Tag Archives: literature

On (re)Reading Walker Percy

IMG_1782  One of my assignments during graduate school was to assist the surly and pompous professor who briefly headed up the playwriting and dramaturgy program. He was a Boston native, out of Yale and Carnegie-Mellon, and some kind of Orson Welles scholar. His current assignment was at a Southern university but he made no effort to disguise his contempt for Southerners and the South.

I found him rude and offensive but tolerably amusing and treated him with a level of respect he had not earned. One afternoon we sat in his office discussing scripts that had been submitted to the department’s playwriting program and that conversation veered off onto a number of topics.

“Welles Scholar” leaned back in his chair, eyed me seriously, and said, “I like you, Journey. You’re that rare breed – an intelligent Southerner.”

I seriously eyed him back and said, “Y’know, that may be one of the most insulting things that’s ever been said to me.” I told him I had to get to a seminar and politely excused myself, fuming.

From that moment on, I detested “Welles Scholar” and was delighted to see him leave at the end of that academic year. I’m sure he meant the statement as a compliment to me but the cluelessness, arrogance, and stupidity which informed the comment made me angry and still makes me angry whenever I think about it.

I had not thought of the Welles Scholar story for a number of years but it came back to me this week as I was renewing my acquaintance with the writing of Walker Percy.

The great writer Walker Percy (1916-1990) is legitimately claimed by three states – Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He was born in Birmingham and lived there until he was 13. After the death of his father, his mother moved the family to Georgia. When she died, he and his brothers were taken in by a bachelor uncle in Greenville, Mississippi. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, earned a medical degree from Columbia, and contracted tuberculosis that lead to a lengthy recovery at a sanitorium in upstate New York. Percy spent the bulk of his adult years in the New Orleans area, eventually settling with his wife, Mary Bernice (“Bunt”), and children across Lake Pontchartrain in Covington, Louisiana.

Percy’s writing is deeply probing and intellectual, mixing Existentialist philosophy and scientific inquiry with Roman Catholic theology and the search for spiritual fulfillment. He deals brilliantly with the South and the complexity of the Southern “character.” He writes with amused suspicion and insight about both the South and other parts of the country but the observations are always filtered through a sense of what it means to be “Southern” in all of its forms.

Percy’s novels often focus on a flawed protagonist who doesn’t quite seem to belong anywhere but continues the quest for meaning and belonging nevertheless. Percy’s books are challenging and they tackle some weighty issues with an underlying wit, compassion, and turn of phrase that make them compelling and entertaining.

Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), is still his most acclaimed. I discovered that book, and Percy, early in my college years and it is still a favorite literary discovery; I find new areas for focus with each reading.

Until this week, I had not read Percy in a while. I ran across an item about him recently and decided it was time to revisit him. Since I had never read his second novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), I pulled it from my bookshelf and started to read. Here’s the odd thing: I began to run across passages that had been obviously underlined by me – they were the sorts of sentences and words that I would have underlined. The book was also full of evidence of previously dog-eared pages.

I still underline passages in books and frequently dog-ear pages. I was never one to write comments in the margins, although I occasionally do that too. This is one of the reasons I will always want to deal with the object of the book; I take pleasure in the tactile physical presence as I do in the words contained therein.

So I was quickly aware that I had already read The Last Gentleman at some point in time. At the beginning I thought Okay, it will start coming back to me as I read on. I read on. It all felt new to me and the last moment of the last page surprised me as if it were brand new. It was an eerie and enjoyable experience. The effect was heightened by the fact that the main character, Will Barrett (usually referred to, ironically, as “the engineer”), suffers from episodes of déjà vu and amnesia. My previously underlined passages were a form of déjà vu for me, the reader, and the fact that I had no memory of the story was my amnesia.

Another odd thing is that the city in which much of the book takes place is clearly based on Birmingham (Walker Percy confirmed as much) and a frequently mentioned landmark in the book is clearly a veiled reference to George Ward’s old “Vestavia” estate on the crest of Shades Mountain that gave Birmingham’s Vestavia Hills suburb its name. (That estate, by the way, is now the location of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church for those readers who know Birmingham geography.) I am surprised that I didn’t remember any of that from my previous reading.

Although I still don’t recall reading the book the first time, I’m sure that I thoroughly enjoyed it that first time just as I thoroughly enjoyed it this week. That certainty is based on the passages I underlined.

Buoyed by my rediscovery of The Last Gentleman, I grabbed The Moviegoer and had the opposite experience of total recall and recognition. It was like revisiting an old friend and I remembered and enjoyed each juicy detail. The Moviegoer is a New Orleans novel and Percy makes no effort to disguise the geography or the names of the actual places. The Moviegoer is the “Ur-text” for all of Percy’s concerns and themes in his novels, essays, and philosophical writings to come.

I wonder if any other writer uses the word “malaise” as often as Percy. The word peppers the text of The Moviegoer. Even so, I think Percy has an ongoing optimism tempered with realism that informs all of his writing. It is much-discussed in Percy scholarship that his early life was dogged by suicide – his grandfather and father committed suicide and he always believed that his mother’s fatal car wreck was a suicide.

The novels I read this week are at least half a century old but I still share the protagonists’ sense of displacement and mistrust in a modern world transitioning to post-modern (post-future? – where are we now?) modes. The changes seem large to the ’60s protagonists – how would the world appear to and discombobulate them half a century later?

The issues that occupy Percy and his characters never go away or find resolution; they just morph as the decades fall into place, one after another. How fortunate we are to have access to timeless writing that deals with these issues so searchingly, so entertainingly, and with such compassion and humor.

That Welles Scholar comment about the rarity of the “intelligent Southerner” came back to me while I was reading Percy, one of the most probingly intelligent of 20th Century American writers — as well as one of the most Southern. I fantasized a face-off between “Welles Scholar” and Percy.

Percy would have eaten him alive.

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On Food Memory and Alabama Literature

2014-01-01 02.22.58   Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about to have an additional impact on Alabama in the form of current legislation proposing that the Lane Cake, which has an undisputed Alabama provenance and is mentioned several times in Lee’s novel, be designated as the state’s official dessert.

I am often intrigued with the ways in which writers use food. Good writing about food is all around us – in cookbooks and food magazines and newspapers; in memoirs and novels and short stories and scripts for performance on stage or screen. In much culinary writing, including that of the legendary food critics James Beard and Craig Claiborne, the idea of “food memory” is pervasive. The powerful connections that food tastes and smells evoke are a shared sensibility providing powerful associations, emotions, and longings.

It is this sense of the sacrament of food which has led me increasingly to seek out and savor food writing. Writers – whether they intend to or not – use this idea of “food memory” to stoke and create a shared sense of ritual and place with the reader. As my career took me around the country and far from Alabama and the South, I found that some of the most visceral emotional connections that I have to my roots are memories of food and of food associated with family.

Food is frequently prominent in the writing of a number of writers with Alabama roots including Rick Bragg, Mary Ward Brown, Mark Childress, Melissa Delbridge, Fannie Flagg, Charles Gaines, Winston Groom, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. In looking at Alabama authors and their writing about food, it is hard to find something that is truly unique about a certain community because rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban, our food heritage is so universally “local.” “Southern cooking” and “soul food” are essentially the same and a love for barbecue is ubiquitous. I looked for obvious delineations but I found instead that there were constants. Is it any wonder, really, that many of the earliest battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement were department store lunch counters?

Scout’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between” captures a key memory of Southern existence. We are defined by the tastes and memories of our youth. This is one of the reasons that Sook’s declaration that “it’s fruitcake weather” resonates so vividly for readers of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” whether we grew up in Monroeville’s dusty streets or under the sooty skies of mid-20th century Birmingham. I grew up in Birmingham and did not have first-hand experience with the adventures Capote describes but still, because of that story, I thought I had a clear sense of when “fruitcake weather” had arrived on crowded Avenue N in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood.

In Capote’s lesser-known Monroeville story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” he describes nostalgia for the breakfast repasts of

ham and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, black-eyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweet milk, buttermilk, coffee chicory-flavored and hot as Hades.

Capote’s litany of memory inspired me to pull down a favorite passage in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s subject matter is firmly entrenched in the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt. Here is Agee’s description of the Depression-era Hale County tenant family’s breakfast ritual:

the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted; the kindling is laid in the grate: and the lids replaced: and a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen, and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt: the coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water: more wood laid in: the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven: and the meat sliced and sliding, spitting, in the black skillet: and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned; and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on, and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center; the eggs turned; the seething coffee set aside; the meat reheated; the biscuits looked at; the straight black hair, saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins; the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.

Norman McMillan, in his memoir Distant Son, tells us that

Summers meant lots of food. We didn’t think about it that way but we were more or less vegetarians. During the summer when we were at home, each lunch table was filled with seven or eight bowls every day. Pans of golden cornbread or plates of thick biscuits accompanied the vegetables. Except for white meat, which was used to season the vegetables, we saw little meat at all. Occasionally Daddy would bring steak home, and after pounding it with the side of a saucer he would fry it and make gravy. At times we raised a few chickens and we also ate squirrel and rabbit in the winter, and sometimes even possum and coon.

From the time I received a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a gift I have savored cookbooks which also have a literary flair. Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama’s native son Frank Stitt went from studying philosophy at Berkeley to becoming an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, a perennial finalist for the annual James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” award, he is the acknowledged master of contemporary Alabama food. His 2004 cookbook Frank Stitt’s Southern Table includes the following discourse on tradition:

As an adult, I came to appreciate the blessing as a time to open our minds to a greater awareness of the beauty of the food we are about to eat. Instead of asking my family to endure a rote blessing, I wanted to pay homage to food as a sacrament. I have since refined this idea, incorporating it into the at-table stories I share with friends and family. I want everyone to come to understand the ancient rhythms of life, to know what it felt like to break bread at my mother’s table, to understand why upon walking by my maternal grandmother’s long-closed smokehouse I was transported back to the days when our people slaughtered their own hogs. I want them to understand that such acts were honorable, that to harvest a hog with your own hands, by the sweat of your own brow, was to know intimately the consequences and benefits of humanity.

Pat Conroy’s entertaining The Pat Conroy Cookbook includes a chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Reading Cookbooks No One Has Ever Heard Of” which includes lengthy considerations of several Junior League and church-sponsored cookbooks, including several from Alabama. One passage in Cotton Country, the Decatur Junior League cookbook, particularly pleases Conroy. He quotes this passage describing Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s Stuffed Country Ham:

To call this merely “Stuffed Ham” is an injustice. “Spectacular” is the only word to describe this ham: spectacular in appearance and taste. Trouble – perhaps – but for a buffet dinner or cocktail party mainliner, nothing could do more for your reputation as a good cook or hostess.

This passage sends Conroy into a spasm of appreciation. He writes,

Have you ever seen three sentences more confidently rendered by a hand so fine and sure – the disdainful dashes surrounding that intimidating “perhaps” and that bold, two-eyed colon stopping you in mid-stream for emphasis. A small history of the South could be composed just by studying the cadences and assuredness of position in Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s place in Decatur society. It would be paradisiacal for me to pass down a Decatur street and have the imperious Mrs. Shelton whisper to a group of lunching friends, “Mr. Conroy’s new in town, but I think he has the makings of a cocktail party mainliner.”

Indeed, much of my favorite food writing takes on such a lyrical and meditative tone. Mobile’s inimitable Eugene Walter seasons his recipe for pot likker with this advice: “Take a day off and wash wash wash 3 or 4 big bunches of fresh (yes, I said fresh) turnip greens, younger the better. Then sit down and pluck the leaves. … This takes time. Sit down, put on some Mozart.”

I find that there are few “grand themes” about the place of food in writing. There are, instead, comforts. The comforts come in familiarity, common ritual, and respect for the sacrament of being at table with friends, with family, with peers and, on occasion, with adversaries.

“I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”

IMG_1114   I bought my first Gertrude Stein book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, at the late great Smith and Hardwick Bookstore on 20th Street in downtown Birmingham in the ‘70s when I was an undergraduate at Alabama. Smith and Hardwick was one of those amazing bookstores with an outstanding jumble of books on two levels in seeming disarray. It was owned by the Praytor sisters – Virginia and Anna – and by Anna Praytor alone when Virginia died in 1974.

If you were looking for a particular title in the store and couldn’t figure out where it might be in the dusty stacks, one of the Misses Praytor always seemed to know exactly where it was located. Here’s what great locally-owned bookstores were like back then: I was in school in Tuscaloosa and if there was a book I needed I would telephone Miss Anna Praytor in Birmingham. She would mail the book the same day and enclose a handwritten bill and thank you.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) was Stein’s own autobiography told in the voice of Toklas, her long-time companion, secretary, cook, confidante, hostess, and handler. Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) met on Toklas’s first day in Paris in 1907 and were never apart until Stein’s death thirty-nine years later. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a huge hit and led to Stein and Toklas’s triumphant first tour of the U.S. that spanned seven months in 1934 and 1935. Stein captured the experience of the American tour and other events in a 1937 book titled Everybody’s Autobiography. Whatever else Gertrude Stein may have been, she was never modest.

Over the years I have been fascinated with Gertrude Stein and have directed and adapted her plays, delivered papers about her oeuvre and influence, and conducted acting workshops based on the enigmatic short ditties she referred to as “plays.”

And the more I have learned about Stein, the more interested I have become in Toklas and her quirky and ongoing influence. Eugene Walter knew Toklas (of course) in Paris in the ‘50s and “adored [her] because she had this little moustache, and I swear she waxed it.” He says that upon meeting her “Right away you could see cat and monkey” (his two favorite creatures). “She had a logical mind, but she also had the gift of the parenthesis.”

Walter and Toklas exchanged cooking ideas and recipes and it was The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) that brought Toklas a surge of attention after Stein’s death. The Cookbook is really a fascinating memoir with recipes presented in a witty, earnest, and distinctive voice. In a chapter entitled “Murder in the Kitchen,” Toklas discusses the unpleasant tasks of preparing live animals for the kitchen: “The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket … So quickly to the murder and have it over with.”

As Toklas assesses and deals with the fish she observes:

The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second, and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed ready for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table.

Later in the same chapter Toklas describes her preparation of “Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done.”

In addition to being very readable, educational, and entertaining, the Cookbook continues to inspire into the 21st Century. A brief passage in Toklas’s chapter entitled “Servants in France” about the hiring of an Indo-Chinese cook named Trac inspired the creation of a beautiful and award-winning 2003 novel, The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Truong’s seductive and meditative book explores a fictional Vietnamese cook, Binh, who comes into the Stein-Toklas household.

No doubt the part of the Cookbook which caused the most stir is a recipe for “Haschich Fudge” in a section of the book called “Recipes from Friends.” The marijuana brownie recipe “which anyone could whip up on a rainy day” was given to Toklas by Brion Gysin and is described as “an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” The chapter of recipes from friends was inserted to fill the book out and Toklas might have been clueless about what she was presenting with the fudge recipe. Even so, the American publishers left the recipe out of the first American edition but it was included in others and became notorious and sort of a code, especially when the hippie movement of the 1960s took hold.

That recipe is the reason that a fairly insipid and badly dated 1968 Peter Sellers comedy directed by Hy Averback is called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! Sellers plays “Harold Fine,” a strait-laced attorney who falls in with a group of very stereotypical hippies and is especially enamored of one particular hippie, Nancy, played by Leigh Taylor-Young. Nancy, of course, bakes Alice’s brownie recipe that fuels much of the frolic. The title song, penned by Elmer Bernstein (who was no hippie) and performed by Harpers Bizarre, has the refrain “I love you, Alice B. Toklas / And so does Gertrude Stein.” Other lyrics evoke “Coriander baby elephants singing ‘Silent Night’/ Sweet cinnamon and nutmeg Che Guevara.” (The ladies would be so proud.)

Sly references to Toklas’s fudge recipe had a way of sneaking in to pop culture. In a 1969 episode of the sitcom “Bewitched,” Samantha’s mother Endora is offered a cookie. Endora asks if it’s from an Alice B. Toklas recipe. When she’s told it’s not, Endora says, “… I’ll pass.”

My favorite recipe from the cookbook is “Oeufs Francis Picabia” from the chapter titled “Dishes for Artists.” Here it is:

Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

I am no gourmet, and this recipe is too rich to serve a lot, but I have prepared it and can attest to the fact that it is delicious.

In 1963, needing money, Alice B. Toklas finally got around to writing her own autobiography. It is called What Is Remembered. Even though she outlived Gertrude Stein by over two decades, she chose to end her own life’s story with the death of Gertrude Stein.

Discovering Eugene Walter

IMG_1111 During graduate school I briefly worked a part-time job as a reader for a press clipping service. This is another of those occupations that is now totally obsolete but I love to read and enjoyed the job. It’s clearly a great job for a liberal arts guy. The staff of readers would have our favorite newspapers and would try to make sure that the favorites were in our stack of papers to be read. I had personal picks among the large dailies and there were a few of the small-town weeklies that I tried to grab because of a particularly charming or quirky local columnist or point of vew.

“The Boulevardier” was the title of a column written by Eugene Walter and published in Azalea City News and Review, an alternative weekly newspaper in Mobile at the time. My first reaction was Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him before if he’s been all of the places and done all the things he claims?

The more I read, however, the more fascinated I became with the scope of knowledge and experience of a true, uncompromising, unpretentious, and erudite Renaissance man. Too late, I began to track down the biographical details of Eugene Walter (1921-1998) and realized that even if the majority of his claims were tall tales and fabrications, he still lived a more eventful and meaningful life than most everybody else.

“I don’t drive a car, I don’t wear blue jeans, and I don’t go to football games,” said Eugene Walter, but here are just a few of the things that he did do:

  1. Worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps as a highway sign painter.
  2. Served as an army cryptographer in World War II.
  3. With collaborators, staged some of the first “Happenings” in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
  4. Worked on a Paris-based multilingual international literary journal, Botteghe Oscure. He later relocated to Rome as the journal’s editor.
  5. Published a short story in the first Paris Review for which he served as a founding and contributing editor.
  6. Published his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, while living in Paris. It won the Lippincott Prize for best first novel.
  7. Published his first volume of poetry, Monkey Poems, during the Paris years.
  8. While in Rome, acted and worked as an assistant and translator for master Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. He appeared in Fellini’s masterpiece and in many other films for Fellini and other directors including Blake Edwards and Lina Wertmuller.
  9. Wrote the lyrics for Nino Rota’s signature song “What Is a Youth?” for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This theme song for the very popular film was an international hit.
  10. Wrote the best-selling classic American Cooking: Southern Style (1971) for the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series.

He was born and grew up in Mobile, served the military in the Arctic Circle, lived in New York City in the 1940s, lived in Paris in the 1950s, lived in Rome throughout the 1960s into the 1970s, and moved back to his beloved but changed Mobile for a number of social and productive years from the late-1970s until his death. “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo,” he said. As he lived and traveled around the world, he always carried a Thom McAn shoebox full of Alabama red clay with him and stored it under his bed – “So I always slept on Alabama soil.”

American Cooking: Southern Style is out-of-print, very precious, and somewhat hard to find in a good affordable copy. If you’re interested in food, grab it when you find it. Walter did other food-related books in his lifetime including Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes (1982); and Hints and Pinches (1991). Posthumously, in 2011, The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink was published. The Happy Table was compiled from an unpublished manuscript and other recipes and food writing from Walter and focuses on “Southern Beverages and a Grand Selection of Southern Dishes Employing Spiritous Flavorings.”

His books on food are full of wonderfully vivid recipes and unvarnished opinions. “Baby turnip roots just boiled to a point, not mushy, dressed with butter, cream, salt and a generous flecker of nutmeg, are the sign of a highly civilized household.”

In The Happy Table … Walter writes, “For a real feast, you must have two kinds of meat and two kinds of bread, and there must always be more than enough food to serve the number of guests.” (My grandmother would add that one of the reasons for this abundance is to “be sure there is something on the table that everybody likes” and I still follow her mandate.)

His advice to cooks is simple and timely: “seek fresh, avoid chemicals, keep a light hand, rise to the occasion, try what you don’t know, have fun … and good eating, you-all!”

Don’t get him started on ready-ground pepper (or do, it’s very entertaining): “Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. … dead dust is only dead dust. Many restaurants which pretend to be first class, and with prices which corroborate their pretensions, do not have pepper mills … either take your own pepper mill with you, or smash an ashtray when the waiter says they don’t have one.” As random and serendipitous as Walter’s pronouncements may sound, his food-related books are meticulously researched and the scope of his knowledge and historical grasp is constantly impressive.

Writer Pat Conroy, a personal friend of Walter, devotes a whole chapter to him in The Pat Conroy Cookbook (2004). Conroy writes that while he lived in Rome, shortly after Walter had returned to Mobile, “I met more Italians who were in love with the whole state of Alabama just because Eugene Walter had sprung so fully formed and elegant from that Deep South state. Many Italians were fully prepared to like me because they knew my native state of Georgia was contiguous to the one that had produced the incomparable Eugene Walter.”

In 2001, Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet was published. It is the life story of Walter in his own inimitable words as he told it to Katherine Clark in a series of recorded conversations near the end of his life. Be warned that once you pick it up, it is hard to put it down. He begins, “You may think you don’t know me but you have probably seen me on late-night television playing either an outlaw or a hanging judge… If you’ve ever seen Fellini’s 8 ½, I’m the tacky American journalist who keeps pestering Marcello Mastroianni with obnoxious questions. And if you haven’t seen , you need to: it’s one of the great films of this century.”

I re-watched not long ago and particularly watched for Eugene Walter’s appearances. He’s one of those performers who glows on the screen – not so much for his acting ability as for his sheer joy in acting. He smiles broadly, his eyes are shining and shifting with mischievous glee, and he is totally present every moment he’s in a scene. I couldn’t help thinking about the similar impact Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as Delmar had for me in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In each case, the glee of the actor in the performance is memorable and contagious.

Reading Walter’s work, one constantly has the urge to call somebody and quote a passage. But that’s a risky exercise since once you get started, you can’t stop. Almost every word on the page is quotable.

Eugene Walter knew everybody. The 23-page “Cast of Characters” at the end of Milking the Moon reads like a Who’s Who of important and famous people of the 20th Century. He threw dinner parties for whomever happened to be of interest to him wherever he happened to live. He claimed to have three pubic hairs which were gifted to him by actress Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room after her performance in The Skin of Our Teeth at a Broadway theatre during his early sojourn in New York (but then, who didn’t have such a treasure from Tallulah at that time?).

I was familiar with Walter’s short stories but I recently read that first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, for the first time. It is the story of a young man from central Alabama who comes to Mobile – “south of the salt line” – to work in a bank and study law. “Down in Mobile they’re all crazy,” the novel begins, “because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts, and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”

Of course the stable and well-intentioned young man (who is never named) is quickly caught up in the intrigues and pleasures of his new surroundings and his Mobile friends and relatives. He is introduced to the colorful characters, artists, and underside of Mobile and encouraged to play hooky from his 8-5 grind. He samples the indiscreet pleasures around him and is taken into the fold by his more cavalier south Alabama relatives and Miss Nonie Fifield – “Fiffy” – from whom he rents a room.

As with all of Walter’s writing, I found the novel compelling and terrifically entertaining. And I was pleasantly surprised when the ending of the book was a somewhat conventional one – which was not at all what I expected given what I know about Eugene Walter. The book plays around with the reader’s expectations, dips its toes in the unexpected and bizarre, and then catches the reader off-guard by concluding in a sweet and almost conventional way. That unpredictable predictability left me smiling and satisfied at the end.

Eugene Walter spent much of his life in poverty, had a limited formal education, and died practically destitute, but happy. “I haven’t been smashed by the educational system, the financial system, the political system,” he said. He lived his life on his own terms and with style. When he died, a jazz funeral procession took him through the streets of Mobile for burial at Church Street Cemetery. The cemetery had been closed for a century but the city gave special permission for his interment.

Over the years, I have talked to a few people who met Eugene and each one seems simultaneously entranced, intrigued, befuddled, and half in love with the guy. He was what one might call an eccentric in every sense but his charm was evident to all kinds of people. “When I was growing up in Mobile,” he said, “there was no such thing as an eccentric, because individuality was permitted.”

I wish I had known to meet him.

“Oh, Masha, Masha, Masha …!”

IMG_0843    One of my favorite opening lines in all of dramatic literature comes from Masha in Chekhov’s The Seagull. At the beginning of that play, Medvedenko asks Masha why she always wears black. “I am in mourning for my life,” she says. I was thrilled recently when I stopped by a neighborhood shop on my way home from work. I was wearing a black shirt and black trousers and the shopowner, a friend, asked me why I was dressed all in black. It was the perfect opening for a literary quote and I grabbed it.

I am a man with strong opinions on many things and many of those opinions were formed relatively early in life. I was fortunate to have a high school English teacher who was not intimidated by the Russian master Anton Chekhov and I remember loving Chekhov’s The Three Sisters the first time I studied it in a high school lit class. It was then that I decided that Chekhov was my favorite playwright and he is still my favorite playwright to this day. I must admit that Sam Shepard is a close second. And I will direct a Chekhov or Shepard play at any opportunity.

Chekhov referred to his plays as “comedy.” That fact still baffles many people familiar with the work. It never baffled me. As a Southerner, I have always felt a kinship with the playwright’s sly and droll sense of humor.

Chekhov’s plays examine the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the human condition and he seems on occasion to wince patiently and lovingly. This is what we mortals are, Chekhov seems to assert, as ludicrous as we may be. Chekhov was trained as a physician and examines his characters fairly and humanely but with clinical detachment.

Chekhov’s down-to-earth sense of humor reminds me of my favorite quote from William James: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”

I once congratulated a friend on her performance in Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard. “Oh please,” she snapped. “I hated that performance and I hate that play. He’s so damn depressing!” I realized that her cluelessness about the play and the character may have been what contributed to her excellent and amusing performance as a headstrong woman who couldn’t see the forest for the (cherry) trees.

I have had the opportunity to direct Chekhov plays a couple of times, to act in a couple, and to see many productions over the years. When I directed The Seagull, I played up the abundant humor of the piece. Audience members thanked me for it afterward. An actor friend who drove a hundred miles to see the production grabbed me at intermission and said, “Thank God. Finally a performance of The Seagull where an audience is actually laughing at the funny parts!” (one of my favorite reviews ever).

As the various characters struggle through their various issues – loveless marriages, aging and decay, lack of talent, greed and ruthless ambition, fickle lovers, loss – they often make bad choices and those bad choices are often accompanied by overwrought and over the top overreactions. We smile to ourselves and I think we recognize ourselves in much of what transpires on stage.

I have dealt with The Seagull in many stages in life. When I was a college student, I thought it was the perfect play for college students as it examined our need to define ourselves, set our goals, and perhaps overreach beyond our capabilities. Now that I’m older, the play speaks directly to me on a profoundly different level but with the same intensity. And much of the journey of the play is still very touching and funny.

Konstantin, one of the major characters, does commit suicide in the end. Oh well, there’s that…

Chekhov’s characters are often in turmoil and despair. He does not make fun of them, but he does handle them gingerly and allows an attentive audience to smile at their overwrought reactions to situations that might often be easily remedied with a little common sense and effort. Often it seems his characters are frozen in inaction and ennui simply because they can’t stop talking about their despair. One thinks Just go to Moscow and stop whining about it after listening to the title siblings of The Three Sisters long for Moscow for four acts. To me, that’s funny.

Anton Chekhov died in 1904 at the age of 44. He died of tuberculosis but almost until the end he was writing letters assuring his correspondents that he was well on the road to recovery. Chekhov was a doctor; he knew better. At the end, a doctor who was attending Chekhov ordered a bottle of fine champagne with three glasses. He poured full glasses of champagne for Chekhov, Olga – Chekhov’s wife, and himself. According to Olga, Chekhov finished his glass, smiled, and said, “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” Then he rolled over in his bed and quietly died.

(The image is Mandy Erbes and Joseph C. Wilson as Masha and Dorn in The Seagull, directed by Edward Journey, at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, in September 1993.)

 

Waning Days of Summer

IMG_0726  When you live alone you develop routines and rituals. At least that has been my experience. I don’t know when I started the ritual of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on the first day of summer, but I know exactly why.

On page 11 of The Great Gatsby, during a dinner party fraught with marital mystery and tension, Daisy Buchanan says, “I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” Her friend Jordan Baker replies, “We ought to plan something,” and yawns.

I didn’t yawn. Like Daisy, I often watched for the longest day of the year – the first day of summer – and then forgot it until it was past. On my third or fourth reading of The Great Gatsby, that passage resonated with me and, following Jordan’s bored advice, I made a plan: I always read The Great Gatsby on the longest day of the year. I can’t remember exactly when I started that ritual – probably in the late ‘70s – but it continues to this day. And I have never missed the longest day of the year since.

William Faulkner is my favorite writer (good Southern boy that I am) but I think Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the most perfect American novel. It’s a short read; I can knock it out in about three hours. But it is so compactly and intricately structured that I never tire of it even though I have now read it upward of forty times. I always discover something new or respond to something I never responded to in previous readings. I first read the novel in high school and, unlike many young readers, I loved it immediately. I studied it again in college and then found myself drawn to it periodically after those initial readings. And then I developed my summer ritual.

I love summer. I love the heat and the sweatiness and the long days and the outdoor activities. In my part of the South, many people seem to relish complaining about the heat and humidity of summer but I cherish it. I’d rather be too hot than too cold any day. So not only does The Great Gatsby represent my literary tastes, it has also come to represent my favorite time of the year.

The reason I am talking about the beginning of summer at the end of summer is because I am winding down the summer of 2014 with a book that is about The Great Gatsby and that I am thoroughly savoring. Literary critic Maureen Corrigan has authored a new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, that is an extended meditation and exploration of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It amuses me that Corrigan’s book exploring The Great Gatsby is twice as long as the novel itself. It turns out that Corrigan may be an even bigger fan of the book than I am although she admits to not liking it in high school. I heard Corrigan tell an interviewer that she has read Gatsby at least fifty times and I knew I had to check her book out.

It was worth it. And reading it now, three months past the first day of summer, is giving me a nice way of transitioning to ever shorter days and ever dropping temperatures. I must admit that the only thing that bothers me on that first day of summer in June is the knowledge that the second day of summer will be a bit shorter, and the next shorter still as we take the plunge to the shortest day of the year in December.

The Great Gatsby itself takes place over a summer season. In the first pages the narrator, Nick Carraway, comments that “life was beginning over again in the summer.” Toward the end, he mentions that “there was an autumn flavor in the air” on the day that Gatsby is killed.

Maureen Corrigan, in So We Read On, has provided this reader with the perfect way to ease into the fall.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, …” Thanks, F. Scott. And thanks, Ms. Corrigan.