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.