'Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.' He didn't say any more but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought--frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon--for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction--Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather's brother who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today. I never saw this great-uncle but I'm supposed to look like him--with special reference to the rather hard-boiled painting that hangs in Father's office. I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless. Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe--so I decided to go east and learn the bond business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it could support one more single man. All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a prep-school for me and finally said, "Why--ye-es" with very grave, hesitant faces. Father agreed to finance me for a year and after various delays I came east, permanently, I thought, in the spring of twenty-two. The practical thing was to find rooms in the city but it was a warm season and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees, so when a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a commuting town it sounded like a great idea. He found the house, a weather beaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month, but at the last minute the firm ordered him to Washington and I went out to the country alone. I had a dog, at least I had him for a few days until he ran away, and an old Dodge and a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove. It was lonely for a day or so until one morning some man, more recently arrived than I, stopped me on the road. "How do you get to West Egg village?" he asked helplessly. I told him. And as I walked on I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler. He had casually conferred on me the freedom of the neighborhood. And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees--just as things grow in fast movies--I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. There was so much to read for one thing and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air. I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew. And I had the high intention of reading many other books besides. I was rather literary in college--one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the "Yale News"--and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the "well-rounded man." This isn't just an epigram--life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all. It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America. It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals--like the egg in the Columbus story they are both crushed flat at the contact end--but their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size. I lived at West Egg, the--well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them. My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard--it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby's mansion. Or rather, as I didn't know Mr. Gatsby it was a mansion inhabited by a gentleman of that name. My own house was an eye-sore, but it was a small eye-sore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor's lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires--all for eighty dollars a month. Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans. Daisy was my second cousin once removed and I'd known Tom in college. And just after the war I spent two days with them in Chicago. Her husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven--a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax. His family were enormously wealthy--even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach--but now he'd left Chicago and come east in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance he'd brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that. Why they came east I don't know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together. This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn't believe it--I had no sight into Daisy's heart but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game. And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens--finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch. He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body--he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage--a cruel body. His speaking voice, a gruff husky tenor, added to the impression of fractiousness he conveyed. There was a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked--and there were men at New Haven who had hated his guts. "Now, don't think my opinion on these matters is final," he seemed to say, "just because I'm stronger and more of a man than you are." We were in the same Senior Society, and while we were never intimate I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness of his own. We talked for a few minutes on the sunny porch. "I've got a nice place here," he said, his eyes flashing about restlessly. Turning me around by one arm he moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of deep pungent roses and a snub-nosed motor boat that bumped the tide off shore. "It belonged to Demaine the oil man." He turned me around again, politely and abruptly. "We'll go inside." We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling--and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea. The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor. The younger of the two was a stranger to me. She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless and with her chin raised a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall. If she saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave no hint of it--indeed, I was almost surprised into murmuring an apology for having disturbed her by coming in. The other girl, Daisy, made an attempt to rise--she leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression--then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room. "I'm p-paralyzed with happiness." She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I've heard it said that Daisy's murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.) At any rate Miss Baker's lips fluttered, she nodded at me almost imperceptibly and then quickly tipped her head back again--the object she was balancing had obviously tottered a little and given her something of a fright. Again a sort of apology arose to my lips. Almost any exhibition of complete self sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me. I looked back at my cousin who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth--but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered "Listen," a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour. I told her how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way east and how a dozen people had sent their love through me. "Do they miss me?" she cried ecstatically. "The whole town is desolate. All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath and there's a persistent wail all night along the North Shore." "How gorgeous! Let's go back, Tom. Tomorrow!" Then she added irrelevantly, "You ought to see the baby." "I'd like to." "She's asleep. She's two years old. Haven't you ever seen her?" "Never." "Well, you ought to see her. She's----" Tom Buchanan who had been hovering restlessly about the room stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder. "What you doing, Nick?" "I'm a bond man." "Who with?" I told him. "Never heard of them," he remarked decisively. This annoyed me. "You will," I answered shortly. "You will if you stay in the East." "Oh, I'll stay in the East, don't you worry," he said, glancing at Daisy and then back at me, as if he were alert for something more. "I'd be a God Damned fool to live anywhere else." At this point Miss Baker said "Absolutely!" with such suddenness that I started--it was the first word she uttered since I came into the room. Evidently it surprised her as much as it did me, for she yawned and with a series of rapid, deft movements stood up into the room. "I'm stiff," she complained, "I've been lying on that sofa for as long as I can remember." "Don't look at me," Daisy retorted. "I've been trying to get you to New York all afternoon." "No, thanks," said Miss Baker to the four cocktails just in from the pantry, "I'm absolutely in training." Her host looked at her incredulously. "You are!" He took down his drink as if it were a drop in the bottom of a glass. "How you ever get anything done is beyond me." I looked at Miss Baker wondering what it was she "got done." I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, or a picture of her, somewhere before. "You live in West Egg," she remarked contemptuously. "I know somebody there." "I don't know a single----" "You must know Gatsby." "Gatsby?" demanded Daisy. "What Gatsby?" Before I could reply that he was my neighbor dinner was announced; wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square. Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips the two young women preceded us out onto a rosy-colored porch open toward the sunset where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind. "Why CANDLES?" objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. "In two weeks it'll be the longest day in the year." She looked at us all radiantly. "Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it." "We ought to plan something," yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed. "All right," said Daisy. "What'll we plan?" She turned to me helplessly. "What do people plan?" Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger. "Look!" she complained. "I hurt it." We all looked--the knuckle was black and blue. "You did it, Tom," she said accusingly. "I know you didn't mean to but you DID do it. That's what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great big hulking physical specimen of a----" "I hate that word hulking," objected Tom crossly, "even in kidding." "Hulking," insisted Daisy. Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire. They were here--and they accepted Tom and me, making only a polite pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained. They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening too would be over and casually put away. It was sharply different from the West where an evening was hurried from phase to phase toward its close in a continually disappointed anticipation or else in sheer nervous dread of the moment itself. "You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy," I confessed on my second glass of corky but rather impressive claret. "Can't you talk about crops or something?" I meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way. "Civilization's going to pieces," broke out Tom violently. "I've gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read 'The Rise of the Coloured Empires' by this man Goddard?" "Why, no," I answered, rather surprised by his tone. "Well, it's a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be--will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved." "Tom's getting very profound," said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. "He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we----" "Well, these books are all scientific," insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. "This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It's up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things." "We've got to beat them down," whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun. "You ought to live in California--" began Miss Baker but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair. "This idea is that we're Nordics. I am, and you are and you are and----" After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod and she winked at me again. "--and we've produced all the things that go to make civilization--oh, science and art and all that. Do you see?" There was something pathetic in his concentration as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more. When, almost immediately, the telephone rang inside and the butler left the porch Daisy seized upon the momentary interruption and leaned toward me. "I'll tell you a family secret," she whispered enthusiastically. "It's about the butler's nose. Do you want to hear about the butler's nose?" "That's why I came over tonight." "Well, he wasn't always a butler; he used to be the silver polisher for some people in New York that had a silver service for two hundred people. He had to polish it from morning till night until finally it began to affect his nose----" "Things went from bad to worse," suggested Miss Baker. "Yes. Things went from bad to worse until finally he had to give up his position." For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened--then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk. The butler came back and murmured something close to Tom's ear whereupon Tom frowned, pushed back his chair and without a word went inside. As if his absence quickened something within her Daisy leaned forward again, her voice glowing and singing. "I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a--of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn't he?" She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation. "An absolute rose?" This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose. She was only extemporizing but a stirring warmth flowed from her as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words. Then suddenly she threw her napkin on the table and excused herself and went into the house. Miss Baker and I exchanged a short glance consciously devoid of meaning. I was about to speak when she sat up alertly and said "Sh!" in a warning voice. A subdued impassioned murmur was audible in the room beyond and Miss Baker leaned forward, unashamed, trying to hear. The murmur trembled on the verge of coherence, sank down, mounted excitedly, and then ceased altogether. "This Mr. Gatsby you spoke of is my neighbor----" I said. "Don't talk. I want to hear what happens." "Is something happening?" I inquired innocently. "You mean to say you don't know?" said Miss Baker, honestly surprised. "I thought everybody knew." "I don't." "Why----" she said hesitantly, "Tom's got some woman in New York." "Got some woman?" I repeated blankly. Miss Baker nodded. "She might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner-time. Don't you think?" Almost before I had grasped her meaning there was the flutter of a dress and the crunch of leather boots and Tom and Daisy were back at the table. "It couldn't be helped!" cried Daisy with tense gayety. She sat down, glanced searchingly at Miss Baker and then at me and continued: "I looked outdoors for a minute and it's very romantic outdoors. There's a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line. He's singing away----" her voice sang "----It's romantic, isn't it, Tom?" "Very romantic," he said, and then miserably to me: "If it's light enough after dinner I want to take you down to the stables." The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air. Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at every one and yet to avoid all eyes. I couldn't guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking but I doubt if even Miss Baker who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy skepticism was able utterly to put this fifth guest's shrill metallic urgency out of mind. To a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing--my own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police. The horses, needless to say, were not mentioned again. Tom and Miss Baker, with several feet of twilight between them strolled back into the library, as if to a vigil beside a perfectly tangible body, while trying to look pleasantly interested and a little deaf I followed Daisy around a chain of connecting verandas to the porch in front. In its deep gloom we sat down side by side on a wicker settee. Daisy took her face in her hands, as if feeling its lovely shape, and her eyes moved gradually out into the velvet dusk. I saw that turbulent emotions possessed her, so I asked what I thought would be some sedative questions about her little girl. "We don't know each other very well, Nick," she said suddenly. "Even if we are cousins. You didn't come to my wedding." "I wasn't back from the war." "That's true." She hesitated. "Well, I've had a very bad time, Nick, and I'm pretty cynical about everything." Evidently she had reason to be. I waited but she didn't say any more, and after a moment I returned rather feebly to the subject of her daughter. "I suppose she talks, and--eats, and everything." "Oh, yes." She looked at me absently. "Listen, Nick; let me tell you what I said when she was born. Would you like to hear?" "Very much." "It'll show you how I've gotten to feel about--things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. 'All right,' I said, 'I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool." "You see I think everything's terrible anyhow," she went on in a convinced way. "Everybody thinks so--the most advanced people. And I KNOW. I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything." Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom's, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. "Sophisticated--God, I'm sophisticated!" The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged. Inside, the crimson room bloomed with light. Tom and Miss Baker sat at either end of the long couch and she read aloud to him from the "Saturday Evening Post"--the words, murmurous and uninflected, running together in a soothing tune. The lamp-light, bright on his boots and dull on the autumn-leaf yellow of her hair, glinted along the paper as she turned a page with a flutter of slender muscles in her arms. When we came in she held us silent for a moment with a lifted hand. "To be continued," she said, tossing the magazine on the table, "in our very next issue." Her body asserted itself with a restless movement of her knee, and she stood up. "Ten o'clock," she remarked, apparently finding the time on the ceiling. "Time for this good girl to go to bed." "Jordan's going to play in the tournament tomorrow," explained Daisy, "over at Westchester." "Oh,--you're JORdan Baker." I knew now why her face was familiar--its pleasing contemptuous expression had looked out at me from many rotogravure pictures of the sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach. I had heard some story of her too, a critical, unpleasant story, but what it was I had forgotten long ago. "Good night," she said softly. "Wake me at eight, won't you." "If you'll get up." "I will. Good night, Mr. Carraway. See you anon." "Of course you will," confirmed Daisy. "In fact I think I'll arrange a marriage. Come over often, Nick, and I'll sort of--oh--fling you together. You know--lock you up accidentally in linen closets and push you out to sea in a boat, and all that sort of thing----" "Good night," called Miss Baker from the stairs. "I haven't heard a word." "She's a nice girl," said Tom after a moment. "They oughtn't to let her run around the country this way." "Who oughtn't to?" inquired Daisy coldly. "Her family." "Her family is one aunt about a thousand years old. Besides, Nick's going to look after her, aren't you, Nick? She's going to spend lots of week-ends out here this summer. I think the home influence will be very good for her." Daisy and Tom looked at each other for a moment in silence. "Is she from New York?" I asked quickly. "From Louisville. Our white girlhood was passed together there. Our beautiful white----" "Did you give Nick a little heart to heart talk on the veranda?" demanded Tom suddenly. "Did I?" She looked at me. "I can't seem to remember, but I think we talked about the Nordic race. Yes, I'm sure we did. It sort of crept up on us and first thing you know----" "Don't believe everything you hear, Nick," he advised me. I said lightly that I had heard nothing at all, and a few minutes later I got up to go home. They came to the door with me and stood side by side in a cheerful square of light. As I started my motor Daisy peremptorily called "Wait! "I forgot to ask you something, and it's important. We heard you were engaged to a girl out West." "That's right," corroborated Tom kindly. "We heard that you were engaged." "It's libel. I'm too poor." "But we heard it," insisted Daisy, surprising me by opening up again in a flower-like way. "We heard it from three people so it must be true." Of course I knew what they were referring to, but I wasn't even vaguely engaged. The fact that gossip had published the banns was one of the reasons I had come east. You can't stop going with an old friend on account of rumors and on the other hand I had no intention of being rumored into marriage. Their interest rather touched me and made them less remotely rich--nevertheless, I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms--but apparently there were no such intentions in her head. As for Tom, the fact that he "had some woman in New York" was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book. Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart. Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight and turning my head to watch it I saw that I was not alone--fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens. I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn't call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone--he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward--and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness. " F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Chapter I, 1925: http://gutenberg.net.au/
First, on his major intellectual and political contributions:
There is no doubt that Paul was the leading Marxian economist in the United States, and probably the world, during his lifetime. Certainly he was the most widely recognized and respected. In my view, he made four major intellectual/political contributions.
1. His book, Theory of Capitalist Development (first published, I believe in 1942), was an extraordinarily cogent explanation of the economics of Karl Marx, in particular the main themes of Capital. Paul went through all the basic issues, starting with the labor theory of value, and getting all the way to the falling rate of profit. However, this was not merely a work of exegesis–of collecting and assembling quotes. Paul presented a clear and fair treatment of Marx, but he also developed some ideas of his own. Perhaps most important, Paul was critical of the falling rate of profit explanation of economic crisis in Marx–and that criticism was all the more powerful because Paul presented Marx’s arguments in such a clear way. But Paul went further than criticism: he also developed the underconsumptionist strains in Marx’s writings, which were not as well developed in Capital as the falling rate of profit arguments. No doubt, Sweezy was strongly influenced by the pull of JM Keynes in developing the underconsumptionist arguments in Marx. Keynes said the macroeconomic problem of capitalism was effective demand–and that was the cause of the 1930s depression. Sweezy saw this point coming out of Marx, and well before Keynes. [By the way, Keynes himself acknowledged Marx, along with some obscure people, like Silvio Gessel, as predating him with an underconsumptionist perspective]. I will come back to this Marx/Keynes connection in Sweezy. But the main thing on Theory of Capitalist Development is that it was a classic, incredibly clear, exposition of Marxian economics. It remains today the first place I would send a student who wants to get the basics of Marx in a serious, but still totally accessible way.
2. The next big book was, of course, Monopoly Capital, written with Paul Baran, though Baran died before they finished the manuscript. This book tried, and succeeded in many ways, to bring Marxism alive for its time. It was not another exposition of Marxian economics per se, and it did not use Capital in an orthodox way. It was trying to capture the spirit of Marxism in an era of giant corporations and big government capitalism. It focused on the U.S., deliberately, in the way Marx focused on England in Capital-as the most important and advanced capitalist economy. It was also written with the 1930s depression and 1940s war-induced amazing recovery as the background. Thus, Sweezy and Baran hypothized about a “tendency of surplus to rise” rather than the profit rate to fall. Surplus would rise because big corporations had monopolistic pricing power, and so they could extract surplus both from non-monopolistic elements of the U.S. economy, and from less developed countries, which at the time included everyone. The fundamental problem to the internal logic of this system was then, what they termed “surplus absorption”-who was going to buy the things that the corporations could produce? This is how they linked up the issue of big government and imperialism with the functioning of the monopolistic capitalist model. They said military spending was necessary to buy up the surplus product; and thus we needed the cold war, and imperialism, to prevent the economy from again lapsing into depression. Here again you see the links with Keynesianism, and with the obviously powerful experience of coming out of the depression: the only thing that brought us out of the depression being, obviously, massive deficit spending to pay for the war. And here is where the idea of military Keynesianism becomes very clear.
I would add though that the idea of military Keynesianism was first articulated clearly by Kalecki in his great short paper “The Political Aspects of Full Employment”. Paul acknowledged his debt to Kalecki many times. He also said that Monopoly Capital was heavily influenced by Josef Steindl’s book, Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitalism. In any case, Paul was indeed trying to synthesize Marxism with aspects of Keynesianism, as well as the theory of monopoly. This latter connection also made lots of sense, since Paul himself, in an earlier incarnation, had made a major contribution to the theory of monopoly pricing, a topic to which I’ll return below.
3. The third major intellectual and political contribution by Paul was, of course, his creating Monthly Review, and serving as its co-editor for 50 years. I mentioned this contribution third, but I don’t mean to place it third. It is probably first in terms of overall influence and as a measure of Paul’s lifelong dedication to the left. However, it is also true that Monthly Review would not have had anything close to the stature it enjoyed had Paul not also been the author of Theory of Capitalist Development and Monopoly Capital. Monthly Review was hugely important, in my view, in sustaining a serious Marxian left that was talking about real things, and not wandering into either cult-like Marxology or over academic trivia. It was also important in maintaining a focus on political economy as central to Marxism, just as Karl himself meant it to be. Monthly Review did also spawn something like what Paul and Harry liked to call “The Monthly Review school.” I would say the most important stream of that school of thought was its perspective on imperialism and underdevelopment. It was connected to what became known as the “dependency school”-the view that the third world was underdeveloped because of the system of dependency that was created by imperialism. The Monthly Review version of this approach was more infused with a Marxist spirit, but it was basically in this strain of thought. Certainly Andre Gunder Frank and Harry Magdoff was major thinkers here, as well as Paul himself.
But the main thing with Monthly Review wasn’t so much the specific things that were in it, but rather that it existed and it kept going, all through the dark McCarthy period. It then was a touchstone for the left as the 1960s burst out. This leads me to what I think was a fourth major contribution by Paul, starting really in the 1970s.
4. This fourth contribution was the work Paul was doing with Harry Magdoff, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the 1970s and 1980s, of documenting the emerging form of capitalism that has now become ascendant-the increasing role of finance in the operations of capitalism. This has been termed “financialization”, and I think it’s fair to say that Paul and Harry were the first people on the left to notice this and call attention. They did so with their typical cogency, command of the basics, and capacity to see the broader implications for a Marxist understanding of reality. I myself was heavily influenced by this work when I was a graduate student. Indeed, I got my idea for my dissertation after I read a Review of the Month by them called “Debt and the Business Cycle.” They were writing such things when, at the same time, the New School itself didn’t even have a field in financial economics-since most of the people thought this was for the bourgeoisie to figure out on their own.
5. I mentioned Paul’s earlier work on monopoly and want to come back to that. Before Paul was involved in Marxian economics, he was a superstar graduate student and junior faculty member at Harvard. He was the protégé of Joseph Schumpeter, who was conservative but brilliant and open-minded. Anyway, in this early phase of Paul’s career, he developed an explanation for how oligopolistic firms set their prices-he called it a “kinked demand curve.” The kink in the kinked demand curve refers to the capacity of oligopolists to push up prices beyond what a normal smooth demand relationship would suggest because of their pricing power. This was an important contribution in the literature on microeconomics and industrial organization, and I believe Paul wrote it as a graduate student. In any case, this theory was in all the textbooks. There is even a story that someone told me about an orthodox economist, obviously totally oblivious to anything about the left, who said something like the following: “Remember that guy Paul Sweezy? He was this brilliant young economist who came up with the kinked demand curve theory. Too bad he died so young.”
Some other Sweezy stories:
The connection with Schumpeter is very interesting. Schumpeter clearly admired Sweezy greatly. And remember, at the time, with the exception of Keynes, Schumpeter was probably the most prestigious economist in the world. Schumpeter wrote this massive history of thought book, which went far beyond what anyone else had attempted, at least in terms of length, called History of Economic Analysis. The number of references to Paul Sweezy in the index of that book are quite substantial. I would guess Sweezy was in the top 10-15 in terms of references-and that’s pretty good when you are talking about the whole history of economic analysis, including everyone. And this was before Sweezy had done Monopoly Capital.
There is more to the Sweezy/Schumpeter connection in my view, though I don’t think anyone else had ever thought about this. Schumpeter wrote this wonderfully provocative book called Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. He was really reaching to be provocative since he started one section with the book asking the question: “Can Capitalism Survive?” And he answered no–this coming from probably the leading intellectual defender of capitalism in the world at the time, with the possible exception Hayek. But there’s more. Schumpeter then goes on to ask: “Can socialism succeed?” And to this, his answer is an equally shocking, “Yes, I think it can.”
Now Schumpeter goes on to explain what he really means when he gives these answers. And in both cases, I think he was heavily influenced by his relationship with Paul. Can Capitalism survive? He said no because he said capitalism breeds intellectual freedom, people with critical minds. And it was only inevitable that this spirit would breed powerful minds who would turn their guns on the deficiencies of capitalism itself. No doubt, he had Sweezy in mind here-since here was Sweezy, the smartest young economist at Harvard, from a ruling class family, becoming a Marxist before Schumpeter’s own eyes. Then on the question of socialism. Schumpeter says it will succeed, in that it will be workable, though it will be cumbersome and bureaucratic, if more egalitarian than capitalism. And how will it even work at that level? Because the brilliant thinkers who have grown dissatisfied with the crassness and injustices of capitalism will also rise to the top in a socialist society, and make it function decently well. And again, who else could he have had in mind here but Paul, his student and protégé? Anyway, I once asked Paul about this theory of mine. He didn’t dismiss it, but of course, he was too modest to claim it was entirely true. He told me, “well there were lots of people around then and Schumpeter was just picking up the spirit of the time.” Yes, true, but no doubt, Sweezy embodied that spirit for Schumpeter more fully and powerfully than anyone else.
On his Harvard career-again I think before he became a Marxist, Paul and some other graduate students put together a small book called, I think “A Program for American Democracy.” It was a clear exposition of how to implement a Keynesian demand stimulus program for the fighting the depression. My understanding was that it had some significant influence at the time it came out-Kindleberger, for example, cites it in his history of the Depression.
Let me finally give a few personal thoughts. I may be the only person in the world who can make this claim: outside of high school, the first book I ever read in economics was Monopoly Capital, and the first teacher of economics I ever had was Paul Sweezy. In my first semester at the New School, spring of 1975, I took Paul’s course titled “Reading and Using Capital.” As you can imagine, I was totally pumped to be taking a course on Marx’s Capital from the person universally acknowledged as the leading Marxist economist in the world at the time. When I met with the student advisor my first day there, I told him I felt like I would be taking a course on the Civil War taught by Abraham Lincoln.
Anyway, the advisor-Ron Blackwell, who is now a leading official of the AFL-CIO-told me that “Paul Sweezy isn’t really a Marxist but a Keynesian.” I didn’t know enough to have any idea what Ron meant by that. I have subsequently come to understand the comment. In fact, there is a lot of Keynes in Sweezy-as I mentioned before, with respect to both Theory of Capitalist Development and Monopoly Capital. This was a powerful synthesis he was attempting, while still retaining the basic spirit and commitments of Marxism.
There was a fever pitch at the New School when the course began. On the first day, probably 400 people or so showed up, and you couldn’t get into the room. The next class, you had to show your proof of enrollment to get into the class, as another 400 showed up. However, things calmed down very quickly once we really got into things. Paul was an amazingly clear and committed teacher. But he definitely wasn’t into any kind of theatre of teaching or histrionics. So the course rapidly thinned down to 30-40 people who really wanted to hear Paul expound on Marx.
Among the students-though he didn’t come every time-was Daniel Ellsberg. I noticed this person one day just sitting there in class, taking notes on the lecture, like everyone else. This of course was at the very height of Ellsberg’s fame. I said to another student something like, “Isn’t that weird. That guy over there looks exactly like Daniel Ellsberg.” Ellsberg heard me say that, and just walked over to me, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, Dan Ellsberg.” Then we started talking about the class. He said he didn’t agree with Sweezy or Marx, because the Marxian tradition doesn’t give enough weight to spiritual and religious impulses in understanding human behavior, or something to that effect. Anyway, it was a very interesting discussion. Ellsberg was perfectly happy to mix it up with the students, and try to learn from the great Sweezy.
At the time, the first English translation of the Grundrisse had just been published. Paul was extremely upset about the way it had turned out, and mentioned it to us repeatedly. As I recall, it all hinged on a mistranslation of the word from German, ‘Realization’ I really don’t remember the problem exactly, but on reflection it all definitely had to do with Paul’s focus on the issue of underconsumption, or ‘realization failure’ in understanding Marx’s theory of economic crisis. Apparently Paul thought all this got garbled in the English translation of the Grundrisse, where it had been very clear in the original. This was a regular theme in the class, and became a joke among the students-here goes Sweezy again on ‘realization.’
Another more trivial thing about Paul then that we students joked about was the way he dressed. He had these two loud short-sleeved shirts-one I think was orange and the other one was blue. He seemed to wear these shirts on alternating days-as though he knew which loud shirt to wear according to the day of the week. We would say, ‘it’s a good thing he has on his blue shirt today. Otherwise, we might be going over the material from last week’s class.’ The general point is this: Paul was completely unadorned, completely without pretension, and paid not the slightest bit of attention to how he dressed.
Which brings up another point. Paul was legendarily handsome in his younger years, and apparently the attraction for women remained powerful. Some evidence: Paul Samuelson himself wrote about it, in an article in Newsweek called, I believe, ‘When Gods Strode The Earth.’ Samueulson was writing about a debate at Harvard between Schumpeter and Sweezy in the midst of the Depression, when Samuelson was a student there. In the article, as I recall, Sweezy, not Schumpeter, was ‘the God’–he was so smart, so rich, so handsome, and so Marxist. He apparently made mincemeat of the great Schumpeter, debating the most burning issue of the time. More evidence: In the mid 1980s I was at a small weekend retreat sponsored by MR. I happened to be talking to woman professor at the conference, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly (used to be at Johns Hopkins, not sure if she’s still there). Anyway, I noticed that she broke off our conversation and became transfixed for almost a full minute. She then turned back to me and said, ‘Look at Sweezy. He is so beautiful.’ And this is when Paul was in his mid seventies.
So, you asked for thoughts of all kinds and you’ve got them. Paul was an amazingly great man. I could also give you some criticisms, both of his work and his politics. But at the moment these would seem totally trivial and petty.” Robert Pollin, “He Was an Amazingly Great Man;” Counterpunch (about Paul Sweezy): http://www.counterpunch.org/
By 1928, Evans was back in New York and working seriously with photography. His first published photographs illustrated a 1930 volume of Hart Crane’s poem ‘The Bridge.’ Evans quickly established a reputation as a photographer and began a series of photographic commissions and exhibitions. In 1935, he commenced work on photographic surveys for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), an agency created as part of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery plan during the Great Depression. Evans was charged with documenting rural and working-class American landscapes and in 1935 began traveling in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the southern states. Officially, Evans was there to record documentary pictures of Birmingham’s industrial areas and
‘rural subjects’ in other parts of the state, but his interest was often drawn to more whimsical images that did not always follow the FSA mission and mandate. For example, some of his most memorable Alabama photographs from the period include pictures of festive and fading posters for traveling circuses and theatrical troupes.
Alabama with Agee in the summer of 1936, in search of subjects for the collaboration. Agee and Evans arrived in Hale County, an area of the state that Evans had previously photographed for the FSA. At the Hale County Courthouse in Greensboro, they met three sharecroppers from the nearby community of Mills Hill. That day, Evans began to take some of the most remarkable and praised photographs of his career, and Agee began to gather material for his most challenging and enduring book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Evans and Agee spent several weeks in Hale County gathering and documenting material about the three families. Agee stayed for a time in the tiny farmhouse of one family, but Evans stayed in a nearby hotel. The black-and-white photographs he took for the Fortune assignment are straightforward and powerful. The portraits are a stark and memorable document of the earnest, proud, and straightfoward farm families of the region. Two of the most commonly reproduced examples, “Floyd Burroughs, Sharecropper, 1936” and “Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Sharecropper, 1936,” present the viewer with an image of forthright dignity.
Fortune never published Agee’s article, but the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, appeared finally in 1941. Agee’s epic text was complemented by a portfolio of 31 of Evans’s photographs. The book, especially the photographs, received respectful reviews, but only 600 copies were sold after the initial publication. However, Evans’s Alabama photographs soon developed a life of their own. In 1938, New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition titled “Walker Evans: American Photographs,” and the Alabama photographs were included in the exhibition and in the show’s catalog.
In 1960, a second edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published, with an expanded portfolio of 62 Evans images. The re-issue brought Evans’s work to a whole new audience and earned him enthusiastic new appreciation. That same year, Evans married Isabelle Boeschenstein von Steiger. By 1965, he had left Fortune and become a professor of graphic design at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He was internationally regarded as a grand master of American photography. His work and publications continued to gather a wide and appreciative following with each generation. Evans retired from Yale in 1972. His second marriage ended in divorce the following year.
In 1973, Evans returned to Hale County for the first time since 1936. On this brief visit, he traveled with Alabama-born artist William Christenberry, whose own photographic work was greatly influenced by the 1960 re-issue of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. This time, Evans photographed in color using a simple Polaroid SX-70 camera. Some of the 1973 Alabama photographs by Evans were included in a touring exhibition of the photography of Evans and Christenberry organized by the Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1990. An exhibition catalog, Of Time and Place, was published the same year. Walker Evans suffered a massive stroke and died in New Haven, Connecticut, on April 10, 1975, at age 71. Evans’s images of the state and its people remain an important commentary on life in Depression-era Alabama and on the character of the people who endured it.” Edward Journey, “Walker Evans;” The Encyclopedia of Alabama, 2008: http://www.
There is plenty to boast of in the Deep South, with its cultural pleasures, where the cities in particular are vibrant, the art galleries of Atlanta, the gourmet restaurants of Charleston, the cities with pro sports or great college teams. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham is scheduled to perform César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, as I write, and the Mississippi Symphony is scheduling six concerts for its Bravo Series (Mozart, Beethoven) in Jackson. There are presidential libraries, playhouses and botanical gardens. Civil War battlefields abound—these solemn places are well kept and enlightening: You could spend months profitably touring them. The golf courses of Georgia and Alabama are famous, there is motor racing, and every large city has a grand hotel or two, and a great restaurant.
Parts of the Deep South are commercially prosperous, too, with booming industries—medical research and technology, aerospace and aviation, car manufacturing. The Mercedes you bought could have been made in Alabama, BMW’s plant in South Carolina will soon be its largest in the world, Nissan makes cars in Mississippi, and so does Toyota. There are many associated businesses, suppliers of car-related components. This is a testament to the enduring pride and work ethic of the South, not to mention labor laws.
I think most people know this. They may also be aware that the Deep South has some of the highest rates of unemployment, some of the worst schools, the poorest housing and medical care, a vast number of dying and depopulated towns. As for being hard-up, the states I visited in the Deep South have nearly 20 percent of their people living below the poverty line, more than the national average of 16 percent.
This other Deep South, with the same pride and with deep roots—rural, struggling, idyllic in places and mostly ignored—was like a foreign country to me. I decided to travel the back roads for the pleasure of discovery—doing in my own country what I had spent most of my life doing in Africa and India and China—ignoring the museums and stadiums, the antebellum mansions and automobile plants, and, with the 50th anniversary of the civil rights struggle in mind, concentrating on the human architecture, in particular the overlooked: the submerged fifth.
PART ONE: SOUTH CAROLINA
The South began for me in Allendale, in the rural Lowcountry of South Carolina, set among twiggy fields of tufted white, the blown-open cotton bolls brightening the spindly bushes. In a lifetime of travel, I had seen very few places to compare with Allendale in its oddity; and approaching the town was just as bizarre. The road, much of it, was a divided highway, wider than many sections of the great north-south Interstate, Route 95, which is more like a tunnel than a road for the way it sluices cars south at great speed.
Approaching the outskirts of Allendale I had a sight of doomsday, one of those visions that make the effort of travel worthwhile. It was a vision of ruin, of decay and utter emptiness; and it was obvious in the simplest, most recognizable structures—motels, gas stations, restaurants, stores—all of them abandoned to rot, some of them so thoroughly decayed that all that was left was the great concrete slab of the foundation, stained with oil or paint, littered with the splinters of the collapsed building, a rusted sign leaning. Some were brick-faced, others made of cinder blocks, but none was well made and so the impression I had was of astonishing decrepitude, as though a war had ravaged the place and killed all the people.
Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite—the sign still legible—broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands, the Presidential Inn, collapsed, empty; and another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” the more pathetic for being misspelled.
Most of the shops were closed, the wide main road was littered. The side streets, lined by shacks and abandoned houses, looked haunted. I had never seen anything quite like it, the ghost town on the ghost highway. I was glad I had come.
Just as decrepit, but busy, was a filling station and convenience store, where I stopped to buy gas. When I went inside for a drink I met Suresh Patel. “I came here two years ago from Broach,” Mr. Patel told me, from behind the counter of his cluttered shop. Broach is an industrial river district of 1.5 million in the state of Gujarat. Mr. Patel had been a chemist in India. “My cousin call me. He say, ‘Come. Good business.’”
Many Indian shopkeepers, duka-wallahs, whom I knew in East and Central Africa, claimed Broach as their ancestral home, where the Patel surname identifies them as members of a Gujarati, primarily Hindu subcaste. And Mr. Patel’s convenience store in Allendale was identical to the dukas in East Africa, the shelves of food and beer and cheap clothes and candy and household goods, the stern hand-lettered sign, No Credit, the same whiff of incense and curry. A 1999 story in the New York Timesmagazine by Tunku Varadarajan declared that more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States are owned by people of Indian origin, a statistic supplied by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association—and the figure is even greater now.
All the convenience stores, the three gas stations and the one motel in small, unpromising Allendale were each owned by Indians from India. The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the somnolence hanging over the town like a blight—and even the intense sunshine was like a sinister aspect of that same blight—all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe.
Later I saw just outside Allendale proper the campus of the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, with 800 students, and the old main street, and the handsome courthouse, and a small subdivision of well-kept bungalows. But mostly, and importantly, Allendale, judging from Route 301, was a ruin—poor, neglected, hopeless-looking, a vivid failure.
“We have to change the worst.”
In an office tucked inside a mobile unit, sign-posted “Allendale County Alive,” I found Wilbur Cave. After we shook hands, I mentioned the extraordinary weirdness of Route 301.
“This was a famous road once—the halfway point from up north to Florida or back,” Wilbur said. “Everyone stopped here. And this was one of the busiest towns ever. When I was growing up we could hardly cross the road.”
But there were no cars today, or just a handful. “What happened?”
“Route 95 happened.”
And Wilbur explained that in the late 1960s, when the Interstate route was plotted, it bypassed Allendale 40 miles to the east, and like many other towns on Route 301, Allendale fell into ruin. But just as the great new city rising in the wilderness is an image of American prosperity, a ghost town like Allendale is also a feature of our landscape. Perhaps the most American urban transformation is that very sight; all ghost towns were once boomtowns.
And this was why Wilbur Cave, seeing the area where he grew up falling to ruins—its very foundations conducing to dust—decided to do something to improve it. Wilbur had been a record-breaking runner in his high school, and after graduation from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, worked locally and then ran for the state representative’s seat in this district. He was elected and served for more than four years. He became a strategic planner, and with this experience he joined and re-energized the nonprofit Allendale County Alive, which helps provide decent housing to people. The town itself had a population of 4,500, three-quarters of them black, like the county.
“It’s not just this town that needs help,” Wilbur said. “The whole county is in bad shape. In the 2010 census we are the tenth-poorest county in the United States. And, you know, a lot of the others are Indian reservations.”
Wilbur Cave was 61 but looked ten years younger, compact, muscular, still with an athlete’s build, and energetic, full of plans. His family had lived in the area for many generations. His mother had been a teacher at Allendale County Training School. “The black school,” Wilbur explained. “The white one was Allendale Elementary.”
I remarked on how recently social change had come to the South.
“You have to know where we come from,” Wilbur said. “It’s hard for anyone to understand the South unless they understand history—and by history I mean slavery. History has had more impact here.”
Without realizing it, only smiling and tapping a ballpoint on the desktop blotter, he sounded like one of the wise, admonitory Southern voices in a Faulkner novel, reminding the Northerner of the complex past.
“Take my mother’s family. Some were farmers, for generations, right here in Allendale County. They had a hundred acres or so. It was a family activity to pick cotton. The children did it, the grandchildren. It was a normal after-school job. I did it, I sure did—we all did it.”
The small cotton farms were sold eventually to bigger growers, who introduced mechanical harvesters. That was another reason for the unemployment and the decline in population. But farming was still the mainstay of Allendale County, home to 10,000 people, 36 percent of whom lived below the poverty line.
Once, there had been textile factories, making cloth and carpets. They’d closed, the manufacturing outsourced to China, though a new textile plant is scheduled to open. The lumber mills—there were two in Allendale, turning out planks and utility poles—did not employ many people.
Wilbur drove me through the back streets of Allendale, and as we passed along the side roads, the lanes, the dirt paths on which there were two-room houses, some of them fixed up and painted, others no more than wooden shanties of the sort you might see in any third world country, and some shotgun shacks that are the emblematic architecture of Southern poverty.
“That’s one of ours,” Wilbur said of a tidy, white wood-framed bungalow on a corner, one of 150 houses his organization had fixed up or rebuilt. “It was a derelict property that we rehabbed and now it’s part of our inventory of rentals.”
“My feeling is—if South Carolina is to change, we have to change the worst,” Wilbur said as we passed a small, weathered house of sun-blackened planks and curling shingles, an antique that was beyond repair. But a man had lived in it until just recently, without electricity or heat or piped water.
“You hungry?” Wilbur asked.
I said I was and he took me on a short drive to the edge of town, to a diner, O’ Taste & See, sought out for its soul food, fried chicken and catfish, biscuits, rice and gravy, fruit pies and friendliness.
“Money is not the whole picture, but it’s the straw that stirs the drink,” Wilbur said over lunch, when I mentioned the hundreds of millions in U.S. aid that was given to foreign countries. “I don’t want hundreds of millions. Give me one-thousandth of it and I could dramatically change things like public education in Allendale County.”
Wilbur said that he didn’t begrudge aid to Africa, but he added, “If my organization had access to that kind of money we could really make a difference.”
“What would you do?”
“We could focus our energy and get things done.” He smiled. He said, “We wouldn’t have to worry about the light bill.”
With accommodations scarce in sunny, desolate Allendale—most of the motels abandoned or destroyed—I drove up Route 301, the empty, glorious thoroughfare, 45 miles to Orangeburg. It was a small town, kept buoyant by revenue from its schools and colleges.
Walking along the main street, I fell into step with a man and said hello. And I received the glowing Southern welcome. He wore a dark suit and carried a briefcase. He said he was a lawyer and gave me his card, Virgin Johnson Jr., Attorney at Law. I asked about the history of the town, just a general inquiry, and received a surprising answer.
“Well,” Mr. Johnson said, “there was the massacre.”
Massacre is a word that commands attention. This bloody event was news to me, so I asked for details. And he told me that Orangeburg was still segregated in 1968 in spite of the fact that the Civil Rights Act had been in force for four years. A bowling alley, the only one in town, refused to allow black students inside.
One day in February ’68, objecting to being discriminated against, in the bowling alley and elsewhere, several hundred students held a demonstration at the campus of South Carolina State College across town. The event was noisy but the students were unarmed, facing officers from the South Carolina Highway Patrol, who carried pistols and carbines and shotguns. Alarmed by the jostling students, one police officer fired his gun into the air—warning shots, he later said. Hearing those gunshots, the other police officers began firing directly at the protesters, who turned and ran. Because the students were fleeing they were shot in the back. Three young men were killed, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith; 27 were injured, some of them seriously, all of them students, riddled with buckshot.
When I mentioned Kent State to Mr. Johnson, how everyone knew the name, he smiled and said, “But you know those kids that died were white.”
Before I went on my way I remarked on how odd it was to me to be holding this conversation with someone I’d met by chance, simply asking directions on a public street. I was grateful for his taking the time with a stranger who had so many questions.
“People here understand how it is to need help,” he said. “To be neglected.” He tapped the business card I’d been holding. “You let me know if you want to meet some people who know more than I do. Why not stop in to my church this Sunday? I’ll be preaching.”
“Your card says you’re an attorney.”
“I’m a preacher, too. Revelation Ministries over in Fairfax. Well, Sycamore, actually.”
“God has a plan for you.”
The back roads from Orangeburg to Sycamore were empty on this Sunday morning—empty and beautiful, passing along the margins of more twiggy cotton fields, many of them puddled and muddy, the ripe tufts (the linty so-called “locks”) in open bolls sodden and the bushes beaten down by yesterday’s rain.
Rev. Johnson’s church was the large industrial-looking structure near Barker’s Mill and the flag-draped meetinghouse of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. At the church a group of older men, formally dressed in suits, welcomed me and introduced themselves as deacons and ushers.
On the back wall, a scroll-shaped sign in gold, “Revelation Ministries—Revealing God’s Word to the World—We Love You—Ain’t Nothing You Can Do About It!”
After the preliminaries—music, singing—when the church was full, the familiar dark-suited figure of Virgin Johnson Jr. rose from his high-backed, thronelike chair. He began to preach, a well-thumbed Bible in his right hand, and his left hand raised in admonition.
“Hear me today, brothers and sisters,” he began, and lifted his Bible to read from it. He read from Luke, he read from Mark, he read from Jeremiah, and then he said, “Tell your neighbor, ‘God has a plan for you!’”
The woman in front of me and the man beside me took turns saying to me in a grand tone of delivering good news, “God has a plan for you!”
Rev. Johnson described the children of Israel taken into captivity in Babylon, and paraphrased Jeremiah’s epistle, “‘Even though it look like stuff mess up in your life, it gon’ to be all right, after a while! Stop distressing, stop worrying. Even though your circumstances don’t look prosperous you gon’ be all right!”
Thirty minutes of his warm encouragement, and then the music began again in earnest and the whole church was rocked in song.
“I’m just a country boy, from bottom-line caste, born and raised in Estill, Hampton County,” Virgin Johnson told me that night over a meal up the road in Orangeburg, where he lived. Estill was the sticks, he said, deep country, cotton fields. Then with a mock-resigned sigh, he said, “Po’ black.”
Still in his dark suit, he sipped his iced tea. This was another man speaking, not the excited Sycamore preacher, not the shrewd Orangeburg trial lawyer, but a quiet, reflective private citizen in a back booth at Ruby Tuesday, reminiscing about his life as a loner.
“I was born in 1954, in Estill. In 1966, as a result of what they called ‘voluntary integration,’ I was the only black student at Estill Elementary School. Happened this way. There were two buses went by our place every morning. I had said to my daddy, ‘I want to get the first bus.’ That was the white bus. He said, ‘You sure, boy?’ I said, ‘I’m sure.’
“The day I hit that bus everything changed. Sixth grade—it changed my life. I lost all my friends, black and white. No one talked to me, no one at all. Even my white friends from home. I knew they wanted to talk to me, but they were under pressure, and so was I. I sat at the back of the bus. When I went to the long table for lunch, 30 boys would get up and leave.
“The funny thing is, we were all friendly, black and white. We picked cotton together. My daddy and uncle had a hundred acres of cotton. But when I got on the bus, it was over. I was alone, on my own.
“When I got to school I knew there was a difference. There was not another African-American there—no black teachers, no black students, none at all. Except the janitors. The janitors were something, like guardian angels to me. They were black, and they didn’t say anything to me—didn’t need to. They nodded at me as if to say, ‘Hold on, boy. Hold on.’
“I learned at an early age you have to stand by yourself. That gave me a fighting spirit. I’ve had it since I was a child. It’s destiny. What happens when you let other people make your decisions? You become incapable of making your own decisions.
“I was the first African-American to go to law school from my side of the county. University of South Carolina at Columbia. I was in a class of 100—this was in the ’80s, I was the only black person. Passed the bar in 1988. Got a license to preach.
“There’s no contradiction for me. I’m happy doing both. I just wish the economy was better. This area is so poor. They got nothin’—they need hope. If I can give it to them, that’s a good thing. Jesus said, ‘We have to go back and care about the other person.’
“This is a friendly place—nice people. Good values. Decent folks. We have issues—kids having kids, for one, sometimes four generations of kids having kids. But there’s so little advance. That does perplex me—the condition of this place. Something’s missing. What is it?”
And then he made a passionate gesture, flinging up his hand, and he raised his voice in a tone that recalled his preaching voice. “Take the kids away from this area and they shine!”
PART TWO: ALABAMA
Greensboro, Alabama, less than 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa, lies under the horizon in a green sea of meadows and fields, a small, pretty, somewhat collapsed and haunted town. Up the road from Greensboro, around Moundville, lies the farmland and still-substandard houses where James Agee and Walker Evans spent a summer collecting material for the book that would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Published in 1941, it sold a mere 600 copies. Its commercial failure contributed to Agee’s heavy drinking and early death at the age of 45. Twenty years later, it was republished, and in the early 1960s, it found many more readers and admirers.
Cherokee City in the book is Tuscaloosa, Centerboro is Greensboro, the subject of some of Evans’ photographs, and where I was eventually headed.
Greensboro was beautiful—hardly changed architecturally since Agee’s visit in 1936—but it was struggling.
“Our main problems?” Greensboro’s mayor, Johnnie B. Washington, said with a smile. “How much time do you have? A day or two, to listen? It’s lack of revenue, it’s resistance to change, it’s so many things. But I tell you, this is a fine town.”
One of the largest personal libraries I have ever seen belonged to Randall Curb, who lived in a white frame house on a corner, near the end of Main Street, in Greensboro. He was legally blind, but as it had been a progressive decline in his vision, he had continued to buy books—real tomes—while adjusting to audio books. He was 60, kindly, generous, eager to share his knowledge of Greensboro, of which he was the unofficial historian. He was also steeped in the lore of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He impressed me by calling its prose “incantatory.”
Randall knew all the readers roundabout. He gave talks—on Agee, on Eudora Welty, on the English writers he loved (he spent a few months in London almost every year), on historical figures such as Ben Franklin. He knew the writers, too.
“You should meet Mary T,” he said to me, his way of referring to Mary Ward Brown, who lived in the town of Marion, in the next county. “She writes short stories—very good ones. She’s 95,” he added. “Ninety-six in a few months.”
“Perhaps you could introduce me,” I said.
Days passed. I read a dozen of her stories and her memoir. I called Randall and said, “I’d like to see her soon.”
When I came to Marion, I realized how moribund Greensboro was. The shops in Marion were still in business, Marion had a courthouse, and a military institute, and Judson College, which Mary T (she insisted on the name) had attended. There were bookstores in Marion and a well-known soul food restaurant, Lottie’s. Coretta Scott King had been raised in Marion, and voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson had been shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in the town in 1965 during a peaceful protest, a catalyzing event in the civil rights movement that provoked the protest marches from Selma to Montgomery.
“Notice how it’s desolate here,” Randall said as I drove outside town. Though he was unable to see, he had a clear memory of the flat land, the fields of stubble, the wet clay roads, the thin patches of woods, the absence of houses, now and then a crossroads. “You’ll know it when you see it. It’s the only house here.”
After five miles of fields, he said, “This must be Hamburg,” and a white bungalow appeared, and on the porch—we had called ahead—Mary T and a much younger woman, wearing an apron.
“Is Ozella with her?” Randall said, trying to see. He explained that Ozella was the daughter of a previous housekeeper. Ozella was standing closely next to Mary T, who was tiny, watchful, like a bird on a branch, and smiling in anticipation. Very old and upright people have a dusty glow that makes them seem immortal.
“My father built this house in 1927,” Mary T said, when I praised the house. It was a modest two-story bungalow, but squat and solid, fronted by the bulging porch, a dormer above it, so unlike the shotgun shacks and rectangular houses we’d passed at the edge of Marion. Inside, the walls were paneled in dark wood, a planked ceiling, an oak floor. Like Randall’s house it was filled with books, in the bookcases that were fitted in all the inner rooms and upstairs.
Mary T opened a bottle of blueberry wine from a winery in Harpersville, and though it was a warm noontime, a fly buzzing behind the hot white curtains in the small back dining room, we stood and clinked schooners of the wine and toasted our meeting—the ancient Mary T, the nearly blind Randall and myself, the traveler, passing through. Something about the wood paneling, the quality of the curtains, the closeness of the room, the sense of being in the deep countryside holding a glass of wine on a hot day—it was like being in old Russia. I said so.
“That’s why I love Chekhov,” Mary T said. “He writes about places like this, people like the ones who live here—the same situations.”
The sunny day, the bleakness of the countryside, the old bungalow on the narrow road, no other house nearby; the smell of the muddy fields penetrating the room—and that other thing, a great and overwhelming sadness that I felt but couldn’t fathom.
“Have a slice of poundcake,” Randall said, opening the foil on a heavy yellow loaf. “My mother made it yesterday.”
Mary T cut a crumbly slab and divided it among us, and I kept thinking: This could only be the South, but a peculiar and special niche of it, a house full of books, the dark paintings, the ticking clock, the old furniture, the heavy oak table, something melancholy and indestructible but looking a bit besieged; and that unusual, almost unnatural, tidiness imposed by a housekeeper—pencils lined up, magazines and pamphlets in squared-up piles—Ozella’s hand, obvious and unlikely, a servant’s sense of order.
In Fanning the Spark (2009), a selective, impressionistic memoir, Mary T had told her story: her upbringing as a rural shopkeeper’s daughter; her becoming a writer late in life—she was 61 when she published her first short story. It is a little history of surprises—surprise that she became a writer after so long, a period she called “the 25-year silence”; surprise that her stories found favor; surprise that her stories won awards.
Setting her glass of wine down on the thick disk of coaster, she said, “I’m hungry for catfish”—the expression of appetite a delight to hear from someone 95 years old.
She put on a wide-brimmed black hat the size, it seemed, of a bicycle wheel, and a red capelike coat. Helping her down the stairs, I realized she was tiny and frail; but her mind was active, she spoke clearly, her memory was good, her bird-claw of a hand was in my grip.
And all the way to Lottie’s diner in Marion, on the country road, she talked about how she’d become a writer.
“It wasn’t easy for me to write,” she said. “I had a family to raise, and after my husband died, it became even harder, because my son Kirtley was still young. I thought about writing, I read books, but I didn’t write. I think I had an advantage. I could tell literature from junk. I knew what was good. I knew what I wanted to write. And when I came to it—I was more than 60—I rewrote hard. I tried to make it right.”
At last we were rolling down Marion’s main street, Washington Street, then past the military academy and the courthouse, and over to Pickens Street, the site of Mack’s Café—the places associated with the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. We came to Lottie’s. I parked in front and eased Mary T out of the passenger seat and into the diner.
“I’ve been reading a book about interviews with people who are over 100 years old,” Mary T said, perhaps reminded of her frailty. “It was called something like Lessons From the Centenarians. The lesson to me was, I don’t think I want to live that long.”
People seated at their meals looked up from their food as Mary T entered, and many of them recognized her and greeted her. Though Mary T was moving slowly, she lifted her hand to greet them.
“See, the Yankee’s having the grilled catfish,” Randall said, after we seated ourselves and ordered. “We stick with the fried.”
“My mother worked in the store—she was too busy to raise me,” Mary T said over lunch, pausing after each sentence, a bit short of breath. “I was raised by our black housekeeper. She was also the cook. I called her Mammy. I know it’s not good to call someone Mammy these days, but I meant it—she was like a mother to me. I leaned on her.”
“If my mother ever sat and held me as a child I don’t remember, but I do remember the solace of Mammy’s lap,” she had written in Fanning the Spark. “Though she was small, light-skinned and far from the stereotype, her lap could spread and deepen to accommodate any wound. It smelled of gingham and a smoky cabin, and it rocked gently during tears. It didn’t spill me out with token consolation but was there as long as it was needed. It was pure heartsease.”
Randall began to talk about the changes in the South that he knew.
What will happen here? I asked.
“Time will help,” Mary T said. “But I think the divisions will always be there—the racial divisions.”
And I reminded myself that she’d been born in 1917. She had been in her teens during the Depression. She was only seven years younger than James Agee, and so she had known the poverty and the sharecroppers and the lynchings in the Black Belt.
“I did my best,” she said. “I told the truth.”
After, I dropped her at her remote house, the sun lowering into the fields, she waved from the porch. I dropped Randall in Greensboro. I hit the road again. The following week Mary T sent me an email, remarking on something I’d written. I wrote again in the following days. I received a brief reply, and then after a week or so, silence. Randall wrote to say that Mary T was ill and in the hospital; and then, about a month after we met, she died.
Traveling in America
Most travel narratives—perhaps all of them, the classics anyway—describe the miseries and splendors of going from one remote place to another. The quest, the getting there, the difficulty of the road is the story; the journey, not the arrival, matters, and most of the time the traveler—the traveler’s mood, especially—is the subject of the whole business. I have made a career out of this sort of slogging and self-portraiture, travel writing as diffused autobiography; and so have many others in the old, laborious look-at-me way that informs travel writing.
But traveling in America is unlike traveling anywhere else on earth. It is filled with road candy, and seems so simple, sliding all over in your car on wonderful roads.
Driving south, I became a traveler again in ways I’d forgotten. Because of the effortless release from my home to the road, the sense of being sprung, I rediscovered the joy in travel that I knew in the days before the halts, the checks, the affronts at airports—the invasions and violations of privacy that beset every air traveler. All air travel today involves interrogation.
Around the corner from Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama, tucked into a brick building he’d financed himself, was the barbershop of the Rev. Eugene Lyles, who was 79. He was seated at a small table peering at the Acts of the Apostles, while awaiting his next customer. In addition to his barbershop, Rev. Lyles was a pastor at the Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church just south of town, and next door to the barbershop, Rev. Lyles’ soul food diner, nameless except for the sign “Diner” out front.
Marking the page in his Bible, and shutting it, then climbing onto one of his barber chairs and stretching his long legs, he said, “When I was a boy I bought a pair of clippers. I cut my brothers’ hair. Well, I got ten boy siblings and three girl siblings—fourteen of us. I kept cutting hair. I started this business 60 years ago, cutting hair all that time. And I got the restaurant, and I got the church. Yes, I am busy.
“There are good people in Greensboro. But the white core is rooted in the status quo. The school is separate yet. When it was integrated the whites started a private school, Southern Academy. There’s somewhere above 200 there now.” Rev. Lyles laughed and spun his glasses off to polish them with a tissue. “History is alive and well here.”
And slavery is still a visitable memory because of the persistence of its effects.
“I went to segregated schools. I grew up in the countryside, outside Greensboro, ten miles out, Cedarville. Very few whites lived in the area. I didn’t know any whites. I didn’t know any whites until the ’60s, when I was in my 30s.
“Most of the land in Cedarville was owned by blacks. There was a man, Tommy Ruffin, he owned 10,000 acres. He farmed, he had hands, just like white folks did, growing cotton and corn. He was advised by a white man named Paul Cameron not to sell any of that land to a white person. Sell to blacks, he said, because that’s the only way a black man can get a foothold in a rural area.
“My father was a World War I vet. He ran away from here in 1916—he was about 20. He went to Virginia. He enlisted there, in 1917. After the war, he worked in a coal mine in West Virginia. He came back and married in 1930, but kept working in the mine, going back and forth. He gave us money. I always had money in my pockets. Finally, he migrated into Hale County for good and bought some land.”
We went next door to Rev. Lyles’ diner. I ordered baked chicken, collard greens, rice and gravy. Rev. Lyles had the same. His younger brother Benny joined us.
“Lord,” Rev. Lyles began, his hands clasped, his eyes shut, beginning grace.
At the edge of County Road 16, ten miles south of Greensboro, an old white wooden building stood back from the road but commanded attention. It had recently been prettified and restored and was used as a community center.
“That’s the Rosenwald School. We called it the Emory School,” Rev. Lyles told me. “I was enrolled in that school in 1940. Half the money for the school came from Sears, Roebuck—folks here put up the difference. My mother also went to a Rosenwald School, the same as me. The students were black, the teachers were black. If you go down Highway 69, down to the Gallion area, there is another Rosenwald School, name of Oak Grove.”
Julius Rosenwald, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, made a success of his clothing business by selling to Richard Sears, and in 1908 became president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. In midlife his wish was to make a difference with his money, and he hatched a plan to give his wealth to charitable causes but on a condition that has become common today: His contribution had to be met by an equal amount from the other party, the matching grant. Convinced that Booker T. Washington’s notion to create rural schools was a way forward, Rosenwald met the great educator and later began the Rosenwald Fund to build schools in backlands of the South.
Five thousand schools were built in 15 states beginning in 1917, and they continued to be built into the 1930s. Rosenwald himself died in 1932, around the time the last schools were built; but before the money he had put aside ran its course, in 1948, a scheme had been adopted through which money was given to black scholars and writers of exceptional promise. One of the young writers, Ralph Ellison, from Oklahoma, was granted a Rosenwald Fellowship, and this gave him the time and incentive to complete his novel Invisible Man (1952), one of the defining dramas of racial violence and despair in America. Rosenwald fellowships also went to the photographer Gordon Parks, the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (who later created Ellison’s memorial in New York City), W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and many other black artists and thinkers.
The schools built with Rosenwald money (and local effort) were modest structures in the beginning, two-room schools like the one in Greensboro, with two or at the most three teachers. They were known as Rosenwald Schools but Rosenwald himself discouraged naming any of them after himself. As the project developed into the 1920s the schools became more ambitious, brick-built, with more rooms.
One of the characteristics of the schools was an emphasis on natural light through the use of large windows. The assumption was that the rural areas where they’d be built would probably not have electricity; paint colors, placement of blackboards and desks, even the southerly orientation of the school to maximize the light were specified in blueprints.
The simple white building outside Greensboro was a relic from an earlier time, and had the Rev. Lyles not explained its history, and his personal connection, I would have had no idea that almost 100 years ago a philanthropic-minded stranger from Chicago had tried to make a difference here.
“The financing was partly the responsibility of the parents,” Rev. Lyles told me. “They had to give certain stipends. Wasn’t always money. You’ve heard of people giving a doctor chickens for their payment? That’s the truth—that happened in America. Some were given corn, peanuts and other stuff, instead of cash money. They didn’t have money back in that day.” Rev. Lyles, who came from a farming family, brought produce his father had grown, and chickens and eggs.
“My grandfather and the others who were born around his time, they helped put up that school building. And just recently Pam Dorr and HERO”—the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization—“made a plan to fix up the school. It made me proud that I was able to speak when it was reopened as a community center. My grandfather would have been proud too.”
He spoke some more about his family and their ties to the school, and added, “My grandfather was born in 1850.”
I thought I had misheard the date. Surely this was impossible. I queried the date.
So Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was younger than Rev. Lyles’ grandfather. “My grandfather wasn’t born here but he came here. He remembered slavery—he told us all about it. I was 13 years old when he passed. I was born in 1934. He would have been in his 90s. Work it out—he was 10 years old in 1860. Education wasn’t for blacks then. He lived slavery. Therefore his name was that of his owner, Lyles, and he was Andrew Lyles. Later on, he heard stories about the Civil War, and he told them to me.”
Fruit Pies and Bamboo Bikes
A corner shop on Main Street in Greensboro was now called PieLab, a café associated with HERO and well known locally for its homemade fruit pies, salads and sandwiches.
“The idea was that people would drop in at PieLab and get to know someone new,” Randall Curb had said. “A good concept, but it hasn’t worked out—at least I don’t think so.” Shaking his head, he had somewhat disparaged it as “a liberal drawing card.”
The next day, quite by chance, having lunch at PieLab, I met the executive director of HERO (and the founder of its Housing Resource Center), Pam Dorr.
The more appealing of the skeletal, fading towns in the South attracted outsiders, in the way third world countries attracted idealistic volunteers, and for many of the same reasons. With a look of innocence and promise, the places were poor, pretty and in need of revival. They posed the possibility of rescue, an irresistible challenge to a young college graduate or someone who wanted to take a semester off to perform community service in another world. These were also pleasant places to live in—or at least seemed so.
The desperate housing situation in Greensboro, and Hale County generally, had inspired student architects of the Rural Studio (a program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University) to create low-cost housing for needy people. The Auburn houses are small, but simple, and some of them brilliantly innovative, looking folded out and logical, like oversize elaborations of origami in tin and plywood. The studio determined that in Greensboro the right price for a small, newly built house would be no more than $20,000, “the highest realistic mortgage a person receiving median Social Security checks can maintain.”
Hearing about the Auburn Rural Studio, Pam Dorr had traveled from San Francisco to Greensboro ten years before to become an Auburn Outreach fellow. It was a break from her successful career as a designer for popular clothing companies, including Esprit and the Gap and Victoria’s Secret (“I made cozy pajamas”). She had come to Greensboro in a spirit of volunteerism, but when her fellowship ended, she was reluctant to leave. “I realized there was so much more I could do,” she told me at the PieLab, which grew out of an entrepreneurial group she was in. Another idea, to make bicycle frames out of bamboo, resulted in Hero Bikes, one of the businesses Pam has overseen since starting the Housing Resource Center in 2004.
“We build houses, we educate people on home ownership, and working with nontraditional bankers we help people establish credit.” Local banks had a history of lending mainly to whites. Blacks could get loans but only at extortionate rates—27 percent interest was not uncommon.
“It seemed to me a prime opportunity to start a community again,” Pam said. “We have 33 people on the payroll and lots of volunteers. HERO is in the pie business, the pecan business—we sell locally grown pecans to retail stores—the bamboo bike business, the construction business. We have a day care center and after-school program. A thrift store.”
Some of these businesses were now housed in what had been a hardware store and an insurance agency. They had redeveloped or improved 11 of the defunct stores on Main Street.
“I worked free for two years,” Pam said. “We got a HUD grant, we got some other help and now, because of the various businesses, we’re self-sustaining.”
She was like the most inspired and energetic Peace Corps volunteer imaginable. Upbeat, full of recipes, solutions and ideas for repurposing, still young—hardly 50—with wide experience and a California smile and informality. The way she dressed—in a purple fleece and green clogs—made her conspicuous. Her determination to effect change made her suspect.
“You find out a lot, living here,” she told me. “Drugs are a problem—drive along a side road at night and you’ll see girls prostituting themselves to get money to support their habit. Thirteen-year-olds getting pregnant—I know two personally.”
“What does the town think of your work?” I asked.
“A lot of people are on our side,” she said. “But they know that change has to come from within.”
“Reverend Lyles told me you had something to do with fixing up the Rosenwald School here.”
“The Emory School, yeah,” she said. “But we had help from the University of Alabama, and volunteers from AmeriCorps—lots of people contributed. Reverend Lyles was one of our speakers at the reopening dedication ceremony. That was a great day.” She took a deep calming breath. “But not everyone is on our side.”
This surprised me, because what she had described, the renovation of an old schoolhouse in a hard-up rural area, was like a small-scale development project in a third world country. I had witnessed such efforts many times: the energizing of a sleepy community, the fund-raising, the soliciting of well-wishers and sponsors, engaging volunteers, asking for donations of building material, applying for grants and permits, fighting inertia and the naysayers’ laughter, making a plan, getting the word out, supervising the business, paying the skilled workers, bringing meals to the volunteers and seeing the project through to completion. Years of effort, years of budgeting. At last, the dedication, everyone turned out, the cookies, the lemonade, the grateful speeches, the hugs. That was another side to the South, people seeing it as a development opportunity, and in workshops talking about “challenges” and “potential.”
“So who’s against you?” I said.
“Plenty of people seem to dislike what we’re doing,” Pam said. She rocked in her clogs and zipped her fleece against the chilly air. “Lots of opposition.” She laughed, saying this. “Lots of abuse. They call me names.” Once, she said, someone spit on her.
PART THREE: MISSISSIPPI
Hardly a town or a village, Money, Mississippi (pop. 94), was no more than a road junction near the banks of the Tallahatchie River. There, without any trouble, I found what I was looking for, a 100-year-old grocery store, the roof caved in, the brick walls broken, the facade boarded up, the wooden porch roughly patched, and the whole wreck of it overgrown with dying plants and tangled vines. For its haunted appearance and its bloody history it was the ghostliest structure I was to see in the whole of my travels in the South. This ruin, formerly Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, has topped the list of Mississippi Heritage Trust’s “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places,” though many people would like to tear it down as an abomination.
What happened there in the store and subsequently, in that tiny community, was one of the most powerful stories I’d heard as a youth. As was so often the case, driving up a country road in the South was driving into the shadowy past. A “Mississippi Freedom Trail” sign in front of it gave the details of its place in history. It was part of my history, too.
I was just 14 in 1955 when the murder of the boy occurred. He was exactly my age. But I have no memory of any news report in a Boston newspaper at the time of the outrage. We got the Boston Globe, but we were subscribers to and diligent readers of family magazines, Life for its photographs, Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post for profiles and short stories, Look for its racier features, Reader’s Digest for its roundups. This Victorian habit in America of magazines as family entertainment and enlightenment persisted until television overwhelmed it in the later 1960s.
In January 1956, Look carried an article by William Bradford Huie, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” and it appeared in a shorter form in the Reader’s Digest that spring. I remember this distinctly, because my two older brothers had read the stories first, and I was much influenced by their tastes and enthusiasms. After hearing them excitedly talking about the story, I read it and was appalled and fascinated.
Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago, visiting his great-uncle in Mississippi, stopped at a grocery store to buy some candy. He supposedly whistled at the white woman behind the counter. A few nights later he was abducted, tortured, killed and thrown into a river. Two men, Roy Bryant and John William “J.W.” Milam, were caught and tried for the crime. They were acquitted. “Practically all the evidence against the defendants was circumstantial evidence,” was the opinion in an editorial in the Jackson Daily News.
After the trial, Bryant and Milam gloated, telling Huie that they had indeed committed the crime, and they brazenly volunteered the gory particularities of the killing. Milam, the more talkative, was unrepentant in describing how he’d kidnapped Emmett Till with Bryant’s help, pistol-whipped him in a shed behind his home in Glendora, shot him and disposed of the body.
“Let’s write them a letter,” my brother Alexander said, and did so. His letter was two lines of threat—We’re coming to get you. You’ll be sorry—and it was signed, The Gang from Boston. We mailed it to the named killers, in care of the post office in Money, Mississippi.
The killing prompted a general outcry in the North, and my brothers and I talked of little else for months. Yet there was limited response from the authorities. The response from the black community in the South was momentous—“Till’s death received international attention and is widely credited with sparking the American Civil Rights Movement,” the commemorative sign in front of the Bryant store said—and the response was unusual because it was nonviolent. On December 1 of that same year of the Till trial, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. She was arrested for her act of disobedience, and she became a symbol of defiance. Her stubbornness and sense of justice made her a rallying point and an example.
Though the Jackson Daily News editorialized that it was “best for all concerned that the Bryant-Milam case be forgotten as quickly as possible,” the paper also had published a robust piece by William Faulkner. It was one of the most damning and gloomiest accusations Faulkner ever wrote (and he normally resisted the simplifications of newspaper essays), and his anguish shows. He must have recognized the event as something he might have imagined in fiction. He wrote his rebuttal hurriedly in Rome while he was on an official junket, and it was released through the U.S. Information Service.
He first spoke about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the hypocrisy of boasting of our values to our enemies “after we have taught them (as we are doing) that when we talk of freedom and liberty, we not only mean neither, we don’t even mean security and justice and even the preservation of life for people whose pigmentation is not the same as ours.”
He went on to say that if Americans are to survive we will have to show the world that we are not racists, “to present to the world one homogeneous and unbroken front.” Yet this might be a test we will fail: “Perhaps we will find out now whether we are to survive or not. Perhaps the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive.”
And his conclusion: “Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”
Nowhere in the piece did Faulkner use Emmett Till’s name, yet anyone who read it knew whom he was speaking about.
Forget him, the Jackson paper had said, but on the contrary the case became a remembered infamy and a celebrated injustice; and Emmett Till was eulogized as a hero and a martyr. Suppression of the truth is not merely futile but almost a guarantee of something wonderful and revelatory emerging from it: creating an opposing and more powerful and ultimately overwhelming force, sunlight breaking in, as the Till case proved.
Near the ghostly ruin of Bryant’s store, I walked around in the chill air—no one outside on this winter day. I drove east down Whaley Road, past Money Bayou and some narrow ponds, hoping to find Dark Ferry Road and the farm of Grover C. Frederick, where the little house of Emmett’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, had stood, where he’d worked as a sharecropper and where the boy stayed during his visit. But my map didn’t help, and there was no one to ask, and some parts of the past had been erased, but negligible parts. Night was falling when I drove back to Money, the same sort of darkness into which Emmett Till had been dragged. The next day I visited the Emmett Till museum in nearby Glendora, in a forbidding former cotton gin.
Oxford, where Faulkner had lived and died, was the university town of Ole Miss. Off well-traveled Route 278, the town vibrated with the rush of distant traffic. There is hardly a corner of this otherwise pleasant place where the whine of cars is absent, and it is a low hum at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s house, which lies at the end of a suburban street, at the periphery of the campus and its academic splendors.
The road noise struck an odd and intrusive note because, though Oxford resembles “Jefferson” in Faulkner’s work, the town and its surroundings are in all respects as remote from Faulkner’s folksy, bosky, strife-ridden, plot-saturated and fictional Yoknapatawpha County as it is possible to be. The town is lovely. The university is classically beautiful in the Greek Revival Southern style, of columns and bricks and domes, suggesting a mood both genteel and scholarly, and backward-looking.
And for a century this esteemed and vividly pompous place of learning clung to the old ways—segregation and bigotry among them, overwhelming any liberal tendencies. So, here is an irony, one of the many in the Faulkner biography, odder than this self-described farmer living on a side street in a fraternity-mad, football-crazed college town.
Faulkner—a shy man but a bold, opinionated literary genius with an encyclopedic grasp of Southern history, one of our greatest writers and subtlest thinkers—lived most of his life at the center of this racially divided community without once suggesting aloud, in his wise voice, in a town he was proud to call his own, that a black student had a right to study at the university. The Nobel Prize winner stood by as blacks were shooed off the campus, admitted as menials only through the back door and when their work was done told to go away. Faulkner died in July 1962. Three months later, after a protracted legal fuss (and deadly riots afterward), and no thanks to Faulkner, James Meredith, from the small central Mississippi town of Kosciusko, was admitted, as its first black student.
Fair-minded, Faulkner had written in Harper’s magazine: “To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow.” But he asked for a gradual approach to integration, and, as he wrote in Life magazine, he was against the interference of the federal government—“forces outside the south that would use legal or police compulsion to eradicate that evil overnight.” We’ll do it ourselves, in our own time, was his approach; but, in fact, nothing happened until the federal government—the South’s historical villain—intervened.
Restless when he was not writing, always in need of money, Faulkner traveled throughout his life; but Oxford remained his home, and Rowan Oak his house, even when (it seems) a neighborhood grew up around the big, ill-proportioned farmhouse previously known as “the Bailey Place.” He renamed it Rowan Oak for the mythical powers of the wood of the rowan tree, as the docents at the house helpfully explained to me.
This street—orderly, bourgeois, well-tended, tidy, conventional—is everything Faulkner’s fiction is not and is at odds with Faulkner’s posturing as a country squire. On this road of smug homes, Rowan Oak rises lopsidedly like a relic, if not a white elephant, with porches and white columns, windows framed by dark shutters, and stands of old, lovely juniper trees. The remnants of a formal garden are visible under the trees at the front—but just the symmetrical brickwork of flowerbed borders and walkways showing in the surface of the ground like the remains of a neglected Neolithic site.
He was anchored by Oxford but lived a chaotic life; and the surprising thing is that from this messy, lurching existence that combined the asceticism of concentrated writing with the eruptions of binge drinking and passionate infidelities, he produced an enormous body of work, a number of literary masterpieces, some near misses and a great deal of garble. He is the writer all aspiring American writers are encouraged to read, yet with his complex and speechifying prose he is the worst possible model for a young writer. He is someone you have to learn how to read, not someone anyone should dare imitate, though unfortunately many do.
Some of Faulkner’s South still exists, not on the land but as a racial memory. Early in his writing life he set himself a mammoth task, to create the fictional world of an archetypical Mississippi county where everything happened—to explain to Southerners who they were and where they’d come from. Where they were going didn’t matter much to Faulkner. Go slowly, urged Faulkner, the gradualist.
Ralph Ellison once said, “If you want to know something about the dynamics of the South, of interpersonal relationships in the South from, roughly, 1874 until today, you don’t go to historians; not even to Negro historians. You go to William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren.”
I walked through the rooms at Rowan Oak, which were austerely furnished, with a number of ordinary paintings and simple knickknacks, a dusty piano, the typewriter and the weird novelty of notes puzzling out the plot of A Fable written by him on the wall of an upstairs room. Notes clarifying the multilayered, if not muddled, plot were, for Faulkner, a good idea, and would serve a reader, too. Nothing to me would be more useful than such handwriting on a wall. Baffled by seven pages of eloquent gabble, you glance at the wall and see: “Charles is the son of Eulalia Bon and Thomas Sutpen, born in the West Indies, but Sutpen hadn’t realized Eulalia was of mixed race, until too late…”
“We’ll be closing soon,” the docent warned me.
I went outside, looked at the brick outbuildings and sheds, a stable and meandered past the plainness of the yard, among the long shadows of the junipers in the slant of the winter sun. From where I stood, the house was obscured by the trees at the front, but still it had the look of a mausoleum; and I was moved to think of Faulkner in it, exhausting himself with work, poisoning himself with drink, driven mad in the contradictions of the South, obstinate in his refusal to simplify or romanticize its history, resolute in mirroring its complexity with such depth and so many human faces—all this before his early death, at the age of 64. No other region in America had a writer who was blessed with such a vision. Sinclair Lewis defined the Upper Midwest, and showed us who we were in Main Street and Elmer Gantry; but he moved on to other places and other subjects. Faulkner stayed put, he achieved greatness; but as a writer, as a man, as a husband, as a delineator of the South’s arcane formalities and its lawlessness, his was a life of suffering.
Pearl handle pistols
Natchez is dramatically sited on the bluffs above the wide brown Mississippi facing the cotton fields in flatter Louisiana and the town of Vidalia. A small, well-kept city, rich in history and river lore, architectural marvels—old ornate mansions, historic houses, churches and quaint arcades; its downtown lined with restaurants. But none of its metropolitan attributes held much interest for me.
The cultural event that got my attention was the Natchez Gun Show at the Natchez Convention Center. It was the main event in town that weekend, and the size of the arena seemed half as big as a football field, with a long line of people waiting to go in.
Entering was a process of paying an admission of $7 (“Children 6 to 11, $1”), and, if you had a firearm, showing it, unloading it and securing it with a plastic zip tab.
After that lobby business, the arena, filled with tables and booths and stalls, most selling guns, some selling knives, others stacked with piles of ammo. I had never seen so many guns, big and small, heaped in one place—and I suppose the notion that they were all for sale, just lying there waiting to be picked up and handled, sniffed and aimed, provided a thrill.
“Pardon me, sir.”
“No problem, scoot on bah.”
“Thank you much.”
No one on earth—none I had ever seen—is more polite, more eager to smile, more accommodating and less likely to step on your toe, than a person at a gun show.
“Mississippi is the best state for gun laws,” one man said to me. We were at the coffee and doughnut stall. “You can leave your house with a loaded gun. You can keep a loaded gun in your car in this state—isn’t that great?”
Most of the gun-show goers were just looking, hands in pockets, sauntering, nudging each other, admiring, and this greatly resembled a flea market, but one smelling of gun oil and scorched metal. Yet there was something else in the atmosphere, a mood I could not define.
Civil War paraphernalia, powder flasks, Harpers Ferry rifles, spurs, canes, swords, peaked caps, insignia, printed money and pistols—a number of tables were piled with these battered pieces of history. And nearly all of them were from the Confederate side. Bumper stickers, too, one reading, “The Civil War—America’s Holocaust,” and many denouncing President Obama.
“My uncle has one of them powder flasks.”
“If it’s got the apportioning spigot spout in working order your uncle’s a lucky guy.”
Some were re-enactors, a man in a Confederate uniform, another dressed in period cowboy costume, looking like a vindictive sheriff, black hat and tall boots and pearl handle pistols.
It was not the first gun show I’d been to, and I would go to others, in Southhaven, Laurel and Jackson, Mississippi. In Charleston, South Carolina, I’d seen a table set up like a museum display of World War I weapons and uniforms, as well as maps, books, postcards and framed black-and-white photos of muddy battlefields. This was a commemorative exhibit put on by Dane Coffman, as a memorial to his soldier-grandfather, Ralph Coffman, who had served in the Great War. Dane, who was about 60, wore an old infantryman’s uniform, a wide-brimmed hat and leather puttees, the get-up of a doughboy. Nothing was for sale; Dane was a collector, a military historian and a re-enactor; his aim was to show his collection of belts and holsters, mess kits, canteens, wire cutters, trenching tools and what he called his pride and joy, a machine gun propped on a tripod.
“I’m here for my grandfather,” he said, “I’m here to give a history lesson.”
Back in Natchez, a stall-holder leaning on a fat black assault rifle was expostulating. “If that damn vote goes through we’re finished.” He raised the gun. “But would like to see someone try and take this away from me. I surely would.”
Some men were wandering the floor, conspicuously carrying a gun, looking like hunters, and in a way they were, hunting for a buyer, hoping to sell it. One private seller had a 30-year-old weapon—wood and stainless steel—a Ruger .223-caliber Mini-14 assault rifle with a folding stock, the sort you see being carried by sharpshooters and conspirators in plots to overthrow wicked dictatorships. He handed it to me.
“By the way, I’m from Massachusetts.”
His face fell, he sighed and took the gun from me with big hands, and folded the stock flat, saying. “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”
As I walked away, I heard him mutter, “Goddamn,” not at me but at regulation generally—authority, the background checkers and inspectors and paper chewers, the government, Yankees.
And that was when I began to understand the mood of the gun show. It was not about guns. Not about ammo, not about knives. It was not about shooting lead into perceived enemies. The mood was apparent in the way these men walked and spoke: They felt beleaguered—weakened, their backs to the wall. How old was this feeling? It was as old as the South perhaps.
The Civil War battles might have happened yesterday for these particular Southerners, who were so sensitized to intruders and gloaters and carpetbaggers, and even more so to outsiders who did not remember the humiliations of the Civil War. The passing of the family plantation was another failure, the rise of opportunistic politicians, the outsourcing of local industries, the disappearance of catfish farms, the plunge in manufacturing, and now this miserable economy in which there was no work and so little spare money that people went to gun shows just to look and yearn for a decent weapon that they’d never be able to buy.
Over this history of defeat was the scowling, punitive shadow of the federal government. The gun show was the one place where they could regroup and be themselves, like a clubhouse with strict admission and no windows. The gun show wasn’t about guns and gun totin’. It was about the self-respect of men—white men, mainly, making a symbolic last stand.
“Where I could save my kids”
You hear talk of people fleeing the South, and some do. But I found many instances of the South as a refuge. I met a number of people who had fled the North to the South for safety, for peace, for the old ways, returning to family, or in retirement.
At a laundromat in Natchez, the friendly woman in charge changed some bills into quarters for the machines, and sold me some soap powder, and with a little encouragement from me, told me her story.
Her name was Robin Scott, in her mid 40s. She said, “I came here from Chicago to save my children from being killed by gangs. So many street gangs there—the Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords. At first where I lived was OK, the Garfield section. Then around late ’80s and early ’90s the Four Corners Hustlers gang and the BGs—Black Gangsters—discovered crack cocaine and heroin. Using it, selling it, fighting about it. There was always shooting. I didn’t want to stay there and bury my children.
“I said, ‘Gotta get out of here’—so I quit my job and rented a U-Haul and eventually came down here where I had some family. I always had family in the South. Growing up in Chicago and in North Carolina, we used to visit my family in North Carolina, a place called Enfield, in Halifax County near Rocky Mount.”
I knew Rocky Mount from my drives as a pleasant place, east of Raleigh, off I-95 where I sometimes stopped for a meal.
“I had good memories of Enfield. It was country—so different from the Chicago streets. And my mother had a lot of family here in Natchez. So I knew the South was where I could save my kids. I worked at the casino dealing blackjack, but after a time I got rheumatoid arthritis. It affected my hands, my joints and my walking. It affected my marriage. My husband left me.
“I kept working, though, and I recovered from the rheumatoid arthritis and I raised my kids. I got two girls, Melody and Courtney—Melody’s a nurse and Courtney’s a bank manager. My boys are Anthony—the oldest, he’s an electrician—and the twins, Robert and Joseph. They’re 21, at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Natchez is a friendly place. I’m real glad I came. It wasn’t easy. It’s not easy now—the work situation is hard, but I manage. The man who owns this laundromat is a good man.
“I got so much family here. My grandmother was a Christmas—Mary Christmas. Her brother was Joseph. We called my grandmother Big Momma and my grandfather Big Daddy. I laughed when I saw that movie Big Momma’s House.
“Mary Christmas was born on a plantation near Sibley. They were from families of sharecroppers. My grandfather was Jesse James Christmas.”
I mentioned Faulkner’s Light in August and Joe Christmas, and how I’d always found the name faintly preposterous, heavy with symbolism. I told her the plot of the novel, and how the mysterious Joe Christmas, orphan and bootlegger, passes for white but has a black ancestry. Before I could continue with the tale of Lena Grove and her child and the Christian theme, Robin broke in.
“Joe Christmas was my uncle,” she said, later explaining that he lived in a nursing home in Natchez until he died recently, in his 90s. “It’s a common name in these parts.”
Another beautiful back road in the Deep South—a narrow road past pinewoods and swamps, the hanks of long grass in the sloping meadows yellowy-green in winter. Some orderly farms—a few—were set back from the road, but most of the dwellings were small houses or bungalows surrounded by a perimeter fence, a sleepy dog inside it, and scattered house trailers detached and becalmed under the gum trees; and shacks, too, the collapsing kind that I only saw on roads like these. I had crossed into Jefferson County, one of the poorest counties in the nation and well known to public health experts for having the nation’s highest rate of adult obesity. Every few miles there was a church—no bigger than a one-room schoolhouse and with a similar look, a cross on the roof peak and sometimes a stump of a steeple, and a signboard on the lawn, promoting the text for the week’s sermon: “Lord Jesus Has the Roadmap for Your Journey.”
I was as happy as I had ever been driving in the South. There is a sense of purification that seems to take place in sunshine on a country road, the winking glare in the boughs passing overhead, the glimpses of sky and the stands of trees, wall-like pines in some hollows, enormous oaks and columns of junipers in others, and a fragrance in the air of heated and slightly decayed leaf litter that has the aroma of buttered toast. Oaks and pine trees lined the road for some miles and narrowed it and helped give the impression of this as an enchanted road in a children’s story, one that tempted the traveler onward into greater joy.
And it was about that point that the ominous signs began to appear, real signs nailed to trees. For some miles, large, lettered signs were fastened to the thick trunks of roadside trees, their messages in black and red letters on a bright white background.
“Prepare to Meet Thy God”
“He Who Endures to the End Shall Be Saved”
“The Eyes of the Lord Are in Every Place Beholding the Evil and the Good”
“Faith Without Works Is Dead”
“Strive to Enter at the Strait Gate”
In a church of believers, these sentiments, spoken by a pastor in a tone of understanding, could be a consolation, but painted on a tree in the backwoods of Mississippi they seemed like death threats.
“One of the great places”
In my ignorance, I had believed the Delta to be solely the low-lying estuary of the Mississippi River, roundabout and south of New Orleans, the river delta of the maps. But it isn’t so simple. The Delta is the entire alluvial sprawl that stretches northward of that mud in Louisiana, the flood plain beyond Natchez, emphatically flat above Vicksburg, almost the whole of a bulge west of Mississippi, enclosed in the east by the Yazoo River, all the way to Memphis. It is a definite route, as well; it is Highway 61.
I swung through Hollandale, which was just as boarded-up as other places on and off the highway I’d been through, but I heard music, louder as I entered the town. It was a hot late-afternoon, dust rising in the slanting sunlight, the street full of people, a man wailing and a guitar twanging: the blues.
When I hesitated, a police officer in pressed khakis waved me off the road, where cars were parked. I got out and walked toward a stage that had been set up against a stand of trees—this was the limit of the town, and a powerful, growly man was singing, backed by a good-sized band.
“That’s Bobby Rush,” the police officer said to me as I passed him.
A banner over the stage was lettered “Hollandale Blues Festival in Honor of Sam Chatmon.” Stalls nearby were selling fried chicken and corn, ice cream and soft drinks and T-shirts. Bobby Rush was screaming now, finishing his last set, and as he left the stage to great applause from the people—about 200 of them—standing in the dust, another group took the stage and began stomping and wailing.
A black biker gang in leather stood in a group and clapped, old women in folding chairs applauded and sang, children ran through the crowd of spectators, youths dressed as rappers, with low-slung trousers and hats turned back to front—they clapped too, and so did 17-year-old Shu’Quita Drake (purple braids, a sweet face) holding her little boy, a swaddled 1-month-old infant named D’Vontae Knight, and Robyn Phillips, a willowy dancer from Atlanta, who had family in Hollandale and said, “This is just amazing.”
But the music was so loud, so powerful, splitting the air, making the ground tremble, conversation was impossible, and so I stepped to the back of the crowd. As I was walking, I felt a hand on my arm.
It was a man in an old faded shirt and baseball cap.
“Welcome to Hollandale,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’m the mayor,” he said. “Melvin L. Willis. How can I help you?”
Melvin Willis was born in Hollandale in 1948, and had grown up in segregated Delta schools. (And, alas, in November 2013, some months after I met him, he died of cancer.) He went to college and got a job teaching in York, Alabama, a small town near the Mississippi state line. He had become a high-school principal in York.
“I worked there 40 years, then retired and came back home to Hollandale in 2005. I ran for mayor in 2009 and won. I just got my second term. This festival is an example of the spirit of this town.”
The music, the crowds, the many cars parked under the trees, the food stalls and the festive air—none of it could mask the fact that, like Rolling Fork and Anguilla and Arcola and other places I’d visited, the town looked bankrupt.
“We’re poor,” he said. “I don’t deny it. No one has money. Cotton doesn’t employ many people. The catfish plant was here. It closed. The seed and grain closed. The hospital closed 25 years ago. We got Deltapine—they process seeds. But there’s no work hereabouts.”
A white man approached us and put his arm around Mayor Willis. “Hi. I’m Roy Schilling. This man used to work for my daddy at the grocery.”
The grocery was Sunflower Food Store in the middle of Hollandale, one of the few stores still in business. Roy, like Mayor Willis, was an exuberant booster of Hollandale, and still lived nearby.
“Over there where the music is playing?” Roy said, “That was Simmons Street, known as the Blue Front, every kind of club, all sorts of blues, bootleg liquor and fights. I tell you it was one lively place on a Saturday night.”
“One of the great places,” Mayor Willis said.
But it had ended in the 1970s. “People left. Mechanization. The jobs dried up.”
More people joined us—and it was beautiful in the setting sun, the risen dust, the overhanging trees, the children playing, the music, the thump and moan of the blues.
“My father had a pharmacy over there, City Drug Store,” a man said. This was Kim Grubbs, brother of Delise Grubbs Menotti, who had sung earlier at the festival. “We had a movie theater. We had music. Yes, it was very segregated when I was growing up in the ’60s, but we were still friendly. We knew everyone.”
“It was a kind of paradise,” Kim said.
Mayor Willis was nodding, “Yes, that’s true. And we can do it again.”
“Closed. Went to Mexico.”
“What you see in the Delta isn’t how things are,” a woman in Greenville, Mississippi, told me.
“But they don’t look good,” I said.
“They’re worse than they look,” she said.
We sat in her office on a dark afternoon, under a sky thick with bulgy, drooping cloud. Scattered droplets of cold rain struck the broken sidewalks and potholed street. I had thought of the Delta, for all its misery, as at least a sunny place; but this was chilly, even wintry, though it was only October. For me, the weather, the atmosphere was something new, something unexpected and oppressive, and thus remarkable.
Things are worse than they look, was one of the more shocking statements I heard in the Mississippi Delta, because as in Allendale, South Carolina, and the hamlets on the back roads of Alabama, this part of the Delta seemed to be imploding.
“Housing is the biggest challenge,” said the woman, who did not want her name published, “but we’re in a Catch-22—too big to be small, too small to be big. By that I mean, we’re rural, but we don’t qualify for rural funding because the population is over 25,000.”
“Funding from whom?”
“Federal funding,” she said. “And there’s the mind-set. It’s challenging.”
I said, “Are you talking about the people living in poverty?”
“Yes, some of those people. For example, you see nice vehicles in front of really run-down houses. You see people at Walmart and in the nail shops, getting their nails done.”
“Is that unusual?”
“They’re on government assistance,” she said. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t look nice, but it’s instant gratification instead of sacrifice.”
“What do you think they should do?”
“I grew up in a poverty-stricken town”—and having passed through it the day before I knew she was not exaggerating: Hollandale looked like the plague had struck it. “At any given time there were never less than ten people in the house, plus my parents. One bathroom. This was interesting—we were never on any kind of government assistance, the reason being that my father worked. His job was at Nicholson File. And he fished and hunted and gardened. His vegetables were really good. He shot deer, rabbits, squirrels—my mother fried the squirrels, or made squirrel stew.” She laughed and said, “I never ate that game. I ate chicken.”
“What happened to Nicholson File?” The company made metal files and quality tools, a well-respected brand among builders.
“Closed. Went to Mexico,” she said. This was a reply I often heard when I asked about manufacturing in the Delta. “I could see there wasn’t much for me here. I joined the military—I did ‘three and three’—three active, three reserve. I was based in California, and I can tell you that apart from Salvation it was the best decision I’ve made in my life. The service provided me with a totally different perspective.”
“But Greenville is a big town,” I said. I’d been surprised at the extent of it, the sprawl, the downtown, the neighborhoods of good, even grand houses. And a new bridge had been built—one yet to be named—across the Mississippi, just west of the city.
“This is a declining town. River traffic is way down. We’ve lost population—from about 45,000 in 1990 to less than 35,000 today. This was a thriving place. We had so much manufacturing—Fruit of the Loom men’s underwear, Schwinn Bikes, Axminster Carpets. They’re all gone to Mexico, India, China. Or else they’re bankrupt. There was once an Air Force base here. It closed.”
“What businesses are still here?” I wondered.
“Catfish, but that’s not as big as it was. We’ve got rice—Uncle Ben’s, that’s big. We’ve got a company making ceiling tiles, and Leading Edge—they put the paint on jet planes. But there’s not enough jobs. Unemployment is huge, almost 12 percent, twice the national average.”
“People I’ve talked to say that better housing helps.”
“It’s fine to have a home, but if you don’t have the subsidies to go with the home, you’re just treading water—but that’s how a lot of people live.”
“Do people fix up houses?”
“Very few homes get rehabbed. Most are in such bad shape it’s cheaper to tear them down than fix them. A lot are abandoned. There’s more and more vacant lots.
“If Greenville happened to be a city in a third world country, there would probably be lots of aid money pouring in.
“This was a federal Empowerment Zone—ten years, $10 million pumped into the economy.”
“Ten million isn’t much compared to the hundreds of millions I’ve seen in U.S. aid to Africa,” I said. “I was in Africa last year. Namibia got $305 million—$69 million to the Namibian tourist industry.”
“That’s news to us,” she said. “We do what we can. Things have been improving slowly. There’s Greenville Education Center. They have both day and night classes for people to study.”
Later, I checked the curriculum of the Mississippi Delta Community College, which was part of this program, and found that they offered courses in brick-laying and tile-setting, automotive mechanics, commercial truck driving, heavy equipment operation, electronics, machine tool expertise, welding, heating and air conditioning, office systems and much else. But there are few jobs.
“People get educated and they leave,” she said. “There’s a high rotation in doctors and teachers. We’ve got to come together. It doesn’t matter how. Some healing has to take place.”
Given the seriousness of the situation, and the blight that was general over the Delta, I wondered aloud why she persevered.
“Me? I was meant to be here,” she said.
At Hope Credit Union in Greenville, I met Sue Evans, and asked her about the local economy. She gave me helpful replies but when I changed the subject, talked about the musical history of the Delta, the blues, the clubs that had been numerous up and down the Delta, she became animated.
“My mother had a blues club in Leland,” Sue said.
I had passed through Leland, another farming town on Highway 61, well-known for its blues history. “She was a great gal, my mother—Ruby—everyone knew her.” There were still some clubs, she said. There were blues museums. People came from all over the world to visit these places associated with the blues, and to see the birthplaces and the reference points—the farms, the creeks, the railways, the cotton fields.
“I heard that in Indianola there’s a B.B. King museum,” I said.
This produced a profound silence. Sue and a colleague of hers exchanged a glance, but said nothing. It was the sort of silence provoked by an unwelcome allusion, or sheer confusion, as though I had lapsed into an unfamiliar language.
“He was born there, I understand,” I said, flailing a bit, and wondering perhaps if I had overstayed my visit.
Sue had a mute and somewhat stubborn gaze fixed away from mine.
“Berclair,” Sue’s colleague said. “But he was raised in Kilmichael. Other side of Greenwood.”
It seemed very precise and obscure information. I couldn’t think of anything more to say, and it was apparent that this topic had produced an atmosphere in the room, a vibration that was unreadable, and that made me feel like a clumsy alien.
“Shall we tell him?” Sue’s colleague said.
“I don’t know,” Sue said.
“You tell him.”
“Go ahead,” Sue said.
This exchange, a sort of banter, had the effect of lifting the mood, diffusing the vibe.
“Sue was married to him.”
“Married to B.B. King?”
Sue said, “Yes, I was. I was Sue Hall then. His second wife. It was a while back.”
Now that the subject had been raised, Sue was smiling. “One night my mother booked him,” she said. “He kind of looked at me. I was just a kid. I had an idea of what he was thinking, but my mother wouldn’t stand any nonsense or fooling around. He played at the club a lot—a great musician. He waited until I turned 18—he waited because he didn’t want to deal with my mother. He was afraid of her.”
She laughed at the memory of it. I said, “This would have been when?”
“Long ago,” Sue said. “We were married for ten years.”
“Did you call him B.B?”
“His proper name is Riley. I called him B.”
I was writing down Riley.
“Which was confusing,” Sue was saying. ”Because Ray Charles’ wife was named Beatrice. We called her B too. We often got mixed up with the two B’s.”
“You traveled with him?” I asked.
“All the time. B loved to travel. He loved to play—he could play all night. He loved the audiences, the people, he lived to talk. But I got so tired. He’d say, ‘You don’t like to hear me,’ but it wasn’t that. I just hated staying up all hours. I’d be in the hotel room, waiting for him.”
“Are you still in touch?”
“We talk all the time. He calls. We talk. He still tours—imagine. Last I talked to him he said he had some dates in New York and New Jersey. He loves the life, he’s still going strong.”
And for that 15 or 20 minutes there was no blight on the Delta; it was a cheery reminiscence of her decade with B.B. King, the man who’d brought glory to the Delta and proved that it was possible and could happen again.
A great number of blacks in the Delta who had been farmers and landowners lost their land for various reasons, and so lost their livelihood. Calvin R. King Sr. had spent his life committed to reversing that loss and founded, in 1980, the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, which is in Brinkley, Arkansas. “When you look at the Delta,” he asked me, “do you see businesses owned by blacks, operated by blacks? In manufacturing? In retail?” He smiled, because the obvious answer was: Very few. He went on, “Compare that to the black farmers here, who are part of a multibillion- dollar business.”
Through him I met Delores Walker Robinson, 42, a single mother of three sons, ages 22, 18 and 12, in the small town of Palestine, Arkansas, less than 50 miles west of the Mississippi. After more than 20 years of travel with her serviceman husband, and work, and child-rearing and a sudden divorce, Delores had returned to the place where she’d been born. “I didn’t want my sons to live the harsh life of the city,” she told me as we walked through her cow pasture. “I felt I would lose them to the city—to the crimes and problems that you can’t escape.”
With her savings as a certified nursing assistant, she bought 42 acres of neglected land. With help from friends and her sons, she fenced the land, built a small house and began raising goats. She enrolled in Heifer International, a charity based in Little Rock devoted to ending hunger and alleviating poverty, attended training sessions and got two heifers. She now has ten cows—and, keeping to the organization’s rules, she has passed along some cows to other farmers in need. “I wanted something I could own,” she said. She’d been raised on a farm near here. “I wanted to get my sons involved in the life I knew.”
She also had sheep, geese, ducks and chickens. And she grew feed corn. Because the cash flow from the animals was small, she worked six days a week at the East Arkansas Area Agency on Aging as a caregiver and nursing assistant. Early in the morning and after her day at the agency, she did the farm chores, feeding and watering the animals, repairing fences, collecting eggs. She went to livestock management classes. ‘I made a lot of friends there. We’re all trying to accomplish the same things.’
Easygoing, uncomplaining, yet tenacious, Delores Walker Robinson had all the qualities that made a successful farmer—a great work ethic, a strong will, a love of the land, a way with animals, a fearlessness at the bank, a vision of the future, a gift for taking the long view, a desire for self-sufficiency. ‘I’m looking ten years down the road,’ she said as we tramped the sloping lane, ‘I want to build up the herd and do this full time.’
Many Southerners I met asserted—with grim pride, or with sorrow, or misquoting Faulkner—that the South doesn’t change. That’s not true. In many places, the cities most of all, the South has been turned upside-down; in the rural areas the change has come very slowly, in small but definite ways. The poet William Blake wrote, ‘He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars,’ and the Delta farmers I visited, and especially Delores Robinson, were the embodiment of that valiant spirit. She had shaken herself loose from another life to come home with her children, and she seemed iconic in her bravery, on her farm, among friends. It goes without saying that the vitality of the South lies in the self-awareness of its deeply rooted people. What makes the South a pleasure for a traveler like me, more interested in conversation than sightseeing, are the heart and soul of its family narratives—its human wealth.” Paul Theroux, “the Soul of the South;” Smithsonian Magazine, 2014: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/