Why You Need to Know This Bitter Southerner: Heartlands Interviews Chuck Reece, Part 3 of 3

The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reese begins here.

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photo by Jodie Morgan via Unsplash

Chuck’s train of thought is interrupted by the sound of a dish being set carefully on a white wicker table gracing a wide screened porch. (I’m imagining.) 

CR: Oh my goodness, what is that, sweetheart?

Stacy [Chuck’s wife]: Blueberry muffin. 

CR: My wife just brought me a fresh blueberry muffin.

Stacy: Homemade from scratch.

CR: Homemade from scratch. Wow!

I protest, “It’s not nice to tempt me like that over the phone.”

CR: I’m sorry, man, but I gotta take a bite of this thing here. Hang on a minute. [sounds of someone munching ostentatiously] Mmm, that’s good! 

 AJ: Yeah, go ahead, go ahead.

CR: It kind of tastes likes blueberry cobbler, actually. I think she put a lot of butter in it. That’s really good!

AJ: Well I’m gonna have a good crab cake tonight.

CR: Well, dude, when I was at the grocery store I was picking up hotdog buns, ok? That’s gonna be our dinner.

AJ: I don’t feel too bad then.

Chuck’s interest in counteracting the cardboard cutout stereotypes of the South goes back to his sojourn in New York City in the 1980s.  Just out of college, he covered the media for Adweek magazine.  “One of the things that I noticed was that, anytime I saw a TV show that was set in the South or magazines that purported to cover the South in anyway, I typically saw only two versions of the South. It was either debutantes or dumbasses. I mean it was either something that looked like affluent white people having a garden party on someone’s veranda or something that looked like rednecks. And there were no black people. I was like, ‘That’s not the South! It’s not the South I grew up in!’”

In Dave Whitley, his partner at The Bitter Southerner, Chuck found a brother in arms. “Dave and I started talking about my experience of that and he was like, ‘It reminds me of that song by the Drive-By Truckers—‘The Southern Thing’ [where it says] “duality is a Southern thing.”

“I was like, ‘That’s it!’

And they were off, collecting a mostly volunteer staff that now includes Tim Turner, Eric NeSmith, Kyle Tibbs Jones, and Butler Raines.  The site publishes new articles biweekly and has developed a fiercely loyal community that has set up a Bitter Southerner corner of Facebook.  

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Chuck Reece

CR: It’s like the last sane place on Facebook, Dude. It’s people having civil conversations with each other and posting an article [saying,] “Isn’t this interesting?” or a piece of a big green tomato half-eaten by bugs and going, “How I do I stop this?” So many people are expatriate Southerners who say it gives them a place to feel at home again. 

The first couple of years the most common emails I got were the obverse of each other:

“Thank you for doing this site because I moved to Seattle and whenever I talk about how much I miss the South people look at me like I’m crazy. So, I show them your website.”

Or it was people saying, “I moved to the South from wherever 20 years ago and I love it. And whenever I talk to the people back home in Massachusetts about why I stay down here they look at me like I’m crazy, so I send them your website to look at.”

I think our audience is everybody who’s ever felt like a misfit in the South.

Finances have been helped by the addition of membership pledge drives and an online General Store which sells quality Southern-themed T-shirts with slogans like ‘Make More Biscuits,’ tea towels, and tote bags with Flannery O’Conner’s immortal observation that “You shall know the truth, & it will make you odd.”  Besides making apparently awesome blueberry muffins, Stacy also does the screen printing for the tea towels & totes.  “I certainly never dreamed that I would be the editor of a journalistic institution that survives primarily on the sale of T-shirts and dish towels, but we do,” Chuck says.

I’m still waiting for The Bitter Southerner’s religion department to come on line.  I wasn’t intentionally doing a pitch for it as I stood in the cemetery longing for the iced tea that I was certain Chuck used to wash down his muffin.  But I don’t think it was a sop of appeasement when he said he’d been toying with the idea, noting, correctly, that it’s hard to tell the story of the South without talking about God.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the output from Atlanta.  And I’ll nod towards the mission because it is a noble one.  As it says on the site: 

Still, the tension — the strain between pride and shame, that eternal duality of the Southern thing — remains. Lord knows, most folks outside the South believe — and rightly so — that most Southerners are kicking and screaming to keep the old South old. But many others, through the simple dignity of their work, are changing things.

Keep at it, Chuck.  Keep at it.

Why You Need to Know This Bitter Southerner: Heartlands Interviews Chuck Reece, Part 2 of 3

The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reece begins here.

Chuck Reece can’t help but share some of his favorite stories of finding new writers for The Bitter Southerner.  There was the piece Cy Brown, a University of Georgia student, pitched him about A Carolina Dog.

“I don’t know about you growing up in Virginia, but in Georgia I often heard the phrase ‘He’s as skinny as an old yeller dog.’ Come to find out, the yeller dog is an actual breed. At the time it had just been recognized by the British Kennel Club as a breed and, not only was it its own breed, it was the only breed of dog that was native to the North American continent. So this story had 14,000 years of history bound up in it. These dogs found their natural habitat in the pine barrens in the Carolinas. This is a great story that’s about the loyalty and love of a dog and all his history you had no idea about.”

Mickie Meinhardt sold him on a piece that aimed to make Ocean City, Maryland a bona fide Southern town. “She sends a completed story, no pitch, and then, ‘Oh, by the way, my buddy Gunner [Hughes] is a photographer,’” Chuck says. “A lot of times that’s the phrase that you like to hear because you gotta make sure your photographer is good enough. But she said, ‘Gunner’s already got some pictures and we’ll put them in Dropbox for you now.’…damned if Gunner Whatever-his-name-is isn’t a really good photographer. It happens like that.”

And then there’s Clay Skipper, who wrote what Reece credits as the single best opening line in Bitter Southerner history:

CR: [Clay] had been working as a research assistant for Wright [Thompson in Oxford, MS] on a project and he pitched me a story. The national [college] football championship was coming up. Alabama was going [to the playoffs]. There was a shot they were going to make it to the championship game. He was like, “I want to go to [Coach] Nick Saban’s home town [in West Virginia] because it’s been devastated by the loss of the coal industry.” He went up there and he wrote this beautiful story about how football and the memories of their state championship high school teams was all [that] so many people out there had to hold onto.

So we published that and people liked it. He called me about a month after that and said, “You know what the Alabama Gang is?” I was like, “Yeah, NASCAR.” He said, “Did you know Red Farmer, who was the oldest guy in the Alabama Gang, is still racing dirt tracks in Talladega and he’s in his eighties? I want to do a story.” 

I said, “Yeah, man, go for it.” 

Chuck Reece

Chuck Reece

About two months later, I was driving back to Atlanta from somewhere in Alabama. I’d been over there for something and I stopped to get gas. I looked at my phone, checked my email, and I had an email from Clay with the draft of his Red Farmer story attached. I was like, “Well, I’ll pop the attachment open real quick and look at the lead.”…I pulled it up here so I could read it to you: “In the noon sun of a bitterly cold January day at the Talladega short track, an 82-year-old race car driver worries about time.” 

Clay Skipper is now a columnist for GQ. He was on his way to the new job in New York when Chuck called from the gas station to tell him how much he enjoyed that opening line. Clay told Chuck that the Bitter Southerner Saban story helped land him the job.

Even from three states away I can see Chuck beaming as he tells the story.

The other great source for Bitter Southerner stories is writers who have projects tucked away that they haven’t found the right outlet for.  One of the early ‘gets’ for Reece came from a long-time friend, Charles McNair.

CR: We went out for lunch one day at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, which is an old restaurant in Atlanta that’s been around for a half a century plus. I was telling him what we wanted to do. Charles himself had, about ten years earlier, tried, with one of the guys who founded Paste magazine, to start a magazine with that attitude called Scout and they’d never really been able to find the money to do it. I told him, “Well, we’ve got this digital [platform] and the cost of entry’s real low. I need stories and I don’t have any money.” 

He was like, “Well, I’ll take a flier on it.” He came back with this beautiful piece called ‘Denise McNair and Me.’ Charles would have been a young boy growing up in Alabama when the 16th Street Church bombing happened in Birmingham. Charles was always sort of haunted or weirded out about that. He shared a last name with one of those little girls [who were killed], Denise McNair. He told me about that over lunch and I was like, “There’s something in it and I bet you can find it.” The story wound up revolving around the night his father who took him to a Klan rally, not to show him what he shouldn’t do, but to begin the indoctrination. The way he wrote about the contrast of those little girls and his own family…

I know that no individual story we do is going to completely warp someone’s perception style. But I hope that, over time, if people dive in and look at a random cross-section of what we’ve done they would learn a lot of things about the South that they didn’t know and they would hear the voices of a lot of people who didn’t fit the mold.

 

The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reece concludes here.

Why You Need to Know This Bitter Southerner: Heartlands Interviews Chuck Reece, Part 1 of 3

I was standing in a cemetery near Onancock, sweating in the mid-July heat, when Chuck Reece asked me how I got from radio journalism into ministry.  I was supposed to be interviewing him, but Chuck Reece, even over the phone, is a master at sniffing out stories and he trained his curiosity on me before I got down to asking him about The Bitter Southerner, his labor of love.

I had intended to be back at the office for this.  Or at least in some air-conditioning.  But I had been detained down the road and so I had to search out some relatively quiet space to call and record.  The cicadas in the tall trees made a fuss, but otherwise the graveyard suited.  I set my laptop up to record and made the call to Atlanta.

I began with flattery, though not insincere.  Deborah Lewis, my colleague in campus ministry and a fine writer herself, had put me on to the Southern-oriented online magazine a few years back. I told Chuck, “In the course of watching you change and grow over the last five years, I’ve also started my own blog which was designed to try to understand what is happening to rural America in the wake of 2016 elections.”

And you’re doing a nice job with it actually.” He was luring me in. I fell for it.

“Oh, have you taken a look at it? Oh good. It’s been fun. I started out as a radio news director and disc jockey at a country music station and this kind of takes me back to the days of that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants journalism when I didn’t have any guidance or direction. I was right out of college and they just wanted something to make us sound local. I just got to follow my curiosity wherever it went.”

What led you from journalism to the ministry?” There was the question.

“It’s a long story but probably the shortest answer is Annie Dillard.”

Well, there you go! I get that.”

Let me just say right here that Chuck Reece is awesome.

The Bitter Southerner began as the brainchild of Reece and his partner, Dave Whitling.  They claim that the spur to their five-year-old project was a beef about bartending—specifically the lack of respect that Southern practitioners of the craft receive.  If you look at the ‘About’ page of the site, that legend is there.

But their ambitions were grander than a simple blog about drinks could contain.  With a background in covering media and design and that honed ear for a killer story, Reece was always going to go for something larger.  And that’s there on the ‘About’ page, too:

Recent election results suggest that the Southern mind hasn’t evolved much, that we’re not much different from what we were in 1936, when Faulkner was struggling yet again with the moral weirdness of the South. Almost 80 years later, it’s still too damned easy for folks to draw the conclusion that we Southerners are hopelessly bound to tradition, too resistant to change.

But there is another South, the one that we know: a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions. Drinking. Cooking. Reading. Writing. Singing. Playing. Making things. It’s also full of people who face our region’s contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window. The Bitter Southerner is here for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time.

The world knows too little about these people, which is, alas, another reason to be bitter. But it prompted us to create The Bitter Southerner™.

So the site has evolved into something more vibrant, more ambitious, and more weird than can be wrangled into a simple description.  It’s a collection point for new angles on Southern culture.  And for some of the best writing about the South on the web.

Perhaps you can see the attraction. For someone who was voted by his college roommates as ‘most likely to end up on a porch writing country music by a rusty refrigerator,’ The Bitter Southerner is salve to the soul. And to have all that plus an appreciation for Annie Dillard?  This was prime territory for a Heartlands interview.

 

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Chuck Reece

“So, let me tell you about my Bitter Southerner story for the day,” I told Chuck. “I got up this morning and I read your article about Who Owns a Woman’s Shoulders.” The article, by Caralyn Davis, was an uncomfortably accurate picture of the over-familiarity some male church members feel in approaching women in church settings. The article was written by a United Methodist lay woman about her mother’s experience in a lay speaking class.  

“It hit me, as a United Methodist District Superintendent, right where I live,” I told Chuck. “So I reposted it on Facebook and it’s been blowing up. It was exactly the kind of story that I think I appreciate the most about your site—it was personal, it described a subculture within the South that is definitely there and definitely ripe for looking at in new ways, and yet it touched on some really deep and bigger issues, too.”

CR: Those personal essays—that was a really weird thing. When we started, the first 12 months, all we did was the one big feature story every Tuesday. People just started sending us these things. We hadn’t asked for them and after a while the stack got pretty high—the virtual stack, of course. And you know what? Some of them were really well done and even the ones that weren’t written so well, you could tell that they were written with feeling and purpose. 

When we got through the first year and said, “OK, we’re gonna keep doing this,” and we started trying to make some money so we could start paying writers, we were like “Well, let’s start publishing one of these every week on a Thursday,” and that’s how the Folklore Project section came about. It’s sort of amazing the quality that we see in those things and I like the fact that The Bitter Southerner must feel to people like a community in which such stories are welcomed and understood.

People have felt welcomed and understood in the Bitter Southerner community.  It’s not just the personal essays that get published in the Folklore Project section.  Writers, especially younger writers, seek the site out to pitch ideas.  “I think these younger writers know that we’ll edit them with care and they know that we will make their story really, visually appealing on the web,” Chuck says. “It’s like I used to say to people when we were begging for stories for free: “At least you’ll get a good looking clip out of it.”

The Heartlands interview with Chuck Reese continues here…

Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism: The Ed Ayers Interview concludes

Is there reason, as a historian, to be an optimist?  Edward Ayers, among other things the co-host of the BackStory podcast and radio program, narrates a troubled chapter of American history in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.  In the first two segments of this interview we have talked about vicious political climates and racialized narratives.  But here, my former professor talks about the pendulum of history and Confederate monuments, something he’s been doing a lot of thinking about in his multiple roles:

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photo by Dean Hinnant via Unplash

So the grand theory of history here behind what you’re doing—-you’re saying there are these big counter-forces at work during this period. If the South hadn’t seceded, emancipation wouldn’t have happened. If the South hadn’t resisted civil rights for blacks, there wouldn’t have been voting rights and office holding for blacks. If Northern Democrats hadn’t provided cover for Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans wouldn’t have pushed so hard. Is that how history works in America? Not through compromise but through the opposition of grand forces?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? That’s one reason I think that we’re watching the foundations being laid right now for a new Progressive Era. I think that the opposition to Trump is going to be a major force over the next 15 or 20 years. That may be wishful thinking.

I would say that, partly because of the two party system, American history does seem to move like a pendulum rather than like an arrow. One set of accomplishments cannot be taken as a [common] accomplishment; they are taken as the embodiment of a partisan initiative. You certainly see this today in the [US retreat from the Iran deal], for no particular reason other than the predecessor did it and the current president’s undoing it.

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Ed Ayers

I’ve not gotten any criticisms from anything [in my argument] yet, really. I’ve just gotten some grudging comments from people who aren’t really in sympathy with this whole kind of social history/inclusive approach. If you’re gonna criticize it, then the implicit argument here is that this diminishes the intentionality of the Republicans and of Abraham Lincoln. I don’t mean for it to do that, but that would be the criticism. The argument is that the Republicans knew all along they wanted to end slavery. That’s why they created the party. They did whatever it took along the way to do it, and then they did it. And they instituted as much Reconstruction as they could. The flip side of that is that the white South resisted every step along the way and won a large part of what they wanted, which is local control. 

So I’m trying to put the two things in interplay and showing that neither of those stories —either the triumphalist one or the defeatist one—is true, but rather that each side is making the other. 

These are what we might think of as dark matter. We now know the dark matter accounts for most of what’s in the universe. You can’t see it but it has gravitational effects. The Northern Democrats and the African-American people in the South and white Southerners are the dark matter that moves this great national story in ways that we can’t understand otherwise. I don’t know that it’s a grand theory as much as it is trying to explain all the orbital irregularities that we see in the story.

And if we don’t understand what the Republicans were up against, then we can’t understand really the depth of what they accomplished. I think it’s what’s surprising to people about this: I’m not following any traditional rhetoric about this of celebration or of condemnation. I’m just saying we put everybody in the screen…we put everybody in the same frame and then we see they’re making each other’s history. 

I said in my Lincoln Prize address that to only look at one party or one side is like trying to understand a battle by only looking at the maneuvers of one army. That’s the basic idea of this book: we can’t understand any part without at least trying to see how all the parts fit together.

I always think of you as an optimist about the course of history. Do you feel like an optimist?

Yeah, I do actually. I think what this story shows us is that things that are far worse than we can imagine can happen and that things that are far better than we can imagine can happen too. The capacity for both swings of the pendulum are with us all the time. History has these capacities that can be tapped by people of vision and good will and ability and those reservoirs are all around us all the time.

Having watched the Civil Rights movement in my own life as a child, and to see everything suddenly change reveals to me that people of good will can make remarkable things happen. It seemed impossible at the time. I think that can happen again.

But we can also see that reservoirs of hatred and mistrust are always there, as well. I think it’s useful to know that we have to be careful that we don’t talk ourselves into the Civil War the way Americans did. On the other hand. that we need to be determined to make the most of the reservoirs and possibilities that we do have, too.

One of the things that seems to resonate between those times and these for me is this idea of how shame plays a role in the dialogue. In the Reconstruction Era, you say that the South was willing to admit defeat and the end of slavery and the Confederacy, but that the Republicans wanted more. They wanted repentance and confession of some kind of moral error. How did that dynamic play out, and are we seeing some of the same sort of language in our political life today?

Yeah, I’ll be curious to see if my fellow historians believe this. This is another kind of dangerous argument because it suggests that the Republicans were perhaps self-righteous and made problems that they didn’t need to make, which is the way that Reconstruction has been understood. These guys were fanatics, right? [is how the argument goes]. 

I guess it’s understandable to me why people who had tried to destroy the United States would be held accountable for what they had done. I think I’m the first one to actually locate that word ‘rebellism.’ That’s a great word. [The Republicans] recognize that the reality is that if they don’t kill that attitude, then whatever political events happen, that’s going to come back. All that to say that it’s an entirely legitimate thing that the Republicans want. It’s also probably unrealistic.

16301481_BG1A lot of Confederate monuments were testimony to the fact that they were not going to give up their ‘rebellism.’ They were never going to admit they’d been morally wrong. They were willing to admit that they’d made a mistake strategically in giving away slavery for political independence, but they were never willing to admit that it was illegal or that it was wrong in the eyes of God.

You see those quotes in the [Southern] papers even as the Confederacy is dying that say, “We feel that we had vindication from God to do this.” Volume One [Ayer’s book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies] is all built around the 23rd Psalm. That’s one of the most striking changes in the first part of the war is the way that the Confederacy recruits the Deity. They celebrate Lee and Jackson as particularly Christian soldiers. 

If they didn’t have that…if they didn’t believe they were fighting for exactly the same ideals that the United States had been built upon…they could not possibly have waged this rebellion if they did not share the faith in this ideology with the North. They would not have been able to have changed people’s minds in a matter of weeks that something that you had opposed for years—secession—was now an essential act and that if you do it you are morally superior. If you don’t really have the larger religious framing of that it doesn’t happen.

So that’s another reason that the white South doesn’t change its mind—the idea of “We’ll be tried by adversity.” They have a script for that. They understand, “This doesn’t mean we’re wrong; it could mean that this is a trial to see how we bear it.” That helps give them a resolution that they would not have had otherwise.

In your description of the people of Staunton moving the bodies from the battlefield to the cemetery, the Lost Cause narrative is already there, which is something that I think of as developing later, once the Confederate memoirs start coming out.

Here’s another place where I’m kind of doing something dangerous. That makes the Lost Cause look more plausible. It makes you understand that it’s not just a new word for white supremacy. These were your sons that you’re burying and then reburying.

The whole idea for everything I ever do is: we’re not gonna understand if we don’t try to see it through the eyes of the people who were enacting it. We’re not going to understand the Lost Cause if we don’t understand the real grief that motivated it. The trick there is to see that grief can be wrapped in other kinds of purposes as well. That’s the tricky thing.

We have a meeting here tonight in Richmond about the Monument Avenue Commission. We’re coming to a conclusion of that and I think people are slowly coming to see that the knee-jerk formulations—“It’s just history and you can’t change it” or “[The people who erected the Confederate monuments] didn’t mean anything politically by it” are not true. On the other hand, for people who are standing on the other side [it’s important to understand that] the people who are building these things are still grieving for sons and fathers they lost. It’s also important to understand this if we’re gonna move forward—what all the people who put the monuments up originally meant by them.

Thanks for the book. I hope it gets a broad readership. It should.

Yeah, you know, getting a Lincoln Prize…all my friends here who are not in the history biz were most impressed that I beat Ron Chernow [author of Alexander Hamilton] and winning the Avery Prize from the Organization of American Historians. But I think that our impact comes from classrooms for the next twenty years. I hope, that’s where the impact comes from—people actually have a chance to think about it a little bit rather than just reading the book then moving on.

So there’s not an Alexander H.H. Stuart musical coming out?

They did actually do a stage dramatization of it at the Black History Museum in Richmond based on words of four characters: two white, two black, two men, two women. It was very powerful. Just the words and a few of mine along the way. So it would make a great movie or a great miniseries. So if you could make that happen I would appreciate it 

We’ll get Lin-Manuel Miranda on it and see what he can do with it.

That’d be great.

Doughfaces, Denzel & Racing against Racism: The Ed Ayers Interview, Part 2 of 3

Think the racial narratives of American political discourse are bad today?  As Edward Ayers reveals in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, it’s nothing new and it’s been worse.  In the second part of my interview with my former professor, we talk about racial narratives of the mid-War North and the post-War South.  

The first part of my interview can be found by clicking this link.

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So, then, how new was the racial narrative that the Northern Democrats developed during the Civil War? How did it work for them and was it really new or was that of a piece with what went before?

Before the War, they were ‘Doughfaces,’ which is: Northern men with Southern sympathies. They were called Doughfaces because their faces could be shaped to whatever expression the South wanted. Before the War, the Democrats had basically been Southern sympathizers for reasons of racism but also for party advantage. 

Once they’re fighting to the death against white Southerners, they don’t have that option anymore and it becomes just anti-black. So, in some ways the racism is of a purer form in the War. You see this in the invention of miscegenation as a scare tactic of the Democrats. 

During the war itself, the Republicans are always pointing out, “You guys are just on the verge of treason—wishing ill for the Federal armies, kind of pulling for the Confederacy a little bit because you don’t want to see slavery end, because you don’t really want the formerly enslaved people to come into the North.” 

The Democrats don’t really have a good answer for that because that’s kind of true. Then after the War, they return to their sympathy for the white South and in some ways the War is an interruption of the longer conversation about race. The difference is that there are white Northerners after the War, who didn’t exist before, who had their entire political identity wrapped around some kind of justice and freedom for the formerly enslaved people 

That’s one thing I really emphasize—here’s a case where politics does something great. You have all the mobilization on the ground of people who want to be elected and re-elected, and to do so they embrace emancipation. And because they embrace emancipation, they embrace the character and capacities of African-Americans. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have the mobilization of white support in the North for Reconstruction. We’re so used to thinking of politics as a corrosive craft, but here’s a case where politics played a role that no other institution could have played because it blended self-interests and idealism in a really powerful mixture.

How much did the Northern Democratic narrative impact the Southern narrative that developed after the war? It obviously built on something that was there in South already, but how quickly did the alliance between Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats emerge?

Everybody was happy that Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination. The Democrats say, “OK, we got one of ours. Even though he just ran on the Union ticket, he’s always been a Democrat.”

The Republicans say, “Here’s the bravest guy in the South who was uniquely willing to stand up for the Union against his own people.”

Johnson was trying to make a national Republican Party that could hold its own with a national Democratic Party that was reassembling itself after the War. The white Southerners and the Northern Democrats came back together quickly despite the fact they had just been killing each other months before. 

So, I give Johnson a little more credit than most people. I’d say, “What was he doing?” It’s true, he threw black people under the bus. It’s true that he granted pardons to so many former Confederates. But why?

It’s usually explained, “Well, he was a racist.” Well, yeah, but so was everybody. The difference was, he was doing what he thought Lincoln wanted to do, which is to put together a national party, North and South, of white people who would further the cause of union. To do that he was willing to sacrifice much that had been won recently and at such great cost. 

Even though there was a war and I know those were extraordinary circumstances, it’s surprising that the Republican Party was able to retain control of Congress as long as it did. I don’t think of Congress as really having that much time to do much and, in our day, doing much of anything at all. How unusual was that?

That’s a really good point. If we pull the camera back a little bit, though, we see that they were racing. They accomplished as much as they did because they knew it wasn’t going to last. So, you have the nine months that Johnson was president that Congress is not in session. Then he basically sacrifices a lot of what the Republicans believed in and what a lot of Northerners believed in.

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Ed Ayers

But because of the disgust of what white Southerners did in that time, they were able to win a mandate in 1866 that they were able then to carry over into 1867 and ’68. But they started losing as soon as they started winning. The Democrats started a resurgence almost as soon as the Republicans were in power creating the Military Reconstruction Act. 

My experience is that people don’t even think they understand Reconstruction because it doesn’t have any kind of a narrative arc. It starts ending as soon as it begins and it ends in different states at different times in different ways.

I asked my freshmen students last year to tell me about Reconstruction. I said, “Go online and see what people think about Reconstruction.” They came back and the only commonality was that it was a failure. That’s what we teach our children—Reconstruction was a failure. I think that’s misleading and also defeatist. It also undercuts the idea that the government might be able to do something important. Of course, it’s going to end. You can’t change people. So the point is that the Republicans were racing precisely because they knew that if they didn’t do it then they might never do it.

Another great thing about the book is the way that you captured voices from people who were in the US Colored Troops during the War. I have always known how important those soldiers were symbolically, but what came through in the book was, practically, the North really relied on what the Colored Troops were able to do in the field.

Yeah. The New York Times wrote an article about the Valley of the Shadow project back in 1999 or 2000 when the idea of an online project was considered a novel idea. An older professor wrote me and said, “You would never find them, but the largest single collection of letters of African-American soldiers is of a family from Franklin County [PA]. But they’re filed in the county next door… I can’t read the letters.” 

colored_troopsI wrote back and said, “That’s ok. I know some twenty-two-year-old eyes that can.” And [the grad students] transcribed all those letters. So, I was able to flesh out that story because of that remarkable stroke of good luck.

The fact that these guys were just writing to each other…they’re not grandstanding. This is not a speech. This is not an editorial in a newspaper. They’re just saying, “I do believe it’s God’s will that this War will go on till the black people have their rights.”

I still get chills thinking about that and for us to know that that’s what they were fighting for. I think is crucial. It changes the story we have. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman [in the movie Glory]—it’s all great, but it gives the impression that it ended after Fort Wagner [in 1863]. As you see, it didn’t and the kind of fighting they were doing on up to the gates of Richmond is an important thing for us to know. 

Click on this link for Segment 3, “Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism.”

The Vicious State of Politics…Then: Ed Ayers on Heartlands-part 1 of 3

Edward Ayers is not only one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of American History, he is a consummate storyteller and educator.  Ayers is the Tucker Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.  His latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and the Avery O. Craven Award.  He was also my professor and advisor at the University of Virginia back in the day.

Recently I interviewed Ayers about his book and the course of history in general.  In three segments on Heartlands, you’ll get a lot of what we talked about.  In this segment, we discuss the political culture of the Civil War period and how it may have echoes in our current era:

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By Dswanson1001 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51846534

So I started my review of your book by asking, “Who starts a book about the Civil War in the middle?” Of course, you did. Why did you choose to start Thin Light of Freedom with 1863?

This does start in the middle on purpose because it kind of throws us off balance a little bit. We’re used to thinking that Gettysburg is the pivot of the war, the turning point, but they certainly didn’t know it. We need to remember: as many people died after Gettysburg as died before and you certainly see in this book that the White South doesn’t say, “Well, we give up.” They kept fighting and I think the critical thing is to recognize that the election of 1864 is really the pivot of the war. They know it’s going to be from the beginning and a lot of the things that happen on the battlefield are actually oriented toward that. We usually think that a war is a series of battles and instead the war was a struggle for the future of the United States that would be determined by whether the US could hold it together long enough to defeat the Confederacy. That was determined more by the election than by the battle of Gettysburg or Vicksburg.

The contrast between the political culture in the South and in the North was fascinating. You use a lot of newspaper accounts to try to get at how public opinion was changing. You talk about how in Staunton, Virginia, (the Southern community that you chose to focus on) the newspapers were kind of united and probably united more behind the army than the government.

Right, right. Our usual understanding is, “Obviously the Confederacy was wrong,” and so we go back and look for ways that it was also flawed and failing. But the fact is that it considered itself under assault and it set aside the differences, which were just as strong before the Civil War as in the North. The newspapers that seem to be speaking with one voice during the war had been fighting with each other, just like the Democrats and the Republicans in the North, before the war and in some ways even more so because they were fighting over whether Virginia should secede or not. You read those papers in this book and you see that you wouldn’t know that one of the papers had been fervently Unionist a week before the Confederacy is created.

The important thing for us to understand is that the war is not just a playing out of forces that were already in play but rather it changes everything. It’s a crucible in which ideology and even faith are redefined in some ways. The idea of pointing out how much conflict there is in the North is also good for us because we’re self-congratulatory about the Civil War and imagine that it had to turn out the way that it did and that it was clear that the right side scored a win because it was intrinsically stronger, because it was intrinsically right. But recognizing that nearly half of white Northerners would not support Abraham Lincoln in the greatest crisis of the nation should be a sobering recognition for all of us.

That was to me the most surprising thing, even having lived with the story a long time. The divisions in the North were just…vicious. 

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Ed Ayers

Yeah, when I give talks about this I joke and say, “Now, I want to warn everybody: back then people used very hard language to talk about politics.” 

People laugh but then they go, “Wow, that actually is a harsh thing to say about the greatest president in American history.”

The point of this is not to diminish the Union cause but rather to be grateful for the people who made it happen rather than just give a blanket endorsement of all white Northerners because they don’t deserve it. The people who did fight and make this happen, who were brave and resisted the temptations of racism, deserve more credit and the people who resisted it all don’t deserve any.

Right, and as I’ve been thinking about our current times, I keep going back to the 1850s as a similar time when it felt like things were pulling apart. But the kind of divisions that I associate with that period continued into the 1860s in the North. I mean, it was not over just because the War came. 

Not only do I start the book in the middle of the Civil War but I don’t end till Reconstruction. So it is kind of an unusual slice that cuts across the way you usually compartmentalize it, which is: Before the War, the War, After the War. Those are three completely different literatures that don’t talk to each other very much. All we have to do is remember just how much of a presence Vietnam is still today in America to imagine what the Civil War would have felt like 18 months after it was over. We close the books on the War and start to talk about politics, but it’s basically the same thing and the War simultaneously changes everything but leaves the fundamental conversation in place.

Segment 2 of this interview, “Doughfaces, Denzel, & Racing Against Racism,” can be found by clicking this link.

Looking In on Lookout Mountain: A Review of I Want to Show You More

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photo by Sharon Christina Rørvik via Unsplash

There’s a lot going on up on Lookout Mountain.  The battle of Chickamauga is not really over.  89-year-old Eva Bock braves traffic to walk up Lula Lake Road to deliver snail mail to President Bush protesting the war.  A mainline church takes Corbett Earnshaw’s abrupt confession of disbelief as a sign and demolishes their building in order to move into a cave on the side of the mountain.  A woman leaves her family one night and runs down into Chattanooga to find a makeshift communion in a homeless shelter.  Oh, and there’s a whole lot of cogitating about infidelity.

Such is the world in Jamie Quatro’s collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More.

I came to Quatro’s collection after reading her most recent novel, Fire Sermon, a book that mystically-inclined readers like me will find impossible to put down.  That book featured a 40-something writer from Tennessee struggling with God and a long-distance lover with whom she has broken off an affair.  Those three—writer, God, and lover—are all present in these stories as well.  Quatro is exploring this theme from every angle.  But you’ll also find meditations on isolation, mortality, parenting, physical & psychological frailty, and healing.

Online reviewers seem to feel that much of Quatro’s writing is autobiographical.  After all, she, like many of the characters, lives on Lookout Mountain, is a runner, has children, spent time in Arizona.  Because of the transgressive edge of these stories, some evangelical readers are worried about her soul.  Quatro herself complains about this perception in a recent Paris Review article and a lecture at the Festival of Faith and Writing in which she talked about an all-men’s book club that shifted uncomfortably when she came to visit until one of them blurted out, “What did your husband think of this book?”

Behind that question is a fear of the writer’s freedom to explore the traces of desire and embodiment.  In her FFW lecture, Quatro quoted Richard Rohr who calls such fear more Plato than Jesus.  Flesh cannot be bad, as it is the ongoing hiding place of God,” Rohr says.  Quatro is determined to mine the wisdom of the God-haunted flesh for all that it can reveal.

In one of the most affecting stories, “Sinkhole,” a teenaged cross-country runner with a debilitating fear that a hole is opening up in his chest has a transformative experience with a girl whose own physical story is marked by cancer and a colostomy.  Quatro handles the inner lives of the two with sensitivity but holds back on a potential happy ending.  Despite their close encounter which will mark both of them, there is still isolation and a ‘not quite’ consummation.

In another story, “The Anointing,” a wife brings in a team of church elders to anoint her depressed husband with oil only to be incapacitated herself by her inability to truly save her family.  In yet another, a woman’s lover becomes a decomposing wax figure that comes to dominate the relationship with her husband.

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Jamie Quatro

There’s more than a little Flannery O’Conner here.  Characters come in at angles and seem motivated by strange spiritual quests.  But Quatro is paying attention to every plane.  Like the state line that runs invisibly between the Tennessee and Georgia sides of Lookout Mountain, (and which characters occasionally note, especially in the story ‘Georgia the Whole Time”), there are boundaries not seen with the naked eye.  If you do have eyes to see, what you find may be disturbing.  Ugly even.  But “the flaw beneath the flaw is the failure to notice.”

That’s how Quatro put it in her FFW lecture.  The book’s title is in earnest.  She wants to show us more.  And the virtue of these tales is that if we could just pause long enough with her to notice the fulness of this human thing with its yearning, god-like fire, we might be overcome by something beyond the bounds.  Something more like…wonder.

Your Civil War Is Too Easy: Looking for The Thin Light of Freedom with Ed Ayers

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Freedwoman –Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, TX  By Jennifer Rangubphai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51616286

Who starts a story of the Civil War in the middle?  By the time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania in July of 1863, the war had been going for more than two years.  The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the 4th of July usually mark the beginning of the end for the South and the two remaining years of conflict move inevitably to Appomattox, full emancipation of enslaved persons, and the reunion of the nation.

Edward Ayers, (the correct answer to the question above) is not having your easy narrative, however.  The eminent historian and co-host of the BackStory podcast knows that the Great Dates theory of history is as shaky as the Great Personage theory.  Something significant happened in 1863 (and in 1865) but a whole lot was still undetermined and conflict was still going to be necessary to preserve a “thin light of freedom” for those whose sought real racial equality in the United States.

51kX8OoXrAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ayers new book takes its title from this phrase.  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the kind of history Ayers has specialized in—extensively researched, sympathetic to its subjects, discontented with simple narratives, progressive, eyes wide to the trauma but ultimately hopeful.  This book also throws uncomfortable light on the conflicts of our own age.

In covering the war and its aftermath from 1863 to 1902, Ayers chooses two of his frequent haunts as touchstones for his story—Augusta County, Virginia & Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  The two counties, despite being on opposite sides during the Civil War, share a common geography in the long Valley stretching behind the front line of the Appalachians, some common demographics, and a similar agricultural economy.  They have also been the focus of a long-term digital archiving project conceived by Ayers—the Valley of the Shadow, which has been collecting diaries, letters, newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau reports, soldier’s records, and photographs from the period from the 1850s to 1870.

Ayers calls this “history on a human scale” (xx) and he regularly checks in with characters, black and white, who are living through the destruction and disruption caused by the war and then the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction.

Twelve-year-old Cate confronts a northern soldier looking beneath the beds of her Augusta County home “for rebels” by telling him “We are all rebels…I am a rebel too & I glory in it.” (171).

A northern Democratic newspaper editorializes vociferously against arming formerly enslaved men: “It was wrong to place ‘these poor devils in the army to be shot down like dogs, knowing that they had neither the physical nor the moral courage requisite to make good soldiers.’” (314)

Meanwhile, Franklin County men write back from their service in the newly-formed US Colored Troops with contradictory evidence: “Mi Dear Jest let Me say to you if it had Not a bean for the Culard trips Wiy this offel Ware Wod last fer ten years to Cum.” (317)

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Edward L. Ayers

Interspersed with this documentary evidence is Ayers’ interpretative account of what is happening.  Military actions are conducted with an eye to northern political struggles.  Northern Democrats develop a vicious racial narrative as a strategy to return to national power.  Republicans build a quasi-religious language that demands of the defeated Confederates shame, repentance, and moral regeneration.  In response, whites in the South retrench and we see in the early post-War years the building blocks of the narrative of the Lost Cause and eventual institutionalized segregation between the races.

As a boy who was raised in a Southern town steeped in the Lost Cause and as a student of Ayers in his teaching days at the University of Virginia, I have had the Civil War period much on my mind as the nation goes through this current period of Great Divide.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the political disintegration of the 1850s when the national story broke down and new, rigid narratives developed.  There are ominous parallels between our times.  Is a crisis similar to the Civil War on the horizon?

In this book, Ayers offers a different lens.  By downplaying the myth of the epic moment (Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, 13th Amendment, etc.) he points to a more enduring reality.  Political conflict didn’t end with the Civil War.  If anything, the political environment of the North was more vicious than before and Lincoln’s achievement in holding even that part of the Union together seems all the more miraculous.  The achievements of the Reconstruction period seem similarly improbable given the resistance of northern and southern parties.

“Reconstruction, it turned out, moved by counterpoint and reaction as well as by intention and fulfillment,” Ayers says.  “Just as white Southerner’s secession made emancipation possible, so did their resistance to basic civil rights for black people create the possibility for votes and office-holding for black people.” (450)

Ayers is not making the case for continual conflict as an unqualified good, but he has a native confidence in the possibilities that emerge from the clash between mighty forces:  “At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and defeated.  As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive.” (xxii)

There are echoes here of Martin Luther King’s famous arc of the moral universe, long but bending toward justice.  Ayers lets the question of an invisible hand in history hang in the air.  In the meantime he’s going to introduce us to the people who are actually moving though that history as agents of change, however provisional and tragic.  People like Serena Carter, a Staunton African-American leader who died in 1898 at the age of twenty-nine.  With her spouse, Willis, Carter began a school for black children, worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to improve the lives of women and children, and took a leading role in an economic improvement program for the black community.  At her death the Staunton newspaper headlined her obituary: “Useful Colored Woman Dead.” (491)

Is hers a story of triumph?  Ayers, I believe, would say, ‘yes.’  You just need the right frame.  And the chronological frame of a life, like the dates of a war, is just not big enough.

Look for my interview with Edward Ayers coming soon to Heartlands.

Order The Thin Light of Freedom.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#4 Wolf Whistle

51bf+UoPhrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If I told you there was a laugh-out-loud book about the murder of Emmett Till, the black teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman, you’d call such a thing, at the least, in poor taste. Yet the late Lewis Nordan, who lived through that episode as a teenager in his home town of Itta Bena, MS, wrote just such a book–fictionalizing the murder and running it through his wildly imaginative brain formed by heavy immersion into Southern Gothic literature and Southern vernacular. The result is Wolf Whistle–profane, horrific, and one of my top reads of 2017 (though the novel dates to 1993).

The book is worth the price of admission just for the courtroom scene which is what Harper Lee’s would have been like had it been stripped of every veneer of high-mindedness. Alice, the young 4th-grade school teacher with the lone sense of conscience, takes her wards on a field trip to the murder trial while an unruly parrot disrupts the proceedings enough for truth to be told and the evil of the crime to be exposed, even if the perpetrators, as in real life, get off scot free. Critics call some of this magical realism. I call it brilliant.

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Emmett Till

What Nordan does is to foreground the brutality and tragedy of lower-class white Southerners, particularly as they interact with the African-American community. The characters walk over from a Flannery O’Connor story and stay in your face, all the while silent sufferers like poor Glenn Greg, (who tried to set his abusive daddy on fire and instead burned himself to a slow, painful death), linger in the background. You feel it’s not right to laugh at the clowns who drive the narrative, but in this Delta nightmare-scape, you take comfort where you can find it.

The sad history of racial violence is still close to the surface and the past is never really past.  And this is vivid, scalding writing without much hint of redemption.  Except…images of the dead teenager keep surfacing in stories and even in a raindrop on Alice’s coat, and they won’t be extinguished. As long as people keep remembering Bobo, (the Emmett Till figure in the book), the story is not finished.

The book prompted me to spend a day in visiting Emmett Till-related sites in Mississippi last summer, something I wrote about here.

Freaks & Monsters – Being an Artist in the South – My interview with Nick Norwood concludes – Part 3 of 3

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Nick Norwood’s poetry at an installation at The Eagle & Pheonix cotton mills, now lofts

Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, is also a great poet.   Like McCullers, he writes about what he knows – the American South and its eccentricities.  In previous segments of this essay we talked about the universal themes in McCullers’ work and her sense of place.  In this segment we wind up with a discussion of race talk and talk about what it means to be an artist in the Deep South…

How do think Carson McCullers’ views on race relations hold up today?

One of the papers that was read at the [recent international] conference was about how she was a part of her culture, too.  You see that in her depictions of African-Americans.  Even though it’s clear that she is sympathetic, it’s almost unavoidable that she’s gonna say things that are patronizing or that show a blind spot here and there.  So the argument that Sarah Schulman makes is that we shouldn’t just consider where she makes a mistake.  It’s the attitude towards other people that we should try to emulate.  She really was sympathetic to other people and even if she might have had some blind spots that’s not the important thing.

The New Yorker critic Hilton Als is a gay African-American man.  He won the Pulitzer prize for criticism and he has long been a McCullers fan.  He wrote a really important piece on her back in the early 2000s and has written other pieces on her.  He points out things in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that make him cringe.  He acknowledges what Richard Wright says and he says, “I’m not gainsaying what Richard Wright says.  He was right and yet still there are things I think that are embarrassing to all of us.”  For instance, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she wants to make a clear distinction between Dr Copeland and his children and she does it partly with her speech but I think she overdoes it a little bit.

There are things that she has especially Portia say.  She makes comments like walking in a black neighborhood “it had that negro smell” and that was one of the things that Hilton Als said.  She was a product of her time in that way.  So I think the main thing to try to emulate and to appreciate now is the attitude towards other people and especially the ‘other’, that I think is clear that she had, that’s the thing.

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Nick Norwood

So she talks a lot about, and has a lot of characters who are freaks and outsiders—like the circus freaks who come to town. I’m sure she felt that way growing up a lot. How is it for you being a poet in the Deep South?

You know the famous comment by Flannery O’Conner when she was asked, “Why do you Southerners have so many grotesques in your work?”  She said, “Well maybe it’s because we know one when we see one.”

My good friend Fred Fussell, who is a historian and musicologist and is married to Cathy Fussell, who was the second director of the McCullers Center—they are local historians interested in the art and culture of this place.  He explained it as “Every place has its eccentrics; we’re just exceptional.”

I think maybe that is sort of true of the South.  I feel like I am not exploiting that in the way that those famous, now we refer to them as Southern Renaissance, authors did because it would feel like an adaptation to me.  On the other hand, I’m writing about things that really happened to me in my life.  I know a lot of people see that.

When I make friends with people that are from outside the South and we start telling stories of our childhood and they look at me like “Wow!”  What can I tell you? That was just home.  So I don’t know if the South is exceptional in that way but it seems to be so.

I am like Carson.  Seriously, I came to Carson McCullers in my 20s and she was an influence on me as a writer.  I was only writing fiction at the time.  I later found out I was a poet but still I think that she’s an influence and one of the ways that she is that is, I think, to pay proper homage to a place, especially your own place, is to be absolutely honest about it and that includes writing about a lot of people that other people are going to see as freaks and monsters.

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Carson McCullers

So it might be easier to be a poet in the South because you’ve got a lot of material.

Yeah, fiction writers have gone to town. I was lucky to find models amongst the poets, many of whom became my friends, I don’t know if you know Andrew Hudgins for instance.  He is a poet from Montgomery, Alabama writing from a Christian perspective.  I met him when I was in graduate school in Texas.  He’s still a good friend of mine and he writes with blunt honesty about the South and it’s a shocking thing. His most shocking poems are the ones that are most about his Christian faith.  He likes bad jokes more than any otherwise intelligent person I think I’ve ever met and he would tell a joke sometimes in his poems.

Also this poet David Bottoms, who’s a Georgia poet, who’s just terrific.  He’s a great poet also become a friend and mentor.  His first book, which was chosen for the Walt Whitman Award, made his career—a book called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.  It is unrelenting in its focus on the violence and the brutality of Southern culture and yet it is unmistakably a book by a serious poet.

So I had these models to find a way to talk about my Southern childhood in poems but I think that for a long time it was difficult for Southern poets to do it.  It’s almost like poetry had to evolve to a point where you could write that kind of poem.  Previously it seemed that, if you were a fiction writer, the South was a good place to grow up because there was all this great material for fiction.  I’m just lucky that I came along a little later so there are a lot of prominent American poets who are from the South and writing about the South right now.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.