25 February 2010

Jan Nordby Gretlund, ed., Madison Jones' Garden of Innocence

Jan Nordby Gretlund's Madison Jones' Garden of Innocence (Odense: The University Press of Southern Denmark, 2005) is the first booklength critical publication.

The front flap reads 'Madison Jones's literary heritage has been Vanderbilt's Agrarian movement. He has absorbed fully the concerns of Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle, and Allen Tate. Today Jones is the most notable proponent of their ideals and environmentalism.

'He is a central figure in American literature, but paradoxically not very well known. Neither his eleven novels nor the movie of An Exile have brought Jones popular recognition. He seems transfixed in the shadow of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and other giants, and not many have realized Jones's importance.

'He writes about conflict between the native and the alien, tradition and progress, and innocence and experience. Like his fellow-novelists George Garrett and David Madden, who have contributed to this volume, Jones is preoccupied by the presence of the past. He shares the regret at the loss of inherited values and is perhaps the last Tennessee Agrarian, but Jones's fictional universe goes beyond Agrarian thought.

'He has been praised by Ashley Brown, Monroe Spears, and Lewis P. Simpson, as an important transitional writer. And according to contemporary writers Madison Smarrt Bell, William Hoffmann, and Lee Smith, his novels are lessons in the possiblity of the immediate.

'Madison Jones has a dark view of human experience, but he also has self-knowledge and compassion. He has succeeded in finding his own voice and has created an emphatically moral world that transcends its Southern particulars.'

More of this here in due course.

20 February 2010

Maria Grech Ganado, Ribcage (Sliema, Malta: Minima, 2003)

The following link is to some very brief biographical information on, and eight poems by, the Maltese poet Maria Grech Ganado.

Colin Ward (1924–2010)

The English anarchist writer Colin Ward died on 11 Febrary this year. He was the author of a large number of books on anarchism, and from 1947 to 1960 he was the editor of Freedom, from 1961 to 1970 the editor of Anarchy.

18 February 2010

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (1995)

My comment on this will have to wait until I've actually read it, but in the meantime how about this quote from Fannie Flagg, who, the flap informs anyone who wasn't already aware, is the author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café:

'Salvation on Sand Mountain will jar you to the bone. It will make you wonder about things you never thought to wonder about and meet people you never dreamed existed. Dennis Covington is either the bravest or the craziest journalist I know.'

The back flap is even more exuberant:

'With grace and humor and exquisite writing, Dennis Covington explores a physical and spiritual geography few readers will be prepared for. Reminiscent of the best of Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers and James Agee, Salvation on Sand Mountain is southern literature at its best.'

OK, my own comments to come later, as with Madison Jones below (although they will come sooner).

Madison Jones, An Exile (1967)

In this fourth novel, Madison Jones continues to prove that he's found a clearer way to express himself than he did in his first two novels. This, once more, is about a good man who succumbs to temptation and embroils himself and others in a web of violence. It is a story of the deadly power of sex, and of moonshiners.

In Jones's first novel, The Innocent, Duncan is lured by his alter ego, the moonshiner Aaron, into a nightmare world of casual violence and self-destruction. In An Exile, Sheriff Tawes - hitherto a model of virtue and strict observer of the protocols of his office - is tempted to waive an infraction of the law by the femme fatale Alma McCain, a young woman from a family of moonshiners who shows her gratitude to the sheriff in kind, and as her sexual favors continue, this fat, ageing man becomes sucked into a whirlpool of deceit and self-deception.

The sheriff's marriage had been dying before Alma arrived, and in one scene, in which the sheriff takes his wife and child on an outing in a vain attempt at revivification, the narrator says: 'The really dismal part was that he again had tricked himself, had arranged this stunt in the idle belief that he really intended to mend what he had broken.'

But the marriage is not all that is broken. There is another allusion to the destruction caused by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the sheriff shows his daughter Sybil the lake created by them:

'"You see all that water out there?"

Sybil glanced across the glittering lake.

"That wasn't there when I was a boy - before they built the big dam. All that was just a big valley, with farms. And a creek, Big Sandy Creek. That's where I used to fish. My home was just about a mile up the lake from here - that way."

"Is it still there?" she said.

"The house? Oh, no. They tore it down before the water rose. I wish I had a picture of it to show you. It was a big old clapboard house with-"

"Don't get your father started on that." Hazel interrupted in a voice hard and dry with finality. It produced not only a hush but a feeling of severance, like a shoot cleanly snipped off by shears.'

It's that 'feeling of severance' which is so interesting. Something has been severed in the sheriff's relationship with his wife (which refers us back to his 'mend[ing] what he had broken'), and in more ways than one Alma will severe things definitively. But the severance here also relates to the way the South has been severed from its roots, and the building of the lake is a symbol of this.

As the sheriff's relationship with Alma continues and he continues to keep quiet about the McCain family's moonshining activities, he stands between the moonshiners and the law, now (im)properly represented by his very odd porn magazine-reading deputy Hunnicut. As events spiral out of control, the sheriff seeks a divorce, his deputy is murdered by the moonshiners, Alma reveals that her 'relationship' with the sheriff is a farce, and the sheriff is stabbed to death by Alma's father Flint in the end. This is very powerful writing.

Jones's friend Flannery O'Connor was no longer able to sing praises about his writing, as she'd been dead for three years. However, here is a laudatory quotation from Allan Tate, published on the back flap:

'Madison Jones is our Southern Thomas Hardy: his small-town and backwoods characters are Everyman and Everywoman. I find in Sheriff Tawes both the dignity and the human weakness of the Mayor of Casterbridge. The plot of An Exile has a classical simplicity; Mr Jones develops it with great skill. I consider Madison Jones one of the most important contemporary American writers.'

16 February 2010

Madison Jones, A Buried Land (1963)

In 1963, in The Habit of Being, which is a collection of letters written by Flannery O'Connor and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, O'Connor writes to Betty Hester: 'Right now I'm trying to get Madison Jones' [A Buried Land] read.* It is a shame about his books. They are excellent and fall like lead clear out of sight the minute they are published.'

This time I agree with O'Connor: A Buried Land is indeed excellent. Its genesis is a melding of two things: Jones's deep concern about the flooding of huge areas of Tennessee and northern Alabama by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and a story Jones heard about a young woman dying after an abortion.

The novel, once more, is about a good man corrupted by evil. Gradually unfolding events inevitably lead to Percy's undoing, and the novel almost reads like a thriller, or a kind of detective story, even a Greek tragedy. The cerebral young Percy has an alter ego, his physically-oriented friend Jesse, who tempts him to have sex with Cora, a simple girl originally from the mountains. She dies shortly after a botched abortion in Nashville, and Percy and Jesse bury her in a graveyard now evacuated before the TVA floods the area and buries the past. Unlike the rest of his family, who think the TVA are virtual robbers, Percy supports newness. However, despite his job as a lawyer several years later and his potential rosy prospects, his past actions will come back to torment and haunt him in the shape of Fowler, Cora's brutal and relentlessly vengeful brother, and the impoverished Jesse, who clings to a past Percy hopelessly wishes were forgotten.

The final paragraph on the front flap reads:

'Madison Jones turns the screws of suspense very tight in this powerful book. Youngblood is a modern Raskolnikov, whose struggle against himself is no less desperate than his conflict with his unnerving pursuer.'

A remarkable book.

*Betty Hester is known as 'A' in The Habit of Being, and was a Georgian who corresponded with O'Connor between 1955 and 1964. Their letters total almost 300.

14 February 2010

Madison Jones, Forest of the Night (1960)

Paul Binding's comments in the post below on Madison Jones's first two novels continue to make sense, and although I found this far more readable than The Innocent, it's probably for the 'wrong' reasons.

Of The Innocent, a quotation from Robert Penn Warren is printed on the back flap: '[...] Madison Jones has written an intensely interesting story, and one that clearly declares his talent. It would be no surprise to find, in the fullness of time, the writer comfortably situated among the best of his generation.' The following sentence, not written by Penn Warren, states 'Forest of the Night begins to fulfil that prediction.'

There are similarities between these first two books: an honorable man comes back South full of idealistic ideas, becomes involved in a sexual relationship, and then a tangled web of violence. There is also a double in both books: in The Innocent it's Duncan and his resemblance to his indomitable horse, and in Forest of the Night it's Jonathan Cannon's remarkable resemblance to his lover Judith Gray's previous lover, the murderous Harpe.

In this novel, what really caught my attention was the humor of the courtroom scene in Grenville, Mississippi, where the drunken judge, on finishing his bottle of whiskey, hurls it out an open window: this scene, in which Jonathan is sentenced to death, has all the elements of farce, but farce just doesn't blend well with what reads like Old Testament wrath and ineluctable savage violence.

11 February 2010

Madison Jones, The Innocent (1957)

Madison Jones was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1925. He worked on his father's farm and studied at Vanderbilt University and the University of Florida, coming under the influence of Fugitive agrarians Donald Davidson (to whom he dedicates his third novel, A Buried Land (1963)), and Andrew Lytle (to whom he dedicates his second novel, Forest of the Night (1960)). Both of these men were among a number of co-authors of the highly important collection of essays published as I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930).*

On the half-title of The Innocent, Jones's first novel, it reads: 'This novel is set in the American South of today, where the old loyalties are dying and the new laws know nothing of the customs and habits of the past. When young Duncan Welsh returns from a broken marriage and broken job in the North, he finds himself surrounded by decay and violence - the violence of women and men and of horses. Desperate to still the angering hum of change he himself is driven to outrage, and the book moves to its bloody close with the implacable fury of a hill-country feud.'

Having just read - and with great pain, I have to add - Madison Jones's The Innocent (1957), I was eager to find out what fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor made of the novel in Sally Fitzgerald's edited letters of O'Connor, The Habit of Being (1979). On 23 March 1957 O'Connor says 'The Commonweal had a lousy review of The Innocent by Madison Jones. It's a very fine novel.' However, O'Connor, a few months later, on 7 September 1957, says 'I didn't read it to take all that in myself. I suffer from generalized admiration or generalized dislike... '. Er... Of Jones's first two novels, Paul Binding, in Separate Country: A Literary Journey through the American South (1979) says: 'Interesting though they are, these novels seem to me so shot with ambiguities and authorial tensions as to be bewildering both in detail and overall vision. Where they are alive is where they are most confused.'

*The full twelve writers were: Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, Henry Blue Kline, Lyle H. Lanier, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Herman Clarence Nixon, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, John Donald Wade, Robert Penn Warren, Stark Young.

2 February 2010

Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street' (1853)

To me the central figure in Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street' represents the spirit of non-conformity in a conformist environment. I far prefer this interpretation to any other, but the story is of course open to other takes.

In Elizabeth Hardwick's Bartleby in Manhattan: And Other Essays (1983), the short essay on 'Bartleby' begins by mentioning some of those other interpretations: it has been seen as a story of schizophrenic deterioration; of Melville's expression of his rejection by the reading public; and of Wall Street '"walling in" the creative American spirit'.* Hardwick adopts a very different approach as she is more interested in analyzing the short sentences spoken by Bartleby himself, and finds that out of 16,000 words in total, the story contains just 37 short lines by Bartleby, one third of which are solely taken up by the famous 'I'd prefer not to' repetition. Interestingly, she sees him as a 'master of language, of perfect expressiveness. He is style.'

I'm grateful to a New York writer for informing me when the essay 'Bartleby in Manhattan' was first published, and for also providing me with a link to a review of the book itself from 1983 in The New York Times.

*First published in The New York Review of Books in 1981.