Saturday, April 13, 2013

Saturday Good Reads: Reading Southern

I grew up in the South at a time when change had arrived, and was overtaking nearly a century of a particular way of life, a particular kind of culture. Many people outside the South associated it with backwardness, ignorance, and racism, and all there were certainly there. But so were major academic scholarship and a distinct and world-recognized literature.

I attended LSU at what was likely the zenith of its highly regarded history department, led by T. Harry Williams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his biography Huey Long (I read the fat paperback version in 1969, the year I entered LSU). What Williams was known on campus for, however, was his class on the history of the Civil War. It was one of the few classes that always had a waiting list; he kept it small and it was almost always inhabited by seniors (rank mattered in class selection).

Not all outstanding biographies and histories were written by Southerners; A.J. Leibling, a staff writer for The New Yorker from 1935 until his death in 1960, published a biography of Huey Long’s brother, Earl Long, that was published in its entirety in the New Yorker in 1960. It was called The Earl of Louisiana.

Earl was governor, and while he was never indicted, convicted and imprisoned like a governor before him in the early 1940s and one after him (Edwin Edwards), he did have one dubious distinction held by no other Louisiana governor. I was 8 when I saw on television the men in the white coats removing the governor from the state capital, and taking him to an asylum in Texas. He did manage to talk his way out, and he got even. One of the actions that convinced his wife Blancher and some cronies to have him “put away” was his well publicized national tour accompanied by Blaze Starr, a stripper in New Orleans.

Today, politics in Louisiana seems rather tame. The state now elects governors like Bobby Jindal. For entertainment purposes, we now have to go to the state capital in Illinois to find something comparable to what Louisiana was in its heyday.

In fiction, too, the South has produced some distinctive writers. William Faulkner is still hard to read, but he changed literature forever. Flannery O’Connor is still widely read and admired today.

Three Southern authors that I’ve always enjoyed reading are Walker Percy, Fred Chappell and Donald Harington.

Walker Percy (another native Louisianian; he grew up in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, the setting for his novel The Moviegoer, write a number of novels, the most memorable for me being Love in the Ruins. It is set in a post-apocalyptic Southern city (obviously New Orleans), and part of the story is about a sniper who gets on the roof of a Holiday Inn and starts indiscriminately shooting people. Almost exactly the same thing happened in downtown New Orleans in 1972 – and the hotel was a Holiday Inn. A copy of Love in the Ruins was found in the sniper’s apartment in Oklahoma.

Fred Chappell, a North Carolinian, is another distinctly Southern writer. I was introduced to his fiction in the early 1990s by a friend a work. My two favorites are Farewell I’m Bound to Leave You and I Am One of You Forever.

And then there’s Donald Harington, who lived and taught in Fayetteville, Arkansas until his death not long ago. He’s written several novels, but his most famous one is The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks. In the early 1980s, a speechwriting colleague of mine urged everyone she met to read it. But it was out of print and hard to find. While attending a seminar in New York, I actually discovered a copy in a used bookstore and bought it. It is one of the most naturally funny novels I’ve ever read.

There are other writers, too, but these are the ones that stand out. And these are the ones who helped me understand and make sense of my own region and history.

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