Sometimes you read a book that redirects your mind. An interest that hovered at the periphery is suddenly at dead center. A previously unknown artist captivates. People and places take up residence in your head, demanding attention which you grant willingly, happily.
All this and more came to me courtesy of Paul Theroux’s deeply felt, wonderfully realized travelogue.
The subtitle”Four Seasons on the Back Roads” is meaningful. Theroux had no interest in visiting places like Charleston and Savannah; rather, he wanted to see what life is like for people in the small towns that dot the landscape of Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
This happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the beginning of the author’s southern travels:
He was sitting in his car trying to determine the location of the Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church. A woman in the car beside him asked if he was lost. He explained that he was a stranger, to which she replied “Ain’t no strangers here, baby.” Introducing herself as Lucille, she offered to lead him to the church. When she had done so, he thanked her. She responded with two words: “Be blessed.”
That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome. I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace. Yes, there is a haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life, and though it pulses through many interactions, it takes a long while to perceive it, and even longer to understand.
I sometimes had long days, but encounters like the one with Lucille always lifted my spirits and sent me deeper into the South, to out-of-the-way churches like the Cornerstone Full Gospel, and to places so obscure, such flyspecks on the map, they were described in the rural way as “you gotta be going there to get there.”
On the subject of traveling in America, Theroux quotes this comment by Henry James: “One’s supreme relation…was one’s relation to one’s country.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And did he actually do much traveling in his native land?
At any rate, Theroux continues:
With this in mind, after having seen the rest of the world, I had planned to take one long trip through the South in the autumn, before the presidential election of 2012, and write about it. But when that trip was over I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me, sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.
I received two gifts from Deep South for which I’m especially grateful. One is an introduction to the writer Mary Ward Brown. Like me, Theroux had never heard of this author before being introduced to her by an enthusiast. After reading her short stories and her memoir, this was his assessment:
Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.
The story “New Dresses” takes place some years ago and is told from the point of view of Lisa, a Midwesterner. She has married into the Worthy family, a clan with deep roots in the South, and she’s having trouble adjusting. In this scene, Lisa has conveyed her extremely frail but insistent mother-in-law to a department store in town, where everyone seems to know and revere her:
Mrs. Worthy had to be supported to the elevator, where the black woman averted her eyes and worked the controls in silence. Mrs. Worthy leaned on Miss Carrie, who kept one arm around her waist. Lisa stared blindly at advertisements taped to the wall, wondering what vanity or pride could prompt anyone so sick to subject herself, subject them all, to such an ordeal.
From the story “The Barbecue:”
Jeff was named for the southern hero Jefferson Davis. The first time someone told Tom his weekend neighbor was a collateral descendant of the president of the Confederacy, of the same blood and could trace it, Tom had laughed. “You mean they got the papers on him, like a bull?” Laura said there was an original portrait of President Davis’s mother in one of the Arrington parlors. They prized it above everything else in the house, she said.
The J in Tom’s name stood for Jefferson too. He was named for a hero even greater, the architect of American democracy, but he was no kin whatsoever. It was just a name his father had picked out, hoping it would help him amount to something, his mother said. His father had been a two-mule farmer in the poorest county of the state.
This is the kind of fiction writing I have come to cherish: straightforward, unadorned, not striving for effect.
While visiting the home of Mary Ward Brown, a painting by Crawford Gillis was pointed out to Theroux. He had never heard of this artist. Neither had I. While searching for his work online, I came across the site of the Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, South Carolina. What a gem of an art museum!
Two paintings by Crawford Gillis:
Have a look at the site; the place is a veritable treasure trove. I just want to include one other work here. It’s an untitled painting by Carl Christian Brenner. It is so evocative, I get lost in it. (To get the full effect, click to enlarge):
I have many marked pages in my e-book version of Deep South, and the book deserves a great deal more attention that I have time to give it at present. Let me just say that I loved it. Despite the desperate straits of some of the small towns he visited, Paul Theroux made me want to go to the Deep South- to see what he saw and to meet and talk to the people he met.
If you’ve spent any time at this site in the past year, you’ll know that Stranger Than Fiction, the course in the literature of true crime that I had the privilege of teaching last year, pretty much hijacked my nonfiction reading for a while. If you read in the subgenre of historical true crime, the experience is slightly less scary. So here are some recommendations, made on that basis.
Let me get Murder by Candlelight out of the way first. This survey of crime in early nineteenth century England can admittedly be rather unsettling. But Michael Knox Beran’s is such a bracing and refreshing intellect, I can’t help but sing the praises of this book (though approach with caution, please!)
And here are some others: The Destiny of the Republic, in which Candice Millard returns James A. Garfield to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans;
Blood Royal by Eric Jager, in which medieval France comes vividly, if frighteningly, to life (The Last Duel by this author is also very enjoyable);
The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter. Schechter is also the editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. This is the book I used as my text for the true crime course.
Some of the most marvelous nonfiction I’ve come across recently is in the form of exhibition catalogs. I saw “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” just before it closed at the National Gallery in Washington DC:
I saw Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC several months ago.
(I stood in front of this painting for quite some time, along with a young couple. Finally I said, “Why is this painting so wonderful?” The woman murmured that she did not know, and then they both turned to me with radiant smiles.)
“Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” never came any closer than Boston, and while I love the Boston area, I wasn’t able to make to to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibits. However, the paintings are so fabulous that I purchased the catalog anyway.
A quick reminder concerning Josh Ruxin’s inspiring chronicle of the work that he, his wife, and many others have been doing in Rwanda before I go on to more current items.
I am now reading two nonfiction titles: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. I’ve written recently about The Romanovs, and I hereby reiterate my intention to read the entire book. Eventually.
The Invention of Nature is a biography of Alexander Von Humboldt. I’m about half way through it, and it’s wonderful. Here was a man gifted with a profound intellect and a restless curiosity about the world around him. The story of his explorations of South America, begun in 1799 and lasting for five years, is alone worth the price of admission. He cheerfully endured almost inconceivable hardships in his quest for ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
Over thousands of years crops, grains, vegetables and fruits had followed the footpaths of humankind. As humans crossed continents and oceans, they had brought plants with them and thereby had changed the face of the earth. Agriculture linked plants to politics and economy. Wars had been fought over plants, and empires were shaped by tea, sugar and tobacco. Some plants told him as much about humankind as about nature itself, while other plants gave Humboldt an insight into geology as they revealed how continents had shifted. The similarities of their coastal plants, Humboldt wrote, showed an ‘ancient’ connection between Africa and South America as well as illustrating how islands that were previously linked were now separated – an incredible conclusion more than a century before scientists had even begun to discuss continental movements and the theory of shifting tectonic plates. Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.
As you can see, Andrea Wulf’s writing is clear and lucid. Von Humboldt freely mixed his scientific observations with an esthetic response; hence, his writing is often lyrical:
At the foot of the high granite spine that, in the early days of our planet, defied the incursion of the waters during the formation of the Antillean Gulf, there begins a broad, immeasurable plain. Upon leaving behind the valleys of Caracas and the island-rich Lake Tacarigua, 1 which reflects in its surface the trunks of the pisang trees, leaving behind fields resplendent with the delicate light green of Tahitian sugarcane or the solemn shade of cacao plants, one’s gaze toward the South comes to rest upon steppes that, seeming to climb, dwindle into the distant horizon.
Admittedly it was a mistake to tackle both of these books at the same time. But I confess I’m in a fever over the cornucopia of new offerings in nonfiction – I have trouble restraining myself!
Here are two more that I’m going to tackle next: