Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 104-106
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Hal Crowther is an award-winning journalist whose column in the Raleigh Spectator used to evoke angry letters from that weekly's conservative readers. When he moved across the Triangle to Durham's Independent his column evoked angry letters from the readers of that left-leaning publication. He might be described as politically liberal and culturally conservative, but there are a great many exceptions to each of those generalizations. He is, in other words, a man who toes nobody's party line, thinks for himself, and makes his readers think, too, if they're capable of thought in the first place. His previous collection of southern-themed essays, Cathedrals of Kudzu, won some of those awards, and I looked forward eagerly to this one.
As usual when reviewing a book, I made a point of not reading the front matter until the end, so I could form my own impressions before being told what to think. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that Louis Rubin's foreword to this volume not only used the same quotations I had flagged but said everything I had intended to say in my review (only better). If this were the review I had mentally outlined people would think I cribbed it, which, this time, would be wrong. Tell you what: Buy the book (trust me on this) and read what Rubin has to say. He's right. As for me, I'll just summarize what these essays are about.
The first, "The Tao of Dixie," examines the persistence of southern self-consciousness and distinctiveness, and links it to the sort of casual slander of the South that permeates American intellectual discourse. Crowther describes himself elsewhere in this volume as "a middle-class hillbilly raised by Unitarians" [End Page 104] (born, incidentally, in Canada, to a military family), but he illustrates the truth of Sheldon Hackney's observation that there is a "sense of grievance at the heart of Southern identity" when he remarks that someone's equating the Confederate battle flag with the swastika "brings out the Rebel even in mild mongrel Southerners like me." No wonder that "among blooded, old-growth Confederates, it brings out the emotional equivalent of Pickett's Charge." (By the way, when he writes of the new "vital, urban South, where unemployment is low and ringworm unheard-of," I suspect he means hookworm. That he could write it that way, and that his editors at LSU could let it pass, suggests just how much things have changed since the days when that parasite ranked with pellagra as a public health problem and an element in the stereotype of southerners.)
Most of the essays that follow examine and celebrate various of Crowther's enthusiasms, among them Key West and miscegenation. Many are appreciations of appreciable southern writers, including Thomas Wolfe, Elizabeth Spencer, Marshall Frady, James Still, Wendell Berry, Denise Giardina, and Larry Brown. The volume's very last essay treats that scourge of the Southland, H. L. Mencken, whom Crowther acknowledges as a master and, in some respects, a model. Crowther is not generally given to understatement, but his observation that Mencken was "somewhat deficient in empathy" is a corker.
Crowther also appreciates some southern musicians, notably Dolly Parton, Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers, and all the contributors to the sound track of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which provoked his "first rush, in a long, logic-hobbled life, of something that felt like chauvinism." He's more ambivalent about the Coen brothers' movie, but one film he likes very much is King Vidor's first talkie, Hallelujah, which is, to say the least, unfashionable these days. He also has good words for baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, the slightly unhinged folk artist Reverend McKendree Long, and Marine Lance Corporal Brian Anderson of Chapel Hill, who died in a war that Crowther detests. One of the...