Gather at the River
Notes from the Post-Millennial South
Publication Year: 2005
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
Series: Southern Literary Studies
Title Page, Copyright
Hal Crowther tells us that as a fourteen-year-old he went to sleep each night with an autographed baseball under his pillow and a copy of The Vintage Mencken close by. Clearly both exposures took. He writes literary and cultural commentary with a verve that makes...
The Tao of Dixie: A Stubborn People
A foreigner from Scotland or California will visit a large Southern city—usually Atlanta—and complain that he could never find the South of song and story. Just another Minneapolis, as far as he could see, with the heat turned up and a few magnolias. Maybe our visitor...
I. Words and Music: But We Sure Can Sing
The Shoes of a Giant
On a curb that flanks the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, the unwitting tourist confronts an enormous pair of tortured-looking shoes. At first glance they look like something cast o≠ by a derelict reduced to negotiating the mean...
Landmarks: The Three Graces
In Elizabeth Spencer’s short story “A Southern Landscape,” an enormous antebellum ruin called Windsor is locally famous—in fictional Port Claiborne, Mississippi—because its cupola was once so high you could see it from the river, and pilot Mark Twain was reputed to have...
First Person Singular: A Boy and His Dog
Last week a rambling dinner conversation turned to the gross excesses of the flourishing memoir industry. The worst thing I could document was a reading at the PEN-Faulkner dinner in Washington by the noted incest author Katharine Harrison, whose work in progress...
Oral Misery: The Columbus Syndrome
Americans never turn sentimental about something of real value— wilderness, wild animals, small towns, baseball, mountain music, our privacy—until the way we live and do business has pressed it to the edge of extinction. Then we administer a≠ectionate last rites to...
"Son of a Preacher Man: Marshall Frady (1940–2004)
I never met Marshall Frady, though we knew so many of the same people it seems uncanny that I missed him. We even survived the same apprenticeship as writers, among the hopeful anonymous at Time-Life and Post-Newsweek. I can imagine what he went through...
The Other Appetite: The Literature of Lust
“There are two fundamental urges in nature: the desire to eat and the desire to reproduce one’s kind. Which of these two impulses is the stronger depends somewhat on the individual and somewhat on the circumstances surrounding the individual—that is, it is apt to...
Faulkner and the Mosquitoes
The ridicule of literary theorists is a poor diversion, roughly as challenging—and as appetizing—as shooting box turtles with a machine gun. These scarcely moving targets, stumbling under their heavy burdens of calcified jargon and unjustified self-regard, have been...
Gather at the River: The O Brotherhood
In Grundy, Virginia, where Ralph and Carter Stanley once played bluegrass on the roof of the concession stand at my wife’s uncle’s drive-in theater, Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou? has been drawing customers rarely seen in the village, far less at the movies...
Movies, Mules, and Music
“What makes the South southern?” is a question that still provokes serious debate among Southerners. At one literary symposium, English professor Jerry Leath Mills of the University of North Carolina dismissed a cartload of leaden theory with the results of his own extensive...
Nashville: Dolly and the Subterfugitives
In his 1975 film Nashville—never praised and seldom mentioned in Nashville, Tennessee—Robert Altman scouted the borderlands between reality and fantasy in a city that’s become less a state capital than a state of mind. Among American dream markets only Hollywood...
The Last Song of Father Banjo
Tommy Thompson was from West Virginia and he bore a certain resemblance to a mountain, or at least to someone who’d just come down from the mountain after talking to The Boss. He wore the weather on his shoulders....
II. Spirits of the Place
The Last Autochthon: Listening to the Land
Maybe John Barth wouldn’t have said it in Mississippi. Key West is an offshore principality where “Southernmost” appears on scores of business signs, but where living thirteen hundred miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line means no more than it means in Havana. Surrounded...
A Man of the World
In a country tribute to James Still’s longevity, one of his neighbors told him, “You’re the last possum up the tree.” The last of his generation in Knott County, Kentucky, the neighbor meant to say. But Still, who died in April a few weeks short of his ninety-fifth birthday, was...
Among the True Believers
Waco, Texas, is a quiet respectable town, a city of 100,000 with a well-endowed university, several art museums, a zoo, a famous collection of the manuscripts of the nineteenth-century English poet Robert Browning. It welcomes visitors with tourist attractions as wholesome...
The old boys don’t know what to make of Denise Giardina. When she announced her candidacy for governor of West Virginia, a bewildered Democratic functionary warned readers of one Charleston newspaper that there was “a darker quality” to her campaign, something...
The Last Resort
It’s a little after seven when I walk out on the balcony for my morning survey of the Gulf of Mexico. There are scattered clouds, a steady wind out of the northeast, and on the beach below me two street urchins, teenagers, doing what they so endearingly call “the wild...
III. Portrait from Memory: A Fine Disregard
A Prophet from Savannah
In college, most of us are too self-conscious and too anxious about our own uncertain fortunes to make accurate judgments of our peers. We’re attracted to style without substance, often to individuals with neither if a deadly jump shot or a famous family is part of the package...
IV. Objections Sustained
A Farewell to Arms
The rising sun is just clearing the ridge behind me, lighting up weeping cherry trees in peerless full bloom. A fresh breeze carries the dense sweet scent of wisteria down the terraces to the bench where I read my newspaper. So far I’m the only Sunday pilgrim in the Sarah P....
The Old Dragons Sleep
Through a harsh winter of saber-rattling anxiety, there was almost no good news for America except the final farewells of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, Jim Crow’s last prominent disciples, Carolina’s last living (barely) monuments to segregation and white supremacy....
Who’s Your Daddy? Fathers of Us All
On T-shirts and bumper stickers you don’t see if you live in a gated golf community, the slogan under the Confederate battle flag is “Heritage, not hate.” It’s a slogan I’ve been willing to accept, provisionally. The crusade against the Stars and Bars is one of the unexamined excesses...
The Curse of Shoeless Joe
At the end of the twentieth century, the major leagues had been all but abandoned by those who love baseball most. Good poets have written volumes explaining what we loved and why we loved it. Here, it’s enough to say that none of it lives in corporate skyboxes or domed stadiums...
Sacred Art, Southern Fried: Harlots and Hellfire
It’s not well known that I was once, for a very short run, an actual salaried art critic for a large northern newspaper. But it’s my reputation as an independent theologian that best qualifies me to comment on the paintings of the late Reverend McKendree Long. As a lapsed...
Mencken and Me: Indiscreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie
According to legend, Alexander the Great slept every night of his short life with two things under his pillow—his knife and his copy of The Iliad. As a boy of fourteen, already identified as a troubled adolescent, I slept with a baseball under my pillow—a ball autographed...