letter is an apology, both for his personal inability to protect his son from the violence which his son will surely endure solely because of his “non-white” status, and for his failure as a man and a leader to bring about the change necessary to give “non-white” people a level playing field. He lays out the reasons for his failure in painfully accurate terms. The primary culprit is the insular nature of white privilege, the illusion of normalcy which allows “white” people to pretend that “non-white” people do not exist, thereby rendering their suffering invisible. Continue reading →
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.
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 →
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.
White people: Don’t get defensive. I was brought up in the South. I know what it’s like. A bunch of grown men, pillars of the community, get together around the grill, maybe at the volunteer fire station, maybe at church. These are your neighbors, people you know and respect. You want them to like you. Then one of them tells a racist joke and they all laugh. So you laugh too. What’s the matter, boy, can’t you take a joke?
My public elementary school was 100% white. The Baptist Church where I was baptized was 99.9% white. One time a local boy married a negress (CRINGE) and it was a big scandal. They don’t come around much anymore. Everyone is happier this way I suppose, although his folks are a mite touchy about it, so it’s best if you don’t mention it. They can’t help what their boy did I reckon. Kids these days got no moral fiber. Continue reading →
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)
The poems in the Genet collection Treasures of the Night will shock and offend those unprepared to accept love’s alternative practitioners. Genet would like that….
Treasures of the Night by Jean Genet (image courtesy Gay Sunshine Press)
The next work from the world literature section of the 2015 reading list is an early (and problematic) translation of the collected poems of French playwright, novelist, poet, vagabond, and professional ne’er-do-well Jean Genet called Treasures of the Night. Genet is one of literature’s most celebrated “bad boys,” having been sent to a reformatory as incorrigible when he was 15 and to the French Foreign Legion, an organization with a long history of making bad boys shape up, at 18.
They failed with Genet. If anything, he became even more of a bad boy. According to conflicting accounts Genet either deserted or was kicked out of the Legion for “indecency.” The indecency involved Genet and another Legionnaire. Over the two decades following his separation from the Legion, Genet would be arrested and jailed on numerous occasions for vagabondage, thievery, and prostitution. Finally, perhaps out of sheer desperation, he began to write and became a cause célèbre among France’s most distinguished literati and artists including Cocteau, Sartre, Gide, and Picasso. As his career progressed he enjoyed considerable success as a novelist, even greater success as a playwright. Perhaps his least known works are his poems. 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 →
There’s much to like about Bernie Sanders, but can he really help us kick the war habit?
Occupy Democrats and US Uncut have a handy macro going around that highlights Bernie’s 11 point economic agenda. It’s big. It’s important. It’s to be lauded. And if we’re not to have Bernie, it’s to be emulated. But we’ve also seen the devastating effect war has had on our economy, to say nothing of the lives lost to our wayward military adventurism. Below you’ll find my own reasons for supporting this 11-point economic plan as well as some serious consideration of his missing 12th point. 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 →
All the caveats. Trigger warning. NSFW. Likely to offend many. Crass to make points.
It’s Friday, and I’m hyper-caffeinated, so I’m gonna stir the pot on a hot-button issue (at least to some folks). As it turns out, it’s not just MRA types that have a beef against a great many feminists, and especially radical feminists. There’s a segment of the population, and, don’t get me wrong, an important segment with as much right to those inalienable rights that we hold so dear as anyone else. But they have some ideas that I find more than a bit repugnant. I’m talking specifically about the sorts of trans women (#notalltranswomen, to be clear) who have decided that radfems who disagree with them on some none-too-fine points are somehow a hate group with a philosophy deserving of its own acronym: TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminism). This may be old news to some, but it’s new news to me, and apparently it’s a lingering sore spot so it’s still fair game.
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 →
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 →
For that matter, on a list of the ten poorest Congresstocrats, good ol’ Alcee comes in 8th poorest with a net worth of $2.23 million, to say nothing of that teeny weeny salary of his. Poor Steve Scalise, hobnobber with Duke-inspired hatemongers that he is, at least has the decency to get by as the poorest of the poor with a net worth of only $671,000.
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 →
We have already reviewed the lotus as a symbol of purity and the fact that maimed three inch feet were called “lotus hooks.” We have also seen how physical immobility and resulting confinement guaranteed women’s sexual and even mental fidelity. Continue reading →