On the Great Smoky Mountainside

By Owen Elmore

Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South
By Hal Crowther
Louisiana State University Press, 165 pp., $26.95

There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
W. B. Yeats, “Lapis Lazuli”

The story of the South is many, many stories, making anything short of a layered template of them all a history less than historical. Southern writers know this, and Hal Crowther is a Southern writer. Taken together, the essays in his newest collection, Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South, tell a story of the South that is more true (more complete) than any I have seen from anyone else of the current generation of writers.

There was a movie a few years ago called Memento about a man who has no short-term memory. He tries to recoup these daily losses by collecting mementos using all kinds of devices, from Polaroid pictures to needle-and-ink tattoos, depending on the relative importance of what he is trying to remember. These at least, after each mental rewind, remind him of the important things, and for him the important things all relate to an incident he believes he remembers: a horrific crime he spends his Sisyphus-like days ever-re-interpreting by puzzling together his various tattoos and notes and snapshots. Meanwhile, because he does not live in a vacuum, the people he encounters have a standard reaction to him: they use him as a scapegoat for their own crimes, emotionally unburdening themselves at his expense. As a result, the poor fellow never finds any help and so never gains any momentum against the debilitating effects of his illness. He can neither trust himself nor anyone around him, though he’s often fooled by both. At one point of self-realization, he asks, “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” That is, since time heals all wounds, as they say, how can wounds heal that stand outside time?

The South, too, has been unable to feel time. Hal Crowther’s essays are mementos against the disease. In the South, “we remember” battlefields and generals and white faces (for black southerners) and black faces (for the whites) and the familial ties between them, just to name a few: these are scars into the land and the very soul of the people, tattoos our ancestors gave us that we might remember. But we can’t remember exactly because we weren’t there, so we remember the way we long to be able to remember: romantically. Meanwhile, the people who might have helped us “reconstruct” our memories—Yankees—instead find ways to make themselves feel better by comparison; because as terrible as the meaning of their own memories might be at least it is less terrible than the meaning of ours. But, of course, we have the same history for through their will we committed their crimes for them. They commit the crime again when they refuse to remember their complicity in the initial crime, and we commit it again by romanticizing the crime we ourselves committed. And the cycle continues: the self-delusion of romanticized memories perpetuated by the usury and indifference of those who should know better.

The fellow in the movie does manage to send one message forward to himself that effectively destroys his debaser and hopefully breaks the cycle of stasis he exists in … though neither he nor we, as he and we exist today, can ever know for sure. The South, too, its conscience made flesh in its writers, has been sending messages to its future, seeking to defeat the debaser and break the stultifying cycle. These messages become alternates to the falsely remembered ones, tattooed papers with more three-dimensional interpretations of the past than the two-dimensional wind-blown romances. (Truth can’t be Gone With the Wind for this wind—a wind machine, a mock-natural construct—carries flimsy lies, leaving truth behind.) It’s still tough, for the truth – that is, the things most worth seeing, knowing, and saying – can never be fully or directly or exactly seen, known, or said because the West doesn’t have eyes for recursivity, which any truth worth its salt surely must be.

But Southern culture allows one way out, one small orifice like a dual mouth-rectum where in a dark and cramped mental place all the organic functions of the social body accomplish the visceral dirty work of life. There the necessary cycles churn and churn like an involuntary reflex, a digestive process we call storytelling. Stories operate unconsciously by symbol and etc. to avoid a moral dilemma that if we faced consciously could only deem hypocritical. Story-truth, though not truth per se, is anything but hypocritical; since truth is not a destination we can reach (the pretense that it is would constitute the real hypocrisy). Story truth in the South, about Southern history, is the only truth possible; the fiction is at least “true enough,” as William Faulkner once said, if only for its method of taking into account all versions in order to reach not an unregenerate destination but a cultivatable common ground.

Hal Crowther is a storyteller like Faulkner was, doing similar things but with a different style. He doesn’t try to hit at the questions “What is the South?” or “Who is a Southerner?”; rather, he hits around the questions so completely and so closely that a silhouette emerges of the thing—not of a definite thing but of an Ideal, a model Southerner that subverts stereotypes with layers of truth. Each Hal Crowther essay is like a Faulkner character, and Crowther himself is Quentin and Shreve playing out and arranging the different voices he finds in the South until a picture forms. His essays exist for us as a history more true than the Confederate battle flag, as a memorial bridge to our past selves that compels Southerners (sometimes kicking and screaming) into better knowing who we actually are so we’ll always feel who we are. Yes, he’s pessimistic about the process on the conscious level—but, like Faulkner, underneath the darkness is a hope for more, much more. As George Carlin said, “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.”

Crowther does two things as well as anyone writing today—at least anyone writing today who’s read by many, many more people than a handful of academics. First, Crowther is a first-class literary scholar; second, he is a grade-A and literate culture critic. The culture critiques tend toward the unregenerate pessimist, however, which is dangerous, but the scholarship is for me what literary criticism ought to be. Crowther is at his most regenerate when his idealism takes control of his pen, and it always takes the reins when he tells about the artists of the South. His essay on Thomas Wolfe, “The Shoes of a Giant,” is an example.

Many writers have felt superior to Wolfe, cooler and more controlled, better at driving a large idea around a banked track without running into a wall. Most people who write about Wolfe have lived to be older than he ever was, and we all know things he never learned. How old were you when you last felt like Eugene—or Eugenia—Gant? When you imagined that all the world’s pain and all its majesty was assembled out there just to backlight your journey and sing harmony for the epic song of your soul?

“Ego alone won’t sustain such flights. They require innocence,” Crowther correctly observes. “Americans don’t think like Wolfe anymore. They’re hive creatures who network and conform, and practice petty avarice and sell themselves cheap.”

His two best essays are “Landmarks: The Three Graces” about Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Elizabeth Spencer, and “Faulkner and the Mosquitoes” on more than the man himself. Another of Crowther’s strengths as a writer is his skill in research, and (and this is the important part) in economically including the apropos information or quotation. For instance, he quotes Porter as saying that she “‘would have been able to do much more, except for the many interruptions—by that I mean the time I’ve given to men.’” What a brilliant and revelatory tidbit. Or there was his observation that “Welty saw and understood all male, indeed all human frailty and forgave it”; that short insight and the reading required to come to would be enough to fuel most decent scholarly publications, and yet the authors of said would never jeopardize their tenures by practicing the economy of language Crowther does.

In “Faulkner and the Mosquitoes,” Crowther checks the pulse of literary criticism today, and finds an alarming arrhythmia. He tells us of Franco Moretti’s absurd attempts at setting himself up as some ambitious young theorist’s sacrificial bull—a Claude Lev-Strauss to a Jacques Derrida in waiting—calling it “another Caliban, the latest and least of the miscegenous monsters born when science tries to mate with the humanities.” The clarity and simplicity and yet erudition and veracity of that comment still has me shaking in my theoretical shoes. It would take either me or you 500 words to unpack the meaning in that sentence, but Crowther’s genius is that he has already done it in twenty-two. Crowther goes on to compare the Morettis of the contemporary Western academy with scholars and teachers in other places—places less than, shall we say, over-nourished by their social freedoms—who, even if they found themselves starving, “would not give up their Rubaiyat.” Crowther menacingly asks, “Which of these teachers would you feed—the one thriving in Palo Alto or the one starving and clutching his Rubaiyat in Tirana?”

“It’s a great misfortune for readers and students that so many misfits with their hearts in the sciences have been drawn, unaccountably, to the study of literature.” I’ve often had the same thought. Applied to humans, mechanistic theory makes real horrors; eugenics, for instance, used social Darwinism and taxonomic organization to answer the question: “Which humans are most human?” The answer is always the same: “Us.” In the film Schindler’s List, there is a scene where Nazi “doctors” enter an outdoor compound armed with white lab coats, instruments of measurement and clipboards for recording results. They line up concentration camp inmates, strip them naked and run them through a series of empirical “tests” in order to make lists of those Jews reasoned to be unfit to survive even another day. All the inmates will, eventually, be killed anyway, so why do they need the science? They need it to rationalize the slaughter, for even Nazis are human and have trouble undertaking genocide lightly. Big projects like that need the reasonable backing of empirical science. But even when the old empiricism is used to observe in seemingly “harmless” ways, religious, mythic, and literary metaphors prove too fragile, for the observed is affected by the observer when the interpretative method is a manipulative taxonomy. The metaphor “God,” for instance, refers to something ungraspable to the limited capacities of human thought and language, but it inspires us to try. Short of the rare lunar landing science rarely inspires faith by amorphous metaphor. It can, however, and has, corrupted the capacity for faith in anything beyond science by infecting the human mind with the disease of literalism, transferring to us the terminal tendency to read, for instance, a holy book as if it were a history book. Science redefines and shrivels faith by insisting sacred truth be as “true” as historical truth is actual, until eventually you’ve got someone (Nietzsche, in fact) pronouncing God dead – which would have seemed a senseless, meaningless pronouncement if science hadn’t already killed our ability to believe in any cosmic order beyond a simple, mechanistic binary. My biggest fear the last decade is that science is killing literature in this same way.

Then there is politics. If science doesn’t kill literature, politics surely will. In his analyses of literature and literary theory, Crowther’s cynicism seems to me to have a socially regenerative purpose in the best satirical tradition, equal to putting up warning markers around our society’s whited sepulchers. Crowther lapses into unregeneracy, however, when he sets his pen to Southern politics; he just can’t seem to get past pain to any objective distance—like Yeats’ Chinamen were able to at the end of “Lapis Lazuli”—and yet, some of the political essays in this book are among his most wonderfully subversive: “Who’s Your Daddy: Father of Us All,” for instance, subversive of persistent racism (“How strange, that to honor one set of ancestors many Americans have to deny or repudiate [what a Go Down, Moses word there!] the other set. In the face of your brother you have to pretend to see a stranger”), and “Sacred Arts, Southern Fried: Harlots and Hellfire” subversive of religion assumptions (“[T]he South of the eighteenth century [was] the homeland of easygoing Anglicans, doubters, deists, and independent, contentious freethinkers”).

In “A Farewell to Arms” Crowther’s insights are truly remarkable for their freshness and candor:

We honor our soldiers by separating the reasons they’re in Iraq—because military risks fall unequally on minorities and the poor, because U.S. foreign policy is turning toxic, because a paranoid America is turning mean and ugly since 9-11-01—from the irreducible fact that they are there, where we have no right to send them unless we’d gladly fight alongside them. Corporal Anderson was there, and his Durham neighbors in the Duke-blue sweaters were not. I can call him a hero, not because he died defending American ideals—he died defending masters who flout them—but because he died defending his fellow marines, exposed in a conflict they did not cause or seek.

I can’t help but be reminded of another great wartime hypocrisy barometer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who asked “Why draw from our young men, in the bloom and hey-day of youth, the soldiers who are to fight our battles? Had I my way, no man should go to war under fifty years of age, such men having already had their natural share of worldly pleasures and life’s enjoyments. …[W]ith one foot in the grave, they would not be likely to run away”. As logical as such comments are, they are too full of frustration and anger to be regenerative of a society at war. And yet, writers have always seemed less than useful during wartime. War constitutes a failure of writing, of communication of any sort; writers’ social function is to prevent it, and when it comes they must wait out the end and help us heal afterward. Again, in Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli,” the poet gives an answer to those who in the press had been chastising artists for not taking a more direct role in, one assumes, helping generate an attitude of patriotic perseverance among the population. For Yeats, however, this is not the artist’s role. Artists, he says, must maintain some objective distance from the tragedies of day-to-day living; things always fall apart, after all, and what’s important is that there will be those ready to step in when all is broken and begin putting the pieces back together again. And there is a special quality about those rebuilders: their outsider status allows them the sense of playfulness necessary to rise above the pain and grief and other subjective self-interestednesses unavoidable by the larger community.

Hal Crowther is on up there on the Great Smoky mountainside, and I for one feel watched over.

Sobriquet Magazine Vol 11, No. 7

Owen Elmore is Assistant Professor of English at the Alexandria campus of Louisiana State University. He graduated from Auburn University in 2003 under the tutelage of Bert Hitchcock. Originally from Huntsville, Alabama, Elmore is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho, southern Africa. He is interested in the ways writers serve as societal pilot fish, clinging close enough to clean the body of culture of its outmoded paradigms while managing to remain marginal enough to the sonar of conscious social perception and convention to be allowed to succeed in their work.