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A Conversation Regarding Thomas Goode Jones

In America, American History, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, The South on November 8, 2017 at 6:45 am
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Review of Brent J. Aucoin’s “Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics & Justice in the New South” (University of Alabama Press, 2016)

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South on August 2, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.

Brent J. Aucoin’s new biography is a probing treatment of the neglected figure of Thomas Goode Jones. To some, Jones is discredited because of his ownership of slaves and military leadership in the Confederate Army; to others, he’s a wounded war hero, distinguished jurist, and revered governor who sought reconciliation with former slaves. The truth, as always, is more complex.

Jones does not fit neatly into simplistic categories; he defies the trite labels of current political vocabulary. He even cut across partisan divides in his own day. His story is not a crude morality tale, nor does it contain clear lessons for posterity. Aucoin calls Jones “enigmatic.”  He seeks to consider Jones “holistically.” His studied reflection on Jones reveals a complicated man who’s both congenial and flawed, ahead of his time and yet a definite product of it.

Born in precarious circumstances in what today is Macon, Georgia, Jones had family roots in Virginia. His father, Samuel Goode Jones, worked for the railroad and moved the family from place to place, trying to earn an honest living. They settled in Montgomery when Samuel took a job there as an engineer. Thomas Jones was five at the time.  He and his family attended St. John’s Episcopal Church, downtown, where the pew in which Jefferson Davis worshipped remains intact, the other rows of pews having been replaced long ago.

A romantic childhood it was not. Jones was sent to Virginia to study at academies that fed into the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was groomed to be a soldier. By the time he enrolled at VMI, the Civil War had broken out, and he joined the ranks of his professor, Major General Thomas J. Jackson. Jones transferred units and worked his way up the chain of command, barely avoiding death on more than one occasion. Legend has it that, while riding horseback, he saved a wandering child during the heat of battle. This and other tales of heroism earned Jones the reputation as a valiant warrior. General Robert E. Lee himself selected Jones, among others, to deliver the flag of surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the War, Jones returned to Alabama to begin a new career, or careers.  He married, sired 13 children, and enjoyed a rapid rise to fame and distinction, first as an editor of The Daily Picayune and later as a speaker, lawyer, and Democratic politician.  Believing it was God’s will for the South to fully reintegrate into the Union, he championed reunification, receiving honors and awards for his efforts to this end.  His celebrated 1874 Memorial Day Address was a reconciliatory precursor to that of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a decade later.

Jones is known, in our day, mostly as a legislator, judge, and governor—and indeed the bulk of Aucoin’s book is dedicated to these periods of Jones’s life. Aucoin pays close attention to Jones’s often contradictory, always multifaceted, and sometimes disturbing views on race and race relations. Following Booker T. Washington, Aucoin says, “Jones eschewed the idea of a political solution to the so-called Negro problem—namely, the passage and enforcement of civil rights legislation—but also . . . opposed the political effort to disenfranchise blacks.”

Jones supported segregation of the races under a separate-but-equal scheme, yet he backed the creation of Alabama State University, a black college founded in 1867. He advocated the education of blacks to varying degrees, but his rhetoric on this topic can sound paternalistic and hollow to the modern ear. That he opposed educational prerequisites to voting, however, suggests he was willing to risk clout and status to take an unpopular stand on behalf of former slaves. He also, quite controversially at the time, sought to abolish the exploitative convict leasing system that carried with it the residual features of slavery.

Aucoin describes Jones’s politicking in great detail, from probable election fraud to campaigns for higher taxes. As governor, Jones decried the mob violence that had become common in Alabama. Later, as a judge, he attempted to charge a lynch mob under federal law.

Jones’s popularity waxed and waned. An economic crisis befell the state during his governorship, and workers from different industries began to strike. This once gallant soldier grew tired and frustrated and lost much of his charisma.  During one ceremony as governor, suffering from “cholera morbus,” he fell from his horse as he tried to dismount. Word of this clumsy incident spread quickly, and Jones was humiliated.

Yet he always drew admirers. His work on race relations, if not always courageous, was at least a step in the right direction. When he died, an unexpected number of blacks attended his funeral, watching solemnly. “Jones may not have been a hero,” Aucoin submits, “or someone on the good side who was unfaltering in his fight against evil, but there appears to be cause for concluding that he distinguished himself from the more rabid racist leaders of the South.”

The institution I work at bears the name of this curious man, whose bust is displayed prominently at the top of the stairs of the entry rotunda, looking down on the busy law faculty and students who come and go without the slightest concern for, or even knowledge of, his life. I’ve placed my copy of Aucoin’s biography beneath that bust with a short note: “Free copy. Learn about a fascinating person.”

It seemed like the right thing to do.

Claire Hamner Matturo Reviews Robert Bailey’s “The Professor”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, The Novel, Writing on May 25, 2016 at 6:45 am

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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

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Move over, John Grisham, there’s a new kid on the legal thriller playing field.

Robert Bailey, an Alabama trial attorney and graduate of The University of Alabama School of Law, returns the kickoff for a 100 yard touchdown with his debut novel, The Professor. The football reference is apropos as the protagonist of The Professor was a member of Alabama’s famous 1961 National Champion football team, and the book opens with a guest appearance by venerated Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Alabama’s 1961 national championship was the first of the six that Bear Bryant would win as head coach of the Crimson Tide, and the fighting spirit of that 1961 team resounds throughout the novel.

But one does not need to be a football fan or even a fan of legal thrillers to enjoy Bailey’s book as its writing is smooth, captivating and, in all the right places, emotionally moving—all the more impressive in that Bailey only took a single creative writing class while an undergraduate at Davidson College. According to Bailey, “We wrote four short stories, and the critiques I received were mostly positive.  It was definitely a confidence builder and a whole lot of fun.”

How did he go from taking just one creative writing class to writing a riveting debut of a legal thriller?

In law school, Bailey served on the law review, an honor generally reserved for those who can write well. Yet there is a football field of difference in writing an analytical, academic, footnoted and blue-booked law review article and composing an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller.

The bridge, then, between writing like a lawyer and writing like a top-drawer novelist was part inspiration, part studying other novels, and part the hard work of rewriting, redrafting, and revising. Bailey’s inspiration came from growing up in Alabama as a Bear Bryant fan and from wanting to write about a brash young “bull-in-a-china-shop” new attorney—a character whose experiences resemble Bailey’s own days straight out of law school. As for studying other legal thrillers and books, Bailey has said, “Yes, I have learned a lot from reading other novels.  Also, Stephen King’s instructional memoir, On Writing, was a big influence and inspiration.” And as for the hard work of revision and rewriting—it took Bailey eight years to finish The Professor, though he was practicing law, trying cases, and raising a family at the same time.

Bailey, a history major and a Huntsville, Alabama, native, is quite the Bear Bryant fan and a football historian. These personal interests enrich The Professor and play into Bailey’s creation of the lead character, Professor Thomas Jackson McMurtrie.

In some ways McMurtrie, the protagonist, is an unusual leading man. For one thing, he is 68 and his glory days on the famous Alabama football team of 1961 are long behind him. He faces serious health issues, mourns his late wife, and has been unfairly manipulated out of his position as an evidence professor at the University of Alabama School of Law into an unwanted early retirement. One of his former students—and a man he had called a friend—was complicit in the scheme to push him out as a law professor, and the betrayal wounds McMurtrie deeply.

Yet, in other ways, McMurtrie is the ideal leading man—for one thing his skills and instincts as a trial attorney form the perfect balance to his headstrong, volatile former student, Rick Drake, when they take on a trucking company in a wrongful-death case. McMurtrie, named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, epitomizes what we would want in both a leading man and a lawyer—he is somewhat of a modern Atticus Finch, albeit with some different demons. Bailey writes in his author’s notes that he wanted to create a character that was a “man of exceptional integrity, strength, and class.” This Bailey has done.

Rick Drake, the lawyer version of a yin to McMurtrie’s yang, is more of what readers might expect in legal thrillers. A young lawyer, brash, over his head, yet passionate about his client and the case, Drake has more gumption and zeal than skills. He needs the experience and even temperament of McMurtrie. Drake also needs an expert in evidence, and McMurtrie literally wrote the textbook on evidence law in Alabama.

But here’s the rub: Drake and McMurtrie have a turbulent history. Drake was McMurtrie’s law student and the two came to blows—literally—after Drake hotheadedly dashed his trial advocate team’s chances of winning a national trial competition. McMurtrie was the team’s coach. After a video of the angry clash between the professor and the student was posted on YouTube, a conniving new dean at the law school used the incident as part of his plan to push McMurtrie out of his tenured position.

So, let’s just say Drake and McMurtrie are not best friends.

Yet each man knows the value of the other. Drake has the vigor McMurtrie fears is waning in himself. And McMurtrie has decades of knowledge and the calm, deliberate skills Drake lacks.

Thus, out of these conflicts and contrasting personalities, the characters of McMurtrie and Drake form an integral part of what makes The Professor work so well. This is a book about people, vividly drawn and fully realized, overcoming obstacles within themselves—as well as obstacles placed in their way by unscrupulous others.

Superb writing and engaging protagonists, though, are not the only things that make this debut so compelling. This is a bam-bam-bam book as far as plot goes, with plenty of action in and out of the courtroom. In the opening chapters, there is a horrific and fiery automobile crash, betrayal, suicide, murder, blackmail and enough suspense to keep the reader turning pages all night. There’s a good reason Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump and another Alabama writer, calls The Professor “[g]ripping from the first page to the last.”

In a tightly woven plot that unfolds naturally in well-paced scenes, McMurtrie refers a former girlfriend (from the days before his marriage) to Drake for representation in a wrongful-death action after her granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law slam into a speeding eighteen-wheeler and die. McMurtrie recommends that she retain Drake in part because Drake grew up in the town where the lawsuit will be tried and McMurtrie believes in the home-court advantage. Yet McMurtrie also believes Drake can win the case—and he wants to help the struggling lawyer.

The defendant trucking company’s owner is an unscrupulous yet tough adversary who has the power to pervert the quest for hard evidence. Drake and McMurtrie have to prove in a court of law what they know is true—the trucking company had a consistent, deliberate pattern of forcing its truckers to speed in order to clock more miles and make more money for the company. Yet the trucking company’s owner doesn’t play by any rules, which gives him an apparent upper hand in disposing of key witnesses and the paper trail of evidence. Compounding the pressure on Drake and McMurtrie, the trucking company’s attorney is none other than McMurtrie’s former friend who betrayed him and helped oust him from his teaching career.

The stakes go beyond money. The plaintiff wants the world to know the truth about the accident—that her family died because of a concerted, greedy corporate plan that turned its eighteen-wheelers into dangerous weapons.

McMurtrie wants to avenge himself against his former friend and later betrayer, and he wants to help his former girlfriend. Not incidentally, he hopes to prove that even at 68, “The old bull still has a little gas in the tank.” And, maybe, he hopes to get his job as a law professor back. He definitely wants to help Drake and set matters right between them.

Yet in some ways, Drake is the one who has the most at stake. The YouTube of his shoving contest with McMurtrie painted him as an uncontrollable hothead and cost him his position at a big law firm. He is barely earning his rent as a solo practitioner. He questions himself. If Drake is going to survive as an attorney, he needs a courtroom victory. But beyond building his career, he needs to get right in his own head and prove he is capable of being a winning trial attorney—one who will not blow up and ruin the case as he did during the law school trial team competition. Drake is a young man, not fully formed as a man or an attorney, and this trial will make or break his maturation.

The trial scenes resonate with realism. Naturally so, given that the author is a practicing attorney and a shareholder with the law firm of Lanier Ford in Huntsville. Interestingly enough, the author defends—among others—trucking companies. Similar to his character Drake, Bailey was a winner in trial advocacy competitions while in law school.

The Professor introduces the character of Bocephus Haynes, McMurtrie’s favorite former student. Bocephus plays an important yet secondary role in the story as ally and emotional support, but he is set to return in a leading role in the sequel, Between Black and White. A third manuscript, now in the works, will take Drake and McMurtrie back to Tuscaloosa, and Drake’s story line and growth as a character will be explored further and in more detail.

 

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

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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.

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

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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.

 

 

Matthew Simmons Reviews J. Mark Hart’s “Fielder’s Choice”

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Writing on June 26, 2012 at 8:00 am

Matthew Simmons was born and raised in Whiteville, North Carolina.  He lived in Raleigh for eight years, where he went to college at North Carolina State University, roasted coffee for a living, and developed a taste for single-malt Scotch.  Currently a Ph.D. student in English at the University of South Carolina, Matt lives in Columbia, South Carolina, where he tries to garden and regularly rides his bicycle in coat and tie.

The following review appeared here at the Southern Literary Review.

Years ago, after reading Richard Russo’s Mohawk, I decided I needed more flexibility in labeling fiction.  Obviously, there was pulp, there was genre fiction, and there was the rarified air of “lit-tra-ture.”  But what I’d found in Mohawk seemed to somehow occupy parts of all of those labels simultaneously and effortlessly.  I needed a name for this effortless occupation of different registers, and it came to me halfway through another, similar book.  What I was reading was, in fact, the Great American Middlebrow Novel.  Such is a book that tries to be more than an afternoon or a weekend’s entertainment; nevertheless, its writing is highly readable.  It does not set out to explore the eternal complexities of the human experience, but rather tries to show the suppleness and myriad realities that make up an individual or a group’s experience of a specific place, at a particular time.  That last bit is incredibly important.  The GAMN is a book of specificities, of particularities, and it plumbs these specificities and particularities to give us some access to the localized truths of a moment.  J. Mark Hart’s forthcoming debut novel, Fielder’s Choice, tries its damnedest to show itself as worthy of the title, and succeeds, with varying degrees of success, at achieving this goal.

Hart’s locale and moment are Birmingham, 1969.  Brad Williams, our narrator, wants to avoid the hellish fires of the steel mills.  But there is a fate worse than the mills also possibly awaiting him:  the jungles of Vietnam.  Working class, his only hopes at escape are for his athletic prowess on the baseball diamond to win him a college scholarship, as well as drawing a high draft number.  The first of these hopes is immediately compromised—a lifetime shortstop, senior year finds Brad moved over to second to accommodate Robbie, a black student transferred to West Lake High via integration, who is a superior shortstop to Brad in every way.

And thus are the specifics of Hart’s novel—a Birmingham trying to live down the specter of Bull Connor’s hoses and dogs, and a young man trying to find his place in this uncertain newness.  At its best, Fielder’s Choice does a truly wonderful job of presenting a city struggling to understand itself and an 18-year-old boy trying both to fit into this city and get out of it.  Hart’s presentation of Brad is, in many ways, wonderfully well-done.  Similarly, the city’s tensions are admirably sketched, and Birmingham, as a character itself, feels incredibly alive and compelling.  Hart’s debut novel thus promises to join the august company of the Great American Middlebrow novel, an achievement to be lauded—especially when the author, an attorney by day, is only moonlighting as a novelist.

Promising though it may be, Fielder’s Choice is also, at times, deeply problematic.  The prose can be clunky and wooden:  explaining his friend’s father’s drinking habits, Brad speaks of “[the father’s] customary can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, or, in his vernacular, a ‘PBR.’”  Contrast that passage with any number of gorgeous moments from Brad’s courtship of Susie and you’ll find yourself frustrated—Hart can, at times, be an immensely lyrical and even beautiful writer, and you’ll wish he always was.  But significantly more troubling than some hiccups with the prose is the novel’s reliance on flat, stereotypical characters.  Of course the hippie would be a Yankee, and of course he would drive a VW with a day-glo peace sign on the back window.  Of course the main antagonist would be named Bubba, and would be a violent, reactionary, bigoted redneck.  Robbie, the African-American shortstop who forces Brad to move positions, often seems like little more than a plot device and a means for developing Brad’s character—a shame and even an error, as Robbie begins as one of the most promising characters in the novel.

And while Paxton, the Yankee hippie, becomes more sympathetic as the novel progresses, it is not because his character deepens, but because Brad becomes more involved in the anti-war movement.  Meanwhile, the Bubbas of the novel are never any more than boogeymen, “hicks,” to use Brad’s distressingly frequent verbiage, who wave the Confederate flag and stand in the way of progress.  Near the novel’s end, Brad glowing speaks of Birmingham moving into the “New South,” and we understand that Brad understands Bubba and his ilk not so much as people as impediments to the birth of this “New South.”  Brad’s voice thus carries a nascent sense of cosmopolitan elitism.  And while I see this as a legitimate and even necessary act of characterization, I’m nevertheless troubled that Brad gets off scot-free in this regard.  The Bubbas of the novel, and of Southern history, are of course inexcusably wrong in their racial attitudes and certainly on the wrong side of history.  But this does not make them any less complexly human, something that Brad never recognizes, and something Hart never calls him to task for.  We cannot present a fully nuanced picture of the South at this time—which is, again, what I think Hart wants to do—if we merely write off the Bubbas of the world, wrong-headed and misguided as they may be, as merely villainous “hicks” resembling Snively Whiplash more than flawed human beings.

This not to denigrate how fine the novel is on the whole.  Brad himself is a deeply compelling and well-realized hero.  Susie, Brad’s love interest and female counterpart, helps to Hart’s exploration of 1969 Birmingham in sophisticated ways, and Susie and Brad’s relationship is at turns soaring, titillating, crushingly painful, and immensely familiar to us all.  Hart presents the changing relationships between Brad and his childhood best friend BJ, as well as between Brad and his father, powerfully and complexly.  Brad, and those characters closest to him, are wonderfully rendered, strongly presented, and, at times, heart-wrenchingly achieved.

This is all to say that Fielder’s Choice is a novel of real promise, despite some significant problems.  Mr. Hart has given us a very fine representation of a boy becoming a man in a place and time that are immensely complicated, and we are moved to joy and frustration alongside Brad.  It is a deeply enjoyable novel, one I found myself tearing through in three days—no short task for a nearly 500-page book.  And while it has its problems—the writing is sometimes too flat, the characters often too stock, the ending perhaps too neat—I am amazed, again, that this is a first novel by a man whose vocation is not fiction.  And while the problems may keep Mr. Hart’s first novel from being a Great American Middlebrow Novel, it comes mighty close.  Ultimately, Fielder’s Choice is a very good book about a very complex time.  I’m a fan.

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