28 September 2010

David Markson: Reader's Block (1996)

David Markson's Reader's Block is a short experimental novel that initially appears to be a mere series of observations - many in two- or three-sentence paragraphs - on curiosities in many literary, but also musical, philosophical, artistic, etc, fields. But from the beginning it is also evident that there are common threads, that there is a protagonist called Reader, and that he or she is striving to write a (certainly strongly autobiographical) novel involving Protagonist, who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge by reading. Snatches of information, or suggestions of information, can be found: Protagonist is old and has cancer, and lives by the sea in a part of a house looking out onto a cemetery, although Reader (as unrealized writer) has not decided if Protagonist has been married, or has had children, etc. Obsessions on the part of Reader (and/or Protagonist) are many, and are shown through the brief anecdotes: death (particularly through suicide), insanity, antisemitism, lifelong virginity or general lack of sexual activity, publication difficulties, etc.

The book is also humorous, although part of this side of it may be lost on many readers: the literary allusions presuppose perhaps a little more than average understanding of fiction and the lives of writers of fiction. But the words at the end, - 'Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An Assemblage' - may also be taken by many readers to summarize the book. And the final word - 'Wastebasket' - may very unkindly be seen as an appropriate way to end a book that is saying much more than it might initially appear to be saying: there is tragedy in the inability to develop imaginatively the product of a lifetime of reading.

Pat Conroy: South of Broad (2009)

There have been fifteen years between Pat Conroy's Beach Music (1995) and his latest novel, South of Broad (2009). This is the first of his books that I've read, and the title in itself is intriguing. Googling won't do much good, and in fact will probably even confuse, as there's a rather odd online description of the expression by a writer who has obviously gotten the wrong end of the stick. 'South of Broad' is an expression used to describe where the Charlestonian aristocracy live - and also their mindset, as the same writer would have known if she'd given enough attention to the novel. And as the protagonist's father says: 'South of Broad is a conspiracy of platelets, son: blood and breeding are all that matter there. No, that's not true: there's got to be a truck full of money somewhere near the blood bank.' Yes indeed: 'South of Broad' is an expression Conroy uses to describe a very small but very wealthy area on the Charleston peninsula, South Carolina, namely that from Broad Street down to the Battery, where the peninsula joins the Atlantic.

And the protagonist is one Leopold Bloom King, named after the protagonist in James Joyce's Ulysses, on which his mother, Dr Lindsay King, wrote her thesis. The book also begins on Bloomsday: 16 June (but 1969, as opposed to Joyce's 1904), a tremendously important day when Leo sets free two orphans handcuffed to a chair (surely some Beckett in there?), learns his mother was a nun some time before, and after having no friends at all, makes a number of them who will be remarkably significant and faithful to the end of the book. And the book's final word is 'Yes', which is the final word in Ulysses, the final word spoken by Molly, Ulysses's wife, who has the same forename as the woman whom Leo has loved throughout South of Broad.

And it's a long book, containing more than 500 pages. Is it worth reading? Conroy has stated that his earlier novel, The Great Santini (1976), had its beginning in asking why he (Conroy) wanted to kill his father, and The Prince of Tides (1986) its beginning in asking why Conroy's eldest sister was sent mad by their parents, but South of Broad doesn't appear to begin with any question, and seems to be based on parts of characters the author has known.

South of Broad involves incest and other parental abuses, murder and other violence, suicides and various forms of madness, the terrors of Hurricane Hugo, etc, and on the surface doesn't look too good as literary fiction: parts of the novel are overwritten, there are too many coincidences, characters are sometimes unbelievable:  maybe this is just popular fiction masquerading as literary fiction?

No, not at all, and in many ways this is a brilliant novel that attempts to emphasize the similarities - as opposed to the differences - between black and white, rich and poor, and various social classes in general. But Pat Conroy is not a major author, and I don't think he'd ever pretend to be, although he is still very underrated as a serious novelist.

15 September 2010

Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the Old South: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #23

Willard Neal's Georgia's Stone Mountain (late 1970s?) is an interesting booklet about the history of the carving on Stone Mountain, which is 90ft tall and 190ft wide, 400ft above the ground, originally conceived in 1915 and completed in 1970.

In 1915, The United Daughters of the Confederacy consulted Gutzon Borglum - who had erected a statue of Abraham Lincoln, and who became very interested in the huge block of granite - about a Confederate monument. World War I prevented any progress on the monument, and although Borglum wanted to continue with his task afterward, disagreements forced him to leave Georgia in 1925, to pursue different work on the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota. Augustus Lukeman continued work on the Stone Mountain monument in 1925.

One of the many signs proclaiming that this is Stone Mountain Park.

The block of granite from a distant viewpoint.

And the same view close up.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

General Robert E. Lee.

General Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson.

Blackjack, Davis's favorite horse, is at top, and Traveller (with the British spelling), Lee's favorite horse, at the bottom.

Little Sorrel, Jackson's favorite horse.

14 September 2010

Larkin's Toads re-re-re-Visited as Horses (but only Briefly), Aiken, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #22

Aiken is very much about horses, and fiberglass models are liberally sprinkled about the town as are the bears in Cherokee, North Carolina, and the Larkin toads in Hull, England. I didn't attack the subject with the same gusto, though, as James Mathewes Legare and the Pickens-Salley House were my main concerns. Also, a passerby informed us that a number of the horses had been bought, so it would have been impossible to photograph them all. Consequently, I just took images of those I spotted - there isn't a great deal else to do on Sundays in Aiken!

Magnolia Mare.

Steed Freedom.

Horse of a Different Color.

Palmetto/American Equine.


Unfortunately, I missed the name of this one .

These two horses are very different from the others, of course, and probably come from a different generation. And they don't appear to have a name.

13 September 2010

Lucy Holcombe Pickens and the Pickens-Salley House, Aiken, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #21

This historical marker, in the grounds of the University of South Carolina Aiken campus just in front of the Pickens-Salley House, says it all.
'This plantation house, first known as “Edgewood,” is an excellent example of Federal-era architecture. Originally near Edgefield, it was built in 1828 for Francis W. Pickens (1807–1869), state representative and senator, congressman, U.S. Minister to Russia, and governor 1860–62 during the secession crisis and the first two years of the Civil War. Lucy Holcombe Pickens was an ardent Confederate and novelist.'

'In 1929 Eulalie Chafee Salley (1883–1975), pioneer woman suffragist, real estate broker, and developer, saved the house. Salley, architect Willis Irvin (1891–1950), and contractor Byron E. Hair supervised its dismantling, relocation to the Kalmia Hill area of Aiken, and restoration. It was moved here in 1989 when developer Ronny Bolton donated it to the University of South Carolina Aiken.'

My related post below is also worth a visit:
Elizabeth Boatwright Coker's India Allan (1953)

12 September 2010

James Mathewes Legare and Aiken, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #20

James Mathewes Legare (1823-59) wrote poetry and fiction, as well as being a painter and an inventor. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, where he initially studied law. In 1846, his ailing father was forced to move the family to Aiken, which then was a kind of convalescent town. Legare wrote poetry and fiction in Aiken, along with doing some teaching, and he married in 1850. His poetry collection Orta-Undis, and other poems (Boston : W.D. Ticknor & Co.) was published under the name J. M. Legaré (the middle name recorded as Matthews on the Library of Congress site). He died of tuberculosis at the age of 35, and his novel Cap-and-Bells was published posthumously in Harper's Magazine (1863-64).
His house is at 421 Laurens St SW.

Legare built an extension to the house to facilitate his writing.

The garden.

Legare is buried in St Thaddeus's Church, Aiken.

Catherine Ladd in Winnsboro and Salem Crossroads, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #19

Catherine Stratton Ladd (1809-99) was born in Richmond, Virginia, and married the painter George Williamson Livermore Ladd at the age of 19. Soon after marrying, she began contributing various poems and essays to Southern periodicals under such pseudonyms as Minnie Mayflower, Arcturus, Alida, and Morna. She also wrote plays, at least one of which was performed.
The Cathcart-Ketchin House is at 231 South Congress Street, Winnsboro, which has a population of a little over 3500, although (this being the States) it of course seems much bigger.
One side of the historical marker reads:

'Cathcart-Ketchin House

'Richard Cathcart purchased this lot from John McMaster in 1829, and it is thought he built the present federal-style house shortly thereafter. The house has had a number of owners including Priscilla Ketchin, who purchased it in 1874. The building was deeded to Fairfield County in 1969 by Ella Cathcart Wilburn and Carrie Cathcart Owings and was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.'

The reverse side reads:

'Catharine Ladd

'Born in Virginia in 1810, playwright, poet, and educator, Catharine Stratton Ladd married George Ladd, an artist who had studied with Samuel F. B. Morse. The Ladds owned this house from 1852 until 1862. Mrs. Ladd was principal of the Winnsboro Female Institute and during the War Between the States was president of the Fairfield District Ladies' Relief Association. She died 1899 and is buried at Salem Presbyterian Church. Erected by Fairfield County Historical Society 1979.'

And the house is now Fairfield County Historical Museum. What the historical marker isn't clear about is that it was in this building where the Ladds ran the girls' school. Enrollment was at 100 when the school had to close because of the Civil War, or what the South seems to prefer to call 'the War Between the States'.

Cathcart-Ketchin House from the rear.

The third - and top - floor.

The entrance hall on the first (or ground) floor.

Catherine Ladd was proficient in needlework, a subject taught by her. This sampler is an example of the kind of needlework produced at the school.

The label reads:

'Watercolor theorem paintings
'Fashionable 'formula' painting was taught to the girls in Mrs. Ladd's classes. Fairfield County Museum Collection.'

Penny and I thank the Director of the museum, Pelham Lyles, very much for showing us around the museum and pointing out several things for us. I'm also grateful to Pelham for sending me a link to the Rev. Charles Woodmason's journal, of which more in another post.

I was initially confused about Catherine Ladd's grave, as a 'Find a Grave' enthusiast has listed this at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Winnsboro, when it is actually at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Salem Crossroads.

A closer view of the inscription reveals that the final 'E' is missing from Ladd's forename.

Ridgeway, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: A Brief Non-Literary Break

Ridgeway, at the time of the 2000 census, had a population of just 328. It has a number of interesting buildings, and the most interesting for us was this former police station, which was in operation between 1940 and 1990. The present police station is just a few yards to the left of the photo, which explains the presence of the police car.

Mary Johnston in Ridgeway, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #18

Mary Johnston (1870-1936) was born in Buchanan, Virginia, and wrote a number of books - mainly historical novels, and the most famous of which is To Have and To Hold (1900), which was made into a film. The full text of the novel is here.

I was surprised to see this tatty copy of Sir Mortimer (1904) on sale as I'd never come across any of her books anywhere apart from online. This was on sale in a hardware store in Ridgeway, but again, the full text is available here.

Johnston's books were very popular in other countries as well as the States, and she used her influence to further the cause of women's suffrage. She died in Warm Springs, and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

Mary Alice Monroe and The Isle of Palms, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #17

Mary Alice Munroe's novels form part of what can be described as a sub-genre of literature of the South – Lowcountry literature, of which the two novels above are examples: The Beach House (2002), and its sequel Swimming Lessons (2007). Both books are set in Isle of Palms, which is slightly to the north-east of Sullivan's Island and about ten miles from Charleston.

The books abound in references to the geography of the area, and the weather is always a concern: the Lowcountry has not forgotten the destruction wrought by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and toward the end of The Beach House there is a hurricane from which the characters escape. While we were in the Appalachians and moving toward the east, there was a strong concern that we would be prevented from going because of Hurricane Earl. As it happened, though, people moved out of Nantucket way up in Massachusetts, and people were battening down the hatches in the barrier islands of North Carolina in the Kill Devil Hills area, but Earl moved further into the Atlantic, so it was safe for us to move in.

Throughout The Beach House and Swimming Lessons, turtles are used as a metaphor for the behavior of humans: the protection and preservation of turtles are a major concern even before the books begins – there's a quotation from Thoreau regarding them, plus a dedication to the Isle of Palms/Sullivan's Island Turtle Team, to which Mary Alice Monroe (and the two book's protagonists) belong.

Another writer of this subgenre is Dorothea Benton Frank, who writes novels she calls 'Lowcountry Tales', and which have such titles as Isle of Palms (2004), Pawley's Island (2005), Bulls Island (2008), and Return To Sullivans Island (2009). Frank's books seem to be designed for a much more popular market: they're all (I think) in the first person, and tend to be very chatty, much more colloquial, more dialog-driven, with frequent exlamation marks, and with the use of 'you',  the narrator appears to be speaking directly to the reader.

The Ravenel Bridge, or to give it its full title, the Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge, which is named after a (Republican) Charleston politician and also called the New Cooper Bridge after the Cooper River it goes over, stretches from downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant. It is 471 meters long, was built in 2005, and it is quite an experience to drive. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Mary Alice Monroe's Swimming Lessons mentions the protagonist Toy Sooner 'zoom[ing] over the gleaming new Ravenel Bridge'.

The Beach House and Swimming Lessons have a character called Brett, a naturalist who runs an eco-tours business, which is obviously an important activity here.

Mary Alice Monroe: Sweetgrass / The Secrets We Keep (2005)

8 September 2010

William Gilmore Simms and Charleston, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #16

William Gilmore Simms (1806-70) was a poet, novelist, and biographer of the antebellum period, and as such it almost goes without saying that his writing was pro-slavery, and therefore anti-Tom. Several of his books are online, amongst which are:

Simms was born in Charleston and his bust stands in White Point Gardens, The Battery, looking away from the Atlantic Ocean.

Simms began his professonal life as a lawyer, but soon gave it up to write. He was a popular writer, and received praise from Edgar Allan Poe, but the War Between the States destroyed him financially and spiritually. Although his works are now largely forgotten, a William Gilmore Simms Society exists.

The base of this memorial a few hundred yards from Simms's bust is blank, apart from the handwritten message: 'This memorial is dedicated to all those smart enough to live and die for themselves and not for oppresive [sic] fascist governments.' The anarchist symbol under this message suggests that the writer was referring to all governments.