Southern Bound
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191 pages
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Description

Southern Bound represents a running conversation on books, writers, and literary travel written for the Mobile Press-Register Books page from 1995 to 2011 by John S. Sledge. The collection includes more than one hundred of the best pieces culled from Sledge's total output of approximately seven hundred columns. Numerous classic authors are celebrated in these pages, including Homer, Plato, Gibbon, Melville, Proust, Conrad, Cather, and Steinbeck as well as modern writers such as Walter Edgar, Tom Franklin, and Eugene Walter.

While some of the essays are relatively straightforward book reviews, others present meditative and deeply personal perspectives on the author's literary experiences such as serving on the jury in the play version To Kill a Mockingbird; spending the night alone in a Jesuit college library's venerable stacks; rambling through funky New Orleans bookshops; talking to Square Books owner Richard Howorth while overlooking the Oxford, Mississippi courthouse; rereading Treasure Island on the shores of Mobile Bay; and remembering a beloved father's favorite books. Engaging and spirited, Southern Bound represents the critical art at its most accessible and will prove entertaining fare for anyone who loves the written word.


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Publié par
Date de parution 15 mars 2013
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611172362
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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Southern Bound
Southern Bound
A Gulf Coast Journalist ON Books, Writers, AND Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart

John S. Sledge
Foreword by Walter Edgar

THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA PRESS
© 2013 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
www.sc.edu/uscpress
22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sledge, John S. (John Sturdivant), 1957– Southern bound : a Gulf coast journalist on books, writers, and literary pilgrimages of the heart / John S. Sledge ; foreword by Walter Edgar.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-1-61117-137-2 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-61117-236-2 (epub)
1. Books and reading Southern States. 2. Books Reviews.
3. Southern States Intellectual life 20th century.
4. Southern States Intellectual life 21st century. I. Title.
Z1003.3.S85S54 2013
028.1 dc23
2012033264
In memory of Bailey Thomson, architect of the Books Page, and to my readers one and all in gratitude
CONTENTS
List of Illustrations
Foreword
Walter Edgar
Acknowledgments
Introduction: For the Love of Books
The South
Essence of the South Remains Hard to Define
Slaves in the Family
Ball’s Book Strikes Personal Chord with Historian
Rivers of History
Bumper Crop of Poems Celebrates Life on the Land
Faulkner’s “Blood and Thunder” Novel Endures
Oprah Makes Brave, Bold Choice with Faulkner
Liuzzo Biographer Brings a Sense of Justice to Topic
South Carolina’s Charms Preserved in Encyclopedia
Young Woman’s Diaries Basis of Wonderful Book
Painter Mary Whyte Shows Keen Eye for Laborers in Working South
The Civil War
Slaves’ Memories Offer Harrowing Accounts of War
LSU Press Revives Story of Army of Tennessee
Lee’s True Legacy beyond Latest Biographer
Pelham’s Valor Shines in Maxwell’s Perfect Lion
Eye of the Storm: Union Soldier’s Illustrated Memoir Confirms Civil War Was Tragedy for All
Co. Aytch a Direct Link to Army in Gray
Chance Discovery Reveals Details of Mobile Campaign
Chaffin Cuts Through to Clear View of Hunley
Poetry Collection from out of the Blue and Gray
Rosen Invigorates Civil War Setting
The Gulf Coast Renaissance
Year in Greece Yields Book for Native Mobilian
Our Voice of Reason
Author Finds Inspiration in Writer Eugene Walter
Store Specializes in Antique Volumes
Hollon’s The God File Deserves National Attention
Black Belt Chronicles Richly Deserve Recognition
Mobile Native Knight a Fast-Rising Literary Star
Breech a Violent, Dark Tale from Franklin
Scully’s In the Hope of Rising Again a Gem
Chicken Dreaming Corn: Family Tales Spur Captivating Novel of Mobile
Emotional Exploration of a Deplorable Event
Groom Takes Big Step with Vicksburg
Architecture
How Did Our Gardens Grow? Famously, It Seems
Mississippi’s Victorian Treasures Get Their Due
Alabama’s Architecture Gets Some Overdue Respect
William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha
Matrana Shows Pride and Ruin of Plantations
Historian Upends Ideas on American Architecture
Scholar Town Houses Have Many Tales to Tell
Legacy Presents a Detailed Look at Rayfield’s Work
Fallingwater Study Cuts Myths, Affirms Merits
The Architect of America
New Orleans Takes Shape in an Architect’s Memoir
Literary Pilgrimages
Stumbling on a Fossil of a Southern Dinosaur
McMurtry’s Hometown a Paradise for Collectors
Drama of Story Comes Alive in Monroeville
A Night in the Library
Finding Cahaba: New Book Rekindles Fascination with Alabama’s First Capital
Looking Past Midnight
A Literary Ramble through Old New Orleans
Oxford, Mississippi: A Literary Profile
A Small City of Literary Giants: Greenville, Mississippi
Visit to Library Is a Return to Childhood
Images from the Literary Side of Paris, with a Personal Touch
Walter-Inspired Dream an Affirmation of Creativity
Classics and Old Favorites Revisited
A Tale Worthy of the Centuries: Looking into Chapman’s Iliad
Plato’s Ancient Words Inspire the Modern Mind
Old Story, New Life: Heaney Makes Epic Worth the Wait
Decline and Fall Stands Test of Time
Last of the Mohicans Was First of Its Kind
Omoo a Showcase for Melville’s Lighter Side
Slowly, Beautifully: That’s How the Cookie Crumbles
Revisiting a Classic at the Water’s Edge
Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon Shows Power of Storm
One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Pleasure
Pride and Prejudice Run Deep in Memoir
Old Soldier Sahib a Rare Chronicle of Bygone Empire
Cather’s Look Westward Broke New Literary Ground
Shane Stands as Classic of Western Genre
Book behind Classic Wayne Film Still Holds Up
Pacific Battleground Is More Than a Memory
The International Scene
A Shadowed Friendship: Book Looks Back on Broken Bond between Two Powerful Writers
Quirky Italian Novel Shines in Recent Reissue
“Just an adventurer”: An Aid Worker’s Strange Path
Cuba in Mind Brings Island Near Enough to Touch
Events Make Brick Lane a Timely Volume
Long Way Gone a Tribute to Human Spirit
My Forbidden Face Drives Home Sufferings of Women under Taliban
Márquez Classic Still Rewards Reader’s Effort
Istanbul, Not Constantinople, Gets the Works from a Nobel-Winning Native Son
Iconic AK47 Assault Rifle Subject of Far-Ranging Biography
Controversy and Censorship
Plagiarism Charges Pull Prize-Winner from Shelves
Alexandria’s Library Rises from the Ashes but Fires Still Burn
George and Lennie Feeling the Squeeze
Proposed Book Ban Deserves Firm Rebuttal
America Flap Puts Mississippi in Spotlight
Writer Takes Clear-Eyed Look at Battle Flag’s Past and Present
Without Sanctuary Confronts an Ugly Past
Poe Folks Perturbed by Graveyard Guest
Breach of Faith Offers Incisive Critiques
An Open Letter to Louisiana’s Governor
School’s Switch Alarms Book Lovers
Old Writings Preserve Sense of Beaches’ Beauty
Reading and Writing Life
My First Gun Became a Boy’s Rite of Passage
The Reader: A Quieter Side of Michael Jackson
Politics Aside, Spanish Opens Rich Literary Terrain
In Changing Times, It’s Hard to Turn the Page
Southern Writers Save the Style for the Page
Oscar Wilde: One Fine Figure of a Writer
Everybody Has a Story, but Who Wants to Read It?
Odd Fantasy Reveals Deep-Seated Desire
Coleridge Tome More Than Equal to Georges
Favorite Reading Spots Make Good Books Better
Elysium
Mentor’s Passing Time for Reflection
Mississippian’s Deep Roots Yielded a Towering Legacy
In Memoriam: Eudora Welty
George Plimpton’s Wit, Grace Will Be Missed
Foote Takes His Place among Heavenly Host
Norman Mailer Leaves Larger-Than-Life Legacy
A Chess Board Warrior’s Influence Remembered
A Father’s Reading List Holds Share of Treasures
ILLUSTRATIONS
Ruins of Dicksonia, Lowndesboro
Confederate Monument, Athens City Cemetery
Bon Secour
Alabama State Capitol
Rowan Oak, entrance foyer
Augusta Evans Wilson first editions, Williams Collection
Sri Lankan street scene, 1997
Baltimore’s Poe toaster
Eugene Walter’s house, typewriter
Eugene B. Sledge with microscope, 1963
FOREWORD
Walter Edgar
Where is H. L. Mencken when we really need him? In 1917 Mencken penned his famous, or infamous (depending upon your point of view) essay “The Sahara of the Bozart,” decrying the cultural sterility of the American South. It’s difficult to imagine the scorn if he were to write an essay today describing the state of book pages in the American press. To say that the book page is disappearing would be an understatement. In many newspapers across the country, the correct verb tense would be the past.
Just a little over a decade ago Kevin Berger penned an essay, “The Amazing Disappearing Book Review Section.” In it he lamented the decline in the book section of newspapers ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune to the Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the case of the Chronicle, the transformation was from a twelve-page pullout to seven pages sandwiched between “Dining Out” and “Get Together” in the Sunday entertainment section. Since then the situation has deteriorated dramatically. The Washington Post has dropped its Book World and even the New York Times has trimmed the size of its Sunday Book Review. It is increasingly rare to find a dedicated book-page editor anywhere these days.
No doubt Mencken would caustically note the creeping sands of this Sahara from the Gulf to the Great Lakes and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, even in his most sarcastic of moods, he often looked for what he called “violets” in the desert. In the cultural Sahara of the 1920s American South, he discovered South Carolina novelist Julia Peterkin and other talented writers.
Today, after dismissing the impoverished book scene in twenty-first century newspapers, he no doubt would begin to look for a bloom here and there. And, ironically enough, he could find one Deep South example in Mobile, Alabama, where the Press-Register is published. For the past seventeen years, John Sledge has been that newspaper’s Book Page editor and also the author of a weekly column, “Southern Bound.” Depending upon the subject of his column, Sledge has been allowed sometimes to expand into full-blown essays on a variety of topics ranging from what he terms literary pilgrimages to musings about the joy of rediscovering a childhood favorite such as Treasure Island.
What is amazing about Sledge’s proprietorship of this space has been the range of subjects covered. Like any good regional newspaper reporter, he discusses works about his city and the surrounding area. He has helped bring to the attention of wider audiences, outstanding local talent such as Roy Hoffman ( Chicken Dreaming Corn ) and Katherine Clark ( Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet ). And, he introduced Mobile readers to Edward Ball ( Slaves in the Family ) and Mary Whyte ( Working South ).
What makes Sledge’s Book Page so powerful is that when you combine his columns and essays with the selected reviews (many of which he does himself), there is a voice, a presence. Sledge is, in essence, having a conversation with his readers. He is a local boy and proud of it but that gives him an identity with the Press-Register ’s readers. John Sledge is one of them, from their place, but at the same time he can discuss culture at large without coming off as an ivory tower intellectual. It is no mean feat. However, he does it and does it beautifully. How? The answer is simple: John Sledge loves books.
And it is Sledge’s love of books, his passion for the written word that is evident in his own writing. His prose is thoughtful and carefully crafted. In a number of instances it borders on the lyrical. In his review of Helen Scully’s novel In the Hope of Rising Again about turn-of-the twentieth-century Mobile, he concludes: “She has captured old Mobile like a firefly in a bottle, in all its exotic complexity and grace.”
Southern Bound has distinctive local roots, but it is not by any means a book just for residents of the Gulf Coast. It reflects the author’s years of reading, especially his appreciation for the multitextured and rich cultural heritage of the American South.
If H. L. Mencken were to drop in on the world of 2013, he most assuredly would caustically dismiss the cultural wasteland of most modern newspapers, but he just as assuredly would recognize a camellia bush in full bloom in the Book Page of the Mobile Press-Register.
Postscript
It is tragically ironic that this book will appear almost simultaneously with the end of John Sledge’s run as book-page editor for the Press-Register victim of the paper’s reorientation to the Internet. It is a loss not just for the city of Mobile, but for all of us who believe that books, especially those about the American South, are an important part of who we are. Wherever Mencken is, he must be grieving. The sands of his Sahara have claimed another victim.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I must begin by thanking Walter Edgar, native Mobilian and retired University of South Carolina historian, whose long-running interest in my columns and conviction that they deserved collection and publication in book form has been deeply humbling and gratifying. Walter’s lively engagement with the written word, no matter the subject, is inspirational, and I have benefited immensely from his wide-ranging intellect and conversation. I count his friendship and respect as great blessings.
To the top brass at the Mobile Press-Register, I owe profound thanks for the opportunity to write about books for a lay audience. Former publisher Howard Bronson and editor Stan Tiner and later publisher Ricky Matthews and editor Michael Marshall were all supportive to an extraordinary degree in an era of shrinking books coverage. They gave me money, space, and ink to do something I love, and for that I will ever be grateful. I am also appreciative of the many close working relationships forged with numerous Press-Register editors, reporters, and staff members over the years. Among these colleagues, some still slinging copy in Mobile, others retired, moved on, downsized, or gone to their reward, are Dewey English, Dave Helms, Steve Joynt, Debbie Lord, Frances Coleman, Eleanor Ransberg, Paul Cloos, Mark Kent, David Holloway, Vee Randle, Linde Lenz-Britt, Sally Ericson, Jean Helms, Natasha Helton, Sheri Lee, Judi Rojeski, David Littlepage, Colleen McNorton, librarian Debby Stearns, Thomas Harrison, Robert “Buck” Buchanan, Connie Baggett, Guy Busby, Doug Dimitry, John Sellers, Cammie East, George Talbot, B. J. Richey, Ben Raines, Dan Murtaugh, Jane Nicholes, Gene Owens, Rhoda Pickett, K. A. Turner, Bill Finch, Chip English, Michelle Rolls, Victor Calhoun, John David and Kate Mercer, Bill Starling, and Mike Kittrell. Special mention must be made of Lawrence Specker, the Entertainment section editor, who week in and week out made the page shine with intelligent layout, headlines, and captions, all despite numerous other more pressing obligations. Lastly, in the newsroom my good friend and confidant Roy Hoffman has been a rock whose love of books and insightful counsel on all matters literary have helped sustain me through good times and bad.
I will never know the majority of my readers. Some have become good friends, and many more offered encouragement in passing. I am deeply appreciative of them all and hold their loyalty close to my heart. This book is in part dedicated to them.
Though their work does not appear in this collection, alas (that would be another project), the many freelancers who contributed to the page for free books and a little money have each and every one also earned my undying gratitude. Coming from all walks of life and tackling every subject imaginable, these dedicated wordsmiths helped give the page variety and zest. There were dozens over the course of seventeen years. Emma Bolden, Rob Maxwell, Franklin Daugherty, Katherine Clark, Nicholas Holmes III, Thomas Uskali, Don Noble, Jennifer Horne, John Hafner, Alice Kracke, Sue Walker, Bonnie Latino, Cori Yonge, Helen Scully, Michael Thomason, Sunny David, Scotty Kirkland, Tom Root, and Jim Gilbert would constitute the beginnings of a list. Regular readers of the page will certainly recognize their names and recall the excellence of their work. My good friend E. C. LeVert has provided some of the most stimulating literary discussions I’ve ever had, and his encouragement and affirmation continue to buoy me.
Particular thanks go to Robin McDonald and Keri Coumanis for some of the great photographs in this book and to J. D. Crowe for his wonderful drawing.
No books editor could hope to function effectively without close alliances with the librarians, writers, publicists, bookstore owners, and clerks who daily engage in literary commerce and culture. I have known many in every category. They include Nancy Anlange of the Mobile Public Library and Betty Suddeth and Ilsa Krick at the Fairhope Public Library; authors Winston Groom, Rick Bragg, and Sonny Brewer; publicists Regan Huff at the University of Georgia Press, Rebecca Minder, Elizabeth Motherwell, and Shana Rivers at the University of Alabama Press, Benda King at Yale University Press, Barbara Outland at Louisiana State University Press; bookstore owners Martin Lanaux of Over the Transom Books, Karin and Keifer Wilson of Page & Palette, Adline C. Clarke of Black Classics Books & Gifts, and Russ Adams of Bienville Books.
Thanks also go to the incredible University of South Carolina Press for committing to this project in a scary publishing era. Director Jonathan Haupt has provided calm guidance throughout the process. I am also indebted to the anonymous readers of the original manuscript, who made helpful suggestions.
But no group has been as important or vital to me in this journey as my family. To begin with, my lovely wife, Lynn, who edits everything I write, possesses a keen eye and a completely unsentimental approach to the craft. Whatever writer’s ego I had, it long ago bent to her wisdom and clarity, and my work is so much the better for it. My son, Matthew, and daughter, Elena, grew up with this material and figure in some of these selections. They bore their father’s occasional distraction with unwavering support and understanding. My father, E. B. Sledge, now deceased, and my mother, Jeanne Sledge, raised me to value literature, history, and good grammar. Their love and interest in my writings moves me to my soul.
Lastly, this book is in large part dedicated to the memory of Bailey Thomson. I hope his family will approve. As they well know, he was an extraordinary man.
INTRODUCTION
For the Love of Books
The pieces in this collection highlight a running conversation about books, authors, and literary matters in general between me and the readers of the Mobile Press-Register ’s Books Page from 1995 to 2011. During those seventeen years I wrote well over eight hundred columns, or roughly half a million words, of which only about 20 percent is on offer here. As with any kind of regular newspaper writing, of course, much of that mountain of work was ephemeral, meant to accomplish something specific a given Sunday, such as promoting a local literary event or introducing a new English professor in town. But some of it is of more than passing interest and, whether sampled in thematic chunks as organized here or simply dipped into randomly before bedtime or in an idle moment, should prove entertaining or instructive to many readers. This collection presents no grand narrative arc or critical posturing, in other words, but rather a series of, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, loose literary sallies by someone who has always loved books and the written word.
Bailey Thomson, the Press-Register ’s associate editor from 1992 to 1995, created the Books Page early in his Port City tenure and wrote a weekly column for it, which he titled “Southern Bound.” As much as Bailey loved books, however, he found the page’s demands intrusive given his many other responsibilities, and late in 1995 he called me into his office and asked if I would take on the task. By way of backstory, I should hasten to add that Bailey and I already had some history. My full-time gig was (and is) architectural historian at the Mobile Historic Development Commission, a department of the City of Mobile, and Bailey had sought me out in that capacity on a number of local news stories. After a few chats and visits to each other’s offices, we quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common a love of history (Bailey had a master’s degree in history from the University of Alabama as well as a doctorate in communications history), Southern literature, writing, and Spanish. This led to my contributing a few freelance reviews to the Books Page and occasionally rotating the column with Bailey and University of South Alabama communications professor Jim Aucoin. So his request that I jockey Books Page coverage solo didn’t come completely out of the blue, though I was certainly flattered.
The design and format Bailey had established for the page had already proven practical, so nothing changed there. “Southern Bound,” which became my seven-hundred-word-a-week baby, ran down the left side of the page with a national best-sellers list below, a local freelancer’s book review or essay at the top right, and book related wire copy below that. The page’s main, but hardly exclusive, focus, Bailey said, should continue to be Mobile and the South, with my column providing a friendly and familiar anchor. I was also to coordinate the freelancers, preferably engaging area writers, and edit their copy. Beyond that, there was little supervision and, in seventeen years under various other editors, almost no direction about what to write or cover beyond the original mandate. If I chose to consider a best seller (rarely, as I’m not ashamed to say I almost never read them), a literary classic, a personal favorite, something controversial (book banning say), or just plain quirky (like Baltimore’s mysterious Poe toaster), that was fine. Such freedom allowed me to indulge occasionally in longer pieces that filled the entire page. This proved especially useful when describing literary pilgrimages to places like Savannah, Georgia, and Greenville, Mississippi, or books I believed to be worth a little more ink.
Within a few weeks of my taking on the Books Page, my wife Lynn began working with me as a full partner. Though never formally on the payroll, her excellent editorial work, sagacious advice and general enthusiasm for the page made it a far better product than it would have been under my hand alone. We worked closely as a team me writing columns and rounding up freelancers, she editing and making recommendations about worthy topics I might have overlooked.
Throughout this experience my respect for my readers grew and significantly dictated my approach. When I began writing “Southern Bound,” I don’t think I ever seriously considered who the audience would be. I wrote about the books and topics I was interested in and would talk about with my friends. If more hard-bitten editors might have criticized this approach as too academic or high falutin’, I was soon delighted to discover that the Books Page readers ran the gamut from the stereotypically expected types English professors, lawyers, doctors, suburban women, and librarians to the unexpected ditch diggers, security guards, cafeteria workers, dump-truck drivers, and stevedores. This diverse readership was conservative, liberal, and radical; black, white, Asian, and Native American; straight and gay; rich and poor. What they all had in common was a thoughtfulness and curiosity about the world and how books and literature can inform these things. While I don’t doubt that many more people read the Sunday funnies or sports coverage than the Books Page, I received more than enough feedback over the years to convince me that newspaper readers’ appetite for substantive fare is too often underestimated.
Early on I resolved not to insult readers’ intelligence or to harangue them with my own opinions. Given the facts and some background, I reasoned, readers were perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions. But something I very much did want to do was be a cheerleader for good literature, introducing my readers to books and authors they might not theretofore have known about or considered. A large urban newspaper provides an enviable amount of influence, and when a busy nurse once told me that she read Plato with profit thanks to a column I wrote, well, it couldn’t get any more rewarding than that.
So while not a literary critic in the traditional sense I don’t go on about Proust’s broad cultural significance, but rather why I love reading him and why you might too I wasn’t afraid to criticize. This was especially so if a book was likely to offend certain sensibilities or simply wasn’t worth the lucre and time. My first loyalty was to my readers, and I owed them nothing less. This led to some authors getting ruffled feathers over the years, but so be it. Good books are all too rare; flawed ones, common; and terrible ones, ubiquitous. Helping readers negotiate this confusing literary terrain was a serious calling that I might not have always gotten right, but the effort was heartfelt.
Unfortunately, in the summer of 2012 I was laid off as Books Editor, one of almost two hundred employees to be given pink slips at the Press-Register . At the same time there were large layoffs at our sister papers in Huntsville, Birmingham and New Orleans. Devastating as the development was for so many individuals, not to mention the communities destined to lose in-depth coverage, it was only the latest example, albeit one of the more spectacular ones, of an ongoing nationwide trend. Indeed, to the dismay of many traditional readers, American newspapers have been steadily dumbed down and shrunken in recent years. Book sections and pages have fallen like tenpins, and writers of considerable ability and accomplishment have been laid off or forced to take buyouts. Regionally papers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Birmingham News, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune all eliminated what were solid books pages (in the case of the latter two before the big layoff), and nationally the San Diego Union, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and even the storied New York Times all dumped or downsized books coverage.
Sadly, Bailey Thomson and I weren’t able to commiserate about these alarming developments. Shortly after our meeting, he took a position as a journalism professor at the University of Alabama, where he was able to share his passions with hundreds of eager students. Shockingly this promising second career was cut short when he died of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of fifty-three. I will never forget Bailey’s reverence for books and our shared conviction that they very much matter to whatever subject happens to be under consideration politics, history, health, science, economics, and, yes, even hunting and college football. Therefore I dedicate this volume to him, as well as to my readers, for extending me the trust and opportunity to demonstrate this conviction for so many weeks. I hope I adequately fulfilled the bargain.
Ruins of Dicksonia, Lowndesboro. Courtesy of Robin McDonald.


The South
It was no accident that my column was titled “Southern Bound.” Early on, Bailey Thomson established an emphasis on the South, primarily because it is home ground, of course, but also because its literary heritage is so distinguished and there are still so many important and good books being written on the region.
This section presents a mix of typically Southern subjects slavery, rivers, agriculture, Faulkner, race, and working folks diversely rendered in memoir, history, poetry, fiction, biography, and art. Some of these books garnered a great deal of attention, like Edward Ball’s extraordinary Slaves in the Family, while others, Margaret Sartor’s Miss American Pie, for example, certainly deserved more. The only theme here is the enduring appeal of the South as a subject that is sometimes difficult, sometimes delightful, but never dull.


Essence of the South Remains Hard to Define

“Tell about the South. What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”
William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom!
The study of the American South is a minor academic industry. Historians, geographers, folklorists, sociologists and poets all grapple with the question of what makes this region different from the rest of America. The titles of some of the hundreds of published works indicate anything but consensus. General works include The Solid South, The Other South, The Southern South and The American South. For the negative side, one can read The Benighted South, The Provincial South, The Horrible South and The Squalid South; conversely, there are more optimistic tomes such as The Growing South, The Advancing South and The Arisen South. Likewise, The Vanishing South and The Passing South counterpoise The Lasting South and The Enduring South. The Hesitant South and The Uncertain South uneasily share shelf space with The Fighting South and The Militant South. The Silent South is challenged by The Singing South, and The Lazy South and The Erotic South leave no doubt as to their themes.
Many identify climate as the clue to Southern distinctiveness. Such attempts include It Never Snows and Clarence Cason’s classic study of Alabama, 90 Degrees in the Shade. Yet broiling summers are not unknown outside of Dixie, and the climates of northern Virginia and the Gulf Coast are radically different. Steamy temperatures do not the South make.
Closely tied to climate, however, is agriculture, and here we begin to close in on the South’s singularity. For it was the cultivation of cotton by black slaves that set the South apart during the antebellum years and made her wealthy. The cotton lands of Alabama and Mississippi produced hundreds of thousands of bales annually before the war, and cotton remains an important crop in the region. It was slavery before the war and Jim Crow afterwards that defined the South. Indeed, during the 1920s, the historian U. B. Phillips proposed race as THE central theme of Southern history. To Phillips, the institution of slavery and the subsequent maintenance of white supremacy were crucial components of Southernness. States rights, one-crop agriculture, plantations and free trade were all important, but not the essence, argued Phillips. Sociologist Howard Odum concurred when he bluntly stated, “No South, No Negro, No Negro, No South.”
Another seminal work in the study of the region was Wilbur J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, published in 1941. A North Carolina journalist, Cash lambasted his native region as a schizophrenic mix of Calvinism and hedonism, hospitality and violence, individualism and conformity. Cash’s Southerner was a rustic, a direct product of the soil with a “chip on the shoulder swagger.” Cash’s unflattering view was heavily influenced by the “Bad Boy of Baltimore,” H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s 1920 essay, the “Sahara of the Bozart” was a devastating cultural critique of the region. He wrote that the South was “almost as sterile artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”
Up East intellectuals delighted in Mencken’s colorful assault, but Southerners were stung and rushed to their own defense. Mencken’s attack may have played some role in sparking the remarkable Southern literary renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, unleashing what one author has termed “the Southern rage to explain.”
Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, a native Arkansan, offered his interpretation of the region’s distinctiveness in The Burden of Southern History, published in 1960. Woodward portrayed a region with a history more in common with the lot of mankind, than that of the North. To begin with, the South had a long acquaintance with poverty, from the Civil War to at least World War II. Confederate defeat ran counter to the American legends of success and invincibility, only recently tarnished by the debacles of Vietnam and Challenger. Wrote Woodward, “The South’s preoccupation was with guilt, not with innocence, with the reality of evil, not with the dream of perfection. Its experience in this respect, as in several others, was on the whole a thoroughly un-American one.” Yet Woodward insisted this was a historical dimension America very much needed. In a real sense, Southerners were less peculiar in their experience than modern Americans.
The debate and analysis continue, with more and more scholars arguing for “No South” as tremendous changes transform the region. Whether the South will indeed pass away, endure, or rise again, only time will tell.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, June 25, 2000.
© 2000 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Slaves in the Family

Issues of race and family intertwine in complex and too often rarely acknowledged ways in the Southern past. A new and deeply personal book, Slaves in the Family (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30) by Edward Ball, effectively amplifies the lingering reverberations of the American South’s violent history as a slave society.
When Ball was growing up, his father told him there were five things the family never discussed, “Religion, sex, death, money and the Negroes.” Though his parents’ circumstances were modest, Ball’s lineage was a distinguished one. His first American ancestor had settled along the Cooper River in South Carolina in 1698 and established himself as a rice planter. Between then and 1865, when the Civil War swept it all away, the extended Ball clan owned over 20 plantations and 4,000 slaves.
As he matured, Edward Ball wondered about the history of his own family, but more so about the story of their many slaves. When he asked elderly relatives what they knew, he got “the familiar haiku of Charleston genealogy,” that is, extended strings of white forebears’ names and how they were related to one another. As Ball writes, “On one side stood the ancestors, vivid, serene, proud; on the other their slaves, anonymous, taboo, half-human.” It was the slaves’ side that Ball determined to explore.
Black genealogy presents myriad difficulties. Tracing families forward from or backward to specific plantations is not always possible. Ball was fortunate, however, in that his ancestors were excellent record keepers. Indeed, the Ball Family Papers consist of over 10,000 pages of documents (letters, slave ledgers, diaries, wills, etc.) in numerous libraries and archives. Furthermore, by his own conservative estimate, Ball guessed that there must be some 75,000 living African Americans descended from the family slaves. Chances were, many of these people still resided in the Charleston area.
Ball made little secret of his suspicion that, “Surely there was, somewhere, a black clan with a bloodline that led to a Ball bedroom.” Understandably, not everyone in his immediate family was thrilled at this prospect. “What you are doing can only cause trouble!” one cousin shouted at him. “It will produce dissension, or worse!”
Ball effectively interweaves the history of the family plantations with his modern interviews. Though his older relatives contended that the family slaves had been well treated, Ball discovered a darker reality. There were beatings, dismemberments, and, in one case, an ancestor who kept a black common-law wife in Charleston.
Indeed, over the almost two centuries that the Balls owned slaves, there was race mixing aplenty. In a particularly moving passage, Ball meets with a black woman his own age and informs her of “the possibility” that they are distantly related. She is silent for a moment, and then replies, “the only thing that can cure what’s happened is for us to administer love.”
Portions of this book are extraordinarily powerful. In his descriptions of the pest house on Sullivan’s Island, where slaves were first landed after the terrible Middle Passage, Ball reveals himself to be a haunted man. As a child, he tells us, he had played with a sand bucket where the pest house long ago stood. Now, he cannot shake his adult knowledge of the horror that happened there. “I sometimes shovel graves in my sleep,” he writes.
Slaves in the Family loses some of its punch and focus over the course of 500 pages. Furthermore, academic historians may question the trustworthiness of so many oral accounts. As one must in such a book Ball often speculates, using phrases and words like “I now suspected,” “must have,” “perhaps” and “if.”
This should not detract from what is an admirable, even heroic effort, however. As one black man grudgingly tells Ball, “Someone has to break the ice. I gotta give you credit, you were man enough to do it.”
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, April 5, 1998.
© 1998 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Ball’s Book Strikes Personal Chord with Historian

Like Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, I, too, am a descendent of slaveholders. Though my forebears were not as fabulously wealthy in land and human chattel as Ball’s ancestors, they were nevertheless firmly within the planter class. Their devoted adherence to the values of that class led to the destruction of all they held dear. They emerged from the turmoil of Civil War bewildered and bitter. Their former slaves, whom they believed to be inferior beings, were no longer bound by their will.
Partly because I am an historian, I have long been interested in the history of my family, particularly during the antebellum period. Fortunately, there are both public and private documents by which to trace their story. But what of the slaves? How to accurately reconstruct their lives? Is it even possible, given the lapse of so many years? They could neither read nor write and appear in the historical record only as their masters and hostile laws presented them. They were considered property first, human beings second, if at all.
If one is judicious, a great deal can be gleaned from a careful reading of the historical record alone, however. Some speculation and supposition beyond what may be strictly supported by the facts are perhaps allowable, depending on the question at hand. It is extremely difficult to know when one has strayed too far, however. Oral tradition, which Mr. Ball depends upon so heavily, is the least trustworthy method by which to reconstruct the distant past. Though it cannot and should not be entirely discounted, a healthy dose of skepticism is recommended. Speculation built upon supposition built upon an elder’s yarn equals a castle in the air. Edward Ball’s book inspired me anew to try and understand what life was like not only for one of my long-deceased planter-forebears, but for his slaves as well.
Robert Sturdivant was a great-great-great-grandfather on my father’s side. He was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 1789, son of a Revolutionary War veteran. In 1819, married and with two children (there would eventually be 10), Robert Sturdivant moved to Valley Creek, a small nucleus of cotton planters in Dallas County, Alabama, a few miles north of Selma.
Valley Creek proved a good place to settle. The hamlet steadily grew, and in 1841 became the site of the Centenary Institute, a Methodist school. In 1845, the name of the community was changed to Summerfield, lest the old name conjure images of a swampy and unhealthy place. By 1850, Summerfield’s population stood at some 300 whites and over 600 black slaves. There was a bank, dry goods store, and blacksmith shop.
Sturdivant’s fortunes paralleled those of his community. He built the first gristmill in Dallas County and owned the blacksmith shop and the bank. He served on the board of trustees of the Centenary Institute and lived in a tasteful Federal style residence at the corner of Centenary and Main streets. He also maintained a large plantation on the nearby Cahaba River. He owned 68 slaves, 10 of whom lived in Summerfield. His was a full and busy life.
One morning in 1856, Sturdivant arose, bathed and dressed in a brown linen suit. Minutes later he died of apoplexy, at the age of 67. The Dallas Gazette remembered him as “kind, liberal and hospitable a sincere Christian.”
After his death, a complete inventory of Sturdivant’s property at Summerfield and the Cahaba plantation was taken. This extraordinarily detailed document provides an invaluable glimpse into the lives of an Alabama planter, his family and slaves.
The inventory clearly reveals that the Summerfield residence was not a working plantation, but rather a place of retreat. The house contained many of the finer things of life, including a piano, several paintings, good furniture, silver candlesticks and imported china. In the yard were 16 pigs and two cows, a not unusual number of animals for even urban Southern domiciles. To tend these few animals and keep the house were 10 slaves valued at almost $10,000. The youngest were two girls, Ella and Mary, ages 5 and 6. The oldest was Hetty, 43. There were only two men Tom, 37, and Clayton, 23, who no doubt did the heavy labor around the house and yard. The others were older adolescents who probably polished silver, swept the house and generally tidied up after the Sturdivant brood.
Things were far different on the Cahaba River property. There were 59 slaves there, 15 mules, 12 cows, three oxen, a bull, 57 sheep, 200 hogs and several horses. The fields were planted in cotton and corn and there were wooded thickets that needed clearing. To handle all of this the slaves used log chains, axes, plows, iron tooth harrows, spades and butcher knives. Their clothing would have been tattered and their hands callused.
The Cahaba River slaves were a mixture of ages and sexes. There were Old Handy and Young Handy (father and son?), Elvira, Dinah, Hal and Solomon. Unusually, two of the slaves had last names, Stephen Irby and Arthur Smith. In this respect at least, Stephen and Arthur could set themselves apart not only from the other slaves, but from the mules and horses as well, which all had first names. In subtle and not so subtle ways were men and women in bondage made to feel their condition.
Robert Sturdivant did not live to see all he had worked for swept away. That would be his children’s unpleasant lot. How his one-time slaves felt about their freedom and their ex-master (would they have called “kind, liberal”?) and how they and their progeny fared over subsequent decades are unknown to me. Their stories are out there, however, perhaps yet retrievable by a gifted and diligent researcher.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, April 5, 1998.
© 1998 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Rivers of History

As a boy, I used to accompany my father, a biologist, on bird counts in rural Dallas County. We would begin at daybreak and cover a 20-mile route. Our last stops were in Molett’s Bend on the Alabama River. This was the part of the trip I looked forward to the most. The bend was named for the Molett family, who had come to the area in 1817 from South Carolina. William Page Molett built a plantation house in 1835, and his son, John Ulmer Molett, built another in 1860. Both houses survive, Molett Sr.’s being one of the earliest frame buildings in central Alabama. High-water marks from past floods are still visible in the hallways. A nearby cemetery contains the grave of a Confederate veteran hung during Reconstruction.
Despite this difficult history, the people who lived in the bend were invariably warm and friendly, eager to talk to a biologist about the flora and fauna of the region. How well I remember the year they captured the 10-foot alligator by lowering tractor discs on its back. The beast was chained to a pine tree and was a less-than-content prisoner. Our trip always ended with a walk to the river-bank for a look at the Alabama itself. Wide and muddy, lined with moss draped trees, it was romantic and sinister and endlessly fascinating. Like many Alabamians, I was captivated by the river and drawn to it.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that the history of Alabama is the history of its rivers. From earliest times, Alabama’s rivers have played a pivotal role in the economic and social development of the state. Despite the importance of these rivers, few books have addressed them directly. Hardy Jackson’s Rivers of History redresses the imbalance.
Jackson, head of the history department at Jacksonville State University, is well qualified to chronicle the story of these streams. A native of Clarke County, he grew up “chasing alligators and observing submarines” along the Alabama River. As a historian, he is a dynamic and talented storyteller. In his attempt to write “a scholarly study for the general public,” Jackson focuses on “people rather than institutions.” The result is a warm portrait of the rivers and the people who have inhabited their banks.
Rivers of History profiles the Alabama River system, made up of four streams. The Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers begin in the northeast quarter of the state and join to form the Alabama River at Wetumpka. The Cahaba River begins in suburban Birmingham and joins the Alabama at Cahawba in Dallas County. The Alabama itself flows from Wetumpka to the Tombigbee cutoff, “an inglorious end,” not far from Fort Mims in Baldwin County. As a result, Mobile features only incidentally in this narrative.
Jackson’s descriptions of the rivers before white settlement are masterful. The Coosa and Tallapoosa were wild streams, falling several hundred feet over their courses. They teemed with “sturgeon, trout, perch, rock, red horse,” and were host to hundreds of species of mollusk, many now extinct. The Cahaba ran over a “beautiful bottom of solid rock,” and its banks were lined with “mulberry, sugar tree, maple, white and red oak,” and in the spring, “there was the lily that would bear the river’s name.” The Alabama itself was “sluggish with size and cut larger bends, wide and sweeping to accommodate its bulk” as it moved west and south.
Long before the white men came, Indians lived along the rivers and altered them to suit their purposes, constructing massive stone weirs to divert spawning fish into traps and nets. Then the Spanish came, bringing desolation and disease to the Indians, followed in the 18th century by the French and British and decades of “forest diplomacy.” With American hegemony came waves of settlement and the Creek War. Some of the most colorful episodes in Alabama’s history took place during this war, including the Canoe Fight, the massacre at Fort Mims and the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Jackson does not romanticize what was “in reality a dirty, vengeful war.”
With the Americans came steamboats, plantations and slavery. Foreign visitors were often surprised at the scarcity of towns along the Alabama River. This scarcity was due to the fact that most planters imported what they needed through “factors” in Mobile and had their own steamboat landings for loading cotton. There were more than 200 landings between Montgomery and Claiborne. This made for frequent stops for steamboat travelers bound for Mobile.
The Civil War brought scenes of strife to the rivers. The Confederates established a prison camp at Cahawba, site of the old capitol. Selma was attacked by Union raiders in April of 1865, and its arsenal and niter works burned. Retreating Confederates dumped cannon and supplies into the Alabama River. In Montgomery, more than 80,000 bales of cotton were burned to keep them out of federal hands, and panicked citizens looted stores. The mayor surrendered the city without a shot fired on the morning of April 12, three days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The postwar period was lean, but river people fished, hunted and “dead-headed,” that is reclaimed sunken timber, to scrape together a living. Because earlier radical Republican efforts at public works did little more than reward cronies, conservative Democrats hobbled the state’s ability to develop the rivers by adding a clause to the constitution prohibiting state funds for such work. Alabama would thus be dependent on the federal government for many years for the improvement of its rivers.
Foremost among improvement efforts were attempts to tame the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers through the construction of locks and dams. These would create slack lakes in place of rapids and provide for more effective flood control. Though railroads lessened the importance of rivers for transportation, the streams became indispensable sources of power. Jackson describes the founding and growth of Alabama Power Co. during the early 1900s and its final triumph over the Coosa in 1966 with the completion of the Neely Henry Dam. He credits Alabama Power with “organizational ability, engineering skill, and political savvy that goes unappreciated to this day.”
Modern industrial development of the rivers and attendant problems with pollution are treated with balance and care, but the reader comes away with a sobering sense of what has been lost. The Cahaba, still in a relatively natural state without a major dam, is threatened by pesticides, discharge from waste treatment plants and mining operations. It has recently been listed as one of America’s 10 most endangered rivers. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is portrayed as at best inept and at worst complicit with major industry in pollution of the rivers. Fundamentally, the problem lies in the fact that Alabama’s rivers are regarded as economic rather than natural resources. Jackson contends that only when Alabamians demand stricter management will things improve.
Irrevocably altered by man and bent to his purposes, the rivers still provide scenes of breathtaking beauty. The slack lakes that have replaced the crashing rapids of the Coosa are enjoyed by thousands every weekend. The Tallapoosa’s power is awesomely displayed at the Thurlow Dam. The Cahaba purls along as it has since time immemorial while the sluggish Alabama rolls on down mostly in solitude. Harvey Jackson has given us an engaging, well written history of these rivers and the people who have struggled with them. The book should appeal to every reader with an interest in Alabama and its resources.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, September 17, 1995.
© 1995 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Bumper Crop of Poems Celebrates Life on the Land

Most Southerners no longer make their living on the land. Crowded into the region’s booming cities, laboring at office or factory jobs, their historic association with the soil is broken. But even as suburban or urban dwellers, they affectionately tend backyard garden patches with tomatoes or squash ripening in the sun. Memories of the farm and the pleasures of moist earth between the fingers are not so easily muted.
Working the Dirt (NewSouth, $20), a delightful new poetry anthology compiled and edited by Jennifer Horne, honors Southerners’ profound connection to the land. The book consists of more than 75 poems organized into six categories that move the reader through the agricultural history of the South, from “The Farm” to “Fruits and Vegetables” to “Yards and Gardens.” In a recent telephone interview from her Tuscaloosa home, Horne, a poet and former editor at the University of Alabama Press, said that she began the project as a collection of garden poetry, “but I kept coming on all these farm poems.” Her appreciation for the “connection between Southern gardening and farming” was enlarged and is beautifully reflected in the present volume.
The poets one would expect to find in such a collection are mostly here Wendell Berry, Robert Penn Warren, Fred Chappell and Randall Jarrell along with quite a few talented lesser-knowns. The selections include a mix of traditional and free verse and are without exception comprehensible (hardly a given where modern poetry is concerned), appropriate to their category, and fairly short.
The farming poems are especially vivid in their evocations of place and of hard work. In “Delta Rain,” Lily Peter sets a scene that any rambler of the countryside will instantly recognize: “Across the brown delta loam / the thin green cotton rows run to woods along the bayou, / where the bullfrogs bellow among the cypress knees / in the cool dimness of the cloudy May afternoon. // A finger of lightning reaches down to the treetops / where the south wind whips up the leaves like ivory lace / against the hyacinthine blue of the rain clouds, / and the rain follows with its silver shadow.” In “Starting a Pasture,” Walter McDonald describes building a fence: “Sun going down, / the last hole dug, the last post dropped / and tamped tight enough to hold three strands of wire, / I toss the digger in the pickup between bales / of barbed wire ready for stringing, . . .” But it is pitiless economics that dominates the poet’s thoughts rather than any satisfaction in a job well done.
There is good imagery in abundance, as demonstrated in “The Farmer” by Ellen Bryant Voigt: “In the still-blistering late afternoon, / like currying a horse the rake / circled the meadow, the cut grass ridging / behind it.” Elsewhere, dramatic skies serve as backdrops for weathered tools and abandoned buildings, trucks jounce through dust, and families take solace as they amble over tilled ground.
Not surprisingly, history both personal and grand is conjured in many of these poems. This is appropriate since it would be hard to imagine a single acre in the South that wasn’t once inhabited by American Indians, or farmed by pioneers, or fought over during the Revolution or Civil War. Robert Penn Warren’s “Kentucky Mountain Farm” recalls struggle and sacrifice: “In these autumn orchards once young men lay dead / Grey coats, blue coats. Young men on the mountainside / Clambered, fought. Heels muddied the rocky spring. // Their reason is hard to guess, remembering / Blood on their black mustaches in moonlight, / Cold musket-barrels glittering with frost. // Their reason is hard to guess and a long time past; / The apple falls, falling in the quiet night.”
Things change, but there is no escaping the past, as Fred Chappell declares in “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet”: “Nothing new gets started without the old’s / Plowed under, or halfway under. We sprouted from dirt, / Though, and it’s with you, and dirt you’ll never forget.”
There are quiet pleasures here, too savoring vegetables, opening a pickle jar, and wandering amid colorful flowers. In “Root Cellar,” George Scarbrough describes preserved peaches glowing “like faint heat lightning / filtered through clouds” on a sagging, cobwebbed shelf.
Working the Dirt is a useful reminder of the South’s agrarian past as well as a hymn to growing things. Jennifer Horne’s love of gardening and poetry has borne marvelous fruit in this tasteful collection.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, January 4, 2004.
© 2004 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Faulkner’s “Blood and Thunder” Novel Endures

It was a gorgeous fall afternoon. The air was crisp and clean, the sky a brilliant blue and the Chinese Tallow trees ablaze with red and yellow. I was working along my back fence, clearing away the dry tangle of privet, kudzu and thorn that had run riot all summer. With broad strokes of the sling blade I hacked away at the dense mass, sending twigs and broken bits of vine flying. The westering sun shot golden beams through the debris-filled air, and there was no sound but the crash of the blade. My barn jacket felt good in the chill, and my dog sat nearby, waiting for me to finish. At that moment it struck me I must read some Faulkner.
Certain authors suit certain moods, and this was clearly a Faulkner moment. My choices were limited, however. I have only two Faulkner volumes in my personal library, a collection of short stories and a Library of America edition featuring his four later novels Go Down, Moses (1942), Intruder in the Dust (1948), Requiem for a Nun (1951) and A Fable (1954). I didn’t want to read a short story, desiring something more substantial, but Requiem for a Nun and A Fable both seemed too long. Having read Go Down, Moses before, I settled into a chair with the volume opened to Intruder in the Dust.
When Faulkner asked his publishers for an advance to write this book, he told them that it was to be a “blood and thunder mystery novel” that would deal forthrightly with the issue of race. Its underlying theme was to be, he wrote, the “relationship between Negro and White . . . the premise being that the white people in the South, before the North or the govt. {sic} or anyone else, owe and must pay a responsibility to the Negro.” Faulkner wrote the novel in just over a month, and revised it in three.
Reviews were mixed, but widespread, and Intruder in the Dust sold 15,000 copies. It was Faulkner’s first commercial success. Despite critical acclaim for his earlier books, they had been sluggish sellers. MGM bought the movie rights for $50,000, and Faulkner used the money to buy a sailboat and enlarge his beloved Rowan Oak.
Subsequent critical opinion on Intruder in the Dust has been mixed as well, but the general consensus is that it lacks the emotional force and power of Faulkner’s earlier works. The novel is set in Yoknapatawpha County and centers on a black man, Lucas Beauchamp, who is accused of murdering a white man. The determination of the white population to lynch Beauchamp is thwarted by an unlikely alliance of two teen boys (one white and one black), an old spinster and a conscientious small-town lawyer (both white).
Intruder in the Dust features Faulkner’s signature stream-of-consciousness prose, maddening in its twists and turns and changes of focus. Even so, the tale is more straightforward than most of his stories (there are few significant temporal digressions, for instance) and the narrative drive is strong. The book is, in short, a page-turner.
There are also a number of memorable passages, none more famous than the Gettysburg fantasy. As Faulkner wrote, “For every Southern boy 14 years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on the July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet. . . .”
If Intruder in the Dust lacks the gravitas of Absalom, Absalom! or Light in August, no matter. Passages like the foregoing make it well worth the read. Those approaching Faulkner for the first time ought to consider this novel. It is lean and fast and sometimes even dazzling. It certainly satisfied me on an autumn evening.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, January 9, 2000.
© 2000 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Oprah Makes Brave, Bold Choice with Faulkner

“If you have not read this author, you cannot say you have been baptized as a real reader.” So said Oprah Winfrey earlier this month when she announced three novels by William Faulkner As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August as her summer book club picks. In their depth and complexity these books exceed by far anything Oprah has chosen before. But any doubts that her fans would happily follow wherever she leads, even into the dark, haunted thickets and broken-down hamlets of Yoknapatawpha County, were quickly allayed when, within 24 hours of her announcement, a boxed set of the three titles rocketed to No. 2 in sales on Amazon.com . The No. 1 slot is held by the upcoming Harry Potter book, due in July.
Literati, columnists and bloggers have had a field day imagining how Oprah’s legions, heretofore mostly nourished by their heroine on sensible middle-brow titles that affirm individual worth and self-improvement, will react to Faulkner’s bleak worldview rendered in famously dense, convoluted prose. David Skinner, an editor at The Weekly Standard, chortled, “If they’re coming straight from the scented-soap world of Winfrey-land, these readers are going to be absolutely lost when they arrive in Yoknapatawpha County.” Jesse Kornbluth, a New York journalist, opined at a cultural review site, Headbutler.com , “I have no illusions about this summer reading project I’ll be stunned if 10% of Oprah’s devotees reach page 100 of any of these novels.” And according to a New York Times story, Oxford, Miss., mayor (and bookstore owner) Richard Howorth uttered an obscenity when he heard the news and then commented: “With a good reading group leader they’ll make it through As I Lay Dying. And they’ll make it through Light in August. But they’re going to start The Sound and the Fury and say, ‘What is this?’” At which point he made a gesture like he was tossing the book over his shoulder.
But Oprah isn’t about to abandon her followers in the mean and confusing dust of 1930s Mississippi. Her Web site, oprah.com , features an impressive and easy-to-navigate guide to reading Faulkner. Among its helpful tips: “Be patient,” “Be willing to reread,” and “Focus on the characters.” There is a complete absence of jargon, and the site constantly reassures readers who might have been put off by the great man in college courses. There are plot summaries, character sketches and explanations of what Faulkner was trying to achieve.
Registered Oprah Book Club members can take advantage of more layers on the Web site, including video lectures by Faulkner scholars to whom they can e-mail any questions they might have. One reader asked Robert Hamblin, director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, what Faulkner’s constant use of italics and semicolons meant. Hamblin responded in part: “Purists who believe in following the rules laid out in literary handbooks find Faulkner’s intrusions illogical and even inartistic, like a playwright, perhaps, who keeps rushing onto the stage in the middle of his play and calling attention to himself. Others of us see him as a writer who boldly challenges the accepted norm, takes enormous chances, and invents new forms in short, a literary genius.”
Selecting three Faulkner novels, arguably three of the most difficult, provides incontrovertible proof that Oprah Winfrey is a cultural colossus on the American landscape. Who else could recommend books of such difficulty and profundity and have hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, from all walks of life rush out and buy them and spend hours of precious leisure time reading and attempting to comprehend them? It is a truly astonishing phenomenon, bold and fearless, without parallel in its sweep. Whether or not all of Oprah’s followers make it through the three books hardly matters. What does matter is that for those who make even some effort a new world will open, and they will be wiser than they were in May. They will become more sophisticated readers, confident in their ability to understand great literature.
Born again, as it were, thanks to Oprah.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, June 26, 2005.
© 2005 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Liuzzo Biographer Brings a Sense of Justice to Topic

We pulled off the highway and clambered through a barbed wire fence. My companion, a young woman from Selma, was showing me the place where Viola Liuzzo had been murdered in 1965. She said you had to know right where to look to find it and she wasn’t kidding. We were in the middle of Lowndes County, “Bloody Lowndes” as they called it during the ’60s, smack between Selma and Montgomery along Highway 80, a four-laned corridor of asphalt running east-west through a vast rural landscape.
Though it was high noon, there was little traffic, only the occasional semi-truck barreling along. Whenever the driver of one of these big rigs spotted my friend’s blowing blond hair, he would lay on his air horn, utterly oblivious to the solemnity of the site. Otherwise, we were undisturbed. It was 1983, and a simple wreath, weathered and forlorn, commemorated the location of Viola Liuzzo’s sacrifice. Today, there is a substantial stone marker placed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Yet Viola Liuzzo does not rest in peace. Vandals, who painted a Confederate flag over the inscription, have defaced the marker.
Who was this middle-aged white woman who left her husband and five children in Detroit and came south to join the civil rights struggle? Why was she so virulently hated? Why was she so feared by Northerners and Southerners? Even today, as the vandalism of her marker demonstrates, Viola Liuzzo continues to tap deep wellsprings of anger.
A new book, From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo (Georgia) by Mary Stanton, effectively answers these questions. Stanton, a freelance writer who lives in New York City, was a young woman of 18 when Liuzzo was murdered, and her biography of the civil rights activist is intensely personal. She recalls the heated debate over the murder, and her bewilderment over the particular rage expressed by white women. “Their anger at her seemed out of proportion to what she had done,” Stanton writes. This was because for many whites Liuzzo threatened the very foundations of the traditional social order. Not only had she provoked Alabamians by riding in a car with a black man, but also her abandonment of her family bespoke “reckless female defiance.”
Stanton’s admiration for Liuzzo goes well beyond that of a prudent biographer. Her account is by turns gushing and worshipful. To her credit, she admits, “Somewhere along my journey I came to love my subject, and I lost all my objectivity.” She is unfailingly sympathetic towards Liuzzo, yet does not withhold unpleasant or troubling facts about her heroine.
Viola Liuzzo was born April 11, 1925, in Pennsylvania. She was raised a Southerner, however, in Georgia and Tennessee. She eloped at 16 with a man twice her age, but the marriage was annulled a day later. She married twice more, and had five children. She had a history of confrontation, with employers and school boards, and was dedicated to social justice. The televised beatings in March 1965 at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge deeply moved Liuzzo and prompted her journey south.
After the successful march on Montgomery, Liuzzo volunteered to ferry marchers back to Selma. This was clearly hazardous duty, given the number of white toughs looking to vent their frustrations. The fact that Liuzzo was driving a car with Michigan plates and had a young black man riding shotgun made the situation a recipe for disaster. After dropping off a load of marchers, Liuzzo and her companion were spotted by a carload of Klansmen, who gave chase and fired on the car. Liuzzo was killed and the car run off the road. Her companion feigned death. Scandalously, one of the killers was a paid FBI informant. In order to avoid embarrassment, J. Edgar Hoover had Liuzzo publicly smeared.
It is fitting that Stanton’s book corrects much of the misinformation disseminated by the government following Liuzzo’s murder. If at times overly laudatory, From Selma to Sorrow nevertheless rights a monstrous wrong in the historical record. Viola Liuzzo may have been impetuous and unwise, but she was not a villain. In Mary Stanton she has at last found justice.
[Update: In 1996 Congress designated Highway 80 a National Historic Trail between Selma and Montgomery. Viola Liuzzo’s marker has been cleaned and the site is now easy to spot.]
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, January 10, 1999.
© 1999 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
South Carolina’s Charms Preserved in Encyclopedia

South Carolinians love their history, and they love it in heaping amounts. Nobody knows this better than Mobile’s own Walter Edgar, who as director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina has been gratifying their appetites for years with beautifully written and produced books, a regular radio program and frequent speaking engagements. His massive South Carolina: A History (2001) set new standards for comprehensiveness and readability in what had theretofore been a fairly dusty subgenre among academic historians. To date, the book has sold over fifty thousand copies, a stratospheric level for a state history.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Edgar has remained very busy indeed, and his latest project is bound to please his many fans. Nearly 10 years in the making, The South Carolina Encyclopedia (South Carolina, $78), which Edgar coordinated and edited, presents a veritable smorgasbord of Palmetto State history, facts and trivia (for lack of a better word) that anyone with even a passing interest in Southern history will find completely delicious.
In the preface, Edgar confesses that when the Humanities Council of South Carolina approached him about the encyclopedia project, he hesitated. “I was not sure I wanted to get involved in what would surely become a multiyear commitment,” he writes. “However, the more that I thought about the project, the more enthusiastic I became.” Clearly the prospect appealed to Edgar’s evangelistic impulses. For the first time ever, there would be a one-volume reference book that scholars and laypeople alike could consult for almost any aspect of South Carolina history they could imagine.
The resulting volume is an impressive thing to behold (and to hold), weighing in at over a thousand pages (and 3.8 pounds!) with hundreds of black-and-white illustrations and a lovely center section of color plates. The big book contains a total of 1,927 entries, ranging from 250 words to over two thousand, all contributed by 598 “willing and capable individuals.” Every county and every town with a population over 2,500 (by the 2000 census) scores an entry, as do all of the state’s governors and U.S. senators.
One expects a state encyclopedia to cover this kind of territory, of course, along with the battles and the generals and the civil rights activists, all of which are duly here. But one of the delights of The South Carolina Encyclopedia is its close and careful attention to the state’s varied, more offbeat and colorful peculiarities and personalities. These include joggling boards (a Lowcountry invention), the Boykin spaniel (originally bred in the state), Hoppin’ John (a fine coastal dish), Lillian Ellison (a professional wrestler during the 1940s known as “The Fabulous Moolah”) and Two Seed in the Spirit Baptists (an early 19th-century “hardshell” group whose heirs modern political hopefuls have to pay attention to during the state’s primaries).
Again and again the reader will be delighted to come across accomplished people whose association with South Carolina will likely come as a revelation. These include the painter Jasper Johns (reared in the central part of the state), the poet James Dickey (who taught at the University of South Carolina), members of the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish (lead singer Darius Rucker was born in Charleston) and the Doolittle Raiders of World War II fame (who trained in Columbia).
As with any effort like this, one could take issue with the omissions, and there are many. Among the most surprising is Gordon Langley Hall, who underwent a sex change operation and became known as Dawn Langley Hall, then married a working-class black man, all to the horror (and perhaps secret delight) of aristocratic Old Charleston. Also conspicuously absent is Elias Ball, one of the largest slave holders in South Carolina history. No doubt these and countless other possible entries were considered by Edgar and his assistant editors at various points along the way and regretfully winnowed.
In the end, the omissions are of little import. The reader can only admire Edgar’s determination to present as much about his adopted state as practicable, across as wide a spectrum as possible. The South Carolina Encyclopedia is a towering contribution and will likely stand as definitive for decades to come.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, August 19, 2007.
© 2007 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Young Woman’s Diaries Basis of Wonderful Book

M iss American Pie: A Story of Love, Secrets and Growing Up in the 1970s (Bloomsbury, $19.95) by Margaret Sartor is an extraordinary book by turns poignant, funny, conflicted and suffused throughout by a bracing directness. It strikes me as one of the best accounts of female adolescence in many a year, and critics have been rightly blown away by it.
Sartor is a photographer who teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. While at work on one of her visual projects, she discovered her old diaries in an attic trunk and was instantly taken back to her Louisiana girlhood on the banks of the Ouachita River. Inspired, she reread them, and decided to turn them into a book, informed and edited by, she writes, “the woman that girl became.”
The result is not a rigorously faithful transcription of the diaries, but rather an intelligent and thoughtful pastiche of a variety of material, anchored by the diaries but also including letters, notebooks and family photographs. What emerges is the distilled essence of Sartor’s interior life, as it happened but deepened and informed by mature hindsight. That it flows so well is testament to her editorial abilities. The narrative is presented as a diary with dated entries, bracketed by an introduction and a catalog of what eventually happened to the main characters.
On January 3, 1972, Sartor wrote: “My name is Margaret Earline Sartor. I’m in the seventh grade at Robert E. Lee Junior High in Montgomery, Louisiana, the United States of America, the Earth, the Universe. I am bored out of my mind.” Montgomery is actually Monroe, which she describes as safe but uneasy. “Marijuana was available,” she writes, “but still uncommon. Sex was available, common, and never discussed openly between polite parents and their children. Montgomery wasn’t a backwater, but it wasn’t progressive either.”
Her parents were movie-star handsome, intelligent and wise. Her father was a doctor, well-known about town, and her mother an amateur artist with a free-spirited nature. Sartor and her three siblings grew up in a brick ranch house on a large lot protected from the Ouachita by an earthen levee. She spent much of her free time riding the property on her horse, daydreaming and fantasizing.
As Sartor advanced through high school, boys became the dominant topic, closely followed by the complicated maneuvering of her female friends. She juggled several boyfriends and struggled with her emotions and desires. Though she drank some and did her share of “parking” (how quaint that term seems nowadays!) she resisted going “all the way.” On June 24, 1975, she wrote: “Tonight Dash called and told me to come over. First, he asked me to tell him I loved him & I couldn’t because I don’t. Then we had a disagreement because he wants to go further (sex wise) and I’m not going to do it. It really bothers him. He’s not used to it, I guess. I’m not terribly distressed. I told him ‘no matter how much I care for you, I’m not going to change for you.’ He said he’d thought of that.”
Another important theme is evangelical religion. Like many of her classmates, Sartor became swept up in earnest prayer meetings tearful, joy-filled sessions that played a significant role in her thoughts and outlook. Though this experience gave Sartor a sense of purpose and hope, the normal adolescent urges and anxieties hardly disappeared. In some respects, the church simply provided a different arena for her ongoing personal dramas. Her parents kept careful emotional track, counseling caution and reason.
Sartor was not blind to the larger issues of her day. She briefly noted some of the moon shots and Nixon’s resignation. She also witnessed school desegregation firsthand and probed her parents to see where they stood. On April 18, 1974, she asked her father “what he would say if I had a date with a black boy and he answered that I could go out with any boy as long as the boy was polite and showed up at the front door and had taken a bath.”
Miss American Pie vividly evokes the 1970s with all its trappings, but the book’s bedrock strength derives most powerfully from its candid revelation of the hopes, fears, dreams and desires that defined the female experience of that generation. This book earns my highest recommendation.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, August 20, 2006.
© 2006 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Painter Mary Whyte Shows Keen Eye for Laborers in Working South

Watercolorist Mary Whyte is a veritable Studs Terkel of the brush, as is convincingly demonstrated in her sumptuous new book, Working South: Paintings and Sketches by Mary Whyte (South Carolina, $49.95). This gifted artist’s inspiration to depict ordinary working folk was inspired by news of a Carolina textile mill shutdown, which occasioned the layoffs of hundreds of people. She heard about this localized economic disaster while painting the portrait of a bank executive in his enormous office. It suddenly struck her that portraits of everyday people laboring at unglamorous occupations were just as important to paint as those of successful businessmen and professionals. More so, perhaps, amid shifting global economies and environmental disruptions that have eliminated wholesale so many traditional ways of work.
The volume presents 61 color portraits, leavened by Whyte’s journal entries, from locales like Gretna, Va.; Jamesville, N.C.; Gray Court, S.C.; Fulton, Ala.; Biloxi; Bayou La Batre and New Orleans. She writes well, and the journal entries expand on some of the personalities she depicts with her brush. Of a Crescent City shoe shine specialist, she writes: “I watched the precise rhythm that the grey-haired man in the starched apron used. The same rhythm he has used since he was five years old: buff, snap, buff, snap, buff, snap. The customer reached into his pocket, still talking on his phone. Buff, snap, buff, snap, buff, snap. Seven dollars.” These are the invisible people, going about their tasks with little notice or congratulation.
As compelling as some of the journal entries are, it is the paintings that signify most, and they are glories of representational art. I have always thought of watercolors as insubstantial and, well, watery, but Whyte’s portraits are absorbing in their depth and richness. Only in some of the backgrounds and at the margins does the fact that they are watercolors really register at all. Although accuracy matters a great deal to her, she insists that “true art is not about copying. Every painting is an invention. . . . Not one painting represented in this book is exactly what I saw, but each is exactly what I felt. ” And what she feels, judging from her work, is profoundest respect and affection for her subjects and their sometimes back-breaking toil.
The people depicted include a textile mill spinner, an industrial equipment cleaner, an Atlanta milliner, a drive-in movie operator, a Biloxi shrimper (“This isn’t meant for everybody”), an oyster shucker, a crab picker, a paper carrier, an elevator operator, a lumberman and an okra vendor. Perhaps the best portrait in the book is that of the mill spinner (also shown opposite the title page), a weary black woman leaning back against metal drums heaped with white yarn. The green drums softly contrast with the denim apron held to her waist by a clothespin and her orange t-shirt flecked with lint. A white hairnet frames her frank features as she supports her head with her bent right arm, which rests along the lip of one of the drums. She looks directly at the viewer, a perfect picture of quiet resignation but also assured competence.
Again and again we see people at work with their hands the milliner absent-mindedly sewing a cloth flower onto a straw hat while she stares out the window; a gray-haired quilter concentrating as she works her magic; an older mill worker measuring out a length of thread with outstretched arms, spool in one gloved hand, thread’s end held deftly between thumb and palm of the other, her name tag identifying her as “Elaine”; a diner owner counting out her meager tips; a ferry captain grasping the wheel; a beekeeper smoking her hives; and a drive-in movie operator changing out the letters on the internally lit plastic marquee.
The least successful painting on offer, by my lights, is “Shroud,” which depicts a female textile worker eyes closed, head tilted, blond hair blowing tightly wrapped from feet to neck in yellow cloth. Meant no doubt as an elegy for an entire industry, it rather confirms that Whyte is on firmest ground when painting in a more literal vein. At this she excels, and Working South is an important and memorable record of what a dwindling number of our fellow Southerners do and how they do it.
Mobile Press-Register, John Sledge, April 20, 2011.
© 2011 Mobile Press-Register. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Confederate Monument, Athens City Cemetery. Courtesy of Robin McDonald


The Civil War
Even 150 years out, the American Civil War remains the lynchpin of Southern history and the subject of an ongoing avalanche of books. Because it is so important and readers never seemed to tire of it, I devoted many columns to what one historian called “the irrepressible conflict.” Some of these revisit such classics as Sam Watkins’s memorable Co. Aytch (regularly reprinted) and Thomas Connelly’s definitive study Army of the Heartland, while others highlight what will, I firmly believe, become classics in the future. Of these, Robert Knox Sneden’s unpretentious masterpiece Eye of the Storm, sprinkled with his carefully rendered maps and drawings, strikes me as one of the most felicitous Civil War book “finds” in years.
I also include here columns on the Confederate submarine Hunley, built in Mobile before going on to Charleston and fame; my father’s early copy of History of the Campaign of Mobile by C. C. Andrews, which contains remarkable marginalia by a Confederate veteran who was there; a particularly good modern Civil War novel; an even more remarkable Gettysburg poem by a retired North Carolina schoolteacher with almost no previous publications but impressive talent; and a heartrending book on slaves, about whom, lest we forget or deny, it was all about.


Slaves’ Memories Offer Harrowing Accounts of War

“Guns nowadays just goes pop-pop, but them guns sounded like thunder.”
Willis Winn, former Louisiana slave
Of all the books about our great sectional crisis, I don’t know that I have ever encountered one as bleak and full of heartbreak as The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, $28) by Andrew Ward. In what must surely count as a stroke of genius, Ward, a former National Public Radio commentator and an essayist for publications like The Atlantic and The Washington Post, decided that he would search out the voices of the slaves themselves on just what the experience of the Civil War was like. It seems like such an obvious approach, and yet of the multitudes of Civil War books, few have devoted much attention to the feelings of those who were at the very center of the controversy.
Ward’s main sources are the 1930s Works Progress Administration interviews with former slaves, newspaper accounts, memoirs, letters and diaries. In a long author’s note, he explains the problematical nature of some of this material, especially the WPA interviews. In most cases, he says, the interviewers were white, sometimes descendants of the interviewee’s original owner, and as a result there was an understandable lack of candor in the exchanges. Furthermore, the federal government required that the subjects be identified, and not everyone was willing to go on record. Lastly, the interviewees were speaking of events that occurred decades before, when most of them were children. As Ward writes, “Slaves’ memories were no freer of conflations, omissions, evasions and fabrications than anyone else’s.” Still and all, the WPA interviews constitute a national treasure, and for the historian who knows how to use them, a fascinating source of insight.
The Slaves’ War consists of thousands of short quotes from these sources woven through Ward’s chronological narrative. Two of his editorial decisions are immediately apparent the toned-down dialect and elimination of the n-word. The WPA interviewers’ proclivity for dressing up their transcripts with colorful dialect is well known. In addition, even when not exaggerated, there are considerable disadvantages with colloquial speech on the printed page. Rather than wrestle with all that, Ward simplified. “I am concerned,” he explains, “not so much with how they [slaves] may have sounded but with what they said.”
As to the n-word, Ward notes that it “appears in grim profusion throughout the sources,” employed by both whites and blacks in numerous contexts. Rather than try to “puzzle out its use” for the reader he decided to eliminate it altogether.

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