State of the Culture Feed

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.


An Advent Gripe

Not about, but on the occasion of: the complaint I made last year about the thing called "Holiday":

The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.

Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned.

"Middle of the last century"? I must have meant to say the 19th. It certainly predated the middle of the 20th. But anyway:

The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent.

Which I'm currently doing. 


From The Hedgehog Review

Several years ago someone recommended Hedgehog here. I had seen ads for it and bits of essays and thought it was worth a try, so I subscribed. It's a little expensive, and I probably wouldn't have ventured if I hadn't gotten some kind of promotional discount offer.
I was somewhat disappointed, not because the work wasn't good but because most of it just wasn't that relevant or interesting to me. Issues accumulated without my doing more than glancing at them. One, for instance, was devoted to our relationship to animals, another to our relationship to food ("our" being, I think, Americans). The Summer 2020 edition is called "Monsters" and seems to be concerned with the presence of same in popular culture, although I'm not sure because I haven't read it. These things are certainly worth studying, and the writing and research seem to be of very high quality, as is the physical production. But I myself am not interested enough in them to spend much time reading about them.
I wouldn't have renewed for a second year, but they offered it to me at a steep discount, so I gave it another year, with more or less the same result. I had decided definitely not to renew for a third year, until the most recent issue arrived. It's called "America On the Brink," and it concerns, as you would suppose, our political and cultural situation. I've only read the first essay, "Dissent and Solidarity," by James Davison Hunter. It alone has me thinking of renewing my subscription after all. He includes this quotation from Martin Luther King:
The question, What is man? is one of the most important questions confronting any generation. The whole political, social, and economic structure of society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question. Indeed, the conflict which we witness in the world today between totalitarianism and democracy is at bottom a conflict over the question, What is man?
That question, I submit, is at the root of the division. I don't think I'll try, in a blog post, to summarize the answers given by the two factions, especially as they are not as a rule clearly articulated, except in the case of orthodox Christians. Neither does Hunter, but he makes this observation:
Fault lines already well established between elites and the general public and between the left and the right became open cleavages through the 1970s and 1980s. Those cleavages deepened even more after 1989. With the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a common enemy against which to define shared national identity. With no external enemy, collective identities were formed against the enemy within America itself.
The emphasis is mine. This is the state of things: the factions regard each other not as fellow citizens with whom they disagree, but as enemies. For the most part they offer different answers for King's question. And that is another way of saying that the conflict is a religious one. You can read the whole essay here. It's faintly hopeful. 

Let's Revise the "Generations" Business

I've been complaining for a long time--yeah, I know, this sentence could end right there, but I'll continue anyway--I've been complaining for a long time about the "generations" construct which is a sort of pop sociology thing that sometimes seems barely a step up from astrology. This chart, harvested from Wikipedia, sums up the system, if we can call it that:

1024px-Generation_timeline.svgAnd I think it borders on crazy. I guess it started with the "lost generation" of the 1920s. But that term was just an observation that Gertrude Stein made about a particular set of extremely atypical artists. I don't know whether it was ever applied to an entire cohort of people who just happened to have been born around the same time. It certainly wouldn't have made much sense to classify my wife's grandmother, born ca. 1900 in rural Mississippi and growing up in circumstances more 19th than 20th century, more frontier than suburbia, with Ernest Hemingway's crowd.

Continue reading "Let's Revise the "Generations" Business" »

Remarkable Insight On My Part

A quick post from Fairhope Brewing, where they are actually encouraging people to come in and use their Wi-Fi, even opening in the mornings just for that purpose. Thank you, FBC.

I have a new computer, and have taken the occasion to go through a lot of old files and discard, organize, etc. In the process I ran across a draft of this post from ten years ago, "Firemen and the Gnostic Economy." The last few paragraphs seem, if I may say so, somewhat prescient about the conditions which could produce a phenomenon like Donald Trump.

There is a practical disdain in the upper reaches of our society for anybody so slow-witted and naïve as to make a living with the actual work of his hands, a disdain that is independent of political categories. (If anything the active disdain is stronger in the “liberal” camp, which may give more lip service to the lower-class laborer but doesn’t actually think very highly of him—but that’s a topic for another day.)

Bad Writing

If you can even call it writing.... Maybe just jargon. Or guff.

I received an email on my work account with this subject:

Implement Engaging Prevention Training at [college]

I wondered what it meant. Training for the purpose of preventing something, apparently. Opened the email and saw a company logo with this text:

Proven, Engaging Student Prevention Training


So I read the first paragraph:

Did you know SafeColleges Training provides a variety of effective student prevention courses through a robust training system?

I experienced deepening confusion. Few colleges wish to prevent students.

Only by reading as far as the second paragraph did I learn that they are referring to training aimed at "encouraging healthy behaviors" on topics like drugs, alcohol, and sex. 

Christopher Lasch: The Revolt of the Elites


Having finally read this well-known and so-often-recommended book, I'm sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in it. It's not that there is anything wrong with its actual contents--it's a good book, and I recommend it--but that the contents aren't quite what I was expecting. I assumed that the topic named in the title would be the entire subject of the book. But "The Revolt of the Elites" is really the title essay in a collection whose subjects range somewhat afield from that of the one. They are certainly related, describing other components of the general "betrayal of democracy" which is the book's subtitle, but they don't deal specifically with the revolt.

Continue reading "Christopher Lasch: The Revolt of the Elites" »

The War on Transitive Verbs

I know I can be pedantic, but I like to think I'm not excessively so. I deny that I'm a grammar Nazi. I understand that language is constantly shifting, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some departures from standard grammar--I hesitate even to say "correct," so wary am I of being overly judgmental--are enhancements in the way of color, or meet some need not provided by the standard. 

I notice the first one sometimes in certain constructs that less-educated people use. For instance: in the opening episode of The Wire, a character commenting on the death of a friend: "I guess sometimes life just be that way." "Be" is wrong, but it has a flavor that "Life is just that way" doesn't. I see a lot of memes that use, for lack of a better word, black English, and sometimes they're funny or punchy in a way that they wouldn't be in standard English. Like "be like":

SouthernersBeLikeAnd as for the second: I'm becoming reconciled to the use of "they/them/their" for the third-person singular when the sex of the person is unknown. You don't have to be a feminist to find "he/him/his" odd-sounding when the person referred to is most likely, or just as likely, to be female. I felt it often in my job in software services, where the office workers using the software were far more likely to be women than men. "Each user can set his own preferences." But 90% of them are women, and we all know it. "Each user can set her own preferences"--but isn't it just a touch patronizing to assume the user is female? "Each user can set his or her own preferences"--that's fine for one sentence, but it's clumsy if you need to repeat it. "Each user can set their own preferences"--yes, that grates mightily on my ear, but I guess I have to get used to it.

But there is no justification for this kind of thing:

This recording will repeat.

When the process is complete, a message displays. 

The screen populates with the information. 

Dr. Banner transforms into The Hulk.

She dies, then resurrects as a zombie.

If your tax doesn't calculate...

Is it really so hard, is it really too much trouble, to say "will be repeated," "is displayed", and so on? I'm not sure exactly what this syndrome signifies but I'm sure it's something bad. 

And by the way the title is partly in jest. Something else that annoys me is the declaration that any opposition to, or just neglect of, a thing constitutes "a war on..." the thing.