Author Archives: gedwardjourney

About gedwardjourney

Edward Journey is a writer, theatre artist, and recently retired university professor who currently lives in north Alabama. "Professional Southerner" is an online journal focusing on topics -- Southern and other -- that stoke Edward's interests. He has been told that he has a tendency to "think loudly." Perhaps, by writing this journal, his loud thoughts will become more specific and defined. Edward may be reached at likatrip@yahoo.com.

Alabama Marble

Sylacauga marble

 

 

Back when I thought I should at least feign an interest in the writing of Ayn Rand, I heard architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) utter the following line of dialogue to Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) in King Vidor’s overwrought film version of Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949):

“This is Alabama marble – very high grade, very hard to find.”

I watched The Fountainhead many years ago, and I suspect that quote was my first inkling of the quality of Alabama marble. It is usually referred to as “Sylacauga marble,” for the Talladega County town in which the vein of marble is focused. The seam is thirty-two miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 400 to 600 feet deep, runs from the Coosa River to near the town of Talladega and is the longest marble deposit in the world. 500 million years old and 98% calcium carbonate – Sylacauga marble is considered one of the purest and whitest in the world and is often compared to Italian Carrara.

Gantt’s Quarry

Edward Gantt was the first entrepreneur to develop marble quarries in the Sylacauga area in the 1830s. One of Gantt’s abandoned quarries is open for public view. At the Gantt’s Quarry Overlook, 10-ton blocks of marble line the viewing platform. White mining roads wind through the grey chasm and down to the greenish water filling the abandoned quarry floor.

Italian sculptor Giuseppi Moretti began to use Sylacauga marble while in Alabama designing Birmingham’s mammoth cast iron statue of Vulcan – Roman god of fire, metalwork, and the forge – for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Moretti and partners opened marble quarries around Sylacauga in the early 20th Century.

“Head of Christ” by Giuseppi Moretti

Moretti’s first art sculpture from Sylacauga marble was his Head of Christ, which was displayed in St. Louis in 1904 along with Vulcan. It is a sculpture for which Moretti claimed great pride and which travelled with him for the rest of his life. He expressed a wish that the Head of Christ would be displayed eternally in Alabama and it can be seen today at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Abraham Lincoln, on view in the U.S. Capitol, is carved from Sylacauga marble. Sylacauga marble is prominent in the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, the United States Supreme Court Building, and other notable architecture and art throughout the United States.

More prosaic uses for marble include as a soil additive, as a whitening agent in paint and paper coating, and as an antacid (think Alka-Seltzer and Tums), among other things.

“Sylacauga Emerging” by Craigger Browne

Sylacauga marble is having a renaissance for artistic applications as evidenced in outdoor installations throughout downtown Sylacauga. Sylacauga Emerging by Alabama sculptor Craigger Browne is an impressive work in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. It depicts a worker carving himself out of a block of marble. Nearby is Don Lawler’s Falling Star, commemorating the Hodges Meteorite, which crashed through a farmhouse roof outside Sylacauga in 1954, striking Ann Hodges, asleep on her couch.

If in the Sylacauga area, keep a watch for numerous examples of the pristine marble that is native to the region. Chances are, you’ve already seen it or used it in other places.

“Falling Star” by Don Lawler (foreground)

Do You Know What It Means …

Tonight, as the final hours of the Carnival season wind down and Mardi Gras closes along the Gulf Coast, I keep humming Louis Armstrong’s version of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”

Because of pandemic, parades were cancelled in Mobile — the origin city of American Mardi Gras — and New Orleans, its American capital. I have amused myself with online viewing of New Orleans-based “Yardi Gras” displays on porches and yards throughout the Crescent City. In my years as a teacher, I would throw beads to my students at the end of Fat Tuesday classes to celebrate. Last night, before I went to bed, I realized that my stash of beads is depleted and I only have a few strings of purple, green, and gold beads to distribute to neighbors.

There were enough. I will remind myself to order beads before Mardi Gras next year — when we can only hope that things will seem substantially more “normal.” The word “normal” has taken on new meaning in the past year. In the past, I often spoke it with a sense of scorn and condescension; who decides what’s “normal” and what’s not?

Now, “normal” just means being able to go out more or less fearlessly, to socially interact. “Normal” means having our lives back in whatever sense of “normal” that used to apply.

A Mardi Gras wreath adorns my front door. It was a gift from my next door neighbor who died a year ago. I always put it out two weeks before Fat Tuesday; as a traditionalist, I must have it down before midnight tonight.

It will be adorning my door in a new location on Fat Tuesday 2022.

Minerva at Tuscaloosa

In December 2019, my alma mater, and the university my father proudly served until his retirement, dedicated a statue and installation on the Black Warrior River, which flows on the northern boundary of the campus. The University of Alabama gifted a statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of knowledge and wisdom, to the city of Tuscaloosa in honor of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial. The 30-foot statue stands on the edge of the river in the park at Manderson Landing. Leading up to the mirrored pedestal on which Minerva lands in a silvery splash of water is a bronze outline of the river set in a concrete walk and punctuated with a timeline of significant moments in the city’s history. The history timeline is presented alongside the river’s circuitous path from Tuscaloosa to Demopolis.

Sculptor Caleb O’Connor created the Minerva statue and Craig Wedderspoon, who directs the sculpture program at the University, designed the timeline walk.


When I was a student at the University, Manderson Landing was a dirt parking lot on the side of the river. River Road (now Jack Warner Parkway) followed the path of the river from the community of Holt to downtown Tuscaloosa. During my time in Tuscaloosa, I was struck by how little the town interacted with its river. For a time, I lived at Rose Towers, which was the northernmost building on the campus and the nearest to the river. From my 11th floor window, I could see the river’s path all the way to downtown but, other than towboats and barges, human activity on the river was basically non-existent.

Rose Towers was imploded years ago and fresh new-ish student housing predominates on the north side of campus. The riverside has been developed from town to the campus with commercial interests, a farmers market, walking trails, and abundant park lands. Campus enrollment has doubled since my time there and the campus itself is packed with new roads, new campuses, new buildings, and never-ending construction.

Overall, the campus is more beautiful and maintained than it was in my time, but the various fraternity and sorority rows are even tackier and more obscene than they were “in my day.” My pride in the campus wilts a little when I have to pass through the overblown houses of the ostentatious panhellenic ghettoes. My disgust with that element of college life dates back to my pre-college days and it seems to grow more intense rather than mellow with time. (In the summer before my freshman year at the University, I received a recruitment letter from the Interfraternity Council; I corrected the grammar and spelling and sent it back. They never bothered me again, which was my intent.)


But I was in town this time to visit Minerva and the river. A visit was planned soon after the dedication, but the lost year of 2020 put a halt to the plan.

The goddess of wisdom adorns the seal of the University of Alabama. I must admit that, through my undergraduate and graduate school years, I was always led to understand that the goddess on the seal is Athena, the Greek original for Minerva. The origin stories and realm are the same, but in the years since I left Tuscaloosa, Athena has apparently been transmogrified into her Roman persona.

Works for me, I guess …but I have always preferred my Greek mythology to the Roman appropriation. Even so, I am proud of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge and metalworking, who is the symbol for Birmingham. I know that his Greek predecessor is Hephaestus, but the name Vulcan seems to wield more power.

O’Connor’s Minerva is a stunning addition to Tuscaloosa’s riverscape. She is a modernized creation with flowing hair replacing the traditional helmet. Luminous raiment flows against her taut and powerful body. She appears to be landing in water after a flight and her right arm releases an owl into the firmament. The sculpture is not monochrome; a subdued and powerful mix of hues captures and plays with the light, giving the form an even more changeable and human presence. She is inspiring and spectacular.

Minerva’s mirrored and curving pedestal emerges from the rocks of the landing and provides added luminescence to the goddess who towers above the river to anchor the north side of the campus. Wedderspoon’s history-laden walkway provides historic context and a sense of place to a dramatic interlude in the local landscape.

For an alumnus of the University of Alabama, who has begun to feel a sense of distance from the place, the inspiring monument at Manderson Landing has reignited a sense of connection and community that I found on that campus all those years ago.

Wallowing | Contemplation: Chilly Scenes of Winter

January 22: It was never my plan to wake up at 5:30 this morning, but I did. Opening the bedroom curtains, a gentle post-rain fog hovered over the street, blurring the street and occasional headlights. Last night I was in the middle of reading a Calvin Tomkins 1970s essay on the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)-designed pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. That geodesic-dome architecture was perennially surrounded by Fujiko Nakaya’s installation of artificial water vapor – a thing I would have loved to see.

Being awake in the fog at 5:30 this morning, there seemed no better time to finish the Tomkins essay, so I retrieved the Tomkins book, took a seat by the open window looking over the foggy road, and began to finish the essay as the fog dispersed and the sun eventually shone. The ground was white grey, the trees were frosted, and the mist was frozen.

Eventually the sun broke through with a golden light. A bright red cardinal, lurking in the bushes, flew onto a tree branch. He was transformed, for a moment, into a brilliant golden glow. In the past year, cardinals have become, for me, some kind of omen.

So was this one.


Such contemplative moments are a luxury always, but today – at the beginning of a welcome new administration in the Oval Office – they are especially cherished.

I think that most of us have taken on a more philosophical mindset during these months of relative isolation. “Look around you and pay attention” was a directive I often gave to acting and directing students and it’s a directive I find myself following closely in this challenging period of an early COVID-driven retirement.

It seems that, in these moments of privation, I am drawn to things that try to make sense of our challenges. I seek escapism, but also those things that make sense of this current moment in time.


COVID19 SUTRAS, by Hank Lazer, is a new book of poems and sutra-like meditations that deals with our cultural isolation, division, and longing in ways that inspire, incite, and calm the soul.

Intimations, the new book of COVID-inspired essays by Zadie Smith, gives a sort of skeptical hope. Smith — intuitively – knows the landscape, but approaches it with humor, acid, and civility. She remains among my favorite living authors. Her thoughts on our current time lend strength.

Don DeLillo’s The Silence is a brief and pointed novel – written before the pandemic – about a time when social entitlements are suddenly, inexplicably, withdrawn. What happens, DeLillo wonders, when electronic assumptions fail and society is left to wander, cluelessly? It is significant, I think, that DeLillo’s cultural deprivation occurs on a Super Bowl Sunday.

The Silence was most evocative, to me, of Edward Albee’s 1966 play, A Delicate Balance. In Albee’s play, a group of individuals comes together in incomprehensible fear of something existential and undefined.

In a recent New Yorker, Lawrence Wright’s intense investigation of COVID19 and the American response – “The Plague Year” – provides insight into a real-life crisis of existence and our current moment that can’t be wished away.


The bookshelf landscape is not completely bleak, however. One grey morning this week, I was reading Verlyn  Klinkenborg and Calvin Tomkins near the bank of the Flint River in southeast Madison County.

There is strength in the essays of Verlyn Klinkenborg. His essays on “The Rural Life” in the New York Times were an anticipated feature in my readings of that newspaper through the years and I am now making my way through the sequel, More Scenes from the Rural Life. I also look forward to reading Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, the chronicle of a family-owned tavern in Buffalo and, especially, Several Short Sentences about Writing, his tome of advice for all writers.

The aforementioned six-volume collection by Calvin Tomkins, The Lives of Artists, is making me most happy. Starting with a profile of Marcel Duchamp in 1962, Tomkins’s essays, spanning seven decades, present a very personal history of art in the second half of the 20th Century and beyond.

This crucible year of the 21st Century challenges our strength and stamina. Great writing currently explores it; great writing also provides an escape from the day-to-day obstacles it offers.

At one point in Intimations, Smith writes, “The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.” That might be true, but in times of stress and change, we often look to the artists for sustenance, understanding, and courage.

Christmas Card 2020: Looking Forward

Sacred Heart Chapel; Mobile Bay, Alabama

A holiday ritual that wasn’t curtailed this year was the sending of Christmas cards. Professional Southerner posts in previous years have detailed my annual search for historic and/or picturesque churches to be found around Alabama during the December holiday season. One of these structures usually is featured on the next year’s Christmas greeting.

This year’s church, Sacred Heart Chapel, overlooking Mobile Bay from Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore, is a church that dates from the 1880s.  I’ve photographed the chapel many times over the years. Until 2019, none of my images struck my fancy as being Christmas card-worthy, although the building is a lovely example of 19th Century Southern coastal architecture. Its large front porch is a particularly charming feature.

The chapel is only used for summer services. A year ago, walking along the deserted grounds, I was struck by the simple grace of the Gothic windows against the white planks of the building. Beyond the porch, the broad churchyard sweeps down to a vista across Mobile Bay, interrupted only by the ruins of an old pier from a previous hurricane.

Even before the pandemic, I had decided that the side view of Sacred Heart would be the 2020 Christmas card image. There was something hopeful in that outward view. Comes the pandemic, and I was firm in my conviction that whatever hope I saw in that particular image would be part of a holiday message this year.

The main message inside the card includes the message “Looking Forward to Christmas and the Year to Come.” And, as always, “Peace on Earth.”


The search for an image for the 2021 Christmas card is more abbreviated this year since I was not able to travel the length of the state to photograph churches and other scenes of December.

Among the tourism trails of north Alabama is the North Alabama Hallelujah Trail (www.northalabama.org/trails/hallelujah) featuring thirty-two places of worship that are at least 100 years old and stand on their original sites. Many of these are examples of vernacular Southern church architecture, others are Gothic or grander, one is a synagogue, and one is simply an open-air facility with cedar posts and a roof.

My mother’s family is from Cullman County, Alabama, — the descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants who landed in Virginia and the Carolinas in the late 18th-early 19th century and settled in the frontier of Alabama soon afterward. My annual Christmas cards have featured churches from all over Alabama but I never located one in Cullman county that called out to be used. Family-related churches in Cullman around the communities of Kinney Grove, Ryan’s Creek, and Bethany – some of which were built by some of those ancestors – have been replaced by more prosaic modern buildings that don’t make the Christmas card cut.

Shady Grove Church; Cullman County, Alabama

The Hallelujah Trail features a church in the Cullman County community of Logan. A couple of weeks ago, I had the perfect opportunity to travel down to see it in person. Much of Cullman County is off-the-beaten-path and Logan seems even more remote than most. It’s beautiful hilly country with plenty of farms, pine thickets, and ponds along the narrow roads.

At the end of one particular road is Shady Grove Church, which started out in the 19th Century as pews in an arbor. The current building dates to the late 1800s. It’s a serene place on a lonely road, surrounded by the quiet of pristine forests. Across the road from the church is an old cemetery which holds generations of locals along with the remains of soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies.

Shady Grove Church interior; Cullman County, Alabama

The doors to the building were locked but, through a window in the front door, the entirety of the church interior is visible. A unique touch, a hand-carved church structure, decorates the arched cove behind the pulpit. A wooden outhouse provides necessary services behind the building. Somebody had made the effort to install fresh flowers in small vessels in each window; it’s a small touch – but one that speaks to the dedication that keeps Shady Grove Church a place worthy of a remote road trip.

In activist/poet/writer Katha Pollitt’s “Plague Poem,” she muses, “Perhaps it is best that we go away now” as she considers ongoing environmental and social sins. It’s an interesting thought, but this Christmastime, I choose to hope for the best and for an opportunity to right the wrongs that plague us when we get to the end of this current spate of unfortunate circumstances.

Merry Christmas … And all hope for an amazing and triumphant New Year.

Shady Grove Church window; Cullman County, Alabama

Cancelled

Based on years past, I should be a couple of hours away from my annual December getaway to Point Clear on Mobile Bay as I type this sentence. A couple of months ago, I optimistically booked a room at the Grand Hotel for December 13 through 18. I knew I might have to cancel, but I wanted to be ready just in case things had changed by now.

When I booked my room, the resort was still dealing with damage from Hurricane Sally in September. I have been exceptionally conscious and careful during the pandemic and was impressed with the safety protocols the resort has in place. My plan was to stay close to my room, reading and writing, to take regular walks around the grounds and community, and to have room service and takeout. It seemed to me to be a responsible way to get a break and finally to celebrate my retirement.

As the dates got closer and the news reports grew more grim, I realized that the responsible thing is to cancel for the time being. The world around us and people depending on us make it feel imperative to take a stand. And, as my friend Deborah says, now that I’m retired, I can go down any time I please … once the health crisis has passed, anyway.

It will be the first time I have missed the December escape since 2005 – the year of Hurricane Katrina and its extensive damage to Mobile and Baldwin Counties.


Even as I entered my cancellation, the music and memories of Baldwin County and Mobile Bay invaded my thoughts. I think about downtown Fairhope, the intersection of Section Street and Fairhope Avenue, and the light-bedecked trees along the sidewalks. The planters, hanging from the light posts, complement the plantings of poinsettias and pansies in the ground-level beds.

I think of the Camellia Café, Dragonfly, Panini Pete’s, the Wash House, and other places to grab a great meal. I think of Market by the Bay and its abundance of fresh catch seafood.

I think of drives to lonely overlooks across the bay, to Magnolia Springs, and to the search for bags of fresh local pecans and satsumas.

At the Grand, the gentle surf grazes the docks and, beyond the marina, the lights of Mobile, across the bay, glisten beyond the traffic of the causeway.

The Grand sunset, usually spectacular, will still be there when I return. And, upon that return, I think I will cherish the place more than ever.


For now, I slowly and surely prepare my house to sell and keep my eyes and ears open for possible places to move in Birmingham.

To stay grounded, I read as much as possible. After reading stacks of magazines, a few books, and news articles, I have found comfort and solace in reading a couple of very good cookbooks. Sean Brock’s second book, South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, is as thoughtful and thorough a consideration of Southern foodways and contemporary thought on the subject as one might find. Kelly Fields’s chatty The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread is as inspiring as one might expect from the dedicated and well-travelled James Beard Award-winning pastry chef.

I feel grateful, as I read these books on food, to have spoken with and experienced meals prepared by both of these chefs. I first had Brock’s food at an unforgettable dinner at Alabama Chanin’s factory in Florence. I met and broke bread with Fields at two dinners at the same place. Her New Orleans bakery and restaurant, Willa Jean, is a singular New Orleans experience.

I am also, grudgingly perhaps, becoming more susceptible to the necessity of streaming video. I have even fallen prey to the New Age-y call of calm.com, and especially its hypnotic video series, “The World of Calm.” My most frequent stream, however, has been the Spike Lee-directed concert movie, David Byrne’s American Utopia, which is a most hopeful document of our country and its current situation. I have lost touch with how many times I’ve watched it already.

To satisfy my former habit to watch a movie in an honest-to-goodness cinema, I have been able to venture to Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center in the basement of the Pizitz building in downtown Birmingham. The not-for-profit indie theatre limits each screening to twelve patrons in well-spaced seats in a 100-seat theatre and I have enjoyed welcome escapes there to view films like On the Rocks and Mank. Each visit to Sidewalk Cinema makes me more anxious to move back home to Birmingham when the time is right.

Holiday season 2020 is a unique and memorable one. Perhaps it has made us a little more aware of the pleasures of the simple things. Be safe as we move into a promising new year.

December 2020

Strawberry Fields; Central Park by S. Greg Panosian

November 2020 in north Alabama ended with a day of persistent wet snow flurries. There were temperatures in the 70s last week; the ground was far too warm for accumulation, but November snow is rare and seemed to energize the people in the grocery check-out.

My cashier asked if I was enjoying the snow; I am sorry that I truthfully answered that I am not a big fan of snow and cold weather. It turned out she was from Alaska and was excited to see any snow, so the remainder of our transaction was a bit chilly (pun intended, I guess).

As this dismal year draws to a close, I look forward to a responsible conclusion to the holiday season. I relish the start of a new year and a new administration and the promise it holds.


In this December of 2020, I am startled to realize that in a few days we will mark the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder. For most Baby Boomers, the event is one that is etched in memory.

In that week of December 1980, I was completing my first semester in graduate school and giving final exams to my English 101 composition students as a graduate teaching assistant. On Monday night, I had just completed grading a round of exams when my friend Bill Golightly dropped by to see if I wanted to go downtown to the Chukker; I had no exams on Tuesday, as either a student or a teacher, so I grabbed a jacket and we headed out.

In those days, the Chukker proudly did not have a phone or a television. It had a sparse menu, drinks, pool, pinball, and music.

Most people seem to have first heard about the death of John Lennon from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football’s Dolphins-Patriots game.

Cosell’s voice wasn’t heard in the Chukker that night, but Bill and I noticed that the bartender, Deborah, had walked into the back room and was quietly weeping. When she had collected herself, we called her over and asked if she was okay.

“John Lennon was shot. He’s dead,” was her answer.

One of her friends had apparently stopped by to tell her the news. The entire room went silent. Of course, we asked the pointless question, “Are you sure?”

Bill and I decided we needed confirmation. “Barry will know,” I said. “Let’s call Barry.” The nearest pay phone was a block away so we hurried there to call our friend, Barry, who always seemed to be an insider with the latest news from the music scene. By that time, though, cars were cruising down 6th Street with John Lennon or classic Beatles songs blaring from car radios and stereos. So, we knew.

I called Barry anyway. He picked up on the first ring. “Is it true?”

“It’s true.”

Bill and I headed back to my neighborhood, which I fondly referred to as the “student ghetto.” Music by the Beatles and Lennon was coming out of every window, it seemed, as other friends joined us for what turned into an impromptu wake at my place.

I had no reason to be on campus the next day, so I stayed in on Tuesday. The phone rang often. Friends from all over the country felt a need to call and commiserate. We were all checking on one another.

I won’t embellish: I was never really a major Beatles fanatic. I enjoyed the music as soon as it hit and appreciated its overwhelming brilliance and cultural influence; some of the Beatles songs are among my favorites. On the night that the Beatles made their live American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” we were at church. But at a fellowship at someone’s home later, the kids gathered in one of the bedrooms and played “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” over and over.

I would like for “In My Life” to be played at my memorial. The unobtrusive George was my favorite Beatle. Post-Beatles, I rooted for John Lennon in his challenges and was happy that he seemed to have gotten himself and his music in a good place.

His passing – and so violently – was a generational touchstone for so many of us. Our years of coming to consciousness were marked by Cold War, Vietnam, assassinations, and social upheaval. To have one of our icons – the auteur of “Give Peace a Chance” – gunned down on Central Park West, outside his home with his wife looking on, defied, for the moment, logic and rational comprehension.

On Wednesday of that week, I returned to campus to give a final to one of my freshman composition classes. The final part of the exam was a short essay – an analysis of a contemporary song lyric. The options were lyrics by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Springsteen. One of my students chose Mitchell’s “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” for his explication essay. He entitled it “Give Peach a Chance.” The title was a stretch, but much appreciated.

A few years later, on my first trip to New York City, the only photographs I took were at Strawberry Fields, the area of Central Park dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. This was not intentional; when I got home, I realized that in five days in New York the Central Park memorial was the only time I took a picture.


The Chukker is long closed. Bill Golightly died on January 2 of this year. And John Lennon would be 80 if he had lived.

I am embracing the holiday spirit, but a piece of music that sticks in my mind today is Olivier Messiaen’s chamber piece, “Quartet for the End of Time.” Messiaen composed the piece while he was a prisoner of war in a German stalag during World War II. The quartet premiered in a 1941 prison performance with other prisoners of war playing the other parts. It is an introspective and solemn work; somehow, too, it is jubilant and hopeful. It seems to be an ideal composition for an uncertain time.

Thanks + Giving

My friend Lily Miceli has a lovely podcast called “InBetween the Music.” Her recent broadcast for the Thanksgiving season is particularly gratifying. I hope you enjoy it. Be grateful for Simple Gifts. And Happy Thanksgiving.

http://www.podcasts.com/inbetween-the-music-9c45b7b5a/episode/IBM-Music-of-Thanks-Giving-c001

COVID19 SUTRAS — poetry by Hank Lazer

Here’s my most recent book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. Hank Lazer is an innovative, exciting, and experienced writer whose new book is a milestone for our current time.

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2020/11/03/covid19-sutras

Notes on Cursive Writing

My great-grandfather John Houston McCarn was born in 1865, the year that Lincoln was assassinated. He lived until 1959. That is significant for me because I vaguely remember seeing Grandpa McCarn when I was a pre-schooler. We went to his house in Cullman “town”; I got impatient that the old gentleman was hard of hearing and things had to be repeated all the time.

When I was older, I realized that Houston McCarn was born the year the Civil War ended; I was impressed that I had known a person with that particular direct connection to history.

Grandpa McCarn was a highly educated man and a school teacher. Based on the amount of land and real estate he managed to accrue in Cullman, Jefferson, and Walker counties in his long lifetime, he was a savvy investor as well. Six of his seven children were alive when he died and the property was split in many directions, so none, I suspect, got a lot.

I remember going to the Cullman county community of Bremen with my mother and grandmother to witness an auction of one of Houston McCarn’s rural schoolhouses, just a few hundred yards away from the “home place” where my grandmother Eula McCarn Harbison and her siblings grew up.

Mother remembers Grandpa McCarn’s large library. We have no clue what happened to his books when he died, but I shudder to think of the probability that they were discarded.

The discipline of clear penmanship was part of every school teacher’s domain in the days when Grandpa was teaching and I would look at samples of Grandpa McCarn’s elegant writing in letters and penmanship exercises in my grandmother’s chests of drawers when I was young.

After Grandmother Harbison died, I came to be in possession of two faded sheets of Grandpa’s writing. One sheet has his stylish rendering of the letter “E” with a few sample words starting with that letter. One of the words, coincidentally, is the name “Edward.” Even though the writing predates me by decades, the coincidence is neat.

The second sheet is the rendering of two images of birds. Grandpa McCarn used these images to teach the basic strokes of cursive writing. I have wondered how his students – farm boys and girls in rural Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – reacted to the rigorous discipline of Houston’s exercises in cursive penmanship.

I had the fading sheets of writing framed and they hang in my bedroom. I know they will seem worthless to anyone who runs across them when I am gone, but they are remarkably valuable to me. Houston would probably be stunned to know that his doodling from a century ago or more is hanging in a place of honor in the home of that 4-year-old boy.

Grandpa McCarn’s son-in-law, my grandfather Leonard Harbison, was a farmer’s son from a large family. He lacked a lengthy formal education, but he had mastered Grandpa McCarn’s deliberate and stylized birds and was still drawing them into his old age. I remember Granddaddy Harbison’s skilled rendering of the birds in the margins of books. He lived to age 93, almost as long as his scholarly father-in-law.


Over a decade after Grandpa McCarn died, those of us in Birmingham city schools had weekly classes in penmanship. I remember that in second grade, when we shifted from printing to cursive, it was referred to as “real writing.”

I have thought of it in those terms ever since.

At that time, Birmingham City Schools employed handwriting specialists – teachers who came to schools to ensure that the students’ cursive writing was up to par. In addition, we took weekly handwriting classes as part of our curriculum and were assigned a grade for penmanship in our report cards.

One time in fifth grade, my straight-A report card was marred by a “C” in penmanship from Mrs. Caskey. I think the shock of that “C” instilled in me a life-long commitment to be conscientious about my handwriting. Over the years, it has changed drastically; as I get older, it loses a bit of its confidence, but it’s still a source of pride.


It saddens me that cursive writing is no longer taught to elementary school students. A “good hand,” as it was called in the past, was once a mark of an educated person. Now, I list cursive writing as a “special skill” on my vita.

Nowadays, when I write notes to young people, I struggle with whether or not I should write in cursive. More often than not, I print the text and sign my name in cursive. I worry that I might insult the recipient either way: Am I insinuating they can’t read cursive? or Am I deliberately writing in a style they can’t read?


Literacy in general is a touchy area in dealing with youth, for whom “literacy” may take on a very different meaning than it did when I was their age. A young friend tactfully put me in my place recently. I was accustomed since her birth to sending picture books to her for Christmas and her birthday. The last time I gave her a picture book, she wrote a polite thank you note with a gentle reprimand, telling me, “I am reading chapter books now.”

I got her point, vowed to gift her no more picture books, and was delighted that she knew to send a handwritten thank you note.


“That’s not writing; it’s just typing” (or words to that effect) was Truman Capote’s catty dismissal of the Beat writers in general, and Jack Kerouac in particular, in the 1950s.

I wonder how he might respond to our age of tweets and posts, blogs and instant messaging, to the obsolescence of typewriters and handwriting in general. How might he and his contemporaries react to the fact that cursive writing has become a lost art?