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Arts & Life

"South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature" By: Margaret Eby

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“South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature”

Author: Margaret Eby

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.   

Pages: 240

Price: $ 25.95 (Hardcover)

In her Introduction, Margaret Eby, originally from Birmingham, describes the nature of her book. It is “not meant to be an encyclopedia of Southern literature, nor is it a travel guide. It is an odyssey of sorts through a pocket of the South that I grew up in and learned to understand through reading.”

This book does not do much as biography or as literary history or literary criticism but it may be useful, effective for the general reader, perhaps enticing that reader to visit these places and/or read some of the fiction and biography, and that’s a good thing.

There are 8 chapters covering 10 writers. No poets or playwrights. Eby visits six places, and two of them are Jackson and Oxford. Two others are Memphis and New Orleans.

Five of the 10 Southern writers are Mississippians. There are no writers from Virginia, North Carolina or South Carolina.

Ms. Eby has a perfect right to her choices, but even in her short list of writers she chose not to include, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, William Styron and a number of other major figures do not appear. Eby’s book is structured on the vital importance of place, its effect on writers and their art. Wolfe’s childhood place in Asheville, The Old Kentucky Home, seems an egregious omission.

There is only a brief mention of Willie Morris, from whose book North Toward Home Ms. Eby takes her title.

It is never quite fair to criticize a writer for what is not in her book, but there it is anyway.

What is here is generally intelligent and useful.

Eby visits a writer’s place, beginning with Eudora Welty’s home in Jackson, and responds impressionistically to it: Welty’s house and garden are welcoming, a little cluttered. Eby notes the books on the shelves and the plants in the garden, using the objects as symbols and the feel of the place as a springboard for a general commentary on Welty’s personality, biography and her fiction.

Welty is the right place to begin; no Southern writer has articulated the relationship better. Welty is quoted: “One place comprehended helps us understand all places better.”’

Like Faulkner, who is rightly famous for having articulated that coming to understand his “little postage stamp of native soil” would provide all the material he needed, Welty and many other Southerners came to realize that moving to Paris or even New York was unnecessary; there was plenty to write about at home. Welty again: “It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story.”

In Oxford, Eby visits Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, and there uses his liquor cabinet filled with empty bottles as the trigger to talk about his life and work. “The cabinet feels like the closest remains of Faulkner’s true spirit—that of a flawed, fragile, and brilliant person. The empty bottles are talismans ….”

The Faulkner chapter is 13 pages and some of that space is devoted to the ways in which Faulkner’s home and indeed his life have become a tourist attraction, a destination for 25,000 visitors a year.

Literary sights connected with Oxford are discussed at length in the Faulkner essay, and, in the essay on Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, Eby evokes images of Hannah sitting on the porch in the bar above City Grocery or reading in a corner at Square Books and Brown in his writing shack and or at his fishing pond. Eby does a decent job of describing these two wild men of Oxford: Brown’s “grit lit” subject matter—loggers, drunks, mechanics and preachers, and Barry’s prose—unexpected, unwieldy, reckless, thrilling, spellbinding and totally original: “Her voice was as thin as an ill-poached egg thrown against the treble strings of a harp.’”

How did he ever think of that, one wonders.

There is an essay on Mississippian Richard Wright and the Memphis public library he was not allowed to use. Eby visits Flannery O’Connor’s farm, Andalusia and the peacocks. She visits Harry Crews’s home place, Bacon County, Georgia, and in a biographical snippet tells us that Crews, teaching fiction writing at the University of Florida, “pounded out a voluminous number of books, articles, and syllabi.” If Crews ever made up and distributed any syllabi, I would be very surprised. Of course there is a piece on Capote and Lee and the Monroe County Courthouse, the Boo Radley tree and the childhood homes that are no longer there. Ms. Eby ALMOST visited Nelle Harper Lee in her nursing home.

I have come to realize that there is a downside to knowing a lot about a particular subject. The pleasure of reading can be diminished. One is irritated by minor errors. One knows with certainty what was left out and should have been included. A good friend, a trained mathematician, would not watch the TV show “Numbers.” She couldn’t stand it when the genius math professor created an algorithm to determine where the hostage was being kept or where the body would wash ashore. For her the algorithm was never right, never believable. I don’t know what an algorithm is; I was not bothered at all.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed best the essay on the eccentric writer John Kennedy Toole, his posthumously published novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” with its bizarre, obese hero Ignatius Reilly, who sold hot dogs from a Lucky Dog cart, and the city of New Orleans. I was barely familiar with the book, know little about Toole’s life and am not an aficionado of the Crescent City. Win win.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.

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