Postcard from Shellmound

A reader named Sebastian tells me this spiked tire/hook apparatus “is for tilling the ground in preparation for planting. You break up the soil and left over stalks of last year’s crops to prepare the ground for this year’s seeds.”

I took the photo near Shellmound, a plantation best known from its fictional representation in Eudora Welty’s first novel, Delta Wedding, and a place that my father’s family history turns out to be tied up with.

More about this on subsequent Fridays — after I’ve slept and had some time to process what I’ve seen and heard.

Edward P. Jones on Southern writing and identity

Edward P. Jones initially declined the invitation to edit the forthcoming New Stories From the South 2007, but accepted upon remembering how heartened he’d been by the inclusion of one of his own stories in a prior year. I read his introduction shortly before heading down South and have been thinking about it on my travels. Here’s an excerpt:

Hither and yon, they still debate whether Washington, D.C. — where I was born and came to know what is true and what is not so true — is a part of the South. It might well be that that debate is why I have never stood up straight and asserted that I was a bona fide son of the South. I’m in the room, but I’ll stand in the corner for the evening, if it’s all the same to you. And that is another reason I first said no to choosing the stories for this book.

Still, so much is about the heart, wherein the soul dwells, and so maybe my heart, when all the standing in the corner is done, doesn’t care if Washington is north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. The heart knows enough to make me create a character who is called upon to assert, with great authority, that the South is “the worst mama in the world … and it’s the best mama in the world.” The heart knows that just about every adult — starting with my mother — who had an important part in my life before I turned eighteen was born and raised in the South. They — the great majority of them black and descendants of slaves — came to Washington with a culture unappreciated until you go out into the world and look back to see what went into making you a full human being. A culture defined by big things, by small things. By food (from greens to pigs’ feet and tails to black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day). By superstition (resting your clasped hands on the top of your head shortens your mother’s days on this Earth; “my word is my word until I die”). By speech (“fetch”; “yonder”; “a month of Sundays” — and a phrase my mother was particularly fond of using: There were, she would say, so many awful problems in the world that could be cured by people simply doing the correct and proper thing, “but that would be too much like right”).

Black people passed this culture onto me, but once I discovered Southern literature I learned that much of it was shared by whites, whether they wanted to admit it or not. I read Richard Wright and Truman Capote and Wendell Berry and Erskine Caldwell and a whole mess of other writers and came upon white people who, in their way, were also just trying to make it to the next day. Dear Lord, reach down and gimme and hand here. Those fictional white people lived in a world that was not alien to me. And yet growing up in D.C., I had known no Southern whites, except for the ones on television. As I read, I felt I knew far more about that world of people than I did about those people who lived in cities in the North, who lived, as I did in D.C., with concrete and noisy neighbords above and below and a sense that the horizon stopped at the top of the tallest building. It does not matter where Washington fits on the map; I was of the South because that was what I inherited.

While in Square Books earlier this week, I picked up the reissued edition of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Jones wrote this introduction, too, and it’s a gorgeous meditation on first reading the book in 1965 and then returning to it years later as if “reading one’s journal that had not been opened for ages”:

The Signet paperback copies of Black Boy that the teacher, Charlotte Crawford, distributed to her 10th graders in September 1965 had white covers with a large, rather abstract black fist dead in the center of those covers. Fist as in black power, I suppose, though none of her students had ever uttered those words. We were fifteen and sixteen years old, and we were new to high school, as Miss Crawford was new to teaching. The Negro students in that D.C. classroom had none of the consciousness that children of the same color and ages in the civil rights turmoil of Mississippi or Alabama or South Carolina might have had. The riots in Washington, D.C., after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., were still a long time in the future…

Continue reading…

Postcard from Faulkner’s grave

Hello from in Oxford, Mississippi, where I have consumed approximately fifty-nine pounds of fried catfish and seventy gallons of sweet tea and enough wine to give an ox a migraine.

I won’t start getting into everything I ate in the Delta, but if you ever find yourself in Greenwood, don’t miss the Crystal’s coconut pie. It’s a near-religious experience, provided you don’t slip into a diabetic coma.

Tomorrow we drive back to Nashville and I fly home to Brooklyn. Though it’s hard to imagine so much as rousing myself from this public computer to walk downstairs to my hotel room, I’m sure I’ll somehow manage to waddle out to the taxi line with my overloaded suitcase. I can’t wait to tell you about Rowan Oak, etc.

Image of Faulkner’s grave taken from this Ole Miss site.

Quick note (from the Delta) on Faulkner’s childhood

Poor Billy Faulkner. From Carolyn Porter’s forthcoming William Faulkner, the latest installment in Oxford University Press’ Lives & Legacies series:

While Murry Falkner was a figure of weakness in his first son’s eyes, his wife Maud was the opposite. On her kitchen wall hung a sign saying “Never explain. Never complain” (a Victorian maxim traceable to the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli). However disappointed she was in her husband and her marriage, she was determined to raise her sons according to her own lights, her oldest son in particular. For example, having observed that Billy was not going to be as tall as her younger boys, Maud bought him a kind of corset (a canvas vest that laced up in the back and held the shoulders back) at age thirteen and forced him to wear it for almost two years so that he would stand as straight and upright as possible, as his great-grandfather was reputed to have done. (She apparently succeeded; many would notice Faulkner’s markedly erect posture throughout his life.) Faulkner neither explained nor complained, apparently, even though the brace precluded his playing baseball, among other athletic endeavors he enjoyed…. His cousin, Sally Murry, a partial model for the adventurous little girl Caddy Compson, was similarly cursed at this time, but she so despised the corset that she got her friends to untie it. [Emphasis added.]

“William Faulkner, 1947,” a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, is taken from this site.

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication, with the date in the subject line.
MONDAY, JUNE 25: Join us for a rare treat as Jean Thompson, praised by ELLE for her “stirring prose and masterfully funny repartee,” gives her first reading in New York since 1999 (when she was nominated for the National Book Award for her last collection) from her widely acclaimed new collection of short stories, THROW LIKE A GIRL. At Barnes & Noble, Astor Place. 7PM, FREE [full disclosure, as always: Jean is one of my PR clients].

TUESDAY, JUNE 26: I like to dance around my apartment to this song, so that’s what I’ll probably do on Tuesday night. There’s also the “Emo-Thug 2 Release Party.” I have no idea what that means but it sounds great. So does this reading series, Other Means.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27: In a rare appearance (her first time in New York since 1999, when she was nominated for the National Book Award for her last collection) Jean Thompson reads from her widely praised new collection of short stories, THROW LIKE A GIRL at the season finale of Amanda Stern’s wildly popular Happy Ending reading series, along with Alison Bechdel and Eliza Griswold, with music from One Ring Zero. Doors open at 7, show at 8 sharp, FREE.

THURSDAY, JUNE 28: If Tuesday night’s dance party wasn’t enough creative expression for you, you can always make an experimental film (or unearth one): “SPLICE recently celebrated its first anniversary of bringing eclectic and underground sounds and performers from around the world to New York audiences. If you are a VJ, video/multimedia artist, or experimental filmmaker, we invite you to submit your contact details and information about your work. WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR: Multimedia artists who create both sound/music and video; Video artists interested in projecting their work, by itself or in collaboration with musicians; VJs who can generate live and remixed video during DJ sets and musical performances; Filmmakers with experimental (preferably short-form) works.”

FRIDAY, JUNE 29: “The launch of a new online journal, Essays & Fictions is to be celebrated at a reading open to the public at La Plaza Cultural Community Garden in the East Village, 9th St and Ave C – Friday June 29 6 p.m., with a rain date of Sunday, July 1st. Danielle Winterton, David Pollock, Adam Golaski, Jeff Paris and others will read from the premier issue.” Recommended.

SATURDAY, JUNE 30: At the pacesetting downtown gallery jen bekman [full disclosure, as always: where I used to be the PR director, but now we are 'just friends'], A New American Portrait, a group exhibition of photographs featuring artists at the vanguard of contemporary portraiture in America, is shaping up to be the most talked about show of the season judging from the opening night photos.

SUNDAY, JULY 1: How intriguing– is “Broken English” the story of your life?

Happy weekend from the road

Sylvester, Martha, Louise, and a hungry horse

I left for my Tennessee-Mississippi sojourn sans laptop (R.I.P.), cell phone (forgotten at work), and socks (oops), but I’ve got a camera, and just finished rereading As I Lay Dying, so I should at least get some photos and some Faulkner up. (Did you know the people of Oxford used to call him “Count No-Count“? I didn’t, or had forgotten, until my uncle mentioned it offhand tonight.)

The emaciated horse in the photo above pulls a covered wagon containing three passengers who are identified on the back as “Grandpa, Martha, and myself.” Martha is my grandmother. Grandpa is, I believe, Sylvester Kinchen (pictured below with his wife, Martha Caroline). And I’m guessing that “myself” is Martha’s sister Louise. The horse-and-buggy shot must have been taken in or near Dallas in the 1920s.