A Turn for the Worse. A Turn in the South by V.S. Naipaul. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. 307 pages. $18.95.). Library Service in Black & White; Some Personal Recollections, 1921-1980 by Annie L. McPheeters. (The Scarecrow Press Metuchen, N.J., 1988. xvi. 152 pages. $22.50.)
By Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 11, No. 3, 1989, pp. 13-14
A Turn in the South is, the author says, a travel book– “travel on a theme”–, which is, I suppose, his way of saying that it is an interpretation of the present-day South gained from visiting some of its parts. What he finds is a South “of order and faith, and music and melancholy”; or, as he writes in a full-blown passage, which testifies to a sort of epiphany: “Music and community, and tears and faith; I felt that I had been taken, through country music, to an understanding of a whole distinctive culture, something I had never imagined existing in the United States.”
In the wondrous process by which our cultural clergy, the New York City and New England cloisters, certify works of art and literature as agreeable and acceptable to it, this book has been granted “importance.” It has none in itself. It has a lot, in the evidence it pressed on us regarding the standards of our cultural tastemakers. The New Yorker magazine ran three lengthy portions; once upon a time, the New Yorker had Calvin Trillin roving now and then the South, as good a stylist, to say the least, as Naipaul and one who, besides, knew what to look for and what and whom to believe.
But it was the New York Review of Books which sealed the book’s “meaning,” by choosing the pages which describe “rednecks” for its December 22, 1988 issue. The review which the NYRB subsequently gave the whole book was captioned “The Reddening of America”; the reviewer called the “redneck” piece “a miniature masterpiece.” Naipaul praised it himself, calling it “full and beautiful and lyrical.” “Rednecks” in this treatment are practically synonymous with all low-income Southern whites–and with the yearnings of many who are better off as well; they are depicted as something above junkyard dogs, but not far above. No other discrete minority (as in Naipaul’s understanding they are one) would be so dishonored and lampooned in the pages of the NYRB, nor, for that matter, in a book published by Alfred A. Knopf. It is always interesting to observe what racism and overt prejudice are admissible in polite society. These days, the white Southern working class is fair game.
And country music, most particularly including Elvis Presley, is capstone and key to the South’s “distinctive culture.”
The “redneck” story is told, of course, by an interviewee, but throughout the book Naipaul carefully lets his readers know which persons interviewed he likes and which he doesn’t. The few I can recall whom he likes but little are black. Sometimes he is frank enough, as with Atlanta’s Marvin Arrington, to let his disapproval show dearly, and as arising from temperamental differences. And a few blacks he did like; Atlanta’s Hosea Williams was one. But there are far fewer blacks than whites in this interpretation of today’s South, and the whites are predominantly from that stratum known as “moderates.”
Mississippi is an outstanding example. By my count, he reports on an outdoor prayer meeting of blacks, as well as fourteen individual interviews, exactly two of which are with blacks, and one of those not consummated. Even more amazing was his selection of those two, both rather nondescript men, in a state as rich as is Mississippi in strong black leadership, both women and men.
Naipaul can insist upon the exclusivity of his theme, but
this book, with all its hype, will be taken as a study of the contemporary South. It is a distorted one. A few of his interviews are insightful: I think particularly of those with Robert Waymer of the Atlanta School Board and Judges Alex Sanders and R.P. Sugg of South Carolina and Mississippi, respectively. Some of his own apperceptions are on target, though by now fairly commonplace; such are his statements that blacks have had by various stratagems to cope with the “irrationality” of the South, or that blacks have won political positions that do not insure actual social power, or that the old South was violent and lawless. The interpretations of the South which dominate this book come, however, from tradition-hallowing or politically conservative whites; nor does he ever challenge or balance a single one of their several disparaging remarks about blacks.
If Naipaul has read any of the classic white interpreters of the white South–Cash, Lillian Smith, Myrdal, Dabbs, Woodward, Leroy Percy, others–, there is no evidence of it. He has read Up From Slavery several times and admires it, as he does Booker T. Washington author. He has nothing good to say of W.E.B. DuBois, nor of his The Souls of Black Folks, which has “too pretty ways with words,” a strange criticism from this particular writer. Some of Naipaul’s prose is wild, his description of kudzu, for one example: a long incomplete sentence, broken by a parenthetical clause set off by dashes, and a like one inside that, topped off with a complete sentence within parentheses, being as entangling as the vine itself.
There are mistakes of fact scattered throughout the book; most are small and come in the interviews. Neither an informed writer or editor would, however, have indulged them. The publisher has done, on the other hand, an exceptionally handsome job of bookmaking and printing.
“TELL ABOUT THE SOUTH. What’s it like there.” Is anyone really interested anymore? If so, Naipaul is not a guide to follow, not if one cares to find the reality of it. Better to read, among other things, Annie L. McPheeters, Library Service in Black White; some personal recollections, 1921-1980. No fancy foot-work here. Only clear, syntactical sentences (and clear photographs), that truths about the South. Mrs. McPheeters served the Atlanta Public Libraries for over thirty years, half of them as head librarian of the West Hunter Branch, the principal facility for blacks; after retiring in 1966, she became the first black faculty member of Georgia State University.
At one place in the book, she sets down a chronology of library services for black Atlantans between 1902 and 1959. The first item records that W.E.B. DuBois and a committee of black citizens petitioned the Carnegie Trustees for a library. It was denied, though in 1903 some funds were provided to Atlanta University, for citizen use. The last item, May 24, 1959, records that Mayor Hartsfield announced the desegregation of the public library system, and that Whitney Young, for the Atlanta Council on Human Relation, “reported that the Council was pleased that race was no longer a barrier to use of the library.” What a march of events, of struggle and striving, lay between those two dates! Mrs. McPheeters chronicles it, and in her doing so we learn of the white and black people who confronted each other, and revealed some truths about themselves to each other, and to us.
This is an honest book. The final chapters are autobiographical, and enrich the earlier pages; the chapter on “early life and education” is a bright gem: indeed, Mr. Naipaul, “lyrical.”
Leslie Dunbar is the new book editor of Southern Changes. His earlier affiliation with the Southern Regional Council began in 1958. He was Director of Research during 1959 and 1960, and Executive Director 1961-1965. He lives now in Durham, North Carolina.