But Better Than Nothing
Joy and Fear

Madison Jones: A Cry of Absence

One reason for reading this novel is that it's an extremely good one, and that's reason enough. Another, and one that's more important to me personally, is that it is a remarkably perceptive account of the racial situation in the South in the 1950s, when the push against segregation was really getting under way, producing the resistance which now occupies a decisive symbolic place in the American consciousness: a simple narrative of KKK goons vs. saintly black people and their enlightened Northern supporters. That aspect isn't false, of course, but reality was, as always, more complex. 

The story takes place in an unnamed small Southern town in 1957. According to the back cover of the book the town is in Tennessee, although if that's mentioned in the novel I missed it. But the description of the seasons certainly fits Tennessee more than it would south Alabama or south Mississippi. (Madison Jones was from Nashville, and I grew up less than a hundred miles due south, in a similar landscape and climate.) The year is specifically stated, so it's after Brown vs Board, but before the decisive years of the early '60s. And that's important. The foundations of the Southern segregationist order were shaking, but still far from collapse.

Hester Glenn is a middle-aged divorced mother of two sons, Ames and Cameron. Ames is a college student, Cameron, or "Cam," still in high school. The novel alternates in viewpoint between Hester and Ames. The family is of the upper class, at least in the context of the region. Hester is a genuine believer in the romantic ideal of the old South: wealth and privilege are expected to carry with them, perhaps to justify their existence by, adherence to a code of honor, duty, justice, and generosity. She reveres her ancestors. She's a member of a local preservation society of which the main purpose is to remember and honor the past--including, for instance, a statue of a Confederate soldier, cherished, not apologetically, because Hester does not acknowledge that there is anything for which to apologize, but in the beginning simply, and then, when such honoring is attacked, defiantly.

The culture of the town is changing not only with the times in general--the federal courts, the civil rights movement--but specifically and directly with the arrival of new people from outside the South who run the new industries which promise to save the town from economic decline. These people hold the native white people in contempt, and their contempt finds ample justification in the blatant racial oppression. From the broad cultural point of view, then, there are four forces at work in the narrative: Hester and her kind, the newly arrived white people, the black people, and, faintly, natives who are of Hester's people but see, or begin to see, the justice of the case against them. Perhaps a fifth should be separated from the latter group: the townspeople who don't necessarily disagree with segregation but can see the economic price they will have to pay for its continuation and are willing to let it go. They are not portrayed as being especially admirable.

Cam is accused of participating in the murder of a young black man. Hester and Ames come to suspect that he may be guilty. And since the jacket blurbs refer to the novel as a tragedy, I'm not giving anything away in saying that the events which follow are in fact tragic.

Hester is a rigid sort of personality. We are given to understand that her divorce was, from her point of view, due to her husband's incorrigible immorality, but to suspect that from her husband's point of view it may have been that her uprightness made her cold, maybe even, to use a word one doesn't hear much anymore in its sexual sense, frigid, and at any rate remote.

In reaction to the news of the murder, she says

"It makes all those things they are saying about us up north seem to be true. About how cruel we are to Negroes. All of us. Because of a few scum," she said, her voice hinting at her passion. "As if we were all scum and didn't hate such people as much as anybody else."

But do they really? Is it perhaps the case that it is the violence of the "scum" that helps to support the hierarchy near the top of which Hester resides, and which she loves for more than crudely selfish material reasons? It is a devastating question. 

The book is beautifully written, and I have only a couple of mild reservations about it. One, the narrative sometimes proceeds by flashback in a way that can be confusing. Two, I'm a little skeptical about the plausibility of one part of the climax, though I can see the argument that it is inevitable. 

But these are mild indeed. I was only nine years old in 1957, and so wasn't really aware of the racial situation--not, I mean, with an adult consciousness of right and wrong. But by 1964 I was very much aware of it, and can remember enough of that period to know that the book's portrait of it is quite accurate. Anyone who wants to understand it in the kind of depth that is generally foreign to present-day views should read it. And, as I said, it's a first-rate novel by any standard.

I have Rob Grano to thank for introducing me and readers of this blog to Madison Jones. Here's a link to the piece on Jones which he contributed to our 52 Authors series.

I guess everybody knows about the intense rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn University (UA vs. AU). I went to Alabama, and I don't recall that I ever considered Auburn, because at the time I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and Auburn didn't have a journalism program. The fact that Jones taught at Auburn made me wonder for the first time (as far as I can remember) whether maybe I should have gone to Auburn. He was probably writing this book, which was published in 1971, at the time when I would have been there. I would surely have taken at least one course from him.

This little image was the only one I could find of the cover of the LSU Press edition that I have. There are at least three others.



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That sounds really interesting.


Well, I can actually get a copy from the Ole Miss library through the local library. It may take awhile because a lot of University libraries won't lend books between semesters, but I am in the middle several books, so that's okay.


It's worth the effort.

Glad you liked it, Mac. I'm currently re-reading his first novel, The Innocent, and am finding it hard to put down. It was published in '57 but is set in the 30's. The other day I ran across a great line. The main character, Duncan Welsh, is having an argument with his brother-in-law, who is a liberal Methodist minister. At one point the exasperated Duncan interrupts Garner's moralizing and says, "I think you people have done a job of surgery on the world that it won't soon get over." Garner replies, "Because you wouldn't accept it," and starts back into his liberal sermon. Duncan stops him again: "You don't ever get sick of cant, do you?"

I really like that line about "surgery" and what Garner's response implies: if we traditionalists would just let the liberals get on with their treatment plan everything would be fine. It's our own resistance that's causing all our pain!

Your white fragility is showing. [eye-roll] I know you didn't say anything about race, but We Know.

I think it's extremely important to hang on to insights such as the remark about cant. We are flooded with it, and it's very easy to start accepting it.

I can't find it now, but that first remark was prompted by something I had just read in which a "diversity" consultant began by telling her white victims that they would experience pain in this "work", that this was a good thing, a measure of their racism, and that any negative reaction to the pain would only be a measure of their unwillingness to stop being racist.

Terms I've come to dislike even though I've only been encountering them for a few months: "do the work," "do better." I guess I'd heard them both several times before it dawned on me that they were a formula found only in certain contexts, i.e. "woke" ones.

Some of those sorts of catchphrases may have made their way into wokeism via academe or the corporate world, but that's really not surprising considering how woke those two worlds are. And of course the flow of cant also moves in the opposite direction. Working for a Fortune 500 company as I do, you see it every day. It never takes long for management to start echoing the woke media. It's almost as if they receive directives from on high -- start using this word or phrase, start referring to that issue, etc.

Rob G, same in the Church, sadly.

"It's almost as if they receive directives from on high"

Yeah, it really is. I remember a few years ago seeing for the first time the term "black bodies" where one would normally say "black people", and thinking "that's some academic fad thing." And then it started appearing all over the place.

Woke young women have a sort of Valley Girl quality, using a sort of jargon that signifies coolness.

I am just over halfway through. This is pretty amazing.


Agreed, obviously.

Also, I think Middlemarch is amazing. I'm not more than 1/4 or 1/3 of the way through its 800 pages.

Man, I'm wondering what I missed. LOL

Jane Austen and Henry James had a baby? :-)

I can imagine that I wouldn't have cared much for it at one time, or at least not as much. I can't remember exactly what you said about it--"ponderous," or something to that effect? I can imagine having that reaction. Frequently it's somewhat tough going, just at the sentence level, in complexity and subtlety of thought. I don't think any novelist has ever been more psychologically acute. And with a very dry feminine wit.

One sister, somewhat on the light and frivolous side, worrying about the other, who has married a much older and very learned man: "[She regarded his] learning as a kind of damp which might in due time saturate a neighbouring body."

I think I may have said "tedious," probably with a qualifier like "somewhat." I'm sure I'll give it another shot at some point, but as I said the other day, I'll most likely give Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss a go first.

Lately, I have been in a few conversations where we discussed Solzhenitsyn's quote about the line between good and evil passing through every human heart. I really like how Jones gets this, and portrays it in very subtle ways.


I must say, though, that every Memphian has a little spasm when he talks about Uptown Memphis.


It should be downtown? You can tell long-time Fairhope residents because they call the center of town "uptown". Newer arrivals tend to say "downtown". As do the uptown merchants for some reason.

What you say about the line: that's why I wish our ideologues would read it. But almost by definition an ideologue would not understand it.

"Tedious" would be an understandable reaction to Middlemarch. I can see how one might not respond to her elaborate constructions, nor is the plot rapidly moving. So "tedious" might well be the upshot.

Yep, downtown.

The copy of the book that I read didn't have a dust jacket, so I didn't know it was supposed to be Tennessee. I figured it was, though, because it was 200 miles to Memphis, and close enough to a college to get back and forth pretty quickly.


"the line between good and evil passing through every human heart. I really like how Jones gets this"

Jones was a Calvinist and thus had a robust understanding of original sin. But I can see this being tempered somewhat by his experience of having a Catholic wife and his allowing his children to be raised Catholic. Most of his novels are very much of the "Breaking Bad" type, albeit as imagined by a believing Protestant versus a lapsed Catholic. But like Vince Gilligan, Jones was too good of an artist to be overtly "preachy."

"What you say about the line: that's why I wish our ideologues would read it. But almost by definition an ideologue would not understand it."

Yes, I think you're right here. One of the hallmarks of ideology is the inability to critique substantively one's own side. The idea of "the line" requires that you do exactly that.

~~"Tedious" would be an understandable reaction to Middlemarch.~~

Still it's certainly possible that at the time I read it I was not in the right frame of mind to do so. I'm much more conscious of that nowadays, and when I know I'm feeling distracted or otherwise less attentive I've learned to purposely gravitate towards lighter fare. At the time I read Middlemarch I was not so aware of this tactic.

Has anyone read anything by Eugene Vodolazkin?


Not I.

I've read both Laurus and The Aviator -- thought they were both very good.

I recognize the title of Laurus. Did Rod Dreher maybe write about it?

I am really living The Aviator, and wondering how I could have never heard if Vodolazkin before now.


Also, Piranesi by Susanna Clark. It's nothing like Jonathan Strange. I don't even want to say anything about, because anything I say will reveal too much, and fall far short of what I am trying to convey. The one review someone read to me was completely truthful and left one with a completely distorted idea of the book. It's better to come to it cold.


EVERY time I write either "love" or "live" on my phone, it comes out the wrong one.


That's why they call it a smart phone. :-) You don't just push its buttons. It pushes yours, too.

Rod did a lot of commenting about Laurus. It's about a monk in medieval Russia, and like Kristen L., it just takes the Christianity of the times for granted, warts and all.

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