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“Winston Churchill and the American Civil War,” by Miles Smith IV

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humanities, Libertarianism, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery, Southern History, The South on February 4, 2015 at 8:45 am

Miles Smith

Miles Smith IV is a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College and a historian of the Old South and Atlantic World. He took his B.A. from the College of Charleston and holds a Ph.D. in History from Texas Christian University. He is a native of Salisbury, North Carolina.

Last week saw the alignment of a peculiar set of anniversaries: The Fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, the seventieth of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army, and the 208th birthday anniversary of Robert E. Lee. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill died in 1965. One century earlier General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to his Federal counterpart U.S. Grant. Churchill and Lee enjoyed widespread acclaim for their conduct—Lee in the late nineteenth and both he and Churchill in the latter half of the twentieth century. In recent years deconstructing both men enjoyed being the vogue of both academic and popular commentators. Both Churchill and Lee lived their lives as traditionalists. Neither embraced the social or moral innovation of their own eras. Modern commentators degrade both for their seemingly reactionary ideals. Unsurprisingly, Churchill adored Lee (and Abraham Lincoln as well). A recent historian opined that Lee’s “tragic flaw” was that he upheld the genteel values of eighteenth century Virginia “in a society that left older ideals of nobility and privilege behind.” One might grant that Lee’s aristocratic and heavy-handed slaveholding would understandably guarantee him a fair share of detractors in the early twentieth century, but this commentator offered as his reason for deconstructing Lee a calamitous rationale:

In the long run, Lee’s decision to follow Virginia out of the Union and resign his commission from the US Army further reveals his eighteenth century sensibilities which emphasize state over country and a parochial interest in defending home and family rather than one’s nation. In choosing loyalty to his state over loyalty to his country, Lee ensured that his destiny would be tainted by defeat and the specter of treason.

The disturbing notion that one’s parochial interest in defending his home and family constitutes a “fatal flaw” ultimately saw its hellish culmination in the totalitarian nationalist regimes of the twentieth century. It was Lee’s very cultured localism, tragically tinged as it was with slaveholding, that endeared him to Winston Churchill.[1]

Before Winston Churchill assumed the premiership of the United Kingdom and before he battled the nationalist brutes ruling Germany and Italy, he wrote history. In History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Great Democracies, the fourth volume of his history of the Anglosphere, his view of American history reflected a patrician education and disposition. Never comfortable in the twentieth century, Churchill kept the values of a bygone Victorian Era well into the middle of the twentieth century. In Lee he found a similarly anachronistic gentleman of the eighteenth century living in the nineteenth. Churchill wrote that Lee’s “noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.” He “weighed carefully, while commanding a regiment of cavalry on the Texan border, the course which duty and honour would require from him.” Churchill overstated Lee’s antipathy towards slavery but nonetheless seized on the Virginian’s conservative Whiggish politics. Lee knew secession to be dangerous and ill-advised “but he had been taught from childhood that his first allegiance was to the state of Virginia.” Churchill found Lee’s Old South an admirable but flawed reflection of British gentry. “There was,” said Churchill, “a grace and ease about the life of the white men in the South that was lacking in the bustling North. It was certainly not their fault that these unnatural conditions had arisen.” Churchill’s denotation of white men underscores his innate humanity. White men, he knew, built their civilization on the backs of enslaved people held in human bondage. “The institution of negro slavery,” Churchill knew, “had long reigned almost unquestioned.” Upon the basis of slavery “the whole life of the Southern states had been erected.” Churchill saw a “strange, fierce, old-fashioned life. An aristocracy of planters, living in rural magnificence and almost feudal state, and a multitude of smallholders, grew cotton for the world by slave-labour.” Churchill’s empathy for the planter class stemmed from his willingness to conceive them as a class that “ruled the politics of the South as effectively as the medieval baronage had ruled England.” Southerners who by varying degrees colluded with the capitalist system became feudal agrarians and misplaced Englishmen in Churchill’s romantic imagination. [2]

Southerners engaged in the capitalist system in the antebellum era. Not all southerners were equally capitalist, however, and the Whig planters of Mississippi and Louisiana embraced the economic, expansionistic, and modernizing nationalism of the United States in a way that horrified old planters in Virginia and Carolina. Nonetheless, the Old aristocratic Anglo-American planter communities provided Churchill with set pieces as he wrote his histories. Of Lee, Churchill somberly wrote that he “wrestled earnestly with his duty” during the secession crisis. “By Lincoln’s authority he was offered the chief command of the great Union army now being raised. He declined at once…” The immediacy of Lee’s refusal supplied Churchill with a heroically long-suffering but duty-bound Anglophone hero. Churchill made much of how Lee resigned, “and in the deepest sorrow rode across the Potomac bridge for Richmond. Here he was immediately offered the chief command of all the military and naval forces of Virginia.” Lee’s decision, thought Churchill, seemed beautiful and tragic. “Some of those who saw him in these tragic weeks, when sometimes his eyes filled with tears, emotion which he never showed after the gain or loss of great battles, have written about his inward struggle. But there was no struggle; he never hesitated.” Lee’s choice, declared Churchill, “was for the state of Virginia. He deplored that choice [and] foresaw its consequences with bitter grief; but for himself he had no doubts at the time, nor ever after regret or remorse.” Writing in 1858, Lee appeared as a forerunner of Churchill himself: warning of the disaster befalling England, but fighting determinedly when the conflict came. [3]

Sensitive to the political differences between Imperial Britain and the United States, Churchill nonetheless tried to make sense of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Churchill saw that “Radical vindictiveness” in Republican ranks “sprang from various causes. The most creditable was a humanitarian concern for the welfare of the negro.” Belief in the God-given humanity of African Americans was “shared only by a minority.” Churchill believed that “more ignoble motives were present in the breasts of such Radical leaders as Zachariah Chandler and Thaddeus Stevens.” Because they loved “the negro less than they hated his master, these ill-principled men wanted to humiliate the proud Southern aristocracy, whom they had always disliked, and at whose door they laid the sole blame for the Civil War.” But Churchill argued that “there was another and nearer point.”

The Radicals saw that if the negro was given the vote they could break the power of the Southern planter and preserve the ascendancy over the Federal Government that Northern business interests had won since 1861. To allow the Southern states, in alliance with Northern Democrats, to recover their former voice in national affairs would, the Radicals believed, be incongruous and absurd. It would also jeopardise the mass of legislation on tariffs, banking, and public land which Northern capitalists had secured for themselves during the war. To safeguard these laws the Radicals took up the cry of the negro vote, meaning to use it to keep their own party in power.

Churchill conceived of the Civil War from a perspective of a Briton deeply suspicious of the effects of modernizing industrial nationalism. His best known Liberal biographer, Lord Jenkins, painted him as a champion of Free-trade economic libertarianism and of workers as well. William Manchester, a far more conservative biographical voice, likewise understood Churchill as essentially a Free-trader whose conservatism remained confined to foreign policy. Free-trade economic views never allowed Churchill to entirely embrace the relationship between corporation and nation that characterized post-Civil War American politics. [4]

Capitalism accompanied Free-trade in Churchill’s mind, and he affirmed capitalism in his ideals about society. But he likewise displayed antipathy for the wedding of corporation and nation that followed the American Civil War. Of the captains of industry he wrote that “Carnegie and Rockefeller, indeed, together with Morgan in finance and Vanderbilt and Harriman in railroads, became the representative figures of the age,” when compared to the “colourless actors upon the political scene.” “Though the morality” of the captains of industry “has often been questioned, these men made industrial order out of chaos. They brought the benefits of large-scale production to the humblest home.” Still, Churchill saw the Gilded Age American Union as racked “by severe growing pains” and unrest. “There was much poverty in the big cities, especially among recent immigrants. There were sharp, sudden financial panics, causing loss and ruin, and there were many strikes, which sometimes broke into violence.” Most disturbing to Churchill the free trader, “Labour began to organize itself in Trade Unions and to confront the industrialists with a stiff bargaining power. These developments were to lead to a period of protest and reform in the early twentieth century.” Churchill’s deep ambivalence about the wedding of capitalism and nationalism led him the recognize “gains conferred by large-scale industry” but also to lament that “the wrongs that had accompanied their making were only gradually righted.”[5]

Churchill’s British perspective offered a nuanced perspective that stood outside the intemperate screeds of Lost Cause southerners, and the more numerous and far more influential hyper-nationalist hagiography devoted to the white northern liberators. Churchill understood that slavery constituted the great systemic evil of the nineteenth century United States and caused the Civil War. His libertarian proclivities left him unconvinced of the necessity of 800,000 dead. In this he prefigured agrarian Wendell Berry who noted in his essay “American Imagination and the Civil War” that a botched emancipation was far batter than no imagination. But Berry also noted that history demands that a botched emancipation be criticized for what was botched. David Goldfield, former president of the Southern Historical Association, declared in his America Aflame that his work was “neither pro-southern nor pro-northern. It is anti-war, particularly the Civil War.”[6]

To his credit, Abraham Lincoln regretted the Civil War’s violence in 1865 and subsequently proposed an expeditious readmission criterion for the seceded states, only to have it scuttled by Radical Republicans after his assassination. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, who genuinely seemed interested in restoring the status quo ante bellum, the war unleashed the ideological monstrosity of modern industrial nationalism on the American polity. Harry Stout recognized that industrial nationalism tarnished the war’s consequence of liberating African Americans from chattel slavery. Elliott West’s history of the Nez Perce War of 1877 posited the idea of a greater Reconstruction, whereby the Republican Party remade the entirety of the continental American polity in the image of white capitalistic, militaristic, Evangelistic Protestant nationalism. Native Americans stood in the way of the American nation, and the U.S. Army ruthlessly destroyed the last free Indian societies in the Far West. Societal transmutation on that scale necessitated violence in the name of the nation. Jackson Lears pointed out in his Rebirth of a Nation that racism on a societal scale (southern and northern) fed this nationalism driven by a political organization formally committed to black liberty. By 1900, four decades of almost uninterrupted Republican government turned the United States into an imperialistic nation-state. Though to a small degree mitigated institutionally in the United States by a lingering federalism, nationalism with its muscular industrial core eventually threw Europe into the nightmare of two world wars.[7]

Few American historians have offered an anti-nationalist vision of the Civil War. The camps seemed too rigidly defined for works such as Churchill’s to remain valid. Churchill’s vision of the American Civil War Era is at once not southern enough for Lost Cause partisans, nor is it sufficiently pro-northern for Neo-Abolitionists. Churchill saw the conflict as a tragedy. Nationalist historians and political philosophers generally counted the war a blessing; to think it a tragedy negated the benefits of union and emancipation. British Marxist Robin Blackburn exasperatedly asked why “a willingness on the part of the United States to admit the possibility that the war was not the best response” to secession or slavery was seen as condoning either.[8]

Conservative historians understandably co-opted Churchill into the pantheon of Anglo-American heroes committed to the maintenance of the Western World and to its transcendent expression of human liberty. Much of the resilience involved in Churchill revolves around the image of a nationalist military chieftain committed to Britain’s place in the world. That image is true—Churchill biographer Carlo d’Este argued that his subject was one of the humans truly born for war—but not complete. John Keegan once described Churchill as a true libertarian, and this seems an appropriate corrective given the multitude of remembrances published on this fiftieth anniversary of his passing.[9]

[1] Glenn W. LaFantasie, “Broken Promise,” Civil War Monitor 13 (Fall, 2014): 37

[2] Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Vol. 4: The Great Democracies.

[3] Churchill, Great Democracies.

[4] Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2001), 398-401; William Manchester, Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory (New York: Little & Brown, 1989), 361.

[5] Churchill, The Great Democracies.

[6] Wendell Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” in Imagination in Place (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), 27; David Goldfield, America aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[7] Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

[8] Robin Blackburn, “Why the Muted Anniversary? An Erie Silence,” CounterPunch (18th April 2011):

[9] Carlo d’Este, Warlord: A Life Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 (HarperCollins, 2008); John Keegan, Winston Churchill: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2002), 27.

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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.

The Life of Julius Porter Farish

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, History, Southern History, The South on August 13, 2014 at 8:45 am

Harper Lee and Words Left Behind

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literature, Novels, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on July 9, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This essay originally appeared here in storySouth.

Nelle Harper Lee is in her eighties and spending her final years embroiled in lawsuits. For some time I’ve awaited the publication of a book she is rumored to have written about an Alabama salesman who got wealthy by murdering multiple wives and collecting the life insurance proceeds. My sources—all reliable people—insist the book is complete, but I don’t know whether it is or will be published.

One of my earliest memories is of a bookcase at my grandparents’ beach house in Destin, Florida, that held the films my grandparents considered classics: Dr. Zhivago, Patton, Gone With the Wind, and, among others, The Sound of Music. I remember one film above all because it was set off from the others, as if on display: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Few books have captivated me as has To Kill a Mockingbird. I first read it in elementary school. Too young to understand its complexities, I adored Atticus Finch and decided that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. In high school, I named my dog Atticus. Then my sister got a cat. We named it Scout. Neither animal lived up to its namesake: Atticus was needy and pathetic, Scout skittish and brain-dead.

I was born into the book as others were born into money. My grandfather, Papa, was raised in Monroeville, Alabama, by way of Atmore, Alabama, where he was born in 1929. Because the Depression had hit Papa’s family especially hard, a charitable doctor in Atmore delivered Papa for free.

Shortly after Papa was born, Great-Granddaddy moved his family to Monroeville and worked for various car businesses, never earning much money. Papa, tall, strong, and handsome, was also something of an athlete. He earned a basketball scholarship to Auburn, left Monroeville for college, graduated, and then served in the U.S. Air Force. In 1955, he married his college sweetheart, Barbara Glenn Farish, my grandmother, whom I call “Nina.” Nina and Papa moved to Monroeville, where they lived until 1959. Their stay was short. Within a year, they left for Oklahoma and then returned to Alabama to live in Opelika until they made their final move to Atlanta. Papa’s Monroeville days were over, save for his visits to relatives.

Great-Granddaddy, however, lived in Monroeville until his death in 1991, the year his beloved Atlanta Braves made it to the World Series just one season after finishing with the worst record in baseball. I often visited Great-Granddaddy in his small, white-wood house with the gravel driveway and grass basketball court that was littered with pecans dropped from the trees above. Papa’s aunt, my Great Aunt Jewel, the only person I had known who was confined to a wheelchair—she had Polio—lived next door and owned one thousand cats. When I asked mom why Aunt Jewel lived near her brother for so long, mom said, “Health, sweetie.”

Monroeville was home to two of the 20th century’s greatest authors: Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, who was born in Monroeville in 1926, and Truman Capote, Lee’s friend, schoolmate, and neighbor, who lived in Monroeville until the third grade, at which point he moved to New York City. He continued to summer in Monroeville with his aunts, whom Papa called “wild-haired” women. Lee was four years older than Papa. “She was,” he would say whenever he was probed about the age difference, “in the 12th grade when I was in the eighth grade.”

“Back then,” he used to say, referring to his childhood in Monroeville, “there was nothing to do, so kids had to use their imaginations.” He told me about how Lee and Capote had, despite their young ages and, in the case of Capote, lack of physical prowess, constructed a tree house with the assistance of Lee’s brother, Edwin. “They formed a club up there,” Papa said, “and to be in the club you had to do certain things.” Papa never said what those things were, but he did say that he had been admitted into the tree house.

I was in the third grade when I went to Great-Granddaddy’s funeral in Monroeville. I recall a few things clearly from that weekend: Great-Granddaddy’s open-casket, Swing-Low-Sweet-Chariot, and the endless pecans, which I gathered from the yard and placed into an old potato sack. Nina bought the pecans from me for one dollar. I thought I was rich, and in some ways, I was.

I also remember Papa telling stories about Lee and Capote that weekend. I delighted in these and shared them with my teachers, who seemed both impressed and skeptical. Papa said that Lee was a tomboy who wouldn’t wear dresses and was always in trouble. She would show up at the grass basketball court in his backyard and play with the boys. His descriptions of the girlhood Lee resemble her own portrayal of Scout Finch, whom the character Aunt Alexandra chastised for tomboyishness. The narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird says that Aunt Alexandra was “fanatical on the subject of [Scout’s] attire” and insisted that Scout “could not possibly hope to be a lady if [she] wore britches.” Whenever Scout declared that she “could do nothing in a dress,” especially not play, Aunt Alexandra would inform her that girls weren’t “supposed to be doing things that required pants.”

Papa’s attitude toward Capote was mixed. He took pride in him, but didn’t want to glorify him, either. If I asked Papa to describe the boyhood Truman, he would answer, flatly, “Capote was a weird boy.” I had to press him for details, perhaps because he did not want to admit that he and his friends had, as one might expect of seven and eight year old boys, teased Capote.

Capote was not like the other kids and did not fit in. He frequented the drug store with a satchel full of papers and pencils, wearing knickers, stockings, and a funny cap and talking with flute-like intonations. He would sit in the drug store for hours, drinking Coca-Cola and producing paper after paper from his satchel, scribbling lines of prose and stacking the finished pages until he’d made a paper tower stretching from the table to his chin.

“What are you doing in there, boy?” Papa and the other boys would ask.

To which Capote would say, “I’m writing a book.” Then Papa and the other boys would laugh because the notion that someone in Monroeville, Alabama, could write a whole book was, they thought, silly, if not downright preposterous.

Capote proved my grandfather wrong and wrote many books; Papa came to admire Capote.

Papa was not especially vocal about his relationship to Lee or Capote until he retired, but once he retired, it was hard to keep him quiet about it. When I went away for college, he made a name for himself at the local high school by lecturing in my cousins’ classrooms. He drawled on about Monroeville and Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and specified the residents on whom Lee had based her characters. “Bubba,” Nina objected more than once—Papa didn’t like the nickname Bubba, and only Nina could call him that—“you best not tell all about the Monroeville folks. You’re likely to get sued.”

Papa laughed, kept giving lectures, and never got sued.

Open to the first few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, and you’ll see a disclaimer: “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons, living or dead, is coincidental.” If you had asked Papa about this disclaimer, he would have told you it was hogwash.

When I graduated from college, having earned a degree in literature, I moved to Japan to teach English. Before leaving the States, I arranged to have supper with Papa so we could talk about Harper Lee.

He and I sat at his kitchen table, in Sandy Springs, Georgia, eating boiled shrimp and drinking Nina’s sweet tea, a bowl of cocktail sauce, a copy of The Monroe Journal (dated July 25, 2002, and headlined “A.C. Lee, the perfect ‘Atticus Finch’”), and three stacks of papers between us. On one piece of paper, Papa drew a map. On another, he listed Monroevillians and their corresponding characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. The list looked like this:

Scout Finch……….Harper Lee

Jem Finch…………Edwin Lee

Dill Harris………….Truman Capote

Atticus……………..A.C. Lee

Boo Radley……….Son Boulware

Aunts……………….Faulk sisters

Mr. Ewell…………..Mr. Ezell

Tom Robinson…….(Fiction)

Maudie……………..Grandmother Mosey Neighbor

Mr. Tate, Sheriff…..Sheriff Sawyer

Calpurnia…………..Georgianna

Mr. Radley…………Mr. Boulware

Maycomb…………..Monroeville Macon County…….Monroe County

 

“This,” he said, indicating a sloppy square on his map, “is the courthouse, and this is the post office.” He also indicated the jail, the drug store, the elementary school; Selma Street, Montgomery Street, and Mobile Street; and some homes labeled “my home,” “Grandmother (Maudie),” “Faulk,” “Harper Lee,” “Radley, Boo,” and “Dill.”

And so it went. Papa specified who lived where, why, and for how long. He explained how Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper’s father, served as the model for Atticus and how Edwin Lee, Harper’s brother, served as the model for Jem. He also explained how the “real” Boo Radley was Son Boulware.

The narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird introduces Boo as “a malevolent phantom” whom she had never seen but whose very breath caused azaleas to freeze “in a cold snap.” She describes the Radley house as adjoining the schoolyard and declares that a “baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no questions asked.” Papa testified to the truth underlying this legend, saying that he and his friends would play baseball in the schoolyard and occasionally hit or throw a ball into Son Boulware’s yard. They would run up to the fence to see if Son would come out of the house to get the ball. He never did. But the ball would be back in the schoolyard the next morning. Papa swore that this was how Lee got the idea for the knothole in which Boo deposited gifts for Scout and Jem.

One day, when Papa was working for a Mr. Gardner, who ran a grocery store, Papa was called on to deliver a basket of groceries to Mrs. Boulware. He had told Mr. Gardner that he’d deliver groceries to anybody but the Boulwares, but Mr. Gardner would have none of it and ordered Papa to make the delivery. Papa, who had a bike with a big basket for carrying things to and from school, collected the groceries and set out for the Boulware home.

He rode up to the Boulware’s yard—which, he said, was tidy to the point of exhibitionism—and chanced his way through the gate of the picket fence, tottering up the steps to the front porch: the very porch, perhaps, that Jem had conquered to impress Scout and Dill. For some reason, Papa decided to go around to the back door; the porch, you see, stretched the length of the house. The groceries were heavy and slipping from his hands. When he turned the corner, he saw Son, or Boo, who hopped out of the porch swing and ran inside just as quickly as Papa could drop the groceries and jolt the other way. Papa always maintained that Son was “white as a sheet” that day. He rode his bike back to the grocery store and announced to Mr. Gardner that he would never deliver another thing to that house.

Papa used to describe the particularities and peculiarities of Mr. Boulware, Son’s father, a man who never worked a steady job and who raised chickens and cultivated a beautiful vegetable garden. “He swapped chickens for groceries,” Papa explained. “He’d leave his house every day, about 11:00, walking right by grandmother’s, and I’d watch him sometimes from behind grandmother’s shades, and he’d go three places: the post office, the courthouse, and the Jitney Jungle. He’d always return by noon.”

Papa claimed that Lee modeled the character Miss Maudie on his grandmother, who would scold him and his friends when she caught them spying on the Boulwares: “Y’all leave that family alone! They’ve never done anything to you!”

Papa alleged, as well, that Lee modeled her characters on the following people:

Edwin Lee as Jem. Known simply as “Ed.” Ed went to Auburn. That he, or anyone for that matter, went to Auburn is of tremendous significance to my family: all my grandparents—save for my paternal grandmother, who never attended college—attended Auburn; both my parents attended Auburn; my uncles attended Auburn; my sister attended Auburn; and a plethora of first, second, third, fourth, and fifth cousins attended Auburn; I’m a doctoral candidate at Auburn. Nina’s family, the Glenns, have a dorm at Auburn named for them; and Glenn Street runs through the edges of Auburn’s campus.

Amasa Coleman Lee as Atticus. Harper Lee’s father. A lawyer who never actually attended law school. He handled mostly wills and estates. He raised his family as Methodists and served on the board of the church. Papa heard him speak on several occasions and characterized him as a dry speaker who rattled change in his pockets while he talked.

Georgianna as Calpurnia. In the book, Calpurnia looked after Scout and Jem, but Papa claimed that was Mrs. Lee’s job and that Harper Lee had chosen not to include Mrs. Lee in the book. Georgianna was a cook who lived in a small residence behind the Lees’ house. A.C. Lee did not drive her home after work, the way Atticus did for Calpurnia. Papa described Georgianna as a hefty woman who wore bright red lipstick and played the accordion in the afternoons. She was, apparently, an atrocious accordion player.

Mr. Ezell as Mr. Ewell. Ezell, like Ewell, was, in Papa’s words, “poor white trash.” He was an alcoholic who never worked. He and his family lived outside of town and were supported by Mrs. Ezell, who ironed, washed clothes, and undertook other odds-and-ends to make a living. Ezell’s family lived in a house that someone else abandoned, and the Ezell children started school each year but always dropped out within three weeks on account of the other children laughing at them. The Ezell children never had proper clothes. Papa claimed that their family lived in that once-abandoned house until about the year he left for college. Then they disappeared, and nobody in Monroeville, at least to Papa’s knowledge, knew where they went.

“Harper Lee used fake names to refer to real Monroeville people,” Papa insisted. “She did it, I suspect, to avoid lawsuits.” He would follow up by saying that Lee couldn’t fool those who had lived in Monroeville, who had spent their days with the actual people so easily identifiable in Lee’s fiction. Papa didn’t know what to make of the fact that Lee had omitted some of her closest friends and relatives from the book—her sisters Alice and Marie, for example. He set aside the question by saying, “I suspect she wanted to make the book seem more like fiction.”

When I was eight years old, I made a discovery much like the one Scout and Jem made about Atticus’s sharpshooting skills. Nina and Papa had a Siamese cat named Susie who would sneak into the attic through unknown passageways. One afternoon, she snuck away, and I went looking for her in the upstairs bedroom. I looked under the bed, behind the shower curtain, on top of the bookcase. No Susie.

Then I saw the closet door was cracked open. I pulled it all the way open and saw a long, coffin-like case on the shelf above the clothes. I pulled it down and examined it. It was about five feet long, tapering hexagonal at the tips; it had a locked, split lid. There was nothing particularly ornamental about it, so I supposed that there was no harm in opening it. Although it was locked, its lid gave way without resistance. When that happened, I gasped, horrified, and dropped the case to the floor. My heart fluttered. Inside was a shotgun. The first I’d ever seen.

I hadn’t known Papa to be a hunter or a rifleman, but when I summoned forth the courage to pick up the case and reinstate to its proper place, I saw two or three trophies, on the shelf, that were shaped like riflemen. Apparently, Papa was a good shot.

Just as I knew nothing of Papa’s marksmanship, Scout and Jem knew nothing of Atticus’s marksmanship—until, that is, old Tim Johnson, a neighbor’s dog struck mad with rabies, materialized in the street one afternoon, “walking dazedly in the inner rim of the curve parallel to the Radley house” and “advancing at a snail’s pace.” The narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird describes Tim Johnson as “dedicated to one course and motivated by an invisible force that was inching him toward us.”

Heck Tate, the sheriff of Maycomb, surrenders his gun to Atticus, insisting that Atticus take the shot at the canine (“this is a one-shot job,” Tate says). Scout and Jem watch skeptically as their father fumbles with the rifle. The reluctant Atticus—moving “like an underwater swimmer”—takes aim, pausing to adjust his glasses, which, eventually, he lets fall to the street. “With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous,” the narrator says, “Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder.” Then, suddenly, Atticus eliminates the dog with a single shot, leaving Jem “paralyzed” with wonder and confused as Miss Maudie refers to Atticus as “One-Shot Finch.”

“Don’t you go near that dog, you understand? Don’t go near him, he’s just as dangerous dead as alive,” Atticus tells Jem, who says, “yes, sir,” and then stammers, “Atticus?—”

To which Atticus says, “Yes?”

Jem, still stunned, says, “Nothin.’”

Minutes later, Jem remains in “numb confusion” and only “vaguely articulate.” Seeing this, Miss Maudie enlightens him by saying that Atticus was the best shot in Maycomb. When Jem protests that no one had told him this before, Miss Maudie muses aloud in words that, I believe, could have described my Papa:

If your father’s anything, he’s civilized in his heart. Marksmanship’s a gift of God, a talent—oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin’s different from playing the piano or the like. I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.

I never did see Papa shoot a gun, but Nina said that one time he had shot a squirrel off the bird feeder with a BB gun because he thought birds were disadvantaged when it came to competition with the squirrels. When he went to collect the squirrel’s body, the little thing came to, shook its head wildly as if snapping from a trance, and bounded away into the woods. Papa shelved the BB gun that day and never used it again.

As all grandfathers must, Papa passed on stories about his childhood, often while sitting in his reading chair with his grandkids gathered on the floor around him. “When I was a boy,” he would say, “there was no swimming pool. And there was only one movie theater, and it had only one screen. They had to change the picture every day to keep business. On Saturdays, there was a double-feature: two westerns. Admission cost five cents for children, and for another five cents, you could have some popcorn.” This was the world of Lee and Capote, too: the charming yet dangerous world that Lee illuminated for masses of readers.

With Lee’s final, tumultuous years comes the passing of a part of me that I shared with my grandfather through stories. It has been said that pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones. I know my grandfather to have been a good and honest man, and come what may, I’ll tell his stories about Harper Lee and Truman Capote and Monroeville to my children and, perhaps one day, my grandchildren, that they, too, might tell their offspring. Good folks like Harper Lee and my grandfather can’t be kept alive forever—Papa died in May of this year—but this isn’t true for the stories they leave behind. Those live. They must, for the sake of soul and bone, and for the wisdom of our posterity.

 

 

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

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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.

Book Synopsis: Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Slavery, Southern History, The South on October 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

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This is the story of America’s struggle to end slavery without destroying the union.  The book deliberately focuses on the rhetoric of white male politicians and thus does not purport to tell the “whole” story, but only that part of the story which is most recoverable and hence most knowable.  Many early 19th century politicians averred that the Northern textile industry, which was roughly as powerful as today’s oil industry, depended on Southern slavery.  An industry with such power and control over the financial interests of the country can, Miller argues, cause social changes to come about more slowly.  When talking about slavery, Miller submits, American politicians of the time had to deal with inherent contradictions in the American tradition: a nation that celebrated equality and the virtues of the “common man” had to come to terms with the fact that African slaves, officially excluded from citizenry, embodied the “common man” ideal but were not permitted to climb the social and economic ladder.  Most politicians did not believe slavery could end abruptly but would end gradually as economic dependence turned elsewhere.  Slavery went against all the principles and rhetoric of America’s founding documents, and yet there it was, a thriving and ubiquitous industry.

The book begins in 1835, when Congress deliberated over petitions to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  Congress took on these petitions reluctantly, unwilling to address a contentious and divisive issue that would disrupt congressional and governmental harmony.  Congress wished the issue would just go away—but realized that it could not.  During this congressional session, most of the speechmaking came from proslavery Southerners, since Northern politicians were, generally, too afraid to take a stand one way or the other.

Major figures from this session include the following:

President Andrew Jackson

John Fairfield: Congressman from Vermont who introduces the petitions to abolish slavery in D.C.

Franklin Pierce: Eventually the fourteenth President, he is, at this time, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He is a Northerner with Southern sympathies.

James Henry Hammond: Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams.

John Quincy Adams: A former president (the nation’s sixth), he is, at this time, a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.

Henry Laurens Pinckney: A Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams but who also did not get along with John C. Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun: A U.S. Senator from South Carolina, having resigned from the Vice Presidency.

Martin Van Buren: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eighth), he is, at this time, the Vice President under Andrew Jackson.

James K. Polk: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eleventh), he is, at this time, a member of the U.S. House from the State of Tennessee.

The debates in Congress were fueled by abolitionist literature (written by people like John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, and Elizur Wright, Jr.) and oration that maintained not only that slavery was wrong (as people had maintained for decades) but also that its demise was the nation’s highest priority.  Congress could not “sit on its hands” while abolitionists protested and demanded change; it had to respond, albeit reluctantly, to an institution that many congressmen assumed was already doomed.  The demise of slavery was supposed to be inevitable, according to the common logic, yet it persisted; therefore, the abolitionists forced Congress to address slavery, the demise of which, the abolitionists argued, was not as inevitable as people supposed.

The Senate also faced petitions.  Senator Calhoun became the most colorful and powerful figure opposing these positions.  Calhoun and his followers often employed “liberal” rhetoric on the Senate floor.  Henry Laurens Pinckney authored the gag rule, which was an attempt to stop citizens from submitting antislavery petitions.  (Calhoun despised Pinckney so much that he endorsed unionist candidates to take over Pinckney’s Congressional seat.)  The gag rule was adopted by a 117-68 vote, thus suggesting that the nation was more united on the issue of slavery than popular thought maintains.  The gag rule required congressmen to set aside slavery petitions immediately, without so much as printing them.  John Quincy Adams would spend the following years in Congress battling the so-called gag rule.

At this point in the book, Adams becomes the central figure.  Adams, then a distinguished ex-president, was in his 60s and 70s as he fought against the gag order.  He maintained that not only abolitionists but also slaves could petition.  Miller argues that this position shows the extent to which Adams was willing to risk his reputation and what was left of his career in order to stand up to the Southern gag order.  Other congresspersons were slow to join Adams in his fight.  During these debates, very little was said of African Americans, and most of the debates focused on the rights and roles of government and ignored the human persons that that government was supposed to serve and protect.

After Martin Van Buren became president, succeeding Andrew Jackson, he announced that he would veto any bill involving the issue of slavery in D.C. or the slave states.  Nevertheless, the petitions continued to pour in.  Adams himself began submitting petitions.  The gag resolutions had to be passed each session, but a gag rule was announced in 1840 that, in essence, made the “gagging” permanent.  Adams led the effort to rescind this rule.  He grew closer and closer to the abolitionists as he precipitated disarray in the House.  He also made several speeches despite threats against his life.  Adams’s opponents tried to get the entire House to censure him, but they failed.  Adams used the censure trials as an occasion to bring slavery to the forefront of Congressional debate.  In 1844, Adams succeeded in having the gag rule abolished.

John William Corrington, A Literary Conservative

In American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Creative Writing, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, The Novel, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 23, 2013 at 8:45 am

 

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An earlier version of this essay appeared here at Fronch Porch Republic.

Remember the printed prose is always

half a lie: that fleas plagued patriots,

that greatness is an afterthought

affixed by gracious victors to their kin.

 

—John William Corrington

 

It was the spring of 2009.  I was in a class called Lawyers & Literature.  My professor, Jim Elkins, a short-thin man with long-white hair, gained the podium.  Wearing what might be called a suit—with Elkins one never could tell—he recited lines from a novella, Decoration Day.  I had heard of the author, John William Corrington, but only in passing.

“Paneled walnut and thick carpets,” Elkins beamed, gesturing toward the blank-white wall behind him, “row after row of uniform tan volumes containing between their buckram covers a serial dumb show of human folly and greed and cruelty.”  The students, uncomfortable, began to look at each other, registering doubt.  In law school, professors didn’t wax poetic.  But this Elkins—he was different.  With swelling confidence, he pressed on: “The Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement, Supreme Court Reports.  Two hundred years of our collective disagreements and wranglings from Jay and Marshall through Taney and Holmes and Black and Frankfurter—the pathetic often ill-conceived attempts to resolve what we have done to one another.”

Elkins paused.  The room went still.  Awkwardly profound, or else profoundly awkward, the silence was like an uninvited guest at a dinner party—intrusive, unexpected, and there, all too there.  No one knew how to respond.  Law students, most of them, can rattle off fact-patterns or black-letter-law whenever they’re called on.  But this?  What were we to do with this?

What I did was find out more about John Willliam Corrington.  Having studied literature for two years in graduate school, I was surprised to hear this name—Corrington—in law school.  I booted up my laptop, right where I was sitting, and, thanks to Google, found a few biographical sketches of this man, who, it turned out, was perplexing, riddled with contradictions: a Southerner from the North, a philosopher in cowboy boots, a conservative literature professor, a lawyer poet.  This introduction to Corrington led to more books, more articles, more research.  Before long, I’d spent over $300 on Amazon.com.  And I’m not done yet.

***

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 28, 1932, Corrington—or Bill, as his friends and family called him—passed as a born-and-bred Southerner all of his life.  As well he might, for he lived most of his life below the Mason-Dixon line, and his parents were from Memphis and had moved north for work during the Depression.  He moved to the South (to Shreveport, Louisiana) at the age of 10, although his academic CV put out that he was, like his parents, born in Memphis, Tennessee.  Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school in Louisiana but was expelled for “having the wrong attitude.”  The Jesuit influence, however, would remain with him always.  At the beginning of his books, he wrote, “AMDG,” which stands for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam—“for the greater glory of God.”  “It’s just something that I was taught when I was just learning to write,” he explained in an interview in 1985, “taught by the Jesuits to put at the head of all my papers.”

Bill was, like the late Mark Royden Winchell, a Copperhead at heart, and during his career he authored or edited, or in some cases co-edited, twenty books of varying genres.  He earned a B.A. from Centenary College and M.A. in Renaissance literature from Rice University, where he met his wife, Joyce, whom he married on February 6, 1960.  In September of that year, he and Joyce moved to Baton Rouge, where Bill became an instructor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University (LSU).  At that time, LSU’s English department was known above all for The Southern Review (TSR), the brainchild of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, but also for such literary luminaries as Robert Heilman, who would become Bill’s friend.

In the early 1960s, Bill pushed for TSR to feature fiction and poetry and not just literary criticism.  He butted heads with then-editors Donald E. Stanford and Lewis P. Simpson, who thought of the journal as scholarly, not creative, as if journals couldn’t be both scholarly and creative.  A year after joining the LSU faculty, Bill published his first book of poetry, Where We Are.  With only 18 poems and 225 first edition printings, the book hardly established Bill’s reputation as Southern man of letters.  But it invested his name with recognition and gave him confidence to complete his first novel, And Wait for the Night (1964).

Bill and Joyce spent the 1963-64 academic year in Sussex, England, where Bill took the D.Phil. from the University of Sussex in 1965.  In the summer of 1966, at a conference at Northwestern State College, Mel Bradford, that Dean of Southern Letters, pulled Bill aside and told him, enthusiastically, that And Wait for the Night (1964) shared some of the themes and approaches of William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished.  Bill agreed.  And happily.

***

Of Bill and Miller Williams, Bill’s colleague at LSU, Jo LeCoeur, poet and literature professor, once submitted, “Both men had run into a Northern bias against what was perceived as the culturally backward South.  While at LSU they fought back against this snub, editing two anthologies of Southern writing and lecturing on ‘The Dominance of Southern Writers.’  Controversial as a refutation of the anti-intellectual Southern stereotype, their joint lecture was so popular [that] the two took it on the road to area colleges.”

In this respect, Bill was something of a latter-day Southern Fugitive—a thinker in the tradition of Donald Davidson, Allan Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and John Crowe Ransom.  Bill, too, took his stand.  And his feelings about the South were strong and passionate, as evidenced by his essay in The Southern Partisan, “Are Southerners Different?” (1984).  Bill’s feelings about the South, however, often seemed mixed.  “[T]he South was an enigma,” Bill wrote to poet Charles Bukowski, “a race of giants, individualists, deists, brainy and gutsy:  Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson (Andy), Davis, Calhoun, Lee, and on and on.  And yet the stain of human slavery on them.”  As the epigraph (above) suggests, Bill was not interested in hagiographic renderings of Southern figures.  He was interested in the complexities of Southern people and experience.  In the end, though, there was no doubt where his allegiances lay.  “You strike me as the most unreconstructed of all the Southern novelists I know anything about,” said one interviewer to Bill.  “I consider that just about the greatest compliment anyone could give,” Bill responded.

While on tour with Williams, Bill declared, “We are told that the Southerner lives in the past.  He does not.  The past lives in him, and there is a difference.”  The Southerner, for Bill, “knows where he came from, and who his fathers were.”  The Southerner “knows still that he came from the soil, and that the soil and its people once had a name.”  The Southerner “knows that is true, and he knows it is a myth.”  And the Southerner “knows the soil belonged to the black hands that turned it as well as it ever could belong to any hand.”  In short, the Southerner knows that his history is tainted but that it retains virtues worth sustaining—that a fraught past is not reducible to sound bites or political abstractions but is vast and contains multitudes.

***

In 1966, Bill and Joyce moved to New Orleans, where the English Department at Loyola University, housed in a grand Victorian mansion on St. Charles Avenue, offered him a chairmanship.  Joyce earned the M.S. in chemistry from LSU that same year.  By this time, Bill had written four additional books of poetry, the last of which, Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965), benefited from Bukowski’s influence.  Bill’s poetry earned a few favorable reviews but not as much attention as his novels—And Wait for the Night (1964), The Upper Hand (1967), and The Bombardier (1970).  Writing in The Massachusetts Review, Beat poet and critic Josephine Miles approvingly noted two of Bill’s poems from Lines, “Lucifer Means Light” and “Algerien Reveur,” alongside poetry by James Dickey, but her comments were more in passing than in depth.  Dickey himself, it should be noted, admired Bill’s writing, saying, “A more forthright, bold, adventurous writer than John William Corrington would be very hard to find.”

Joyce earned her PhD in chemistry from Tulane in 1968.  Her thesis, which she wrote under the direction of L. C. Cusachs, was titled, “Effects of Neighboring Atoms in Molecular Orbital Theory.”  She began teaching chemistry at Xavier University, and her knowledge of the hard sciences brought about engaging conservations, between her and Bill, about the New Physics.  “Even though Bill only passed high school algebra,” Joyce would later say, “his grounding in Platonic idealism made him more capable of understanding the implications of quantum theory than many with more adequate educations.”

By the mid-70s, Bill had become fascinated by Eric Voeglin.  A German historian, philosopher, and émigré who had fled the Third Reich, Voegelin taught in LSU’s history department and lectured for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he was a Salvatori Fellow.  Voeglin’s philosophy, which drew from Friedrich von Hayek and other conservative thinkers, inspired Bill.  In fact, Voegelin made such a lasting impression that, at the time of Bill’s death, Bill was working on an edition of Voegelin’s The Nature of the Law and Related Legal Writings.  (After Bill’s death, two men—Robert Anthony Pascal and James Lee Babin—finished what Bill had begun.  The completed edition appeared in 1991.)

By 1975, the year he earned his law degree from Tulane, Bill had penned three novels, a short story collection, two editions (anthologies), and four books of poetry.  But his writings earned little money.  He also had become increasingly disenchanted with the political correctness on campus:

By 1972, though I’d become chair of an English department and offered a full professorship, I’d had enough of academia. You may remember that in the late sixties and early seventies, the academic world was hysterically attempting to respond to student thugs who, in their wisdom, claimed that serious subjects seriously taught were “irrelevant.” The Ivy League gutted its curriculum, deans and faculty engaged in “teach-ins,” spouting Marxist-Leninist slogans, and sat quietly watching while half-witted draft-dodgers and degenerates of various sorts held them captive in their offices. Oddly enough, even as this was going on, there was a concerted effort to crush the academic freedom of almost anyone whose opinions differed from that of the mob or their college-administrator accessories. It seemed a good time to get out and leave the classroom to idiots who couldn’t learn and didn’t know better, and imbeciles who couldn’t teach and should have known better.

Bill joined the law firm of Plotkin & Bradley, a small personal injury practice in New Orleans, and continued to publish in such journals as The Sewanee Review and The Southern Review, and in such conservative periodicals as The Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age.  His stories took on a legal bent, peopled as they were with judges and attorneys.  But neither law nor legal fiction brought him fame or fortune.

So he turned to screenplays—and, at last, earned the profits he desired.  Viewers of the recent film I am Legend (2007), starring Will Smith, might be surprised to learn that Bill and Joyce wrote the screenplay for the earlier version, Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston.  And viewers of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) might be surprised to learn that Bill wrote the film’s screenplay while still a law student.  All told, Bill and Joyce wrote five screenplays and one television movie.  Free from the constraints of university bureaucracy, Bill collaborated with Joyce on various television daytime dramas, including Search for Tomorrow, Another World, Texas, Capitol, One Life to Live, Superior Court, and, most notably, General Hospital.  These ventures gained the favor of Hollywood stars, and Bill and Joyce eventually moved to Malibu.

Bill constantly molded and remolded his image, embracing Southern signifiers while altering their various expressions.  His early photos suggest a pensive, put-together gentleman wearing ties and sport coats and smoking pipes.  Later photos depict a rugged man clad in western wear.  Still later photos conjure up the likes of Roy Orbison, what with Bill’s greased hair, cigarettes, and dark sunglasses.

Whatever his looks, Bill was a stark, provocative, and profoundly sensitive writer.  His impressive oeuvre has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves.  That scholars of conservatism, to say nothing of scholars of Southern literature, have ignored this man is almost inconceivable.  There are no doubt many aspects of Bill’s life and literature left to be discovered.  As Bill’s friend William Mills put it, “I believe there is a critique of modernity throughout [Bill’s] writing that will continue to deserve serious attentiveness and response.”

On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988, Bill suffered a heart attack and died.  He was 56.  His last words, echoing Stonewall Jackson, were, “it’s all right.”

 

Why the Union Soldiers Fought

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Southern History, The South on August 28, 2013 at 8:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Allen Mendenhall

Nearly every Southerner was raised studying the Civil War, or, as some here call it, the War Between the States. By the time I entered the public school system in Marietta, Georgia, in the 1980s, the War had long been a cornerstone of the curriculum, although Lost Cause mythology had dissipated and the Confederacy was hardly treated with tones of admiration. It became clear, however, that the War was more complicated than my teachers let on, that the events leading to and following this great conflict represented more than a morality play between competing forces of good and evil. There was, for example, the case of the Roswell Mill. Decades and decades ago, at this mill, the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and young sons of Confederate soldiers labored while the soldiers were off at war. One day Sherman’s Army showed up at the mill and absconded with the women and children. When the Confederate soldiers returned home, their women and children were gone. No one knows exactly what happened to the women and children of the mill, which is why they are still, to this day, called “The Lost Women and Children of Roswell.”

Recently trends in scholarship about the War have been uncritical in their assessments (or lack of assessments) of Union ideology as a contributing factor to the War. Gary Gallagher’s recent The Union War, a companion text to Gallagher’s earlier book The Confederate War (Harvard University Press 1997), corrects this trend.

This book is a restorative history, and a timely one at that. The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the War, and for the last four decades, Gallagher notes, scholarship on the War has neglected to emphasize the ideology of Unionism.

Unionism is central to any understanding of the War. As Gallagher explains, “[T]he focus on emancipation and race sometimes suggests the War had scant meaning apart from these issues—and especially that Union victory had little or no value without emancipation.” Although Union soldiers may have understood that issues related to slavery precipitated fighting in 1861, for them that is not what the war was “about.” Gallagher adds that a “portrait of the nation that is dominated by racism, exclusion, and oppression obscures more than it reveals,” not least of all because it ignores the vast influx of immigrants and the relative receptivity toward different cultures that Americans championed to varying degrees, even at that time.

Gallagher’s goal in this book is to disabuse readers of the notion that the War was, for the typical Union citizen-solder, “about slavery.” The book asks three fundamental questions: “What did the war for Union mean in mid-nineteenth century America? How and why did emancipation come to be part of the war for Union? How did armies of citizen-soldiers figure in conceptions of the war, the process of emancipation, and the shaping of national sentiment?” In answering these questions, Gallagher’s focus is on “one part of the population in the United States—citizens in the free states and four loyal slaveholding states who opposed secession and supported a war to restore the Union.” Gallagher concludes that the War was, for the aforementioned citizens, one for Union, and that it only happened to bring about the emancipation of slaves. Emancipation was never the goal; it was a result.

“From the perspective of loyal Americans,” Gallagher explains, “their republic stood as the only hope for democracy in a western world that had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s.” According to this reading, Southern slaveholders of the planter classes represented the aristocracy that was responsible for the creation of the Confederacy. The Southern elite seemed like a throwback to monarchy. Citizen-soldiers of the Union Army believed that by taking on the Confederacy, they were restoring democratic principles and preserving the “Union,” a term that contemporary readers who lack historical perspective will have trouble understanding. Miseducated by Hollywood fantasies and adorations—consider the films Glory and Gettysburg—the average American today has lost all constructive sense of Unionism as it was understood to mid-nineteenth century Americans, especially in the North.

In five short chapters totaling 162 pages—notes excluded—Gallagher repeatedly identifies problems in the recent historical record, and then reworks and revises those problems, improving the record. He criticizes the tunnel-vision of scholars who write about The Grand Review as an exercise in racial exclusion, for instance, and he suggests that instead nineteenth-century descriptions of this procession indicate that “Unionism” meant something like “nation” and “America,” signifiers that stood in contradistinction to oligarchy and that were only tangentially related to racial ideology. By systematically picking apart various histories while summarizing and synthesizing a wealth of recent scholarship, Gallagher has produced what could be called a prolonged bibliographical or historiographical essay with extended asides about what is wrong in his field.

What is wrong, he suggests, is imposing contemporary preoccupations with race onto the mindsets of nineteenth-century Americans. Against this tendency, Gallagher reminds us of forgotten facts—for instance, that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment had more to do with political unity than racial enlightenment, or that, over the course of the War, concerted military action by ordinary individuals (not the acts of rebel slaves, Abraham Lincoln, or congressmen) determined which black populations in the South became free. Gallagher interrogates the difference between Lincoln the “Savior of the Union” and Lincoln “The Great Emancipator.” He supports the study of military history, which other academics have scorned. All of this plays into Gallagher’s claim that although “almost all white northerners would have responded in prejudiced terms if asked about African Americans, they were not consumed with race as much of the recent literature would suggest.”

The take-home point from this book is that devotion to Union had greater currency for most Americans than did any contemporary understanding of a commitment to race. “Recapturing how the concept of Union resonated and reverberated throughout the loyal states in the Civil War era,” Gallagher submits, “is critical to grasping northern motivation.” This motivation was rooted in the belief that Union would preserve rather than jeopardize liberty, and had little to do with slavery, except in that an important side result was liberty for all.

Gallagher has reminded us of the importance of Unionism to the War and to the psychology of the average Northerner. He has reminded us that race was hardly a chief concern to the typical Northern soldier, and that retrospective imposition of our concerns onto theirs is poor scholarship and bad history.

What was Gomillion v. Lightfoot?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Law, Politics, Southern History, The South on August 21, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This piece originally appeared here in the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

In Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1960 that Tuskegee city officials had redrawn the city’s boundaries unconstitutionally to ensure the election of white candidates in the city’s political races. The case was one of several events that laid the foundation for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited discriminatory voting practices. The case was named for Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (present-day Tuskegee University) professor Charles A. Gomillion, who was lead plaintiff, and the defendant, Tuskegee mayor, Philip M. Lightfoot, among other city officials.

Gomillion, dean of students and chair of the social sciences division at Tuskegee, for years had facilitated voter registration movements for blacks in Tuskegee. He learned in 1957 that several white citizens were promoting a bill in the state legislature to redefine the boundaries of the city to ensure election victories by whites in 1960. Resisting these efforts and urging others to oppose any referenda meant to disfranchise black voters, Gomillion and other activists appealed to the City Council, wrote to the County Commission, lobbied the state legislature, and published an open letter in the Montgomery Advertiser. Despite these efforts, Local Act No. 140, introduced by Samuel M. Engelhardt Jr., passed in the state legislature in 1957. It reconfigured the boundaries of the city from a simple square shape to a figure with 28 sides, removing from the city Tuskegee Institute and all but four or five of the nearly 400 black voters, but none of more than 1,300 white residents. Gomillion and the Tuskegee Civic Association treated this initial setback as an opportunity to institute legal proceedings and thereby to mobilize concerted political action.

Gomillion and other petitioners, black citizens of Alabama and residents (or former residents) of Tuskegee, alleged that the act violated the “due process” and “equal protection” clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. They claimed that the redrawn city boundaries disfranchised black voters; therefore, they alleged, the act had a discriminatory purpose. In fact, the act’s author, Engelhardt, was executive secretary of the White Citizens’ Council of Alabama.

Tuskegee’s white citizens were trying to change the city’s boundaries to head off the rise in African Americans registering to vote. After World War II, local African Americans wanted to play a more active role in the city’s civic life, and whites became more determined to deny them that right. Redrawing the city’s boundaries had the unintended effect of uniting Tuskegee Institute’s African American intellectuals with the less educated African Americans living outside the sphere of the school. Some members of the school’s faculty realized that possessing advanced degrees ultimately provided them no different status among the city’s white establishment.

Initially, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, in Montgomery, headed by Judge Frank M. Johnson, dismissed the case, ruling that the state had the right to draw boundaries, a ruling that was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The case was appealed before the Supreme Court on October 18 and 19, 1960. Gomillion did not travel to Washington, D.C., with the lawyers handling his side of the case. Veteran Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray and Robert L. Carter, lead counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued the case, with assistance from Arthur D. Shores, who provided additional legal counsel. They claimed that the state’s intent in the redistricting had been to discriminate covertly against African Americans.

On November 14, the Supreme Court rendered a unanimous decision in favor of the petitioners. Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the majority, held that the act violated the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from passing laws depriving citizens of the right to vote, and thus reversed the lower courts’ rulings. Frankfurter likewise dismissed the city’s appeal of generalities about state authority. He conceded that states retain extensive powers, but that they may not do whatever they please with municipalities. The case showed that all state powers were subject to limitations imposed by the U.S. Constitution; therefore, states were not insulated from federal judicial review when they jeopardized federally protected rights. In 1961, the results of the decision went into effect; under the direction of Judge Johnson, the gerrymandering was reversed and the original map was reinstituted.

Additional Resources

Elwood, William A. “An Interview with Charles G. Gomillion.” Callaloo 40 (Summer 1989): 576-99.

Gomillion, C. G. “The Negro Voter in the South.” Journal of Negro Education 26(3): 281-86.

Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960).

Norrell, Robert J. Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Taper, Bernard. Gomillion versus Lightfoot: The Tuskegee Gerrymander Case. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.

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