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Vines, Venom, Veracity 

Hal Crowther's personal landscape of the South

We are pleased to congratulate our long-time opinions columnist, Hal Crowther, on the publication of his new book, Cathedrals of Kudzu, published by Louisiana State University Press. Crowther and his wife, novelist Lee Smith, are currently vacationing in Maine. By way of introducing some excerpts from the book, and with toungue planted firmly in cheek, Smith provides an illuminating look at Crowther's work habits. -- The Editors

Hal has been called an "anger artist," and indeed there are some things that make him furious: television, Vanity Fair, fashion in general, the British, machinery, cruelty to children or animals, anybody's mindless adherence to unexamined orthodoxy. But he's oddly domestic, too. He wakes up whistling and cracking jokes. He loves to cook, he loves his daughter, he loves his dog, he loves his yard. If he is a curmudgeon, he's a cream-puff curmudgeon, a living oxymoron. He's scared of so many things--people, telephones, illness, social dancing, anything high tech. (We're talking social phobia, phone phobia, technophobia here.)

In fact, right now we are in a rented house in Maine where we can't work anything--not the CD player, not the television, not the coffee maker, not the oven. We are like old brontosauruses lumbering across a whole new electronic landscape. Thank goodness, our daughter and her friend are here too, to work stuff.

Hal lives a lot in his head. Yet he is a person who cares passionately about the environment and the world, about truth, culture and art. He is a great believer in logic, a thing with which I will have nothing to do. He reads more than anybody I have ever known, widely yet discriminatingly. This week, for instance, he's been reading Disgrace, a novel by J.M. Coetzee; another novel by John Barth; the collected short stories of Russell Banks; The Professor and the Madman, that book about the institutionalized genius who contributed so many entries to The Oxford English Dictionary, The New York Review of Books and several magazines.

Which brings me to the way he works. Any working day, he'll start out by reading the papers, and pretty soon he'll be muttering, then mumbling, then expostulating ("Oh, my God! Oh, for the love of Christ!"), then pulling out his facial hair, then stomping around the house until he attains some kind of critical fever pitch that will drive him at last to his computer. I used to sneak around after him, trying to read what he read, to see what he'd gotten so worked up about. But this tactic didn't work. I never have the same reaction to the same data. I rarely draw the same conclusions. But here's the bottom line: Whatever Hal has to say will always make me think; often it will make me think about familiar things in a new way. What can I say? He is both sentimental and funny. He's a passionate man with great legs. It is not boring to live with Hal. -- Lee Smith

On Drinking (and Walker Percy)

We've hardly got a fair fight here for possession of Walker Percy--on one side a rabble of drinkers, malcontents and melancholics, on the other a crack regiment of the soldiers of Christ. But Percy was an infinitely complex individual who published such a detailed map of his psyche. There ought to be enough of him to go around. I can't fault Catholic scholars for boasting about their distinguished and adamant convert. It only galls me when they seem to characterize Percy's fiction as a series of beguiling homilies he delivered with a vial of holy water behind his back. My guess is that he was holding a tumbler of 100-proof Jack Daniel's.

Binx Bolling and Will Barrett were never, to me, characters who would be incomprehensible if we removed them from the shadow of the Cross. I'll argue that no first-rate fiction was ever written by anyone who was too certain about anything--and that includes salvation. By its nature serious literature is a search, a search informed by the knowledge that the search never ends.

It's not as if the bourbon party were scheming to snatch Percy's soul from Christian heaven and send it back to some boozy doubter's purgatory. If the Church could just reduce the odor of sanctity and allow the communion of saints to loan him, from time to time, back to the communion of sinners where he seemed so comfortable. The Church has so many eloquent defenders, and whiskey has so few.

"Bourbon does for me," Percy wrote, "what a piece of cake did for Proust."

Some of my best friends are Christians; I'm not out to provoke Catholics or substance abuse counselors either. The Christian faith is a clean and elegant solution to the anomie and the "sadness of the old dying Western world." Whiskey is a ragged, half-baked one. Yet whiskey is a solution--let's say a strategy--more accessible to most people of Walker Percy's neurotic temperament. Many spiritual, thoughtful people never achieve the kind of religious certainty Percy claimed for himself. They lack his will and his intellectual equipment, which was so well suited to beat reasonable doubt at its own exasperating game.

No major Southern writer ever swam so effortlessly in the deep waters of philosophical inquiry, or fought so hard to find his God. If such a wealth of intellect and spirit never freed Walker Percy from a certain reliance on whiskey--if drinking was a part of his heritage he continued to find useful, often irresistible--it's a fact we don't want to erase from the permanent record.

Which should it be, the official portrait--a mordant Percy drinking bourbon or a beatific Percy drinking communion wine? Why does it still matter to some of us? For my part, I never felt much affinity with the saved or the born again, Catholic or Protestant. I felt total sympathy with a writer like Percy who tested all the propositions and explored all the avenues relevant to faith or despair--and kept on drinking.

On writers and wrtiting

In a moment of discouragement, a writer I know calculated that every serious book aims itself at the same 500 serious readers, an elite that doesn't necessarily include book reviewers. After 20 years on the circuit, he added, a writer has made the acquaintance of at least half of these serious readers. He sees their faces when he sits down to write.

Five hundred is a desperately small number; the word "serious" defies definition. But everyone knows what he means. In an adolescent culture that celebrates illiteracy, literature is once again an intimate enterprise. If publishing is a sprawling flea market of dubious merchandise, the serious business of writing and reading is transacted in one small tent at the edge of the field: Admission by password only. For years one of the passwords has been "Cormac McCarthy."

The key to Erskine Caldwell's net worth as an interpreter of our times probably lies in his repeated declaration that he was "a writer, not a reader." It happens that I've heard this strange boast from several writers. One, who need not be named here, has also been touted for the Nobel Prize. A couple of others were idiots who would soon return to busing tables. A writer who boasts that he doesn't read is like a fish who boasts that he doesn't need water. It won't be long before we're holding our noses.

Since Caldwell described himself as a nonreader, and since his fiction putrefied in a manner consistent with total intellectual isolation, we don't need to exhume his library card to prove that he was one of these poor fish. James Baldwin, a critic who wasn't taken in by Caldwell's reputation or his radical credentials, declared him dead as a writer in 1947, when Caldwell was 44. "Unless we hear from him again in accents more individual," Baldwin wrote, "we can leave his bones for that literary historian of another day."

Dan Miller makes the most of these old bones, acknowledging that the dogs have buried them in some places you'd hate to dig. By 1960 Caldwell was a bitter hack reduced to selling stories to slick T&A magazines like Playboy, Cavalier, Swank and Gent.

You read Larry Brown and Lewis Nordan, and you begin to see familiar things in a different light. Up in Hindman, Kentucky, I saw what I can only describe as a Gothic cathedral of kudzu, towers and arches and buttresses 100 feet high, the vines covering huge trees and maybe buildings and cars and God knows what all, who would ever dare go in there and look? And one night on our mountain, at 3 a.m., I heard this terrible moaning foghorn sound, like the devil's own milkcow hung up in an electric fence. It went on for an hour, waking up every frightened soul and dog on Laurel Knob. In the morning we learned that it was the fire horn--someone had set fire to the drug dealer's house up on the ridge, burned it to the ground. Vigilantes, confederates, dissatisfied customers? No one knows.

That's the South, too. Southern Gothic will be alive--or more accurately, in existence--when the last antebellum mansion has crumbled into the kudzu and the last Temple Drake or Peyton Loftis has pierced her nose. We don't need marble crypts or moonlight to do Gothic, any more than good actors need balconies and ball gowns to do Shakespeare. We are just profoundly weird.

On race

The voice--the voice of the killer Klansman that Eudora Welty reproduced so chillingly in her story "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"--that voice isn't much more than a whisper now. The South still leads the nation in murder, by a wide margin, but the murder rate has fallen 25 percent since 1978, and in most cases, blacks and whites murder their own. A black historian from my own Carolina neighborhood, John Hope Franklin, chaired the President's elite panel on racial relations in America. Politically correct critics who deny that we've seen any racial progress are as irritating as the fools who say everything is fine. Journalist John Egerton said recently in Chapel Hill that it would be "a wonderful irony" if Southerners were the ones to lead the rest of the nation toward a resolution of our economic and racial inequalities. Isn't it pretty to think so? But I see a more somber irony. By the time the Old Confederacy has made full amends for its sins--all the amends it can make at this point, or could be expected to make--the Republic it rejoined in 1865 will be so far gone to other false gods and fierce creeds, there'll be no one around to accept our credentials and declare us healed. I don't know how you feel about Washington, about the people who make the news there or the people who report it. But it those are the people who set the moral bar Southerners are supposed to vault over, it might be high time to consider a second Act of Secession. It's a response George Wallace, always Washington's nemesis and nightmare, would understand as well as Jefferson Davis.

On country music

The Merle Watson Festival is a four-day celebration that stops only to sleep, and not for long either. By day four, a Sunday, even younger people try to pace themselves. But one promising Sunday morning four or five years ago, we committed ourselves to a sunrise gospel session, which meant coffee in the dark and a long drive down the mountain in the fog. Our commitment was rewarded, beyond all mortal expectations, by a once-in-a-lifetime gospel trio of Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris.

We came in on "Heaven's Bright Shore," followed by "Rank Stranger" and "I'll Pass Over Thee." For an hour or so, 40 lucky pilgrims shared a privileged preview of Hillbilly Heaven. I feel sorry for ticketholders who actually went to church that Sunday morning. I'm afraid they were cheated, because there in the corner of the gospel tent--singing along in a soft, clear bass--was a big old mountaineer with a salt-and-pepper ponytail who looked an awful lot like God.

The trio wound up their set with "Amazing Grace." Harris wore her church face and sang the high notes like a bourbon-frosted angel. Stanley stood ramrod straight like he does, like he's standing to hear his sentence in the court of Final Judgment. When they reached "I once was blind, but now I see," I took a hard look at Doc Watson to see if I could pick up anything wistful or ironic on his face.

Doc just looked comfortable and spiritual, the same as he looked when he played at my college in 1963, in the heat of the great folk revival. New England had never seen anything like Doc. For weeks after, preppies from Connecticut with expensive Martin guitars were trying to lower their voices and flat-pick their own way through "Tennessee Stud." A year earlier, half of them had been listening to Fabian.

I was stunned by Doc's performance, and suspected for the first time that those mountains, which I'd been trying to escape all my life, might be harboring things I ought to be proud of. In those days it was still possible, I think, for an unsophisticated person to be ambushed by sheer authenticity, to be knocked flat and left in the road by something undeniably real.

On religion

The most dangerous thing about That Old Time Religion may turn out to be its contempt for doubt. Strong, inflexible beliefs can be a great help to an individual. But when too many people hold them in common, almost invariably they get to believing that everyone should hold them. Some of us hate evangelism for its attitude, not its message. How do I explain to Billy Graham, a good man, why pitching his gospel to me is like trying to sell binoculars to Stevie Wonder?

A little doubt is sane and normal. Watch out for the guy who has none. Bolt your doors if he says he's a prophet. It filled me with profound misgivings to read that Pat Robertson was out of his box again, exhorting businessmen to join him in destroying the godless Democrats in the year 2000.

This millennium means a little more to Robertson than it means to you or me. He published a book about the Apocalypse, a work of "Christian fiction" titled The End of the Age. The End begins in 1995 and climaxes with the Battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ (in a giant spaceship, "a jeweled cube 1,400 miles on each side")--in the year 2000.

Robertson's Antichrist turns out to be an American president, a secret radical and heir to Wall Street billions (Steve Forbes?).

At the 1988 Republican Convention, only George Bush and Bob Dole polled more delegates than this modest author. If you think constitutional democracy is important enough to have its own Antichrist, Pat Robertson is my nominee. He believes that he can heal the sick and that his prayers kept Hurricane Gloria from destroying Virginia Beach.

Jefferson had good reason for separating church and state. If you think you're doing what God demands, why should you care what anyone else thinks? No man can erase 200 years of civil liberties, but Pat Robertson may be the only man who would try.

A snake-handling woman told my wife she took up serpents "out of an intense desire for holiness." But it's in the shadow of this beautiful desire, which can free us from reasonable doubt, that a snake can grow too big for anyone to handle.

On dogs

Dogs are utterly unlike us, sharing none of our goals, preoccupations or belief systems--as the poet Howard Nemerov observes in "Walking the Dog": "Two universes mosey down the street / Connected by love and a leash and nothing else."

And yet they involve themselves in our lives, in ways that can't be explained by simple affection or canine self-interest. I hate to brag on my own dog: I'm sure her virtues are common ones. Yet I watch her break up every fight among the house cats, at considerable inconvenience and even peril to herself. She stifles quarrels between her human housemates by banging to be let out, the second one of us reaches a decibel level she finds offensive. She shames us into civility.

Who appointed her peacekeeper? Call it altruism, a sense of duty, a commitment to domestic tranquility. Call it self-righteousness. But you won't get it from a parrot or a pot-bellied pig.

On Southern belles

A Southern lady of gentle breeding, or even one capable of simulating it, takes responsibility for every social situation, every fragile ego within her reach. Whatever your shortcomings, she refuses to let you fail. This is her job, her calling. We know that a lady never lets a silence fall; but a Southern lady begins her vigilance where lesser social sentinels throw up their hands. If anything coarse or unfortunate (e.g., the sitcom wit of some urban Yankees) threatens the fragile social fabric she's weaving, she springs to head it off like a blue-ribbon sheepdog. If its foul foot gets in the door, she expunges the footprint with a wash bucket of Lysol-strength charm.

Watch her face, if a particularly nasty guest poses a threat to the entire evening. You'll see pure pluck and determination, a grit to match Scarlett O'Hara facing down Union foragers from the steps of Tara. If three or four true ladies are present when such a situation arises, watch the alpha belle deploy her forces and take charge. You may feel the impulse to applaud.

She'll convince you that the sun is shining on the darkest day of the year. She's the sturdy levee that protects us from the mighty river of ugliness and negativity that runs so close to all our lives. And the truest belle is the one who carries it all off with the least visible effort, the most convincing aplomb. If you hit her with a fire hose in her wedding dress, or turn a rabid dingo loose at her reception, she retains at least the shadow of her best brave smile. Courtesy and cheer will never fail her in this life.

I'm talking about the best of the breed, and I think they play a critical role in the survival of an endangered civilization--not only Southern, but American civilization. In a decade when every medium proclaims that rudeness and vulgarity are the keys to the kingdom of Mammon, when Adam's lost children squander their precious lives barking into telephones and staring at electronic screens--when Niagaras of e-mail disseminate the unlanguage of the walking dead--each gracious lady of the old Southern school is a pearl beyond price. She's priestess of a lost art as important to our language, in its own way, as poetry.

In Southern Folk, John Reed calls another witness, Roy Reed, who puts his finger on the single greatest advantage of living among Southern Americans. Conversation is New York is "hurled stones," Roy Reed wrote in the New York Times. "In the South, it's moonshine passed slowly to all who care to lift the bottle."

As kinsman to Northerners who spray in my face and scare my dogs to make a point about a football coach, I'll take the moonshine, thank you ma'am.

The next time you're fortunate enough to see the moonshine coming your way, pay close attention to the woman who's passing the bottle. When the last belle has gone the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker--just an echo where the Spanish moss hangs thickest--what an impenetrable silence will fall. EndBlock

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