Theroux at Rowan Oak

Mississippians, particularly those of us from north Mississippi, should resign ourselves to literary scrutiny by writers of stature, since those without standing dare not scale the Parnassus of Oxford without credentials. Paul Theroux is no exception, but we should ask ourselves not only why he and others of his ilk come here, but what (if anything) they’re looking for.

Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident if not always clear clarion that reverberates from the center of Lafayette County across the world.

Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s effort spans generations.

Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, but it’s also important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed and fleeting fabric of the South, perceivable better by far in his excesses than by any others details.

 

Welty on Rednecks

During V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Mississippi in 1988, he grew obsessed with rednecks, coming to see rednecks as the “unlikely descendants” of a mythical construct he called a “frontiersman”. Naipaul himself considered Mississippi—somewhat paradoxically, from a native’s point of view—as both the heartland of the South and a state at the very periphery of culture and civilization itself, which could be considered a rather brash observation from a native of Trinidad. It’s tempting to speculate on what Welty herself might have thought of Naipaul questioning her about rednecks, but upon reflection, who better to ask than the woman who wrote “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” in June, 1963.

And it was of the redneck, the unlikely descendant of the frontiersman, that I talked to Eudora Welty when I went to call on her. I had arrived early, and could clearly be seen through her uncurtained front window. But I was nervous of knocking too soon.

So for a while we waited below the big, dripping trees in the gloom after rain, she behind her window at the end of her wet front garden, I in the car. And when I felt the time was suitable I walked up to the wet path to her front door. On the door, in her strong writing, was a note asking people not to bring any more books for her to sign. She wanted to save as much of her energy as possible now for her work. I knocked; and she opened, like someone waiting to do just that. She was extraordinarily familiar from her photographs

The frontier was so much in her stories: a fact I had only just begun to appreciate. And she was willing to talk of the frontiersman character.

“He’s not a villain. But there’s a whole side of him that’s cunning. Sometimes it goes over the line and he becomes an outright scoundrel. The blacks never lived in that part of the state. They came over to work on the plantations. Most of the rednecks grew up without black people, and yet they hate them. That’s where all the bad things originate—that’s the appeal they make. Rednecks worked in sawmills and things like that. And they had small farms. They are all fiercely proud. They dictate the politics of the state. They take their excitement—in those small towns—when the politicians and evangelists come. Scare everybody, outwit everybody, beat everybody, kill everybody—that’s the frontiersman’s mentality.”

I told her the story that (a previous interviewee) had heard as a child about the rednecks to the south of the town where she had spent her summers: the story of traveling salesmen who had been roughed up and hitched to a plow and made to plow a field. She had said that this story had come down from the past; and I had thought of it as a romantic story of the wickedness of times past, an exaggerated story about people living without law. But Eudora Welty took the story seriously. She said, “I can believe the story about the salesmen. I’ve heard about punishing people by making them plow farms.”

We talked about Mississippi and its reputation.

“At the time of the troubles many people passed through and called on me. They wanted me to confirm what they thought. And all of them thought I lived in a state of terror. ‘Aren’t you scared of them all the time?’ A young man came and said that h4 had been told that a Mr. So-and-So, who was a terrible racist, owned all of Jackson, all the banks and hotels, and that he was doing terrible things to black people. It was a fantasy. It wasn’t true. The violence here is not nearly as frightening as the Northern—urban—brand.”

A frontier state, limited culturally—had that been hard for her as a writer, and as a woman writer? The richness of a writer depends to some extent on the society he or she writes about.

She said: “There is a lot behind it, the life of the state. There is the great variety of the peoples who came and settled the different sections. There is a great awareness of that as you get older—you see what things have stemmed from. The great thing taught me here as a writer is a sense of continuity. In a place that hasn’t changed much you get to know the generations. You can see the whole narrative of a town’s history or a family’s history.”

[V.S. Naipaul A Turn in the South (1989), pp. 213-14; images from The Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics: 1875-1925 (1951)]

A Snob from North Jackson

In the summer of 1988, V.S. Naipaul visited Jackson during a tour of the American South that resulted in his travelogue A Turn in the South, which was published the following February. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, had by that time achieved international recognition with novels such as The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr. Biswas, and had also become an important observer of post-colonial politics and societies in works such as The Middle Passage, An Area of Darkness and Among the Believers. It was in this vein, that of a writer exploring an exotic culture, that Naipaul visited the South, ostensibly to compare it to his own Trinidadian background. Though the issue of race was an obvious area of interest, the importance of race as a subject seems to move farther to the background as the work progresses, and Naipaul finds himself increasingly preoccupied with describing the culture of the South, including country-western music, strict Christianity, Elvis Presley and rednecks.

This shift of focus seems to take place largely in the section on Mississippi. Entitled “The Frontier, the Heartland”, his visit to the state is for the most part restricted to Jackson, though he does visit a cemetery in Canton, a catfish processing plant in Belzoni, the Presley home in Tupelo and a retired Supreme Court justice in (of all places) Eupora. While in Jackson, he talked with many people—including Eudora Welty and William Winter—yet he seems most captivated with a character he calls Campbell, from whom he received a description of rednecks that fascinated and entranced Naipaul to the extent that he seems to become obsessed (he describes it as “a new craze”) with rednecks not merely as a group or class of people, but as almost a separate species; at one point, when someone tells him that “There are three of your rednecks fishing in the pond,” he “hurried to see them, as I might have hurried to see an unusual bird . . .” Naipaul’s obsession with working-class whites  began with the interview I reproduce here in part because its several pages long for the benefit of those such as myself who are interested in how class distinctions work in our professedly democratic society. Naipaul writes:

I had the vaguest idea of what a redneck was. Someone intolerant and uneducated—that was what the word suggested. And it fitted in with what I had been told in New York: the some motoring organizations gave their members maps of safe routes through the South, to steer them away from areas infested with rednecks. Then I also became aware that the word had been turned by some middle-class people into a romantic word; and that in this extension it stood for the unintellectual, physical, virile man, someone who (for instance) wouldn’t mind saying “shit” in company.

It wasn’t until I met Campbell that I was given a full and beautiful and lyrical account, an account that ran it all together, by a man who half looked down on and half loved the redneck, and who, when he began to speak of redneck pleasures, was moved to confess that he was half a redneck himself. It wasn’t for his redneck side, strictly speaking, that I had been introduced to Campbell. I had been told that he was the new kind of Young conservative, with strong views on race and welfare . . . Campbell was also the man who represented the other side of the religious South: the authoritarian side. And it was of family and values and authority that we spoke, all quite predictably, until it occurred to be to ask, “Campbell, what do you understand by the word ‘redneck’?” And—as though it had been prepared—a great Theophastan “character,” something almost in the style of the seventeenth-century character-writers, poured out of Campbell. It might have been an updated version of something from Elizabethan low-life writing, or John Earle’s Microcosmography (sic), or something from Sir Thomas Overbury . . .

Campbell said, “A redneck is a lower blue-collar construction worker who definitely doesn’t like blacks. He likes to drink beer. He’s going to wear cowboy boots; he is not necessarily going to have a cowboy hat. He is going to live in a trailer someplace out in Rankin County, and he’s going to smoke about two and a half packs of cigarettes a day and drink about ten cans of beer at night, and he’s going to be mad as hell if he doesn’t have some cornbread and peas and fried okra and some fried pork chops to eat—I’ve never seen one of those sons of bitches yet who doesn’t like fried pork chops. And he’ll be late on his trailer payment. He’s been raised that way. His father was just like him. And the son of a bitch loves country music. They love to hunt and fish. They go out all night to the Pearl River. They put out a trotline—a long line running across the river, hooks on it every four or five feet. They bait them with damn old crawfish, and that line’ll sink to the bottom, and they’ll go to the bank and shit and drink all night long, and they’ll get a big fire going. They’ll check it two or three times in the night, to see if they’re getting a catfish. It’ll be good catfish. Those redneck sons of bitches they they’ll rather have one of those river catfish than one of those pond catfish. They’ll say it’s got a better taste.

Religion? They’ll go to church when the wife beats the hell out of him. But he’s not going to put on a coat and tie or anything. He won’t do it. He’ll kick her ass.They’re not too sexual. They’d rather drink a bunch of old beer. And hang around with other males and go hunting, fishing. We’re talking about the good old rednecks now. Not the upscale ones. They’ve got the dick still hard. That’s damn true. If they’re young they got it hard, but the older they get they drink more, and then they don’t care about it any more. And she’s just there, getting some clothes washed down in the Laundromat once a week. Sit down and watch it and smoke some cigarettes—that’s right, that’s what she will do.

I’ll tell you. My son ain’t gonna fool with a redneck girl in Rankin County. Can’t hide it. Everybody knows everybody else. And I’ll tell you something else. They talk different. And I want my children to stay in their social strata, and that’s where they’ll stay. I would say, ‘Keith,, you weren’t brought up like that. You get your ass out of that. You’re way above that, and we’re going to stay way above that.’ But Keith’s all right. He wants to dress nice; he wants to look good; he wants to make money. We run in the Northeast Jackson crowd. That’s supposed to be upscale.”

What some might find most ironic about this denunciation of Rankin County rednecks is that Campbell along with many of his ilk have largely fled north Jackson (indeed, Jackson itself) and now live in Rankin and Madison Counties. Between 1980 and 2010, the population of Jackson dropped from 202,895 to 173,514, and those who left Jackson were for the most part, in the words of the U.S. Census Bureau, “Non-Hispanic Whites”. The Campbells of Jackson fled to the hinterlands, where they established such civilized enclaves as Castlewoods and Crossgates among the ignorant, beer-swilling blue-collar rednecks in Rankin County they despise.