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
In the Memorial Hall Foundation Museum in New Orleans sits a chunky Chickering “square” parlor piano manufactured in Boston in the 1840s. The piano, the former proud possession of the Cooper family of Jackson, Mississippi, once helped to shore up a Civil War redoubt facing south along the Jackson Railroad line. The fortification was manned by the Fifth Company Washington Artillery, part of General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate “Army of Relief” defending Jackson against the forces of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.
On the sweltering morning of July 12, the Confederates began playing the piano, oblivious to the Federal line advancing on their position. The men sang songs of home as their skirmish line was pushed back behind the redoubts, and while the men were called to their guns, the pianist, Private Andrew Swain, began playing “You Shan’t Have Any of My Peanuts.” The attack began, but the Confederate line held, and Swain resumed his place on the piano to play “Oh, Let Us Rejoice.”
The saga of the Cooper family’s piano is just one of the many wonderful stories that enrich Jim Woodrick’s The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi, an account of Sherman’s little-known and less-documented attack on Mississippi’s capital after the fall of Vicksburg in July, 1863. The Siege of Jackson, as Terrence Winschel observes in his introduction, was “the final, yet seldom mentioned scene of ‘the great drama’—i.e. the campaign for control of the Mississippi River.” The capital of Mississippi became, for that week, a battlefield. Its capitulation capped Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, put a black band around the Confederate war effort, and reduced the nascent city of Jackson to smoking ruins.
In the spring of 1863, the war in the west focused on Vicksburg. Lincoln told his civilian and military leaders, “Vicksburg is the key!” Confederate President Davis was of the same mind: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” In Confederate hands, Vicksburg blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and allowed communications and reinforcements from Confederates to the west. The natural defenses of the city led to its nickname, the Gibraltar of the South.
Earlier in the Vicksburg Campaign, Union General Ulysses S. Grant became convinced that Confederate forces assembling in or near Jackson might be stronger than he had initially supposed. The eradication of Jackson was essential for two reasons: first, Jackson was a focal point for the relief of Vicksburg, with a railhead and the entire Confederacy behind it; secondly the destruction of the capital city of President Davis’s home state presented a significant opportunity to demoralize Confederate leadership and the Confederacy itself.
In a torrential downpour on May 14, 1863, Grant’s men drove through Johnston’s weak defenses and captured Jackson. To conserve his forces, Johnston abandoned the city and withdrew to Canton. Weeks later, after Grant besieged Vicksburg, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon urged Johnston to relieve the river city. Seddon, however, refused to send Johnston reinforcements, and Johnston declared that “saving Vicksburg is hopeless.”
Nevertheless, in mid-May, when General William Loring and some five thousand Confederate troops entered Jackson, Johnston set about organizing a relief column. On June 28, he began moving west, and advanced as far as the Big Black River only to discover that Vicksburg had fallen on July 4. Johnston retreated to Jackson, fortified the city, and by July 10 was invested by greatly superior Union forces under William T. Sherman. The siege of Jackson had begun.
For Jackson readers, The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi—hereafter, The Siege of Jackson—brings the violence of a hundred and fifty-six years ago to street level. Novelist and historian Howard Bahr observes that few current residents of Mississippi’s capital city are aware of the dramatic events of July, 1863: “The reader may well be surprised, as I was, by the scope of this operation and the great violence and loss of life that occurred on the ground we walk over every day. Jim Woodrick’s account, well-written and meticulously researched, offers for the first time a detailed, comprehensive narrative of the weeklong siege supported by maps, period drawings, an Order of Battle, and photographs. The account is enlivened by humorous anecdotes and, more important perhaps, a focus on individual participants and the personal tragedies of soldiers who died far from home.”
The Siege of Jackson is very much a work of scholarship. Terrence Winschel, author of the introduction, has recently retired as the Chief Historian of the Vicksburg Military Park; Woodrick, a native of Meridian, graduated from Millsaps with a degree in political science, was active in the Jackson Civil War Round Table, and is currently the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History.
Woodrick said he decided to write The Siege of Jackson for two reasons.
First of all, only one book has been previously published that covered the Jackson campaign and the subsequent siege, and that book, published in 1980 by the Jackson Civil War Round Table, combined the siege with the May 14, 1863, battle of Jackson, When I first started exploring the possibility of a book on Jackson, it was actually intended to be an updated version of that book with one of the original co-authors, Warren Grabau. Unfortunately, Warren passed away before we could tackle that project and the idea went to the back burner for a time.
But the idea of writing about the Siege of Jackson stayed with me,” Woodrick said, “and the more I studied the campaign the more I felt it deserved to be studied on its own. Considering that I work next door to the Old Capitol Museum – essentially in the middle of the siege lines – I thought it fitting that I be the one to tell the story of the approximately 70,000 men – blue and gray – who fought for a week in July 1863 for control of Mississippi’s capital city.
Woodrick’s retelling of the siege is a significant upgrade from that of Bearrs and Grabau, who primarily concentrate on military aspects of the action. Woodrick’s version is far more inclusive, incorporating, vivid descriptions of the action, details of the terrain, conditions and armaments and profiles and accounts of individual soldiers and commanders. It is an essential book for Jacksonians interested in the city’s history and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the Civil War.
Woodrick went on to say:
When I started working on the book, I was perhaps most interested in the two army commanders involved in the siege,” Woodrick went on to say. “Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston would meet again, but the Jackson Campaign is actually the first time they faced each other, and the siege of Jackson is, I think, an interesting look into their leadership abilities at this point in the war.
A re-enactor as well as a military historian, Woodrick writes for readers interested in military history and tactics, a demanding audience indeed. Woodrick rises to the occasion by describing in detail the most significant—and bloodiest—action of the week-long siege: Union Brigadier General Jacob Lauman’s calamitous assault on Breckinridge’s Division in the Confederate redoubt southwest of the city where the entrenched Washington Artillery manned two James rifles, four Napoleons, and a Chickering piano.
Woodrick ensures the book’s broader appeal by positioning the siege of Jackson within the framework of the Vicksburg Campaign, which is—to Mississippians, at least—the most familiar military action of the Civil War. Woodrick underscores the importance of both the Battle of Jackson (May 14, 1863) and Siege of Jackson as components of Grant’s successful Siege of Vicksburg and Union domination of the Mississippi, in both instances to eradicate Jackson as platform for Confederate forces. Woodrick says:
In a cursory sense, I suppose the campaign could be viewed as simply a rearguard action, but I think that’s selling it far short. In reality, the Siege of Jackson is the exclamation mark at the end of the Vicksburg Campaign. Having finally achieved the long-sought goal of capturing Vicksburg, Grant simply could not ignore Johnston’s still-intact army looming to the east, and in that sense, I think it was critical to the ultimate success of the Vicksburg Campaign. Unfortunately, because of events in Pennsylvania (i.e., Gettysburg), the Jackson Campaign in many ways gets overlooked by historians (and at the time), especially since the siege didn’t end in a grand charge or the capture of an army (as at Vicksburg). That doesn’t diminish the importance of the campaign, however, in finally securing the Mississippi River for the Union.
The fall of Jackson affected Mississippians viscerally. Jefferson Davis wrote in July, 1863, “In these times of disaster, when my relations and nearest friends are the objects of most cruel animosity, when my beloved Mississippi is being overrun by the invader, I deeply feel my want of that sustaining power which had in times past upheld the just cause, and given to the weak the power to defend the strong.” Even after Vicksburg’s capture, the fall of Jackson sent a shudder throughout the Confederacy.
While Sherman and Johnston are key players in Woodrick’s bloody drama, the central player is the city of Jackson itself. “As the book progressed, I think the most interesting ‘character’ to emerge was the city itself and, of course, the stories of the common soldiers who served here and–for some–who died here,” Woodrick said.
One of the main points that I intended to make when I began the book was to disprove, once and for all, the story of “Chimneyville”. Based on a number of factors, I was convinced that the oft-told stories of Jackson’s destruction were in large part myth. As I looked closely at the evidence, however, I discovered that the opposite was true–that Jackson and her citizens did indeed suffer catastrophic losses as a result of the siege, both from Union soldiers and Confederate troops. As a result, Jackson was in large part reduced to rubble.
Sherman’s signature scorched earth policy was initiated in Jackson. Bruce Catton, in Grant Moves South (1960), writes, “every installation which might conceivably be of use to a struggling Confederacy were destroyed with grim effectiveness. Sherman reported to Grant that ‘Jackson cannot again become a place for the assemblage of men and material with which to threaten the Mississippi River.’ private soldiers looked at the wreckage and gave Jackson the descriptive name of ‘Chimneyville,’ and on July 23, Sherman pulled his army back and prepared to give all hands a rest. He left a desert behind him.”
Contemporary accounts of the devastation are hyperbolic. Although Sherman assured Mayor Manship and a committee of twenty prominent citizens that “all citizens acting in good faith will be respected by me and my command,” George Whitman, a soldier in the 51st new York Infantry and the younger brother of poet Walt Whitman, reported, “Soon after we entered [the city], the western troops began to come in and they ransacked and plundered completely.” Another Union soldiers reported, “I never saw or heard of a city being so thoroughly sacked and burned as this place.” Contemporary newspapers also confirm the devastation. The New York Herald: “As our men would reach private dwelling houses they would enter them and in a short time scenes of the most unmitigated plundering took place.” The Memphis Bulletin: “Lazy, contemptible stragglers could be seen. . . engaged in dividing their ill-gotten plunder, which consisted of fine silks, shoes, ladies’ bonnets . . . my pen can never record what outrage was done that day.
The following eyewitness account appeared in the Canton American Citizen while Sherman’s troops were still tearing up the railroad: “One must visit Jackson to learn the extent of the destruction it has sustained. It is a mere wreck of its former self . . . look in whichever direction you may from the front of the Capitol, ruins meet the eye. The numerous chimneys still standing upon burnt districts and the undisturbed debris of charred walls and destroyed wares will remain until the end of the war, silent but terrible monuments to the devastating inroad of the vandal hoards. . .”
Woodrick’s portrait of pre-war Jackson at the outbreak of hostilities in the 1860s reveals it to be a provincial town that became a capital without ever becoming a city. Jackson had barely begun to build before it was destroyed. By 1866, “Chimneyville” was on the mend. Woodrick includes a panoramic photograph of Jackson taken from the cupola of the state capitol in 1869 as documentary evidence of an “expanding but still somewhat rural city” and dismisses doubts the photograph might raise about the actual extent of damage to the city by reference to the “overwhelming number of primary accounts and evidence of rebuilding found in newspapers of the period.” Finally, Woodrick provides us with what few physical reminders of the siege that remain, and concludes, elegantly:
Jackson has not changed to such a degree that the battlefield cannot be understood, and there are areas throughout Jackson where interpretation could be used to explain what took place. Such an effort would in some small way help in remembering the sacrifices made by the men in blue and gray during those hot days in July 1863. We owe them nothing less.
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
I always thought it a very cool thing to be able to say that GlennRay Tutor, Glenn Ballard, and I took a writing workshop together in the summer of ’74. Indeed, so far as I know, it was the only writing class any of us ever took. There were other good students whose names I do not recall, but wish I could. Neither can I bring to mind the least remnant of what I learned in that class. The professor, however, was unforgettable.
He was a devilishly handsome man, funny and kind, and he seemed to know everything. Simply everything. He could summon a quote from the ether anytime he wanted. He read beautifully, both poetry and prose, and read as if the poet or writer were his best friend in all the world. He had written an actual novel (we didn’t know then about the ones he would always dismiss as “drugstore paperbacks”) published by an actual New York City house, and his short stories had appeared in actual magazines, and we boys looked on these accomplishments as commensurate with raising the dead. Nevertheless, he was humble in the presence of great writers, and treated even our sophomoric maunderings with delicacy and respect. More important, he practiced humility toward his own prodigious talent.
Our professor smoked a pipe, as all professors ought, and as most did in those vanished days. Over the years, I took every course he offered, and his routine never varied: he would arrive with his pipe and tobacco pouch and a thermos of coffee, greet everyone, open whatever book we were using, and commence to be brilliant. (He had a Nimrod Sportsman pipe lighter–the kind advertised in Field & Stream–and his old students will smile when I recall the image of that good man flicking his lighter and stoking his pipe and pouring a cup of coffee all at the same time.) He never used notes, and hardly ever wrote on the blackboard. Had there been Power Point then (God forbid!), he would have scorned it. Neither did he waste time with films or slides. He just talked, and read, and revealed the magical realm of literature to us.
Those who remember this excellent professor will be interested to know that, at long last, his life and contributions are contained in a biography: Living in Mississippi: The Life and Times of Evans Harrington (UP of Mississippi, 2017). Author and scholar Robert Hamblin knew Dr. Harrington as friend and colleague; he has drawn on that relationship, on a wide range of interviews, and on careful research to present as complete a portrait of the man as we are ever likely to have.
And what a man he was! Evans Harrington was born in Birmingham of parents who were conservative both in religion (his father, Silas, was a Baptist minister) and politics–which is to say that the elder Harringtons were Southerners of their time and generation. When Evans was three, the family moved to Mississippi, and there they remained. Young Evans grew up in the rural South of the ‘20s and ‘30s, a culture which shaped him in many ways. Harrington loved the Southern landscape; he was a skilled hunter and fisherman; he knew what it meant to work hard; he was schooled in the Bible and old-time religion; he was as mannerly and courtly and brave as any character in Swallow Barn. At the same time, he grew to manhood in a time when change was on the horizon. Like many thoughtful Southerners before him, Harrington was exposed to unexpected, often uncomfortable, insights when he left the South and joined the service in 1943. For the first time, he encountered young men from the North and West who owned different ways of thinking; when called upon to explain his region’s unique qualities, Harrington, like Quentin Compson at Harvard, discovered he could not defend many cultural elements he had taken for granted. In an interview, Harrington admitted that, by the time of his discharge in 1945, he was “already an integrationist and a defender of the blacks.”
Throughout his adult life, Evans Harrington was a champion of equal rights, not only for blacks, but for all persons protected by the United States Constitution–and this at a time when such notions might cost a Southern man his life. Nevertheless, he refused to follow many of his educated, like-minded contemporaries (including William Faulkner) in their exodus to more “enlightened” areas of the country. Hamblin takes his biography’s title from the essay “Living in Mississippi” (Yale Review, June, 1968), in which Harrington defines the extraordinary dilemma of one who insists on loving his native land in spite of itself. Harrington remained in the state he loved; throughout the tumultuous civil rights era, he fought, with ardor and passion, often at his own peril, and at considerable personal cost, for what he believed to be the only decent, humane, and just relationship among human beings.
Among the many virtues of Hamblin’s book is the decision to present different elements of his subject’s history–biographical, political, academic, and literary–as independent sections. A departure from traditional biography, Hamblin’s technique offers clarity and focus, though not at the expense of the narrative as a whole.
It well may be that Robert Hamblin’s outstanding work will find but a limited audience, since Evans Harrington’s is not exactly a household name, and it is unlikely Hamblin will make it one. This is a very great pity, for Dr. Harrington’s life would inspire anyone who values courage, honor, and the rare quality of thinking for oneself, especially when it challenges the entrenched world view of a conservative society. In any event, those lucky enough to have known Dr. Harrington will find this book a treasure indeed.
Having begun this review on a personal note, I will end it in the same fashion. I never saw eye-to-eye with our good professor on certain points of his philosophy. I continue to believe liberal thinkers of his era embraced an ideology that, while admirable, was wholly impractical. They were naïve in the sense that all are naïve who cannot imagine the unimaginable future, a fault shared by every person who ever lived. On the other hand, without idealists like Dr. Harrington, our flawed humanity would never improve, never move toward kindness and justice and mercy. We are intractable until we see our image in the mirror of history, held up to us by brave men like Dr. Harrington.
By the way, when we at last discovered the Doc had written novels under a pen name, we implored him to reveal it. Finally, one day, he did. “It’s Jacqueline Suzanne,” he said.
Thank you, Dr. Harrington. Well done, sir. May you rest in peace.
When I was a little kid, I’d write stories and my mother would type them up on her Royal Standard typewriter. Writing those stories, I never supposed I’d become serious. I used to use a manual typewriter, my own 1953 Royal standard, a beautiful machine that I loved dearly. Then I got a computer, and I use that now. The thing about the computer is that it makes it so easy to revise. Stepping off into the blank page is scary, and it’s much easier to go back and revise what you’ve already written than to make up something new, so I have to watch myself with that. I only work at night; drink beer, smoke my pipe and try to write a couple of pages. It’s kind of a ritual.
When I first became really interested in writing, when I was working on the railroad, my friend Frank Smith introduced me to William Faulkner. I’d heard of Faulkner, but I had never read him. Frank and I were talking about writing, thinking, sort of coming out of ourselves and finding out things. When he gave me some Faulkner books to read, I became just totally involved in Faulkner’s world. It was a world I thought I would have loved to have lived in; the 1890s, the turn of the century, the South of the 1920s. I was fascinated by his style, so I began to unconsciously imitate it. If I had any of my early writings, you would see that I was a very poor copier of William Faulkner, but an imitator nevertheless. Parenthetically, Shelby Foote did the same thing, you read Foote’s early novels and they are a poor imitation of Faulkner’s style. Then I read Joseph Conrad, and I began to imitate him, his cadences, then I read Scott Fitzgerald and I tried to imitate his beautiful, musical lines. Every person I read, I would imitate. Many years later, when I read Lonesome Dove, that book put echoes in my head. Out of all that came my own style.
That’s how I learned to write, by reading other writers, imitating and finding my own voice, and that’s what I recommend for any writer, to not be afraid to imitate a number of writers, because eventually you’ll find your own style. That’s what Faulkner himself did; he imitated A.E. Housman, a number of stylists until he came up with his own. By the time I came to Rowan Oak as a caretaker, I was sick and tired of William Faulkner, I was sick of his baroque sentences, he had begun to annoy me with his coy, almost willful obscurity, so I lost interest in his writing for that reason. Oddly enough, the presence of William Faulkner at Rowan Oak was very small. The boys who worked with me there I think would agree. We all wrote stories and wrote things in the house, but there was no inspiration or magical breath that came down the stairs. It was like writing in a hotel room. Although we talked about him, kept the house as he and his family had, the house really had a life of its own. To us, it was always the house that was more alive to us than Faulkner. Wherever Mr. Faulkner’s ghost is, it is at rest.
I never go to a lecture unless I’m giving it. I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but there’s also some truth in it, too. I go to a writers’ conference to speak or read, and I look out over the auditorium and they’ve all got their pads and their pencils are poised to write down The Secret as if there must be some secret to this. They would be better off spending that time reading other writers and writing for themselves. Edgar Allen Poe never went to a writers’ conference; William Faulkner never attended classes at Bread Loaf. The great writers learn to write by reading and imitating and by working their asses off day and night. You’ve always got to be working on something, whether it’s going to amount to anything or not. You can ask any writer if he is working on anything now, and he will say yes. He may be staring at the blank page, but he’s still working.
Don’t preach. You want to write a story. Faulkner said, and I think he’s quite right, that a writer should not have an agenda, that he should not preach; his business is to tell the story of the human heart, to tell it well in all of its lights and shadows, and out of that telling, if you do it true enough and honest enough, if you don’t make fun of your characters and create a real world that your reader can move around in, if you do all that and tell the story, then the meaning, the preaching, whatever you’re trying to say will come out. The Black Flower is not about North versus South; it’s not about the Yankees and the Rebels; it’s about how horrible and unspeakable war is. That’s what it preaches about, not through the voice of the author but through the actions and reactions of the characters and the things they see in the world around them. The reader gets the message without being button-holed. What is wrong with preaching is that you begin to move away from the story, away from the work, and into the writer. And the writer doesn’t matter. If the writer has a message, it needs to come out in the work.
I think that my course has run as a writer. I don’t think that I’ll be publishing any more books. I think that the time has come for me to be a teacher of writing. But having said that, I still write all the time, I’m still paying attention. The literary world is a landscape that I don’t recognize any more, I don’t understand it; I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think anyone would be interested in publishing anything else I write, but if I ever finish something, I’ll send it in, see what happens.