20 October 2009

Greenville, Mississippi: Highway 61 Revisited: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #11

I take Highway 61 again (which I had previously taken to visit Port Gibson and Natchez), and am once more reminded not only of Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited, but – as I'm driving through the Mississippi Delta – also of David Cohn's famous words in his book God Shakes Creation (1935): 'The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.' We've just spent three nights in Vicksburg and are headed north, but Memphis and The Peabody Duck March are just not on the itinerary: this is supposed to be a literary trail, not a record of the tourist traps of the South. No, we're on the way to Washington. County, Mississippi, that is, and more specifically Greenville, which is about eight miles west of Highway 61, and where about 30% of the population live below the poverty line: this is a world away from the $200 a night Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. But Greenville, from a literary point of view, is remarkable. Greenville Library is on 341 Main Street, and the street marker by the sidewalk opposite the entrance to the building proudly proclaims the literary talent that has come from Greenville, Mississippi:

'Greenville's Writers. An extraordinary literary atmosphere in Greenville produced winners of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and O'Henry [sic] Award. Writers influenced by the creative ambience here include William A. Percy, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Hodding Parker, Jr., Charles Bell, Ellen Douglas, Bern Keating and David L. Cohn.' This is an extremely impressive list for a population of under 36,000.

Greenville takes an evident pride in its literary heritage. The William Alexander Percy Memorial Library is named after the writer who was Walker Percy's uncle. Walker's grandfather, and then his father, committed suicide, and following the death of his mother in a car crash, William Alexander brought up Walker and his two brothers in Greenville. Walker Percy (1916–90) wrote novels of alienation and existentialism, and his first novel, The Moviegoer (1962), was recently voted 6th best Southern novel of all time by Southern American, the literary journal of the University of Southern Arkansas. The writer Ada Liana Bidiuc said 'If a better book than The Moviegoer has been written, I'll cut off my little toe'. They talk like that in the South.

Jackson, Mississippi: Eudora Welty: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #10

Jackson celebrates Eudora Welty's centenary, and this was a very eventful day for us. We were, as we had been for the past three days, staying in a hotel in Vicksburg, and the Welty house was within easy reach, particularly as an interstate exit was very close to the house in the centre of Jackson.

The street marker outside the house reads: 'Eudora Welty (1900–2001), one of the most acclaimed writers of the twentieth century, lived in this house for seventy-six years. The house was built by Welty's parents, Christian and Chestina Welty, in 1925. Eudora Welty wrote all of her major works here, including the Pullitzer prize-winning novel The Optimist's Daughter. Welty and her mother were devoted gardeners, and many of the flowers and bushes they planted still grow in the garden. The Eudora Welty House is a National historic Landmark.'

As the whole region had suffered torrential rains for several days – some roads in Atlanta had been severely flooded, but we managed to avoid it – this was unfortunately all that we were able to view of the garden that Welty and her mother in particular had tended so lovingly. (I might add that although by this relatively early stage of our journey the rains were coming to an end, toward late afternoon for several days, we had been subjected to almost unbelievable rainstorms when driving back to the hotel, making the journey a little longer than expected. but I must admit that I even found this somewhat enjoyable.)

I was given a leaflet entitled 'Eudora Welty Driving Tour' at the house, so took the occasion to explore places in the area associated with Welty. This is the birthplace of Eudora Welty on North Congress Street.

The plaque says:

'This house, built by Christian and Chestina Welty in 1908, was the birthplace and childhood home of their daughter, Eudora. Many of the events memorialized in Miss Welty's book, One Writer's Beginnings, occurred here and take on a sense of timelessness for those who visit.

'David Norris and Joe purchased the property in 1979 for offices. Their restoration efforts reversed the tragic decline of the condition of the house and preserved it for its later acquisition by the Mississippi Writers Association to serve as the focal point of the Eudora Welty Writers' Center. The foresight of the Mississippi Legislature in funding this project and the leadership efforts of Jo Barksdale, Writers Association Executive Director, combined to make possible this living tribute to one of Mississippi's greatest writers.'

The leaflet, although quick to point out the difference between the park Welty knew as a child and today, quotes from one of her stories, 'The Winds': 'They ran through the park and drank from the fountain. Moving slowly as sunlight over the grass were the broad and dusty backs of pigeons. They stopped and made a clover-chain and hung it on a statue. They groveled in the dirt under the bandstand hunting for lost money, but when they found a dead bird with its feathers cool as rain, they ran out in the sun [...] they floated magnolia leaves in the horse trough, themselves taking the part of the wind and waves, and suddenly remembering who they were. they closed in on the hot-tomale man, fixing their frightened eyes on his lantern and on his scars.'

The Jefferson Davis Elementary School which Welty attended is also on North Congress Street, just a few steps from her birthplace.

This restaurant was once George Street Grocery, where Welty's parents would send her on errands.

This building on Griffith Street is now the Mississippi Department of Education in this state capital, but it was formerly the Central High School where Welty was educated after the elementary school.

Welty attended this church in North Congress, the Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church.

Welty's gravestone bears a quotation from The Optimist's Daughter: 'For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.

On the other side is a quotation from One Writer's Beginning: 'The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.'

The Eudora Welty Library on North State Street.

Natchez, Mississippi: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #9

23 September 2009

Our original reason for visiting Natchez was to see the Richard Wright home, but on arriving at the visitor centre there we were told that the house had completely burned down a few years ago. However, one compensation for this was the display of eleven Natchez-associated authors there, the majority of whom I'd never heard. These are the written details on display in full:

'John Francis Hammtrack–Claiborne (1807–1884)

'Born near Natchez, Claiborne had a varied career as an attorney, politician, speculator and newpaper editor. As an editor and essayist, he defended slavery, denounced abolition, supported states' rights, and opposed secession. His collection of historical material and books on political and military subjects earned him the moniker "Father fo Mississippi History".

'William T. Johnson (1809–1851)

'Johnson was a successful Natchez barber and business man who had been born into slavery. His descriptive journals illuminate the details of everyday Natchez life from 1835 until hus murder in 1851, especially the world of free people of color. Published letters and journals of his wife, sister, and daughters also add to our understanding of the time.

'Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820)

' Murray's brother Winthrop Sargent came to Natchez from Massachusetts in 1798 as the First Territorial Governor of Mississippi, but she did not move to the area until 20 years later at the end of her life. Her essays and books, beginning in 1784, frequently focused on women and girls and have garnered her attention as one of America's first feminists.

'Ann Moody (1940– )

'Born in nearby Centerville, Moody attended Natchez Junior College and then Tougaloo College where she became a civil rights activist. Her autobiography [Coming of Age in Mississippi] (shown above) provides moving insights into the segregated, poverty-stricken world of her rural childhood and her battles with racism as a young woman.

'Alice Walworth Graham (1905–1994)

'Born in Natchez, Graham studied writing at Louisiana University under Robert Penn Warren. Her fictional romances reflect a sentimental view of Southern History with a deep sense of place and attention to daily details.

'Ellen Douglas (1921– )

'Ellen Douglas is the pen name of novelist Josephine Ayres Haxton. Haxton was born in Natchez and is the author of fictional accounts set on mythical Mississippi towns resembling Natchez and Greenville, as will as nonfiction stories about Natchez.

'Catharine Ann Ware Warfield (1816–1877)

'Born in Natchez but raised in Philadelphia, Warfield was educated with and devoted to her sister Eleanor, with whom she wrote poetry until Eleanor's death in Natchez at age 30. Warefield was the author of popual genteel domestic novels written in a conventional style, including the critically acclaimed Jousehold of Bouverie (title page shown above).

'Richard Wright (1909–1960)

'Wright was born to sharecroppers on a plantation near Natchez and grew up in unstable and difficult circumstances in Mississippi and Arkansas. He later moved to Chicago and New York, and ultimately to London and Paris, where he died and is buried. A voracious reader as a child, he became an internationally acclaimed author writing unsentimental novels protesting the ecomomic and social conditions of black Americans.

'John Roy Lynch (1847–1939)

'Born into slavery, Lynch ws freed in Natchez in 1863 when the Union Army occupied the town. Lynch rose to prominence as a politician during Reconstruction, becoming, in 1873, Mississipp's first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Lynch's writings advocated integration, equality, and cooperation between the races.

'Greg Iles (1960– )

'Iles was born in Stuttgart, Germany, grew up in Natchez, and returned here as an adult. He published his first novel in 1993. He writes in a number of genres and is the author of many New York Times bestselling fictions.

'Edith Wyatt Moore (1884–1973)

'Moore was a journalist for major city newspapers before moving to Natchez in the early 1930s, where she turned her skills to history. She founded the local historical society and was active in the collection and preservation of historical materials, including William Johnson's diary, and she interviewed formerly enslaved individuals for the Federal Writers' Project. she wrote romantic histories, including a book about Natchez-under-the-Hill, and wrote many of the histories of tour homes in the area.'

Conspicuously absent from the above list of authors is Andrew Marschalk, to whom a marker is dedicated in downtown Natchez, at the corner of Wall and Franklin, and reads, in an odd, almost telegrammatic style:

'Site of the printery of "father of Mississippi journalism." Printed first book in state, 1799. Became first public printer and in 1802 founded famed newpaper, "Mississippi Herald."'

19 October 2009

Kudzu: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #8

Kudzu isn't a literary trail as such, but kudzu is inevitably part of every Southern literary trail: part of the surroundings, part of the landscape, of the nature of the South. Kudzu, quite simply, is unbelievable in so many ways; it's medicinal, helping alcohol abusers reduce their intake; it's a good animal food; it can be used as furniture, such as strong tables; it can prevent soil erosion. And yet it's a menace, as it wraps its tentacles around everything: almost every rural landscape in the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi in particular) is smothered in kudzu. I once looked out my hotel window and saw nothing but this plant wrapping itself round telegraph poles, tree branches, everything it could get a hold on: it engulfs everything.

Kudzu was introduced from Japan into the US in 1876 in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, when it was seen as an exotic, ornamental plant. It was effectively used against soil erosion, but the problem with kudzu in the South is that it grows far better there than in Japan or China: it takes over everything, and many millions of dollars are now spent in controlling a plant that is in effect a weed. We passed vast symphonies, or cathedrals, of kudzu, endless kudzu creating beautiful patterns by the side of the road, but unfortunately could never stop at an opportune moment to photograph it.

There are many, many references to kudzu in literature, but perhaps the Georgian James Dickey's poem 'Kudzu' is the most famous. This is the first half of the poem, and gives more than an adequate flavor:

'Japan invades. Far Eastern vines
Run from the clay banks they are

Supposed to keep from eroding.
Up telephone poles,
Which rear, half out of leafage
As though they would shriek,
Like things smothered by their own
Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.
In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows

At night to keep it out of the house.
The glass is tinged with green, even so,

As the tendrils crawl over the fields.
The night the kudzu has
Your pasture, you sleep like the dead.
Silence has grown Oriental
And you cannot step upon ground:
Your leg plunges somewhere
It should not, it never should be,
Disappears, and waits to be struck

Anywhere between sole and kneecap:
For when the kudzu comes,

The snakes do, and weave themselves
Among its lengthening vines,
Their spade heads resting on leaves,
Growing also, in earthly power
And the huge circumstance of concealment.
One by one the cows stumble in,
Drooling a hot green froth,
And die, seeing the wood of their stalls

Strain to break into leaf.'

Arlene Fleet, the protagonist in Southern-born Joshilyn Jackson's Gods in Alabama (2005) and whose 'daily ramblings' page on her website is entitled Faster than Kudzu believes that she has murdered the monster Jim Beverley by hitting him over the head with a bottle and kicking him in the kudzu. The recurring nightmare, of course, is that winter will turn the plants to leafless bones and reveal the body. Kudzu can't cover everything all the time.

Port Gibson, Mississippi: Irwin Russell: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #7

22 September 2009

The son of a medical doctor and a school teacher, Irwin Russell was born on 3 June 1853 in Port Gibson, Mississippi, in the Old Episcopal Rectory. He was a gifted child, and it is said that he could was reading John Milton by the age of six. Ten years later, he graduated from the Jesuit College in St Louis, Missouri. On his return to Port Gibson, he studied law under Judge L. N. Baldwin, and was admitted to the bar.

The legal profession didn't have much appeal to Russell, and he was soon selling his poems, first to local newspapers, and shortly to national ones. Scribner's Monthly published his 'Christmas Night in the Quarters' in 1878, and it was a great success. He left for New York at the end of the same year, but was dead before the end of the following year, at the age of 26.

The principal element in Russell's poetry was his representation of black speech after he had done a great deal of traveling and listening to black voices. But although he may have been to some extent sympathetic to blacks – particularly with regard to what he saw as their spontaneity and their originality – Jean Wagner notes, in Black Poets of the United States: from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes (Paris: Librarie Istra, 1962 (Les Poètes nègres des États-Unis); trans. Kenneth Douglas, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973):

'Russell, like the rest of his southern compatriots, will not grant the Negro any culture or civilization of his own. These, in Russell's view, could only come through eventual contact with whites. Nor does Russell seem to have the least notion that what he deems to be black originality and spontaneity – in short, whatever makes the black different – this religion, this poetry, and these traditions are actually the remnants of a civilization and culture from which the black was brutally torn to be transported into slavery and set down in a milieu and amid a culture to which he was refused access.'

Russell influenced the writings of Joel Chandler Harris (who compiled and edited Poems by Irwin Russell in 1888) and Thomas Nelson Page.

There was an Irwin Russell Memorial Library in Port Gibson, but now there is the Harriette Person Memorial Library, which houses the collection shown in the cases below.

The marker below marks the site of Russell's birth.

18 October 2009

Monroeville, Alabama: Harper Lee and Truman Capote: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #6

I drive up to the center of this tiny town, right next to the old courthouse – at about 12:00 – although the clocks here say it's 11:00, and I realize that we've crossed from eastern time to central time. Mosquitoes scramble around my legs, and as a result of the havoc they play, later I shall be doomed to wearing long pants and socks from now on, no matter how hot it is.

A young local girl stops her car and says:

'You guys need any help?'

'No thanks, I think we can figure things out'.

'You doin' the town tour?'

'Yeah, if we can work it all out.'

'Awesome! have a great time, y'all!'

I love Americans, I love America, and for a brief time I feel as though I'm on the same planet as others.

The above marker reads:

'The Old Monroe County Courthouse, designed by prominent Southern architect Andrew Bryan, was built between 1903 and 1904 during the tenure of Probate Judge Nicholas Stallworth. One of two buildings of the type designed by Bryan (a sister courthouse in LaGrange, Georgia was destroyed by fire), the architectural style is Romaneque with a Georgian influence [sic.] It was constructed by Louisville, Kentucky contractor M. T. Lewman. The courthouse was the seat of most county offices and the site of court cases until the construction of the new courthouse in 1963. The lasting fame of this building is derived from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as the motion picture of the same name which features the now-famous courtroom scene. Today this site is on the National Historic register and is a national literary Mecca.'

At the side of the old courthouse is a stone with a marker placed by the Alabama State Bar in 1997. It reads:


"Lawyers, I suppose, were children once." These words of Charles Lamb are the epigraph to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel about childhood and about a great and noble lawyer, Atticus Finch. The legal profession has in Atticus Finch, a lawyer-hero who knows how see and how to tell the truth, knowing the price the community, which Atticus loves, will pay for the truth. The legal profession has in Atticus Finch, a lawyer-hero who knows how to use power and advantage for moral purposes, and who is willing to stand alone as the conscience of the community. The legal community has in Atticus Finch, a lawyer-hero who possesses the knowledge and experience of a man, strengthened by the untainted insight of a child.

'Children are the original and universal people of the world; it is only when they are educated into hatreds and depravites that children become the bigots, the cynics, the greedy, and the intolerant, and it is then that "there hath passed away a glory from the earth." Atticus Finch challenges the legal profession to shift the paradigm and make the child the father of the man in dealing with the basic conflicts and struggles that permeate modern existence.

'Symbolically, it is now the legal profession that sits in the jury box as Atticus Finch concludes his argument to the jury: "In the name of God, do your duty."

I have no idea what relation – if any – Lee Motor Co. has to Harper Lee, but the mockingbird symbol, in one way or another, obviously dominates the town.

The marker below, at the side of the demolished childhood home of Truman Capote, reads:

'TRUMAN CAPOTE (1924–1984)

'On this site stood the home of the Faulk family of Monroeville, relatives of the writer Truman Capote. Capote himself lived in this home between 1927 and c. 1933, and for several years spent his summer vacations here. Two of the Faulk sisters operated a highly successful millinery shop located on the town square. The third sister, affectionately known as "Sook", was the inspriation for characters in The Glass Harp, The Thanksgiving Visitor, and A Christmas Memory. The original structure on this site burned to the ground in 1940, and the second home was demolished in 1988. Monroeville remained important to Capote throughout his life, and he returned to the area many times in the year before his death to visit surviving relatives.'

'I won't be here forever, Buddy. Nor will you........the Lord willing, you'll be here after I've gone. And as long as you remember me, then we'll always be together.'

Truman Capote, The Thanksgiving Visitor

Below: the site of Harper Lee's home, next door to Capote's.

Now Monroe County Library, this was LaSalle Hotel previously, where Gregory Peck stayed during the filming of the film To Kill a Mockingbird.

17 October 2009

Irondale, Birmingham, Alabama: Fannie Flagg: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #5

This is the original, and elsewhere I've given as a sign of insanity that someone – namely me – should make a round trip of about 200 miles (from Montgomery) just to visit the café for a green salad and a coffee, which I did and am still very pleased to have done. We even thought nothing of waiting in the car for thirty minutes until a goods train driver decided to move on, allowing us to reach the café on the other side of the road. How can a person explain this behavior? How is it possible to be sane and travel 200 miles for this, for the photos of the film Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop around the walls, the photos of Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Fannie Flagg, etc., around the walls? For me, it's not only the film (which I love), but the book, with the Weems Weekly, the less subdued lesbian content, but most of all the love that went into the book and that was left out in the (admittedly brilliant) movie. So how good does that make the book?

The movie was made in the café in Juliette, Georgia, and although we passed very near there on our return to Atlanta, we didn't bother to pay a visit.

Ours is the Toyota Yaris, which got us through the 4000 miles.

The train station.

16 October 2009

Montgomery, Alabama: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #4

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, 919 Felder Avenue.
The plaque reads: 'Fitzgerald Home (ca. 1910). F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda and daughter Scottie lived in this house from October 1931 to april 1932.

'During that period Fitzgerald worked on his novel Tender Is the Night and Zelda began her only novel, Save Me the Waltz.

'Every place has its hours.... So in Jefferson (Montgomery) there existed then, and I suppose now, a time and quality that appertains to nowhere else. It began about half pst six on an early summer night, with the flicker and sputter of the corner street lights going on, and it lasted until the great incandescent globes were black. Inside wtih moths and beetles and the children were called in to bed from the dusty streets.'

'Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, "Southern Girls", October 1929.'

The front of the house.

A small note revealing that the bricks for this memorial came from Zelda's home at 6 Pleasant Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama.

Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #3 Tuskegee, Alabama

Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, later university, lifts the veil from a slave's head.

In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), the narrator states:

'[I]n my mind's eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.'

The plaque below is not in Tuskeegee but in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia, and reads:

'Booker T. Washington 1856–1915. Former slave, Principal of Tuskeegee Institute, and author of Up from Slavery, Washington delivered the Atlanta Exposition Address on Sept. 18, 1895, at this site, the former auditorium of the Cotton States and International Exposition. Washington delivered this address at the Exposition's Inauguration before a segregated audience, and in an unprecedented departure from regional custom, he shared the platform with John Collier, President of the Exposition. In 1894 Washington had joined Collier and other supporters of the Exposition in an appearance before the house Committee on Appropriations. Together they secured a $200,000 appropriation from Congress. In addition to serving as a lobbyist for the Exposition, Washington was also an Exposition commissioner and supervised the construction of the Negro Building, the Expositon's site for African American exhibitions formerly located near the 10th Street entrance to Piedmont Park. An alumnus of Hampton Institute and President of the National Negro Business League, Washington became a national leader because of the interracial compromise he proposed in the Atlanta Exposition address.'

Washington later lived at The Oaks, a house on the campus built in 1899 from bricks made at the Institute and designed by Robert R. Taylor. He lived there with his third wife, Margaret Murray Washington, until his death in 1915. Margaret continued to live there until her death in 1925.

Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man (1952), began his studies here and to make ends meet worked in the bakery at Tomkins Hall.

Ellison met the writer Albert Murray while working at the Hollis Burke Frissell Library.