Saturday, July 1, 2017
"Mojo Rising" and "The Last Ballad" prove the ongoing power of Southern writing--tales of old gumshoes, Beale Street conjurers, and a cotton mill ballad singer who was murdered because she stood up for workers
Just returned to the USA from a trip to Europe, where I bicycled from Maastricht, Netherlands, into the little corner where that country meets Belgium and Germany, then rented a car with my family and drove the autobahn to Munich. We stopped along the way to spend time with my German relatives in Wallerstein and the nearby Medieval town of Nordlingen along what the Germans call the “Romantische Strasse” (Romantic Road).
All along the way people asked us about Donald Trump and what is happening to Americans. Can’t blame them. We Americans aren’t really sure what’s happening to us. I was also struck by how much more efficient everything is in Europe compared to us. The infrastructure is solid—whether along the highways and bridges or in the personal lives of Europeans who by and large don’t have to worry about health care or retirement. More about that later.
One thing we do still have going for us here in the USA, however, is our writers. Maybe it’s the pressures of U.S. society, with its unhinged greed and that greed’s hold on our institutions, the recklessness of our politics, the insecurities at practically every level of life. Writers have a lot to write about—and certainly the South’s long and proud literary traditions attest to that.
So let’s look at a couple upcoming books from the South, one of which I edited and served as a contributor, and see what they tell us about ourselves.
Mojo Rising: Contemporary Writers (Vol. 2)
Edited by Joseph B. Atkins (Sartoris Literary Group)
Edgar Allan Poe called the short story the supreme literary art, one that requires the “loftiest talent.” Poe, a Southerner from Richmond, Virginia, was a master of the genre, and he’d be proud of his fellow Southerners---particularly in the fertile land of the Deep South writer/publisher James L. Dickerson calls the “Mojo Triangle”—for proving him right over the years.
The short story tradition that includes masters like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty continues in the South today, and proof of that is in this collection of short stories by contemporary Southern writers, already available for pre-order on Amazon’s Kindle and other venues. A September 23 event at Nobel Literary Prize winner William Faulkner’s home of Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, will celebrate its publication that month along with its companion, Mojo Rising: Masters of the Art (Vol. 1). That companion volume, edited by James L. Dickerson, will include stories by Faulkner, Welty, Richard Wright and many others.
As I say in my introduction to Mojo Rising: Contemporary Writers, most Southern writers share with their Russian counterparts a visceral connection with the poor, and like literary editor Thomas Seltzer once wrote, they see the poor “as human beings like the rest of us”—multi-dimensional, good, bad, ugly and beautiful, not as charicature or ideological constructs.
From the old gumshoe in Ace Atkins’ The Long Last Ride of El Canejo and Sheree Renee Thomas’ vision-haunted protagonist in Aunt Dissy’s Policy Dream Book to Larry Brown’s lost soul Fay in Girl on the Road, these stories share a gritty earthiness even if the people find themselves in sometimes fantastical situations.
I’ll shamelessly here put in a pitch for my own story in the collection, The Singapore Holy Man, which takes you from a rooftop in downtown Memphis to the streets of Singapore and Hong Kong, where the deals are made to use sweatshop and slave-shop labor to make shoes, clothes and computers for Westerners.
The Last Ballad
By Wiley Cash (William Morrow)
When Wiley Cash, a fellow North Carolinian, asked me to be a reviewer of this book, a novel based on the life of martyred labor leader Ella May Wiggins, I was both flattered and eager to read it. Cash, a New York Times bestselling author, resurrects the life and times of a real working class hero who should be familiar to all high school history students but sadly is not, and likely never will be.
Cash deftly shifts from character to character as he builds his tale of the poor, uneducated mother of five who decided she’d had enough of the injustices of cotton mill life and became a leader of the protest at the notorious Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929. She became a balladeer as well as an organizer, but her conviction, her determination to cross racial barriers, and her beautiful, inspiring voice ultimately led to her murder. Five men were later indicted for her murder, but they walked away free men after less than a half-hour of deliberation at the trial. Justice was never served.
(Ella May Wiggins)
Central to Cash’s powerful novel are his characters. We get to know Ella, her children, her friends. We go inside the mansion on the hill where the aristocrat Katherine McAdam wrestles with the injustices taking place down below in the cotton mills that made her family wealthy, and we see her reach out to Ella. We understand just how much courage was needed when we see the workers confronted by the menacing presence of Percy “Pigface” Epps, the mill security boss who uses every means available to him to make sure unions never gain a foothold in his mill.
The novel will be published in October.
Good reading ahead, folks, and that’s some good news to share!