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Review of “The Final Days of Great American Shopping,” by Gilbert Allen

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Short Story, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, Writing on November 30, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

With so many journals and genres available today, the dependable reviewer has a duty to warn off the noble optimists and advise the faint-hearted when a book is not for them.  Obligation thus requires that I caution readers:  Gilbert Allen’s The Final Days of Great American Shopping, a collection of short stories, is intelligent, nuanced, poignant, and distressing—and hence not for everyone.

If you’ve read more than one Nicholas Sparks novel this year, this book isn’t for you.  If you think Oprah is a guardian of culture, this book isn’t for you.  If you believe Fox News and CNN are edifying, this book isn’t for you.  If you think David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, and Sidney Blumenthal are men of letters, this book isn’t for you.  If you prefer Dr. Phil to Jung and Freud, this book isn’t for you.  If Joel Osteen inspires you in a way that Augustine and Aquinas cannot, this book isn’t for you.  If, in fact, any of the aforesaid are true of your case, you might just be the unwitting target of Allen’s satire.

Having dispensed with the stereotypes and requisite preamble, I own that this is, in some respects, a personal review.  Allen was my professor at Furman University and a man I continue to admire.  He cannot be blamed for the way I turned out, and certainly not for my politics.  But he is partially responsible for my love of poetry and aesthetics.

Allen, I recall, loved cats, as well as his isolated, sylvan home in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, which is far from his native Long Island, both culturally and geographically.  His spoken diction was always precise, as was the pencil-thin mustache that grayed above his lips.  Tall and skinny, with belts so long they could’ve wrapped around him twice, he spoke softly and carried a big pen.

He commits poems to memory.  I once heard him recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” to the tune of La cumparsita, a curious performance he allegedly repeats using other poems and tangos.  Ancient or modern, free verse or rhyming, short or long, poetry is his lifework, calling, and passion.  So, I suspect, he suffers, as honorable poets are wont to do.  His suffering will surely escalate as he decides how to mass-market this latest book—his first one in prose—that’s critical of mass-marketing.

The book depicts a self-indulgent American suburbia starved for money and materialism, where people try to purchase happiness and other forms of fleeting satisfaction while fixated on their own or others’ sexuality.  These 16 stories, told in chronological order from the recent past to the immediate future—and, at last, to the year 2084—are not directly about sex.  Yet sexual anxieties, appetites, and insecurities bear a subterranean, causative relationship to the acquisitive urge and cupidity that complicate many of the characters in Allen’s dystopian community, Belladonna, a gated subdivision in South Carolina, probably near Greenville.

Allen’s opening story is a complex portrait of loving and loathing, and the fine line between the two.  A childless couple, Butler and Marjory Breedlove, still in their early 40s, struggle to remain compatible as they degenerate into a life of stultifying domesticity, having suffered through three miscarriages and the abortion of an anencephalic child.  Butler is an insurance salesman and a beer-drinking baseball fan who will pull for an aging veteran against his own beloved Atlanta Braves.  Marjory, the silent, brooding type, obsesses over her luxuriant, blooming flowers, the fecundity and fertility of which contrast with her own barrenness.

Butler, as if to compensate for a sense of emasculation occasioned by his inability to sire offspring, sets out to install storm windows one Saturday morning while Marjory is off visiting her mother.  If Marjory cannot be gratified through sexual activity, he presumably reasons, then she’ll derive pleasure from his dutiful, manly labor.  A client has told him that storm windows are “easier than a second honeymoon” because they require just nine “screws,” so there’s little doubt that Butler’s chore is substitutionary: it fulfills the need for virile exertion that, we may assume, is not met through copulation.

The problem is, Butler procrastinates and leaves the windows leaning over Marjory’s flowers for too long.  Any boy who’s used a magnifying glass to burn ants would’ve known not to do this, but not Butler.  He doesn’t consider what might happen to Marjory’s flowers as he sets aside the windows to pursue booze and television.  He does, however, manage to complete the window installation.  When Marjory returns, he proudly reveals his handwork, announcing, “I did it myself.”

He’s not fully aware of what it is until Marjory, ignoring the windows, says, “My flowers.”  She stares at her garden as if peering into an “open grave.”  The florae that were adjuncts for her lost children, that were little leafy lives she had created and sustained, are now dead.  She can’t bear the loss.  Tragedy compels her to mourn on a closet floor in her nightgown.  It’s an intolerable image—her sitting there, grieved and defeated—that captures the sad inability of two people to live out their most primitive desires.

The seemingly banal agonies in this story of strained marriage are subtly and quizzically meaningful.  What is the significance, for instance, of Marjory’s decision to serve up a scrumptious breakfast for Butler while she munches on blackened toast?  Such a small gesture, but so gravely significant.

With moments like these, impressively numerous in such a short, short story, Allen achieves, I think, the right amount of ambiguity: neither Butler nor Marjory is the “bad guy,” and both seem thwarted from intimacy and happiness by forces beyond their control yet caused by their own deliberate action.  They mean well, mostly, but they’re the same poles on a magnet, destined, it seems, to repel one another.  Even their surname—Breedlove—raises interpretive puzzles, since breeding and loving seem foreign to their relationship.  Whether it’s their childlessness or an accumulation of small disappointments that causes their desperation and despair remains unclear.

Perhaps they recognize, as most of us do at some point, that they’ll never become the people their younger selves wanted to be—and that this, whatever this may be, is all there is.  Youthful aspiration is bound to become dashed hope, and once we’ve made ourselves what we are, there’s no unmaking us.

John Beegle, the protagonist of the following story who happens to have purchased health insurance from Butler Breedlove—each story is delicately linked—faces a different problem, or problems: a growing estrangement from his wife and the incapability to connect with his teenaged daughters, one of whom has grown increasingly flirtatious in proportion to her budding breasts.  John likes “to understand things, piece by piece,” but he can’t make sense of the females in his family.  They move so fast, and he so slowly.

This all changes when he discovers, in the garage of his new house, an “autogyro,” or small helicopter, circa 1961.  This antique machine remains operational, and the more John works on it, the more his daughters take to him.  He even revives his libido, surprising his wife with a “midday tryst.”  The restoration of the helicopter refurbishes his own spirits, and he eventually takes the perilous contraption for a ride, rising high into the air until he can “see everything.”  Like Frost’s wistful narrator who imagines himself climbing a birch tree up toward heaven only to be set back down again, John, hovering in the sky, “begins to dream of his landing, of his own house.”  He thinks of his family and his return to the ground.  Earth is, indeed, the right place for love.

The book is full of characters like these: the widowed Priscilla Knobloch with her twelve-year-old, one-handed daughter; Ted Dickey, whose numerous speed-dating partners represent different social ailments from materialism to decadence; the unnamed hick hair stylist who likes to rear-end Porsches (just a “love tap”) and talk about blow jobs; a thrift store worker and his wife, the menopausal Meredith, who start a non-profit corporation for religious “bedding”; Jorja Sorenson, a painter, and her husband, Houston, who collaborate on the sculpture of a fetus that draws the attention of none other than Marjorie Breedlove; and on and on.

Through these hapless, heedless figures and their goods, interests, and acquisitions—television, cars, homes, designer shoes—certain symptoms of our national condition are projected: greed, consumerism, profligacy, extravagance, melancholy.  It’s not overstating to say that, with these stories, Allen has tapped into our national consciousness and disorder.  The quintessential American, restless and without a past, energetic and democratic, his works and beliefs at once enterprising and derivative—that iconic, preeminently rugged and relatable laborer—has, in our imagination, transitioned from self-reliant and industrious, always ready to “simply, simplify,” to dark and pitiful, burdened by the wealth and joy that forever elude him.

Although Americans once envisioned a vast frontier of possibility, an unknown and ever-widening expanse of hope and promise, imbuing optimism and idealism wherever we went, we now, sketchy and insecure, stumble along looking for opportunities that don’t exist, endeavoring to remain perpetually young and verdant, as if gray hair weren’t a crown of glory and splendor.  We want what we can’t have and have what we don’t want.

Once we were Franklins and Jeffersons, Emersons and Whitmans; today we’re Willy Lomans.  Or Cher Horowitzes.  Or Gordon Gekkos.  Without guilt we can’t identify with Reverend Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne.  Without abstinence, we can’t appreciate the allure of Rappacini’s daughter.  As coddled, perpetual children, we don’t get Ishmael and Ahab, Frederick Douglass, or Jay Gatsby.  We’re so phony that we don’t understand Holden Caulfield anymore.

So Allen has done us a great service.  By mocking us and portraying our ominously recognizable and quotidian depravities, he’s exposed the warring desires to which we’ve fallen prey: extravagance and simplicity, envy and indifference, aspiration and defeat, conformity and revolt.  He’s a spokesman for the disenchanted and disillusioned, for those who still possess the poetic vision about which Emerson intoned.   He sees a double consciousness, a conflict of the mind, that drags us into woeful insipidity and angst.  If reading his book isn’t like looking reluctantly and masochistically into the mirror, or less figuratively into your own split psyche, then you’re delusional or dishonest, or perhaps—just perhaps—the rare exception.

These stories are harsh, biting, titillating, disparaging, and sarcastic, but they’re also funny.  Allen derides us, and perhaps himself, with humor.  He’s a sensitive man, and very quiet.  Who knew that, beneath his silent façade, there was a hilarious personality?

I did.  Because his poetry reveals that about him.

His first collection of poetry, In Everything, was spiritual and serious, a sort of Buddhist mystical meditation on Nature and Being.  As time went on, he eased up and relaxed.  He moved from the intensity of numinous experience to the comic realities of everyday life.

It’s not that his writing became lighthearted, upbeat, or shallow.  It remained pensive and complex and open to rigorous interpretation, sometimes even cosmic in scope.  Yet there was something more playful and satirical about it.  He came to enjoy social criticism as much as he enjoyed, say, the splendor of sentience and the complexities of the mind and soul.

This tendency towards the witty and quirky, as I have suggested, finds expression in The Final Days of Great American Shopping.  It’s evident in a pick-up line: “Would you like to go on a corporate retreat next month?  As my tax deduction?”  It materializes in unsuspecting places such as the urinal, where a man talks on his cell phone as he pisses.  It even surfaces in the epithet “Confederate Flaggots,” which implies a phallic fascination with flag poles that’s endemic among men “who dress up in nineteenth-century costumes to do unspeakable things to one another in public parks.”

But not every attempt at humor is successful: the narrator of the story “Friends with Porsches” speaks like a redneck, but not a real redneck—just a forced caricature whose colloquialisms and ungrammatical syntax aren’t quite believable as actual speech.

Allen’s sardonic, unpretentious fiction renders a society that’s abandoned the “errand into the wilderness”—as Perry Miller so aptly labeled the once powerful theme of American experience—for the errand into the shopping mall.  Although some of the technology that appears in his stories is already dated—most of the stories were first published before iPhones and iPads made the Internet and email a ubiquitous, hand-held phenomenon—one senses in their representation a renewed and profane scrutiny that’s both subversive and daring.

Are we in the final days of American shopping, as Allen suggests?  If so, is that an apocryphal singularity, the secular equivalent to the eschaton?

Maybe.  Shopping, for Allen, is, after all, much more than merely examining and evaluating retail merchandise with an eye toward a trivial purchase.  It’s systemic and magnificent, a fluid cultural sickness with no immediate cure.  Alike in severity to those idolatrous practices which demand prophetic ministry, it signals a coming destruction that necessitates oracular warning.  Shopping has become the lord and king of us all.

As for the other events of shopping’s reign, those which don’t appear in Allen’s book, are they not written in the records of the Internet, the annotations of our technology, and the annals of our digital media?  Allen buries shopping with its ancestors.  And he buries us, and our endless wants, with it.

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Claire Hamner Matturro Reviews Robert Bailey’s “Between Black and White”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on June 15, 2016 at 6:45 am

ClaireHamnerMatturroforSoLitRev

Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com.

The review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Following the success of his powerful debut legal thriller, The Professor (Thomas & Mercer 2015), Bailey offers a second, stunning story in the series. In his novel Between Black and White (Thomas & Mercer March 2016), Bailey establishes beyond doubt that he is an author to be read and reckoned with.

Between Black and White is closely tied to Bailey’s first book and involves several of the same characters. In The Professor, readers were introduced to aging former law professor Tom McMurtrie, who returns to the courtroom after being forced out of his teaching position at The University of Alabama School of Law. Tom teams up with Rick Drake, an impetuous young attorney and his one-time student. Together, in The Professor, Tom and Rick pursue a tense and dangerous wrongful death lawsuit.

While Tom and Rick dominate The Professor, another lawyer—Bocephus Haynes, or Bo—steps into that story at critical times to boost and support Tom. Bo is a bigger than life black University of Alabama football star who blew out his knee and, instead of retreating into depression over the loss of a pro football career, goes to law school. Tom is one of his professors, and the two develop a close friendship.

As much as The Professor was Tom and Rick’s story, Between Black and White is Bo’s story. In the prologue, we meet Bo as a five-year-old who watches members of the Ku Klux Klan lynch his beloved father. From the opening pages of Chapter One—which finds a disheartened, angry Bo getting drunk on the anniversary of his father’s brutal lynching—to the shocking, violent conclusion, Bo leaps off the pages with boldness and spirit. But like all well-crafted fictional heroes, he is flawed, and his failings land him in a courtroom as the sole defendant in a capital murder case.

His near fatal flaw: hunger for revenge. Obsessed with punishing the man who lynched his father, Bo shapes his professional life around that goal. After graduating with honors from The University of Alabama School of Law, Bo turns down offers at prestigious law firms. He returns to his home town, Pulaski, Tennessee, to a solo law practice as the city’s only black attorney—and to pursue the man he holds responsible for his father’s death. Too many people in the city of Pulaski know Bo is driven by his fixation to punish the man he blames for his father’s lynching. His wife has even left him because his drive to avenge his father’s murder has endangered their two children.

Since Bo was five years-old, he has blamed Andrew Davis Walton, a powerful businessman in Pulaski, for his father’s death. Once the Imperial Wizard of the Tennessee Knights of the KKK, Walton shook off the robes of the Klan and made millions in the stock market. Known as the “the Warren Buffett of the South,” he tried to make amends for his Klan actions.

Yet people have a long memory when it comes to the Klan—and no one more than Bo. Though Walton was hooded the night five-year-old Bo witnessed the lynching, Bo recognized Walton’s voice. But no one in law enforcement was ever willing—then or later—to prosecute Walton on the testimony of a child claiming to identify a voice.

On the 45th anniversary of his father’s lynching, Bo gets drunks in a local bar. Walton and Maggie, Walton’s aging, beautiful wife and one of the local landed aristocracy, seemingly accidentally run into Bo in the bar. Face to face with Walton, Bo threatens him in front of witnesses by quoting the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye.”

After the bartender breaks up the confrontation, Walton steps outside. But before Bo leaves the bar, Maggie returns to tell him that Walton is dying. She asks that Bo leave her terminally ill husband alone. Bo staggers out, lamenting to himself that Andy Walton was going to die before he could bring him to justice.

That night, someone shoots Walton and stages a mock lynching at the site where Bo’s father was lynched four and a half decades before.

Physical evidence points directly at Bo. Everyone in the legal community knows he had the motive and opportunity. Even before Bo recovers from his hangover, he is in jail. The prosecutor, a fierce woman attorney who has butted heads with Bo in court before, decides to seek the death penalty.

Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and many residents and officials in the city strive to live that down. So when the murder, with its roots in the old KKK lynching, puts Pulaski and its Klan heritage back in the spotlight of national media, city officials attempt to pressure Bo to plead guilty and avoid the further media circus of a trial.

Bo refuses. He is innocent of murdering Walton—or so he claims, though no one in law enforcement believes him. He calls on his former law professor and close friend, Tom, to defend him. Reluctantly, Tom agrees and retains local attorney Raymond “Ray Ray” Pickalew, another former U of A football player. Rick, who is now Tom’s law partner, is dragged into the case as well.

Though Tom and Rick sense a setup, they struggle against multiple roadblocks—and the overwhelming physical evidence of Bo’s guilt—to determine who had a motive to kill Andy Walton and frame Bo. During their quest, Tom is assaulted and sidelined by his injuries; Ray Ray is a drunk with an attitude, and young. Overwhelmed Rick is left to unravel the seemingly unrelated pieces of a complex, emotional puzzle. Villains from The Professor return to taunt and threaten Tom and Rick, adding further intricacy to the plot.

Thus, Bailey sets up the classic formula of a legal thriller. Mind you, formula is not used as a derogatory term here. Shakespeare’s sonnets were formula and critics do not dismiss them in disparaging terms. As used here, formula simply refers to the structure and elements that define a genre or a literary style. In a legal thriller where the focus is on a criminal defendant on trial for his or her life, readers expect the odds to be stacked against the defendant. They expect the defense attorneys to be complicated, troubled, overwhelmed and conflicted. And, owing perhaps to the Perry Mason standard, readers expect a surprise witness and revelation near the close of the trial which allows the defense attorneys to prevail and the defendant to be found not guilty.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this basic formula. Lincoln Lawyer and A Time to Kill come to mind. Both of those legal thrillers had guilty defendants, yet with vastly differing twists at the end.

Given the formulaic elements at play in the genre, a successful legal thriller author has to avoid creating a stale, mechanical plot that reads like a written version of a paint-by-number canvas. Yet the author has to keep the plot within the confines of the genre or publishers will scratch their heads and throw the manuscript on the reject pile.

In other words, authors working within a prescribed genre face a kind of delicate yet vicious circle. On the one hand, they must write within the parameters of their chosen genre. But, on the other hand, they have to do something new, exciting and fresh. It’s kind of like saying: Color within the lines. But don’t color within the lines.

Within this catch-22, the author has to give the reader something more—and something different. This Bailey does, and does with a bang.

Yet, having said that much, to say much more about the surprising, original twists of Between Black and White risks spoiling the plot. Thus, this reviewer will only observe that per the Perry Mason/John Grisham model, an unexpected witness with a startling revelation does pop up at the end of the trial. But just when the reader settles back to relax and believe that justice has been achieved, something complicated, violent and utterly surprising happens.

It isn’t just that Bailey knows how to surprise us, but he also writes well. Very well. Make no mistake on that point. His sentences are clear, clean, distinctive, and when they need to hit with a punch, they do. His pacing is excellent—an edge-of-the-seat, can’t-put-it-down momentum fuels the storyline from the prologue to the climatic ending. His characters are well-drawn, his sense of place and world-building excellent. The plot is intricate, but believable. There is redemption for some characters, resolution for others—and those that deserve neither are left to flounder in their own hell. Justice is achieved, albeit in a confused, violent way.

In short, Bailey wrestles what in less talented hands could have been a formulaic story into something wholly fresh, engaging, and ultimately rich and satisfying. This is a book you want to own and read.

Interview with Hubert Crouch

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The South on July 29, 2015 at 8:45 am

This interview originally appeared in Southern Literary Review.

Hubert Crouch

Hubert Crouch

AM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to Southern Literary Review about The Word, your second novel. Jace Forman, the protagonist of your first novel, Cried For No One, is back in this novel. How has your experience as a trial lawyer shaped Jace’s character, if at all? Is it even possible to identify where your legal background has shaped your character development?

HC: I leaned heavily on my experiences as a trial lawyer while creating Jace Forman. I actually know how it feels to try “high-stakes” lawsuits – the intense pressure, the sleepless nights, the perpetual gnawing in your stomach – because I have lived through them. What a trial lawyer goes through in his professional life has a profound impact on his personal life – again, I felt I was able to portray that realistically with Jace because personal experience was a good teacher. I am not saying Jace is autobiographical – he’s not. That being said, my ability to create his character was, in large part, the result of having been a trial lawyer myself.

AM: I’m not out­-of­-bounds in supposing that readers of Cried For No One will, like me, associate Ezekiel Shaw and the Brimstone Bible Church with Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, which is featured in the book. Is there a deliberate connection?

HC: I taught Free Speech and the First Amendment to SMU undergraduates. One of the cases we discussed in class was Snyder v. Phelps. There were some lively exchanges between students over whether the Supreme Court got it right when they threw out the multi-million dollar judgment awarded to the Snyders. Had the Court gone too far in protecting free speech? Had the Court allowed a zealous sect to trample upon the rights of a family to bury their loved one in peace? Our classroom debate inspired me to change the factual scenario, inject a different religious issue and pit the conflicting positions against one another in a fictitious lawsuit.

AM: What made you decide to incorporate Leah Rosen and Cal Connors into the plot? Did you envision them at the outset, or did they come later, after you had already begun writing?

HC: Cal and Leah were characters from my first novel, Cried for No One. Leah continues her investigation into Cal’s legal misdeeds in the stand-alone sequel.

AM: As someone who has never attempted to write a thriller, I’m curious about how the intricate thriller plot falls into place. How much mapping or outlining do you do before beginning the writing process, and how often is the writing process interrupted by the need to adjust or revise?

HC: Before I wrote a word of the manuscript, I drafted a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline, which went through a number of revisions. Once the outline was finished, I began writing the novel. Some might argue that having an outline is too confining. I get that. But for me, it is important to know where I’m ultimately going to end up before I start the journey. I find there is plenty of opportunity for creativity along the way.

AM: Texas. It’s big on the map and big in your book. You’ve been practicing law there for some time. How far back does your connection go?

HC: A long way. I graduated from Vanderbilt in 1973 and then attended SMU Law School. After receiving my law degree from SMU, I began practicing trial law in Dallas and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Although I grew up in Tennessee, I felt right at home in Texas. As the old adage goes, when you prick a Texan, he bleeds Tennessee blood.

AM: Why did you dedicate this book to your female law school classmates?

HC: One of my close friends and study partners in law school was female. She was brilliant, graduating number one in our class. And yet she received few offers from the top law firms in Dallas. There could be only one explanation – she was a woman. She, along with several other of my female classmates who had encountered a similar fate, took bold action and sued some of the major firms in Dallas. A settlement was reached which opened the door to countless female law school graduates afterwards.

AM: When did you start writing fiction?

HC: Over twenty-five years ago. I wrote a manuscript that has still not been published, although I consider pulling it out of the banker’s box it’s been in for years and giving it a read to see if it’s salvageable. After I shelved it, I was inspired to write my first novel, Cried for No One, by an actual lawsuit I handled involving a macabre grave robbery. I got up early each morning and wrote before going to work. The process took me years before I had a finished manuscript.

AM: Do you know what the future holds for Jace Forman? Can readers expect to see him again?

HC: I have enjoyed creating and getting to know Jace. Based upon the reviews, readers seem to like him and, if that sentiment continues, I will likely keep him around for a while.

AM: Last question, but two parts. How much research into the First Amendment went into this book? And how interested were you in First Amendment issues before you started into this book?

HC: I have studied the First Amendment, and the cases interpreting it, extensively. As mentioned above, I actually taught a course about it to SMU undergraduates. The drafters were so brilliant and far-sighted to come up with such an important enactment. We will forever be in their debt.

AM: Thank you again.

Review of “A Late Encounter With the Civil War,” by Michael Kreyling

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South on July 1, 2015 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Now that it’s 2015, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has come to a close. Those who don’t follow such anniversaries may not have noticed it was ever here, but it was, although without the fanfare or nostalgia that marked the commemorations at the semi-centennial and the centennial.

Michael Kreyling, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University with an endowed chair and several books to his credit, brings a literary touch to his brief history of the Civil War—not of its battles and heroes and victims and villains but of the manner in which Americans have recalled those things over time. A history about history, conceived as a series of lectures, A Late Encounter With the Civil War bears a title that seems to apply as aptly to Kreyling (he’s had a long and distinguished career in literature but hasn’t worked extensively in the field of Civil War studies) as it does to the current era’s strained connection with the bloodiest conflict the nation has ever experienced.

Kreyling focuses on “collective memory,” a concept he purports to borrow from Maurice Halbwachs and Emile Durkheim and the premise of which is “that humans assemble or construct memory in the context of social life: we remember what our social groups require us to remember in order to maintain historical continuity over time and to claim our membership in them.” Collective memory is participatory rather than commanded, evolutionary rather than fixed, fluctuating rather than static; it emerges out of the conversations people within a given territory have regarding a particular event.

Kreyling is, of course, concerned with our collective memory of the Civil War. It is unclear which individuals enforce or control the regime of collective memory according to his paradigm, but presumably he means to suggest that all members of the community are at least partially complicit in the narrative perpetuation that becomes collective memory.

From the premise of collective memory Kreyling sets out to establish the constructedness of Southern narratives about the war and thereby to refute the assumption of Pierre Nova, who once claimed that “[d]ifferent versions of the Revolution or the Civil War do not threaten the American tradition because, in some sense, no such thing exists—or, if it does, it is not primarily a historical construction.” Kreyling submits, contra Nova, that historical memory is constructed because it involves both gradual initiation and exclusion: those who understand and promote the validated, official account are admitted into the group, members of which celebrate a shared past, whereas those who challenge the authorized narratives are marginalized or altogether excluded from the group. What the approved story of the Civil War is at the moment of the sesquicentennial remains unknown because, he says, only years after such a landmark can we objectively evaluate its cultural reception and narrative production.

Collective memory is not the same thing as personal memory. It is a “kind of complicated puppet theater” inasmuch as “we are the puller of strings” as well as “the figures pulled.” We not only “set dates for ceremonies of public memory and fill the ceremonies with choreographed activities” but also allow ourselves to be dragged along with such ceremonies; we resort to ritualistic commemoration to project the past onto our present, he explains, and to attempt to define ourselves both by and against our past.

Kreyling argues in his opening chapter that “the United States that formally remembered the Civil War at the semicentennial was different from the America of the centennial and sesquicentennial by one very powerful theme we can identify in retrospect: blood.” The subject of blood leads Kreyling into meandering discussions of The Great Gatsby and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This chapter becomes less about the memory of the Civil War and more about early 20th-century eugenicist fascinations with blood, an element of romanticized fiction that is “latent symbolic” or “cultural” because it “invades or pollutes the endangered citadel of whiteness.”

Theodore Roosevelt used the term “race suicide” to express a widely shared fear of racial degeneration, which was linked, Kreyling alleges, to a perceived collapse of civilization. Kreyling ties Roosevelt’s term to both the creation of and reaction to popular works by D. W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon Jr. He even implicates Woodrow Wilson in the rapid proliferation of racism—and not just by recalling Wilson’s oft-discussed response to the screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House.

The second chapter maps the shift from memorialization to mass anxiety as race-relations in America forced the nation to reconsider the meaning and purpose of the Civil War. Here Kreyling considers an array of figures, from Bruce Catton and Robert Penn Warren to Edmund Wilson and Flannery O’Connor, to substantiate the proposition that public interest in the Civil War was on the wane and overshadowed by the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. All of this is very interesting, but we shouldn’t be surprised that most of the population at that time was more interested in its present moment than in a war that had occurred a century earlier.

The third and final chapter speculates about those “negotiations” that we have “between what did happen” during the Civil War and “what we would prefer to remember.” I say “speculates” because Kreyling is careful not to seem rash or conclusory about our own moment. Rather than giving an answer, for instance, he says that “we need to ask” the question “[w]here is the South now?” That we may ask that question at all shows how much different our generation is from those which came before, as Kreyling demonstrates by surveying recent literary scholarship on the matter.

Wherever the South is now, it seems to have traveled far from “pure ancestor worship.” That doesn’t mean our memory has become unproblematic. Kreyling sees in the historical fiction of Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, for example, a disturbing turn to a counterfactual mode of ritual that distorts our understanding of past events. Kreyling rounds out his discussion of Gingrich and Forstchen (among other people and texts) with an upsetting observation: “we commemorate past wars with new ones.” Such a strong and ambiguous claim demands clarification, yet Kreyling doesn’t elaborate, perhaps because long explication would detract from the lasting force and profundity of the closing remark.

As smoothly as this book reads, one wonders what its chief contribution will be. It’s certainly unique and innovative to, as Kreyling does, compare vampire fiction with the racist notion of thoroughbred whiteness that was in circulation at the semicentennial. On the other hand, there might be a good reason why this approach hasn’t been tried, and it’s not because no one has thought of it.

When a book doesn’t move professional historiography in a direction that unearths obscure details, that adds to the sum of knowledge on a precise topic, or that sheds light on events by examining them from the unexplored perspective of cultural outsiders, it can rely too heavily on style and creativity and entertainment value. Kreyling’s book isn’t devoid of scholarship, but it does push the bounds of that genre. Perhaps its greatest achievement is its capacity to raise provocative questions about our present relationship to a conflict that in some ways seems so distant, but in others so familiar.

 

Interview with Robert J. Ernst, author of “The Inside War”

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on December 4, 2014 at 8:45 am

This interview originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Robert Ernst

Robert Ernst

APM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down for this interview, Bob. Your novel The Inside War is about an Appalachian mountain family during the Civil War. How long have you been interested in the Civil War?

RJE: I have had an interest in the Civil War for many years. Specifically, the effect of the war on Appalachia became an interest as I researched family history, now more than a decade ago. I realized that not much had been written, outside of academic treatises, on this aspect of the war. Bushwhacking ambushes, bands of roving deserters, intensely opposed partisan factions, and a breakdown in civil society befell western North Carolina. Of course, much study had been given to the poverty of the area during the twentieth century, but not much, save bluegrass music, about its culture. What I discovered was a vibrant pre-war society thoroughly rent by the war. And, the area did not recover.

APM: The story of Will Roberts, your novel’s protagonist, is similar to that of many actual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. How much historical research went into this book? It seems as if there are a number of events in your story—Sammy Palmer’s shooting of the sheriff, for instance—that track historical occurrences.

RJE: Much of the story is based on historical events. In fact, Will Roberts was a real person, as was his brother, Edwin. I traced their wartime adventures, researched the battles and conditions of their captivity and wove a fictional story around them. Likewise their wives, as portrayed in the story, were based on real people, although their story is more fictionalized. The novel does incorporate many historical characters and events that occurred in the vicinity of Marshall, North Carolina, by which I attempt to portray a picture of the character of the area and the severe impact of the war on it.

APM: There are some themes in the book that cover an aspect of the Civil War that is not often covered. Tell us about those.

RJE: The tactic of bushwhacking, or ambushing mountain patrols, is one. Guerrilla warfare as a matter of accepted tactics was new and was a terrifying degradation of the morality of warfare. There was a real cultural divide among the citizens of western North Carolina between those who supported the North, the “tories,” and those who supported the Confederacy. These divisions played out in many ways, most notably in atrocities like the Shelton Laurel massacre, but more subtly in familial and neighbor relationships. I doubt many women suffered as did those in Appalachia, from the depredations, theft and physical threat of the men who populated the mountains during the war. I was surprised to learn of the inhumane prison conditions at Ft. Delaware. Everyone knows of Andersonville, but not many are aware of Ft. Delaware. We know of the great Civil War battles, but there were scores of skirmishes every week that terrified the contestants and shaped their perceptions. Certainly, Roberts’s family suffered greatly, even though their war happened in the background to better known events.

APM: You seem careful not to glorify war but to present it as the complex tragedy that it is. The book’s epigraph states, “For those who have suffered war.” I wonder if the process of writing this book taught you anything about war itself. What do you think?

Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall

RJE: The grand histories of the conflicts, eulogizing the fallen and celebrating the victorious are all necessary parts of our remembrance of a terrible, national conflict. What I found in researching this story was intense personal suffering, unnoted except at the basic unit of society, the family, and rippling out to the church, neighborhood and town. Why would a woman abandon her children? What would drive a member of the home guard to massacre captives – mere boys? How could people, so crushed, hope? And, of course, the main theme of The Inside War is hope; hope after, and despite the loss and suffering. As we deal with the veterans of the conflict with radical Islamists we need to surround them with a culture of hope.

APM: From one attorney to another, do you think being a lawyer affects your writing in any way—from the preparation to the organization to the style?

RJE: That’s interesting. Certainly the actual practice of law involves clear writing. I have a hard time reading novels written in stream of consciousness or in rambling, shuffling styles. So, hopefully this book will be understandable and clear to the reader. I like the process of legal research and enjoyed the process of researching this book. However, the characters, though based on historical figures, came about from my imagination, which is why the book is a novel and not a history.

APM: It’s been said that the Revolutionary War produced political philosophy in America whereas the Civil War produced literature. Do you agree with this, and if so, why?

RJE: Perhaps the truth in that statement devolves from the Revolutionary War defining the creation of a nation, the Civil War defining its character. The revolution tested the theories of individual liberty and melded them, free of sovereign control, imperfectly into a new nation. The Civil War represents a gigantic challenge to the notion that a nation of citizens can be free. Millions were intimately involved in the latter conflict and the upheaval and changes were intensely felt and recorded in innumerable books. But the fundamental story of both wars is ongoing, in my view, and that is America must re-experience, “a new birth of freedom,” with regularity if America is to retain her vibrancy and hope.

APM: Thanks, Bob, for taking the time. I appreciate it, and I know our readers do, too.

Review of “Emigration to Liberia” by Matthew F.K. McDaniel

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Georgia, Historicism, History, Humanities, Laws of Slavery, Politics, Scholarship, Slavery, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South, Writing on November 26, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here at Southern Literary Review.

Emigration to Liberia is the story of the nearly 500 African-Americans who left Columbus, Georgia, and Eufaula, Alabama, from 1853 to 1903, to emigrate to Liberia, the West African nation that was founded in 1822 by United States colonization.

Matthew F.K. McDaniel marshals evidence from written correspondence and newspapers to piece together the first narrative treatment of those African-American emigrants from this specific region, which he calls the “Chattahoochee Valley.” He contends that the establishment of Liberia united many Northerners and Southerners for different reasons, namely, in the North, for the gradual abolition of slavery, and, in the South, for the stability of the slave system once freed African-Americans were removed from the purview of their brothers and sisters in bondage.

Liberian emigrants from the Chattahoochee Valley made up roughly ten percent of the total number of emigrants to Liberia from the entire United States; therefore, the story of the migration from this region reveals much about the overall characteristics of the entire emigrant movement and provides clues as to why many emigrants decided to leave in the first place.

“To blacks,” McDaniel explains, “the prospect of Liberia was escape, safety, and opportunity. They could own their own land in their own country and be governed by their own people. Liberia was a new start and a new future for families, far from the whites who had oppressed them.”

McDaniel supplies enough historiography to interest and benefit historians working in the field, but enough narrative to engage non-specialists. At only 64 pages, excluding the highly useful notes and bibliography, his book can be read in a single sitting. Its brevity has to do with the fact that it began as a 2007 master’s thesis in history at the Louisiana State University. Credit must be given to the editors at NewSouth Books for having the wisdom, faith, and generosity to take a chance on such a short but important work.

Settled by Europeans between 1816 and 1823, Eufaula fell into the hands of whites after the 1832 Treaty of Cusseta forced the Creek Indians off their ancestral land. Columbus was founded in 1828, six years after the founding of Liberia. The future of the African Americans who remained in Eufaula and Columbus turned out to be much different from that of the emigrants to Liberia, many of whom suffered or returned to America.

“Liberia was neither American or African,” McDaniel submits, “but a strange medley of the two worlds, and it disappointed many of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants,” who became stuck “within a stringent social hierarchy” that was “similar to the one they had escaped from.” They were not used to the tropical climate and were not skilled in the work that was specific to the region; they discovered, too, that the native Liberian elite “mimicked the customs and styles of the whites who had once looked down upon them.”

An appendix rounds out McDaniel’s research by listing the names, ages, sexes, and, among other things, occupations of all the emigrants who sailed in either the 1867 or 1868 voyages to Liberia aboard the ship Golconda. To run your finger down the list, slowly, is to invite questions about who these people were, what they were like, what they did for entertainment, what their wishes and dreams were, what they were leaving behind and hoping to accomplish with their move to Africa, and what happened to them after they arrived there. Facts and data are limited, so, in many cases, we cannot know for sure.

McDaniel has done well with what information he had available to him. Let’s hope he’s inspired others to pick up where he left off. This is a story worth telling and knowing.

Faulkner Studies in Japan, edited by Thomas L. McHaney; compiled by Kenzaburo Ohashi and Kiyoyuki Ono

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, History, Humanities, Japan, Literature, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The South on February 5, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

The following review appeared here in Southern Literary Review in 2009.

It was with great interest—and, perhaps, skepticism, for I myself taught English in Japan—that I read Faulkner Studies in Japan, an assemblage of critical essays written and translated by Japanese academics and edited by American Thomas L. McHaney, professor of literature at Georgia State University. Whisking eagerly through the pages of this significant, insightful book, I learned, to my surprise, that Faulkner’s reputation in Japan has been, for six decades, mostly favorable, despite that his “works are difficult to read, even in his own country.”

Though my brief stint as sensei didn’t lend itself to instruction in unconventional, stream-of-consciousness fiction—just getting my pre-teen students to pronounce “Yoknapatawpha” would’ve been inconceivable—other sensei have taught Faulkner with relative if not outright success.

According to McHaney, the Japanese have enjoyed a longstanding admiration for the short, mustachioed Mississippian, who once affectionately remarked, “The Japanese people really and actually wanted to see and to know me—the man, the human being.” Under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, Faulkner visited Japan in 1955, roughly ten years after the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and fourteen years after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Faulkner’s sojourn, particularly his appearance at a summer seminar in Nagano, resulted in probably the most fruitful give-and-take he ever allowed as public speaker. “By virtue of their interest and their sincere questions,” McHaney explains, “Faulkner’s Japanese audiences also seemed to have received a higher percentage of clear and meaningful answers from him than almost anyone who ever asked him to explain himself.”

McHaney divides the book into three sections: General Studies, Studies of Individual Works, and Faulkner and the Japanese Writer. Topics addressed in General Studies include, among others, Faulkner’s style, his echoes of T.S. Eliot, his repetition or self-parody (he enriched and diversified fictional worlds he created in previous works), and his resemblance to—and difference from—Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis and John Barth. Only three novels—As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Go Down, Moses—receive individualized treatment in the second section, though one could register little complaint about their exegeses.

The final section, peppered with “several reflections by distinguished Japanese novelists,” reveals, in McHaney’s words, “not only a profound response to Faulkner’s mysteries but also the deliberate intellectual appropriation of his techniques as both a Modernist and post-Modernist writer.”

Readers interested in either Faulkner or Japan, to say nothing of American literature enthusiasts generally, will find much here that’s appealing and constructive, but might, I suspect, find the editor’s selectivity wanting. The nearly random assortment of topics gives the impression that inclusion in the work depended on Japanese nationality and not, say, thematic coherence. Nevertheless, Faulkner Studies in Japan will sustain many re-readings and is essential for any Faulkner aficionado.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Lauren Clark

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Literature, Southern Literary Review, Writing on April 10, 2013 at 8:45 am

Lauren Clark

This interview originally appeared here at Southern Literary Review.

AM: Lauren, thank you for doing this interview. I’m glad to have the opportunity to ask you about Dancing Naked in Dixie. Before I get to the book, though, I’d like to ask you about your transition from television to writing. How did that transition take place?

LC: I loved working in TV news and it was great when my son was little. I worked for two different CBS stations — first anchoring the weekend news and then the morning news in Dothan, Alabama. The shift was 2 am to 10 am, so after three years, I needed a change and a regular schedule. I then took a job in pharmaceutical sales, but was able to transition into stay-at-home mom and full-time writer soon after. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do as a career.

AM: Okay, on to Dancing Naked in Dixie. The protagonist of the book is Julia Sullivan. Tell us about her. What was the impetus behind this character? Did you develop her in stages, or did you have some preconceived notion of her character that you wanted to realize in the text?

LC: Fortunately, Julia Sullivan came to the pages of Dixie almost fully formed. She is a well-traveled writer, perpetually busy, and married to her job — largely to avoid dealing with her mother’s death, her boyfriend, and a painful estrangement from her father. She’s talented, with personality — but definitely has an ADHD side that gets her into some trouble when she acts before she thinks.

There’s a lot of me in Julia — especially since I made the move from New York to Alabama twelve years ago. Many of her experiences (sweet tea, fire ants) are based on my experiences.

Julia was developed with change in mind. I wanted her out of her comfort zone, in a totally new environment that she’d decided to dislike. Much of Dixie involves Julia discovering secrets about her parents’ relationship and realizing that forgiveness isn’t as frightening as she believes.

AM: Within the last month, I’ve become an Alabamian, and I grew up taking family vacations to Destin, Florida, by way of Eufaula, Alabama, so I’m interested in the role that Eufaula plays in Dancing Naked in Dixie. Why Eufaula? What made you choose this city?

LC: Eufaula is my favorite Alabama city. When I was an anchor at WTVY in Dothan, I loved driving up on the weekends and having a light lunch, stopping at Shorter Mansion, and browsing in the lovely gift shops. Lake Eufaula is nearby, and on my trips to Atlanta, I would often stop at the state park to take in the beautiful, calming scenery.

I’ve attended the Pilgrimage several times, but it was during one of the candlelight tours, with everyone in antebellum costume, that I decided Eufaula provided that bit of magic that would make it the perfect setting for a story.

AM: Julia is, you could say, a cosmopolitan jetsetter who, due to events largely out of her control, finds herself living and working in Alabama. Do you think the South is indispensable to your writing? In other words, could the narrative in Dancing Naked in Dixie have transpired in some other geographical area? If not, why not?

LC: The South is indispensable to Dixie, and all of my books, to some extent, have Southern ties. Julia’s story — her cosmopolitan edge and big city sharpness — had to be balanced out with the warm and loving nature of the Deep South. It became the perfect balance to round out her empty life, the yin to her yang.

I am sure that many talented writers could place the story with a “Julia” character traveling from the majestic Pacific Northwest to the warmth of New Mexico or Arizona, but I prefer to write from experience and draw on the sights and sounds that I know and love. For me, there’s a certain charm about the Deep South that can’t be duplicated.

AM: Where would you direct our readers to learn more about you and your work?

LC: I really appreciate my readers so much and love to hear from anyone who’s read my work. I welcome emails at laurenclarkbooks@gmail.com. I’m also on Goodreads (GoodReads), Facebook (Lauren Facebook) and Twitter (LaurenClark_Bks).

You can also find more information about my latest release Stardust Summer (February 14, 2013), on my website (Lauren Clark Books) and blog (Lauren Clark Blog).

Dixie on Amazon in paperback, ebook, or audiobook: Click here.

Dixie on BN.com: Click here.

AM: Thank you for taking the time, Lauren. I wish you all the best.

LC: Thank you.

Auction Announcement: William Spratling and William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South, Writing on April 5, 2013 at 8:45 am

Famous Creoles

William Spratling and William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans, published by Pelican Bookshop Press, New Orleans, 1926, first edition, first issue, number 217 of 250, bound in green boards, with label on front cover, interior of back cover with a label printed “Rebound in L’ATELIER Le Loup” and dated in ink “1986”.

Provenance: From the collection of Stephanie Durant, by descent from the collection of Ray Samuel.

A special copy of a rare and fragile book described by The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans as “one of the great literary curiosities in the city’s history.” The book comprises Spratling’s drawings of himself, Faulkner, and 41 of their acquaintances–artists, musicians, academics, preservationists, and socialites, “artful and crafty ones of French Quarter” with some of their uptown friends and patrons. One was novelist Sherwood Anderson, and Faulkner’s introduction parodies Anderson’s style.

 

The note above is taken from the catalog description of an extraordinary book that will be sold at auction on April 19.  The book has been given by Stephanie Durant of New Orleans to be sold for the benefit of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the sale will be conducted by the New Orleans Auction Galleries, which will donate its commission to the museum as well.

This copy is uniquely valuable because it is signed by 41 of the 43 persons included,

in a few cases with personal notes to its original owner. (See below for a complete list.) That number of autographs is certainly a record: The only other copy I know with more than a dozen or so is one with 31, and it was stolen from a Charlottesville, Virginia, bookshop some time ago.

The catalog description is accurate as far as it goes, but there is a great deal more to be said about this odd little book, written by two young men who went on to become arguably the greatest American novelist and the greatest Mexican silver designer of the twentieth century.  Those depicted include both figures well-known at the time, like writer Grace King and artist Ellsworth Woodward, and some who would become well-known later, like artist Caroline Durieux and writer Hamilton Basso. The title, an obscure joke, refers to a book of caricatures entitled The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans, by Vanity Fair cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias (to whom Famous Creoles is dedicated). The “Pelican Bookshop Press” was a fiction: Spratling and Faulkner paid a local printer to produce 250 copies. Spratling (though, note, not Faulkner) signed and hand-tinted some images in 50, mostly for the friends who were included. There was a second printing of 150 copies, somewhat less valuable on the rare book market. The book was not at all sturdy, and it is not unusual to find copies that have been repaired or, like this one, rebound. Many copies have presumably fallen apart and been discarded. Musician Harold Levy’s hand-tinted copy was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The original owner of this particular copy, Stella Lengsfield Lazard, signed her name in ink on inside front. In 1926 Mrs. Lazard was 43. Her husband, Henry Calme Lazard, was a stockbroker related by blood and marriage to several distinguished mercantile and financial families in New Orleans and elsewhere. The couple had one grown son, and lived with her parents uptown on St. Charles Avenue.  (Her father was a successful cotton factor.)

Mrs. Lazard had literary, historical, and musical interests.  In 1925 she wrote a series of feature articles for the Times-Picayune on the mayors of New Orleans, and a few years later she served as narrator for a weekly musical program on WDSU radio, “Sweet Mystery of the Air,” featuring a trio of local musicians: harpist, violinist, and tenor.  To judge by the inscriptions in her copy of Famous Creoles, she was friends with a number of those included.  For instance, one reads, “To Stella, the star, from the stellar Helen Pitkin Schertz”; Flo Field wrote “Love to my old staunch [?] friend”; and William “Cicero” Odiorne, who was in Paris, wrote “When are you coming over?”

Others who did more than simply sign their names include writers Sherwood Anderson and Roark Bradford; artists Conrad Albrizio, Marc Antony, and Virginia Parker Nagel; Tulane cheerleader Marian Draper; and Lillian Friend Marcus, managing editor of the Double Dealer magazine. The presidents of Tulane and of Le Petit Théatre, A. B. Dinwiddie and Mrs. J. O. Nixon, simply added their institutional affiliations.  Natalie Scott just signed the page with her picture on it, but a note in Mrs. Lazard’s hand identifies a building shown in the picture as the Court of Two Sisters (which Miss Scott owned).  One amusing addition: On an almost blank page Arthur Feitel, a 34-year-old bachelor architect, wrote “Me, too” and signed his name.  Feitel, whose picture was not included, was a Tulane graduate who had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts; he would later serve as president of both the Art Association of New Orleans and the board of the Delgado Museum.

Only two “Famous Creoles” did not sign Mrs. Lazard’s book. One is easily explained. By the time the book appeared Ronald Hargrave was pretty much incommunicado; he was painting in Majorca, and he never returned to New Orleans. But the other missing signature is that of William Faulkner. It seems to me that Mrs. Lazard went to a great deal of trouble to track down people to sign her book (William Odiorne signed it, and he was in Paris), so it is almost inconceivable that she didn’t ask Faulkner. He must have refused to sign, possibly just out of general cussedness — he was known for being moody and sometimes difficult, and he didn’t sign the 50 copies that Spratling hand-tinted either. In addition, however, Faulkner didn’t care for “artsy” uptown people he thought were dilettantes (unlike Spratling, who enjoyed their company), and he may have viewed Mrs. Lazard as one of them. Whatever the explanation, in some ways Faulkner’s absence may actually be more interesting than a perfunctory autograph would have been.

Mrs. Lazard’s copy was eventually acquired by Stephanie Durant’s father, J. Raymond Samuel, a well-known historian, collector and (in his retirement years) dealer in books and art. On his death the book passed to Mrs. Durant, who has now generously given it to benefit the Ogden Museum.

 

–John Shelton Reed, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

Author of Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s

 

Inquiries about the auction should be directed to :

 

Jelena James

New Orleans Auction Galleries                                                        <jelena@neworleansauction.com>

801 Magazine Street                                                                          800-501-0277
New Orleans, Louisiana 70130                                                        504-566-1849

 

“Famous Creoles”

(with ages in 1926)

Signed Lazard copy

Conrad Albrizio, 27

New York-born, serious artist, Spratling’s neighbor, Arts and Crafts Club

stalwart

Sherwood Anderson, 50

“Lion of the Latin Quarter,” eminence gris, generous to respectful younger

writers

Marc Antony and Lucille Godchaux Antony, both 28

Love-match between heiress and lower-middle-class boy, local artists

Hamilton “Ham” Basso, 22

Star-struck recent Tulane grad, aspiring writer, good dancer

Charles “Uncle Charlie” Bein, 35

Director of Arts and Crafts Club’s art school; lived with mother, sister,

and aunt

Frans Blom, 33

Danish archeologist of Maya, Tulane professor, colorful resident of

Quarter

Roark Bradford, 30

Newspaperman, jokester, hit pay dirt with Negro dialect stories

Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis, 45

Tulane architecture professor, preservationist, recorded old buildings

Albert Bledsoe Dinwiddie, 55

President of Tulane, Presbyterian

Marian Draper, 20

Ziegfeld Follies alum, Tulane cheerleader, prize-winning architecture

student

Caroline “Carrie” Wogan Durieux, 30

Genuine Creole, talented artist living in Cuba and Mexico, painted by Rivera

Flo Field, 50

French Quarter guide, ex-journalist, sometime playwright, single mother

Louis Andrews Fischer, 25

Gender-bending Mardi Gras designer, named for her father

Meigs O. Frost, 44

Reporter’s reporter; lived in Quarter; covered crime, revolutions, and arts

Samuel Louis “Sam” Gilmore, 27

Greenery-yallery poet and playwright, from prominent family

Moise Goldstein, 44

Versatile and successful architect, preservationist, active in Arts and

Crafts Club

Weeks Hall, 32

Master of and slave to Shadows-on-the-Teche plantation, painter, deeply

strange

R. Emmet Kennedy, 49

Working-class Irish boy, collected and performed Negro songs and stories

Grace King, 74

Grande dame of local color literature and no-fault history, salonnière

Alberta Kinsey, 51

Quaker spinster, Quarter pioneer, indefatigable painter of courtyards

Richard R. Kirk, 49

Tulane English professor and poet, loyal Michigan Wolverine alumnus

Oliver La Farge, 25

New England Brahmin, Tulane anthropologist and fiction-writer, liked

a party

Harold Levy, 32

Musician who ran family’s box factory, knew everybody, turned up

everywhere

Lillian Friend Marcus, 35

Young widow from wealthy family, angel and manager of Double Dealer

John “Jack” McClure, 33

Poet, newspaper columnist and reviewer, Double Dealer editor, bookshop

owner

Virginia Parker Nagle, 29

Promising artist, governor’s niece, Arts and Crafts Club teacher

Louise Jonas “Mother” Nixon, 70

A founder of Le Petit Theatre and its president-for-life, well-

connected widow

William C. “Cicero” Odiorne, 45

Louche photographer, Famous Creoles’ Paris contact

Frederick “Freddie” Oechsner, 24

Recent Tulane graduate, ambitious cub reporter, amateur actor

Genevieve “Jenny” Pitot, 25

Old-family Creole, classical pianist living in New York, party girl

Lyle Saxon, 35

Journalist, raconteur, bon vivant, host, preservationist, bachelor

Helen Pitkin Schertz, 56

Clubwoman, civic activist, French Quarter guide, writer, harpist

Natalie Scott, 36

Journalist, equestrian, real-estate investor, Junior Leaguer, social

organizer

William “Bill” Spratling, 25

Famous Creoles illustrator, Tulane teacher, lynchpin of Quarter

social life

Keith Temple, 27

Australian editorial cartoonist, artist, sometimes pretended to be

a bishop

Fanny Craig Ventadour, 29

Painter, Arts and Crafts Club regular, lately married and living in

France

Elizebeth Werlein, 39

Suffragette with colorful past, crusading preservationist,

businessman’s widow

Joseph Woodson “Pops” Whitesell, 50

Photographic jack-of-all-trades, French Quarter eccentric,

inventor

Daniel “Dan” Whitney, 32

Arts and Crafts Club teacher, married (two) students, beauty

pageant judge

Ellsworth Woodward, 65

Artistic elder statesman, old-fashioned founder of Newcomb art

department

Did not sign Lazard copy

William “Bill” Faulkner, 29

Needs no introduction, but wrote the one to Famous Creoles

Ronald Hargrave, 44

Painter from Illinois formerly active in Quarter art scene,

relocated to Majorca

 

From Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s,

© 2012, LSU Press.

Review of John Shelton Reed’s Dixie Bohemia

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South, Writing on October 31, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review first appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

John Shelton Reed’s Dixie Bohemia is difficult to classify. It’s easier to say what it isn’t than to say what it is.

It isn’t biography.  It isn’t documentary.  It isn’t quite history, although it does organize and present information about a distinct class of past individuals interacting and sometimes living together in a unique, definable space.

It isn’t quite sociology either, although Reed is, by training and profession, a sociologist, and sociology does, every now and then, sneak its way into the pages.

Maybe it’s best to suggest that the book is a bit of all of these, but it’s also an annotated edition of Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans.

Written and compiled by William Spratling and William Faulkner, whom Reed affectionately dubs the “Two Bills,” Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles, first published in 1926,was something of a joke: its oft-rambunctious subjects weren’t really creoles, but simply friends of the authors, and most weren’t, by most measurable standards, famous.

Reed’s stated goal, one of them at least, is to provide an “introduction to a Bohemian crowd of artists, writers, journalists, musicians, poseurs, and hangers-on found in the French Quarter in the mid-1920s.”  This eclectic and creative crowd comprises what Reed calls a social circle, or, in more academic parlance, a “loose network of relationships linked by friends in common,” “by association with the same institutions,” and “by common interests.”

Reed explains that social circles, by nature, “have no formal leaders, but they may have their notables,” and they have their cores, too.  The leader of the so-called “famous Creoles” is Sherwood Anderson, and the core, as you might have guessed, is the French Quarter.

Tulane University, with all of its energy, entertainers, and eccentrics, enabled and sustained the circle that produced the local arts, literature, and culture.  The area and its residents gained a national, indeed international, reputation.  As Meigs Frost, a reporter who made the cut as a famous creole, put it, “So many of us here are internationally famous locally.”

Reed’s subtly sociological introductory chapters place his subjects, which were also the two Bills’ subjects, into their historical context—and what a wild, exotic, and at times erotic context it is.  His comprehensive research is delivered with such wit and enthusiasm that one can forget this work is scholarship written by a former professor and published by a university press.

His occasional use of the first person and confessional, qualifying asides—“as far as I know,” “Some may find it easier than I do,” “to my mind artists should not be judged on what prejudiced observers see in their work,” “It is difficult to discuss this,” “I have mentioned,” “I know of someone,” “it’s fair to say,” “It’s hard to imagine”—will let you know, or let you guess at, where he stands on an issue or acknowledges an assumption on his part.  Such delicate humility—or is it just honest colloquialism?—is rare for a person who made his career in the university, and it would be a shame if readers neglected to notice it.

Peopled with absinthe-drinking, music-loving debauchers, 1920s New Orleans was a place where madams and brothels were as common as jambalaya and gumbo; where music poured into the streets, which smelled of spices, sex, and booze; where bootleggers (this was the Prohibition Era, remember) set up shop next to cops (who were customers of the brothels and the bootleggers); where the only limit on free love, it seemed, was the stultifying effect of alcohol; where parties—especially costume balls—were considered failures if nobody got naked; and where vivacious theater, daily newspapers, and edgy literary periodicals flourished.

If this milieu seemed excessive, radical, intemperate, even libertine, it was also in a way conservative: there was among its dwellers a ubiquitous impulse to preserve and maintain.  History, both that being made and that made already, was important to the artists and writers.  The districts, the streets, the homes, the buildings, the sidewalks—all of them required and received care and protection, and all of them underwent systematic revitalization.  The literati, as conservationists, were afraid that the world they had inherited, and to some extent made, was endangered.

Fans of Reed have come to expect certain things: the informal idioms and plain speech he uses while dissecting, with surgeon-like precision, complex people and institutions; the surprising clarity he brings to understudied topics; and the delightful, conversational prose with which he arrests your attention, transports you into another world, and then releases you back into your own world.

In this, his latest, he does not disappoint.  As always, he delivers—and in so doing provides telling insights into a minor renaissance in American literary history.  His discussions of race and sexuality will inspire (or provoke) future study, but more importantly he has addressed some of the least known phases of some of the most known American litterateurs.

Reed doesn’t need my endorsement.  But he’s got it.

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