Southern Cultures 10.1 (2004) 1-4
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|Figure 1 |
In this issue, acclaimed author Alice Walker reveals her ideas about God, writing, B. B. King, and Martin Luther King. Photograph courtesy of the William R. Ferris Papers in the Southern Folklife Collection at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
We all know that hunting is a major theme in American literature. Think about Melville and his whale, Faulkner and his bear, Hemingway and his lions. For these writers, like the ancient heroes of mythology, hunting is more of a spiritual quest than an exercise in grocery shopping. One of the requirements of a spiritual quest is that there have to be rules to your hunt and penalties for breaking them. If you're hunting for Grendel or the like, you can't just dynamite the lake—it isn't sporting and your success doesn't prove anything noble.
Beautifully told by Robert Flournoy, our "Not Forgotten" feature this quarter tells of a boy on a quail hunt whose grandfather gave him a primal test: one shell, one shotgun, and one crucial rule: never shoot a game bird on the ground. It was an idyllic moment in a young boy's life. Edenic, really, for when the moment came that the boy faced the choice between satisfaction and the rule, the rule lost. [End Page 1]
Now if this story were found in Genesis, we would all know the ending. Grandfather would know the transgression without even a confession, and the miserable sinner would suffer forever. But that's not the way it happens here. Grandfather forgives without even a plea for mercy and brings the child infinite joy and relief. "I had never tasted anything so wonderful," Flournoy remembers, "and haven't to this day."
The story of southern spirituality hasn't often ended like Flournoy's quail hunt. As many of us have known them, southern preachers have been slower to forgive than the story's grandfather, making sure that sins were punished and always making more room in the lake of fire than the heavenly chorus. The Reverend McKendree Robbins Long (1888-1976) was a preacher like that, but unlike most of his peers, he was also a painter who felt compelled to put his visions onto canvas. Beginning as a fairly conventional portraitist, Long began to illustrate the book of Revelation in the 1950s, shifting at the same time from the restrained tone and palette of his classical training to the lurid colors and terrifying visions of self-taught "outsider art." Thrusting sinners mercilessly into burning brimstone, Long's Almighty poured special vengeance on modernist heroes like Darwin, Freud, and Marx, but he seemed to save his fiercest wrath for a voluptuous and enigmatic "Lady in Red," who weaves repeatedly through the paintings as a symbol of sexuality as seductive as she is damnable.
As if in reply to Flournoy's story of forgiveness, this issue also contains a sample from McKendree Long's work and three fascinating reflections on its meaning. The husband-and-wife literary team of Hal Crowther and Lee Smith each reflect on Long and the spiritual tradition he represents, while Long's grandson, poet Robert Hill Long, shares a young man's view of the fiery preacher's guttering old age.
In simple terms, Hal Crowther can't stand the man and rejects his religion as narrow, bigoted, hateful, intolerant, and inhuman. Academically, he knows that southern spirituality was not always like this and wants to know why the Longs of this region gained so much power over the rest of us.
Maybe he should ask his wife. Lee Smith reminds us of the explosive sensuality of a white-hot revival meeting and remembers how the brutal flagellation of repentance can merge with the exultation of forgiveness and rededication. Much like McKendree Long, we suspect, she knows what it's like to feel utterly debauched by sin and salvation—or, at least, to dramatize herself that way. If that sounds contradictory, Smith shrugs it off, quoting Faulkner to remind us that "the human heart...