Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.
Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.
And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.
What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.
We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.
And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.
But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.
We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)
Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.
And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.
We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said. –Howard Bahr
In the summer of 1855, Miss Anna Sheegog died upstairs in the house in which I write. No token of hers remains, not even a hair ribbon; the grief at her passing was eased and forgotten long ago. Yet she is still fooling around up there, after al this time, and no wonder—she was only 16 and not ready to be done with life.
Something is always stirring in old houses, for they murmur in their sleep as people do. So much happens, and none of it wants to leave; it is laid up in the walls, left to leak out now and then when someone is listening. Ghosts, we call it, though it is really only memory. I have listened here—in all weathers, in the bright noon and deep watches of the night—longer than Miss Anna was alive, and I know something of the memory of houses.
This one is called Rowan Oak, for Mr. William Faulkner called it that, and he lived here longer than anybody. Because he lived here it is a literary shrine of sorts; for 20-odd years pilgrims have been coming up the walk to see what lies in the white house.
I, too, was a pilgrim once, come by a long road begun in a railroad yard. One night a switchman, Frank Smith, pressed on me a book, of all things, a paperback, greasy and bent to the shape of his blue jeans pocket. “Read this,” he said. In the yard office after the train was gone, I opened it and began to read, and the world was never the same again.
Years later, when I was curator of Mr. William Faulkner’s house, I happened on a page of manuscript behind a drawer in the library. I knew right away what it was; lines from The Hamlet, written in this very house. It was no small thing to meet, and as the morning light fell through the tall library windows, I remembered another light; the glow of Frank Smith’s lantern on that vanished summer night, when he put his copy of The Hamlet in my hand.
Ghosts again, and, always, time. In Mr. Faulkner’s house, time is the sum of all senses. It is in the light, in all seasons softened to twilight by the trees. Time lies in the creak of a shutter, rain in the downspouts, in a step half-heard in the empty rooms above. It is in the very smell of the place, which is the smell of all grandmother’s houses, made of dust and mildew, old books and years of fried chicken—and that almost palpable memory that will not go away. It is the smell of time.
No wonder pilgrims sometimes speak in whispers here. No wonder children often cling shyly to their parents’ legs, flirting with something only they can see. Time conjures them all, as it conjures us, who are stewards of time.
There have not been many of us. Dr. James Webb, the first and best curator, will always be chief. In the early years Dr. George Street was here, and Bev Smith. I have worked with Danny Toma, Terrell Lewis, Keith Fudge. Winfred Ragland was the first groundskeeper, and then Isiah McGuirt, whom I watched rake the leaves of 15 autumns.
These were all Southern men who knew not just Mr. Faulkner and his work, but also what it means to love an old house and earth whence it came. They were all pilgrims, come here by their own long roads, each to find his own doorway to the past.
Once, on one of those days when the sky is deep blue and every leaf sharp and clear and shadows haunt the fence corners—once, on such a day, Isaiah walked out in the north pasture to work his turnips and Dany went along to swap lies. I wandered out by myself by and by and leaned on the fence and watched them. On the whole place there were only three of us. Their voices drifted to me across the morning. Now and then, an acorn rattled on the tin roof of the cookhouse, the loft door creaked, the house drowsed white and solid in the sun.
I should not have been surprised to find Mr. Faulkner at my elbow, leaning on the fence with his pipe, nor to see Miss Anna in the kitchen door—for the streams of time had come together once more, the old proper rhythms of life were in cadence, and all that ever happened on this place narrowed to an old man and a boy in the pasture, talking quietly under the autumn sky.
Occasionally, folks ask me what it is like to work at Rowan Oak. I do not know how to tell them about Frank Smith or Dr. Webb or Danny or the day Isiah went out to hoe his greens, but sometimes I try, and they are almost always satisfied. It is a good thing for pilgrims to carry away into the world waiting for them beyond the gate, for in that world ghosts are silly and magic is only for children. I don’t believe so myself, and neither does Miss Anna—but then, she is only 16, after all.
Novelist and scholar Howard Bahr lives in Jackson, Mississippi
The opening of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 3, 1947 proved to be a watershed in the history of American theatre. The cruelty, agony, gritty dialogue and smoldering eroticism shocked the audience, but they responded with prolonged, enthusiastic applause to Williams’ “poignant and luminous” story that, coming on the heels of his pathos-ridden The Glass Menagerie established him as the foremost figure in American drama and transformed Jessica Tandy as well as the then relatively unknown Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando into stars of the first magnitude.
Williams’ masterpiece, considered by many to be the finest American drama of the 20th century, became an international sensation with a string of dazzling national debuts in Mexico City and in Brussels in December, 1948, and the following year in Amsterdam and Rome—with sets designed by Franco Zeffirelli—in January; in Athens and in Gothenburg, Sweden—directed by Ingman Bergman—in March; and in Paris in Jean Cocteau’s adaptation, and in London—directed by Laurence Olivier—in October. (Olivier, apologetically, wrote to Tennessee: “I honestly think the play is a little long.”).
When Streetcar closed on Broadway in 1949 after a run of 855 performances, two distinguished road companies continued to bring the play to cities across the nation. The first road company starred Anthony Quinn as Stanley and Uta Hagen as Blanche (the film version with Vivian Leigh was released in 1951); the second road company, which staged the Mississippi premiere, featured Ralph Meeker and Judith Evelyn. Meeker assumed the role after a highly successful run as Henry Fonda’s understudy in Mister Roberts and went on to star in Inge’s Picnic (1954). His most memorable film role is of Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s film production of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). You might remember Evelyn as Miss Lonelyhearts, the alcoholic spied on by James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).
The Mississippi premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was held on December 12, 1949 at the Jackson City Auditorium. The performance was reviewed by the inestimable Charlotte Capers, the principal architect and most distinguished director of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History as well as a literary light in her own right. Capers’ review catches the power of the performances (though thinks Meeker’s Stanley as “too simian”), and after giving an Aristotelian justification to questions of, “Who would write such a thing?” (to achieve “a catharsis of the soul”) states that:
“To the audience that complained about the theme of the play, we would suggest that before buying tickets, they check the subject. Certainly it was not an evening of entertainment, and anyone who went expecting to be entertained was disappointed. There were a few moments of intense pity, shattered by misplaced laughs. We couldn’t place the blame here, perhaps the cast, perhaps the audience.”
With this Capers testifies that theatre-goers in Jackson were just as shocked as those in the seats at the Ethel Barrymore (almost precisely) two years before, and while perhaps not as enthusiastic, experienced the same catharsis of soul, the same revelations theatre provides in its highest forms.
The student government has voted unanimously to take me down, and to those good young persons, I will say thank you with all my heart. For a hundred and thirteen years, I have stood my post and watched down University Avenue without complaint. Now I am weary. The century has grown shrill, crowded, oversized, jagged with foolish contention, and I am ready to join my comrades in the cemetery, where I pray I will be left in peace at last.
Before I go, however, I would offer some thoughts for contemplation.
To the few who still feel kindly toward me, I urge you to accept the inevitability of my passing. Every age must give up its artifacts soon or late; those who surrender them must mourn, and you are chosen. Honor your ancestors, but remember that the past does not belong to you; it is the province only of those who lived it, and you would do well not to claim for yourselves that which you have not earned.
To the good young persons, be aware you are making the world you will have to live in. Take care you do not mistake smug self-righteousness for moral courage (anyone can remove a statue–it is no great victory). Keep in mind that history, unlike morality, has no absolutes; a person who views the past with no appreciation of its ambiguity is not only ignorant, but vain.
Finally, there can be no real inclusiveness. Someone always gets left out, and one day it will be you. When that day comes, what monuments will you have to mourn? Or, in your eagerness to embrace an Eternal Present, will you leave no monuments at all?
Farewell, then. I will go now and stand watch over the dead, who care nothing for the opinions of the living. Neither do they demand anything of you, save to be left alone. Deo Vindice.
Recorded by Howard Bahr, University of Mississippi Class of 1976
When Wyatt Cooper is mentioned at all now, it’s invariably in connection with his younger son Cooper Anderson, but Wyatt himself was a man of many parts, one of those being a damn fine writer.
Cooper was born in Quitman, Mississippi, September 1, 1927. moved to New Orleans as a young child and in his twenties moved to New York City to pursue acting.
In his thirties, Cooper lived in Los Angeles, attended both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and worked as a screenwriter. While residing in West Hollywood, then an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, Cooper lived near Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell. A close friendship developed, and a year after Parker’s death in 1967, Cooper published an incisive and widely read profile in Esquire magazine, titled, “Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn’t”.
Cooper moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s, and worked there as a magazine editor. On December 24, 1963, he married heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, becoming her fourth husband. The photogenic couple frequently appeared on the national “best-dressed” list. They had two sons: Carter Vanderbilt Cooper (1965-1988) and Anderson Cooper (b. 1967), who became a prominent CNN anchor. Wyatt Cooper wrote in his 1975 memoir, “It is in the family that we learn almost all we ever know of loving. In my sons’ youth, their promise, their possibilities, my stake in immortality is invested.” Wyatt Cooper died in Manhattan, New York City on January 5, 1978, at age 50, during open heart surgery, after having a heart attack the previous December.
This essay, “Of Food and Fellowship” appeared in Southern Sideboards the Junior League of Jackson’s landmark award-winning cookbook, which was first published in June, 1978.
Speak to me of food and what springs readily to my mind is not so much a recall of particular dishes I’ve relished, but a succession of images, sad and funny, sweet and tender, of people and places and happy occasions from the recent or long-gone past, a procession of dear, lost, familiar faces and voices, with the echo of laughter from other years. One remembers all those tables, some grand and richly laden, some humble and bearing simple fare, over which have flowed the talk, the tales, the exchanges that have made up the histories of our lives; the tables across which loving eyes have looked into loving eyes, and across which we have reached, friend to friend and spirit to spirit, to touch each other in precious communion. I think of vanishes loved ones and of absent friends and simpler times, of youth and joy and wonder, of those early seasons of first discoveries, the seasons in which we were blessed with Heaven’s gift for finding all the world’s delight in one bright Easter egg, all the world’s affection in one home-decorated birthday cake with our own particular name written bright upon it.
At those tables, a child, and later, the child in the adult, could watch and listen and learn. It was and would remain a place of adventure and exploration, a place where the curious eye and ear could partake of the rich store of other people’s experience, their adventures in the vast and mysterious world that waited and waits, beckoning but intimidating, outside the window; adventures, also, in those other, interior worlds of the mind, where thoughts, opinions, ideas were and are the exhilarating substance of the hungry brain.
Since our associations scurry quickly back to our beginnings, I find myself breathing deeply and knowing once again the romance and allure of the smells emanating from the kitchen of my first home, the warm, comforting aroma of biscuits baking or of coffee and bacon on cold mornings, with Mama beside the stove calling out that we must hurry.
I remember the family reunions with the piling on of food, an abundance and variety of offerings that represented God only knows how many accumulated hours of planning and preparing and packing, a feast to which more than twice our number could not have done justice. I remember the buzzing and bustling of the women crowed into Grandma’ kitchen, all full of importance and pride in marvels about to be revealed, each with her own specialty for which she was celebrated within the family—this one’s banana pudding, that one’s pineapple-upside-down cake. I think of Christmas with the smell of apples and oranges and fruit cakes and with turkeys and stuffing that make the mouth water forty years later.
I was born country, so I know all about frying just the right chickens because the preacher was coming to dinner and about all-day-singings-with-dinner-on-the-ground where heavy baskets and cardboard boxes were hauled out of the back end of family cars or even horse drawn wagons or buggies. The contents were spread proudly out, displayed like the golden wedding presents of princesses, set out upon glistening, freshly-starched and sun-dried linen cloths there would be much calling out to each other from families inviting others to try this or that from their bounty, while grabbing loose strays, especially bachelors, and there would be a scampering about of colt-legged boys, impatient and giggly while overly devout deacons went on too long at asking the blessing, when any sort of mumbled “. . . bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies . . .” would have done just as well.
I know about hog-killing time in the first sharp cool of fall, when the children were allowed to help with the scraping if they were careful to stay away from the scalding water I know about the way molasses was made, when you took turns feeding the cane into the grinder and remembered to duck each time the pole, pulled bumpily around and around by dull, plodding mules, made its way overhead again.
These activities were co-operative efforts; we didn’t do them by ourselves. Neighbors came together to help each other. We worked out the dates—Tuesday for the Longs, Thursday was the Timmses’ turn, and Monday week was for us. The doing of it was all mixed up with community feeling, with jokes and gossip and catching up on news and horseplay and grown-up talk.
What I’ve been talking about, when you come down to it, is friendship, sharing, caring. I’m talking about love. To show our love for one another we devise little rituals. We beg the passing traveler to eat. We toast brides. We drink to each other’s health. We give dinners for those we seek to honor. There is a particular bond between friends who prepare food together, between friends who dine with each other. The breaking of bread together has, for many centuries, held something of a ceremonial significance for us.
It seems as if it were always so. It was in the Bible and in the earliest Greek plays and in the writings of Homer Obviously it goes way back. I should think that it must have been soon after they first came down from the trees and began improving their manners that one of our hairy ancestors must accidentally have dropped into the cave hearth the baby brontosaurus leg on which he’d been gnawing, or stumbled onto a succulent pig just roasted by a recent forest fire, and made the revolutionary discovery that the raw and natural stuff with which he’d been sustaining his life could be improved upon. On that distant red letter day a new art form was born and man took a giant step in the direction of Julia Child.
It seems to me that the invention of cooking must have made a considerable contribution toward the very process of civilization. Surely, Mr. and Mrs. Piltdown Erectus and their children, having found the new way of dining an enrichment of the cultural tone of their own household, must certainly have hastened to call in their neighbors to share the benefits of the revelations so happily and so accidentally bestowed upon them. Thus, on that evening of joyous and primitive grunting that then served as conversation, undoubtedly began the ancient and inseparable association between eating and hospitality, the eternal connection between food and fellowship.
I should mention somewhere along here that I was not invited to set down the few words of this preface because I can claim to be a passable practitioner of that noble science. The truth is I can’t cook. Anything. My instant coffee is barely acceptable even to me, and my peanut and butter sandwiches have repeatedly been rejected by my sons. “No thanks, Daddy,” they say with wistful politeness, “We’ll make our own. Alan Campbell once told me that before his wife, Dorothy Parker, would cook anything she’d go into the kitchen and eat raw bacon. In that category at least, Dotti and I were in the same league.
One of the saddest failures of my life was the time I tried to delight my little family, those underprivileged citizens of the pre-packaged, machine-made, and mass-produced age, with the home-made ice cream that is such a treasured memory from my youth. For years I’d tried to impart to them some idea of the magical creation of that frozen treat by describing how you break up the block of ice by putting it into a croker sack and beating it with the back of an ax, pack the crushed ice tightly around the metal can inside the wooden freezer, argue over who gets to turn the crank first, (several children should be involved; the making of ice cream calls for company; in a one-child family only the presence of grandparents could compensate for the absence of other children) and finally how everybody crowds around for the miraculous moment when the lid is reverently lifted off, and the creamy, vanilla colored, heavenly swirl of pure pleasure is revealed.
My sons were skeptical but willing, and so, one summer in Southampton, having consulted by long distance with my sister in Hartford, Connecticut, I bought a freezer, assembled the ingredients, and, while she instructed over the telephone, began mixing, stirring, and beating. I suspected early on that I was in trouble when it became perfectly clear to me that while Marie makes great ice cream herself, she has no very clear idea of how she does it, “. . . just put in some sugar; you’ll know when it’s enough . . .” –that kind of direction doesn’t help at all. Honest, it doesn’t. Not unless you can already do it. Or have talent. At one point I was cooking the mixture and it started turning into something that looked suspiciously like an omelet. “I hope you didn’t use too many eggs . . .” she said encouragingly. “Does it look too yellow?” Along about then I had more than a premonition of disaster. Also, for some reason, it overflowed while we were turning the crank, the yellow seeping out the sides and mixing with the ice. That wasn’t promising.
There’s no point in pretending there’s any suspense to this story or in prolonging it, so I’ll go strait to the finish. It looked beautiful, actually. The result of all my labor looked very clean and very pretty, but it had no taste at all so far as I could tell and I could not expect those little boys, however polite and loving they are, to pretend that it was worth bothering with. Oddly enough, my wife, who has a very discerning palate, liked my ice cream. She thought it tasted like real yogurt made with goat’s milk. Maybe if my sister has a recipe for yogurt I might end up with ice cream.
Recipes, anyway, have to be fleshed out, I suspect, with the cook’s own taste, personality and inspiration. Ethel Barrymore was once rehearsing a new play with an over-eager young director who kept instructing her with details, “Move to that table. Life the book, pause, and then look at it.” She endured this for a while, then she turned to him and said sweetly, “I know just what you mean. I lift the book, pause, and then look at it, and it is then that I do that special, unexplainable thing that causes audiences to come to see me and enables me to earn a thousand dollars a week.” She made her point. With great cooks, as with great stars, there is that “special, unexplainable thing” that has to do with taste, authority, and uniqueness of personality, and the beginner, I should think, should be encouraged to trust his or her own particular instincts and exercise his or her own creativity.
In Saki’s short story, “The Blind Spot”, one character says, “the man is a common murderer,” and another replies, “A common murderer, perhaps, but a very uncommon cook.” This book contains the secrets of many very uncommon cooks, great stars, splendid artists of the kitchen; secrets, many of them, that have considerable histories, having been handed down, generation to generation, from one famous cook to another.
I am fascinated by the great variety of cooking styles assembled here, representing many different traditions and widely varying national origins. Some recipes remain pretty much as they were when Great-Grandma was finally persuaded to write them down, or when Cousin Jessica spied on some selfish and secretive cook and wrote down each step se took, each pinch of salt, each wave of the hand in the direction of the pot. Others have evolved through adaptation, experiments, and happy accidents. A few of them doubtless traveled south with the earliest settlers, moving along the Natchez Trace from Virginia, the Carolinas or Kentucky, personally watched over by the woman of the family, along with a treasured set of china, an ancestral portrait, a silver candlestick, or some other heirloom.
Outsiders tend to think of the South as all one thing, when, of course we know that our extraordinary diversity is one of our most attractive features. We have absorbed many things from many sources, and have made them our own. Take grits. Grits has (sic;jly), of late been mentioned in the news somewhat frequently as a native southern specialty, which it is. It is very native, indeed, sine it was given to us by the Indians, along with corn bread and many other things. Blacks have made a contribution that is hard to measure, for many black cooks have been among the nameless geniuses who’ve left the culinary art a better one for their having participated in it. The French and Spanish influence on cooking is very important in the South, and though New Orleans is most famous for it, excellent French and Creole restaurants are strung along The Mississippi Gulf Coast all the way to Mobile.
In the past couple of years I’ve traveled around my native Mississippi a great deal, and I’ve enjoyed everything from baked dove at the governor’s mansion to fried catfish and hush puppies in Vicksburg and stuffed breast of chicken in Natchez, from ham hocks and turnip greens in Meridian to sirloin steak in Columbus, hot tamales in Greenville, and Creole gumbo and soft shelled crabs in Biloxi. In West Point, Mayor Kenny Dill went out and picked blackberries and Mrs. Dill made them into pie for me. Who wouldn’t choose a blackberry pie over a key to the city?
Which brings me full circle and back to hospitality. My children are startled by the extraordinary lengths that Southerners go in order to make the visitor feel at home among them. Very often, when we have been guests in someone’s home, neighbors have rushed in to leave off (or sometimes simply leave out-side the door) a basket of yard eggs or fresh butter or vegetables taken from their gardens that morning.
How many times it has happened that after a speech I’ve found someone thrusting into my hands a container of home-made fudge or a jar of fig preserves, saying “Take these to Carter and Anderson,” or “I beg Gloria’s never had watermelon rind preserves,” and slipping away before I could get the names? I’ve even been presented with chitlin’s (or chitterlings, and the dictionary spells it) and though anybody who knows me can testify that I’ve always been proud of my farm background, in the matter of chitlin’s, born country or not, I didn’t know what they were and wasn’t too curious to find out. I guess somethings are just meant to be forgotten, but Idid appreciate the thought. (Though not enough, you understand, to confront my wife with the chitlin’s.)
Oh, just one more thing. A story about one of my great uncles—one of the Campbells, I think. Having lost his wife (by death, I mean; she wasn’t simply misplaced) he was looking around for a replacement and in mentioning the most desired qualification, he made the following obsertion:
“The huggin’ and kissin’ don’t last forever. The cookin’ do.”
The answer isn’t easy; getting all the facts in one pile is hard enough. Then once you figure in the observer, perspective and perception, you might conclude the South is a fluid, protean phenomenon, a shattered chimerical idea or just a hook to hang a hat on, all of which indeed it is all at any given time.
Even we as Southerners, however much we profess to have an innate, intuitive conception of what the South is, cannot know it root and branch because our conceptions of it change, evolve, even as we think about it; such is the nature of intimate knowledge. The perplexion is compounded by those who theorize on the nature of the South, not only Cash, Woodward, Foote and their ilk, but those from outside the South who come to the region for the specific purpose of writing about it.
Joan Didion, a product of New Journalism, is best known for her introspective writings on culture and politics, though her most acclaimed works are deeply personal; The White Album (1979), including the title essay dealing with a nervous breakdown and The Year of Magical Thinking, (2005), written shortly after the deaths of her daughter and husband. It’s worth noting that her trip to the Gulf South was taken only two years after her critically acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a gritty, myth-busting account of California’s counter-culture during the 1960s, and that the notes eventually becoming South and West were recollected, (and presumably to some degree edited if not rewritten) and published only now, almost fifty years later.
Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans with images of procreation, death and decay:
“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead. One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car.”
One might consider this an inauspicious beginning for a book about the Deep South, but then striking a gothic note isn’t out of order. Then her focus narrows:
“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be; the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.”
Throughout the work, Didion interacts with locals, usually people of prominence, including Walker Percy and (surprisingly) Stan Torgerson, but not Eudora Welty, stating that she dared not visit Welty in Jackson because she was certain that so near an airport, she’d catch a flight to the west coast. To me it’s telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford.
The summing-up for this work is her observation of an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie as if it were Czechoslovakian. This is literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is watching a foreign film, driving through Dixie in a daze, and while we might find her unpassionate observations offensive, we should bear ear to them, if only to discover ourselves in other eyes.