A version of this article first appeared in WalesHome in September 2011
It’s hot; suffocatingly hot. I’m already tanking up on a second large glass of iced peach tea, and the Montgomery bus, whose arrival I’m not so patiently awaiting at a kerbside plate-lunch café in Columbus, Georgia won’t be here for another half an hour. My supposed sound reasoning for not hiring a car, and thus my very own personal supply of air-con until Alabama, escapes me. Or maybe it’s the heat addling my thoughts. It’s August and the states that make up the Deep South of the USA are collectively sweating their way through record highs. Today the mercury is hovering at the 103 mark, making it the hottest day of the year so far.
Fellow travellers are strewn around the vicinity; top buttons undone, long hair lifted from shoulders, all fanning frantically with large navy blue Greyhound bus tickets. Other than us, this part of town appears deserted; the roads eerily carless. Next door a mechanic’s neon sign buzzes, flashing intermittently offering friends of Jesus a free brake inspection; opposite a huge billboard asks: ‘Where are you going – Heaven or Hell? Call 364-2458 Redemption.’
I’m well and truly below the Mason-Dixon North-South dividing line, in a place of almost unfathomable contrasts. America’s Bible belt it may be, but it is also the birthplace of jazz, blues and rock n roll. When cotton and sugar were king, the area’s economy thrived on slave labour; a brutal and bloody civil war that saw the South defeated and its way of life all but destroyed heralded the abolition of slavery, only for it to be replaced by Jim Crow’s laws of segregation and discrimination. From such injustice came the Civil Rights Movement. Today across the South both histories stand side by side.
The landscape of the Deep South is vast and varied also: from Georgia’s pine tree forests, Alabama’s dusty red-clay roads, to the lonely, sparsely populated Louisiana swampland and the sweeping infinity of the Mississippi Delta’s cotton fields. Not your average summer holiday itinerary, I grant you; but this land has also proved fertile literary ground, producing some of the world’s most renowned authors and a genre of writing that has captivated me since my teens. This sweltering August day is the beginning of my pilgrimage through the Deep South, following the trails of Twain, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee – to name but a few – in search of mockingbirds and a little of Huck and Tom’s Mississippi mischief of my own.
Here in Columbus, a former cotton-mill city that hugs the Chattahoochee River, I’ve spent my first morning walking summer-scorched sidewalks tracing the footsteps of its famous daughter, the author Carson McCullers. For readers of McCullers, the familiar scenery of her South is all around, very little appears to have changed, at least superficially. Red-brick mills still line up towering and utilitarian along the river banks. No longer filled with the chatter of factory-folks, they now instead provide plush condominium accommodations to city workers. A stroll downtown reveals building facades that have remained much as they were in the 1920s and ’30s of McCullers’ formative years, albeit with a shine of modern-day upkeep rather than the depression-era drab depicted in the pages of her work. Her childhood home stands much as it did back then, its suburban exterior little clue to the museum dedicated to its former inhabitant now housed within.
‘The town was in the middle of the Deep South. The Summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few.’ McCullers writes in the opening chapter of perhaps her most famous novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; the story of a small Southern town whose inhabitants struggle with the varying constraints of poverty, class, race and gender. The inequalities faced by each a microcosm of the huge political changes taking place across a world on the verge of the Second World War.
‘Nearly always the sky was a glossy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down notoriously bright.’ she continues. ‘Often in the faces on the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and loneliness.’
The sun this morning, low and fat in a cloudless sky casts long shadows on those same streets that twist and shape to form McCullers’ colossal cast of characters. I catch a glimpse of deaf mute John Singer making his way to a lonely desk in the jewellers downtown; peering through a café window, I see Biff Brannon, positioned as always behind his cash register, eyeing his customers suspiciously yet aching for meaningful human interaction. In the corner, Miss Amelia serves small cups of bitter-tasting coffee to a gang of menacing looking out-of-towners. On the street opposite, Mick Kelly daydreams as she ambles, her head filled with travel and music and the endless possibilities of youth. Frankie Addams stomps by, a ball of teenage confusion over her place in the world. As I make my way to meet my bus at the city’s Greyhound station, I pass Dr Benedict Copeland, shoulders heavy, his angry gaze fixed straight ahead, consumed by the burden of what will be once he is no longer. An imprint of McCullers’ imagination forever stamped on a city that shaped her unique and unrivalled literary voice.
After a journey through the back roads of Georgia, where even the bus drivers exude southern charm – ‘All y’all go right on ahead and turn y’alls cell phones on silent. We don’t want to be botherin’ nobody today’ – we cross into Alabama. Pines are replaced by a bottle-green overgrown countryside of messy looking woods wrapped in vines. In fact everything here is covered in the plant that I later learn is kudzu, the ‘mile-a-minute vine’, smothering everything in its path – trees, telegraph poles, old tumbledown houses. The next stop is Montgomery, both the cradle of the Confederacy and of the Civil Rights movement. Here the First White House of the Confederacy (built for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, of Welsh descent, whose family crest displayed in the main bedroom there-reads ‘Heb Duw heb ddim, Duw yn ddigon’, meaning ‘Without God, nothing. God is all’) is a two minute stroll from the church where Martin Luther King Junior was pastor; further down the street is the bus stop where Rosa Parks waited wearily each evening, gazing directly into the large windows of the Winter Building opposite, from where the telegram authorising the Civil War was sent. The museum that honours her bravery is only a few blocks away, situated on the same street as the city’s former slave market.
Such complexities of the Southern experience have provided inspiration for countless authors. Theirs is a world where niceties are dabbed like sweet talc on a difficult history. Fine Southern manners disguise ugly truths. It is a place known in equal amounts for injustice and for human kindness, for sin and for redemption, for community and for isolation. In the pages of this Southern Gothic world, Church-going, God-fearing good country people mind their manners and behaviour in company, disguising a grotesque reality of dark deeds and vicious words.
This ethos of Southern storytelling can, I’m told, be traced back to the early English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh settlers who brought with them the King James Bible and Shakespeare.
‘We all grew up knowing those tales,’ Randall Williams, co-founder of Montgomery publishing house New South Books tells me. ‘They were true to life to us, the vast tragedies – we could relate to them.’
We are sitting in the front parlour of the Lattice Inn guesthouse, nestled amongst the day lilies and begonias of Montgomery’s Garden district, a mere cocktail-olive’s throw away from the house shared for a period in the early 1930s by Mr & Mrs F Scott Fitzgerald and their daughter Scottie.
The community here, as it was back then, is a tight one, and considering that Montgomery is a city, my arrival has not gone unnoticed. People like Mr Williams are happy to come and ‘visit with’ me, to sit and talk about the literary legends that have left their mark here. And everyone, or so it seems, has their own family tale relating to the it couple of the jazz-age.
‘My granddaddy knew Zelda, but when she was older and depressed,’ a kindly gentleman offered up as we waited in line at the lunch counter of Dirk’s Filet n’ Vine, the Garden district’s grocery store.
‘Y’know, she used to walk in the gutters. Scottie cheered her up some, but she sure was sad.’
‘Uh-huh, she was a wild one!’ the woman behind the trays of fried-chicken and country veg had chimed in, dolloping a hefty portion of collard greens onto my plate.
‘He sure didn’t help her none though. Goin’ off to write them movies without her. My mama said Scott just ‘bout broke her heart.’
Local tales – based in either fact or fiction – are something in which Randall Williams is well versed. A founding director of the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Klanwatch, and former reporter-turned-editor, Williams now runs New South Books, an independent printing press and bookshop in downtown Montgomery that publishes material exclusively about the South.
Occupying the city’s former shoe repair store, New South Books’ shelves are a Southern literary treasure trove filled with gems both old and new. A framed letter from Harper Lee leans against lined-up copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, its setting and Lee’s home a mere hour or so’s drive south. Above the front counter, a sticker reads: ‘When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville’, a souvenir from Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s farmhouse in rural Georgia. Copies of books on Montgomery’s civil rights history published in-house take pride of place. Although times and attitudes have moved on, the area’s troubled past is never long forgotten. A fact Williams knows well.
A few months before my visit, New South Books became the subject of international attention for its edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn which removes the racially offensive ‘n’ word, used in the novel 219 times, replacing it instead with ‘slave’. The changes have come in for stern criticism from academics and readers alike who accuse Randall Williams and the book’s editor, Twain scholar Dr Alan Gribben of diluting the novel’s anti-racist message and of censorship.
Gribben and Williams say conversely that they are attempting to rescue the text, which has been disappearing from the school curriculum due to its racially insensitive language. In the American Library Association’s list of the top 100 banned or challenged books of the past decade, Huckleberry Finn comes in at number 14. This new edition, Randall Williams says, was only intended for use in schools that were facing problems teaching the original text.
‘We already publish the original version of the book with the ‘n’ word in there, the new edition is for those places where the book is stopped from being taught’ he tells me.
‘The 60 Minutes news programme went to a school that teaches the text and asked the kids there how they felt about the word. And one black child in a class of mainly white children said it made him uncomfortable. Well, if we’ve published this book just for that one child – then I’m happy with that.’
The worldwide media attention however, he admits was unexpected.
‘In 1972, as a reporter I covered the assassination attempt on George Wallace (the then controversial pro-segregation Governor of Alabama). In the 1980s when I was the director of Klanwatch, our office was fire-bombed by the Ku-Klux-Klan. Both those things were big media stories, but nothing like the storm that came over the publication of this book.’
I suggest to him it demonstrates that despite the delicate subject matter, Twain’s message remains as vital as ever, which is why the book provokes such passion.
‘Yes, absolutely’ he says ‘That’s why we want everyone to have the chance of reading it.’
Mark Twain certainly knew a thing or two about the importance of getting the tone just right, and as I continue my journey, making a beeline for his beloved Mississippi River, it’s impossible not to wonder what he would have made of recent events.
‘The difference between the right and almost right word’, he famously wrote ‘is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.’
Words are certainly important here in the Deep South. And getting it right, it seems, is still as difficult as ever.
original illustration by Dean Lewis