April Reading Overview

» July 5th, 2020

The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity by James Cobb

For a lot of people “the Mississippi Delta” evokes the blues. It’s an appropriate association. But what’s easy to overlook is the underlying source of that original folk expression. Behind every ribald lyric and jangled chord shift is a history of white control over the black body. James Cobb’s account of this control is, thematically speaking, hardly easy reading. But it’s necessary, if only because the nature of that control, while ultimately rooted in violence, demanded negotiations that explain why the southern identity continues to be plagued by such ceaseless demons of anxiety. This is something we ought to know.

Yes, there was the Klan, and its methods of enforcing Jim Crow norms were as brutal as they were conspicuous. But the old guard, almost all of them plantation owners, adhered to a set of gentlemanly values that disdained the Klan as low class, rough-hewn, room-temp-IQ rednecks. The elite plantocracy–think of William Alexander Percy and his refined ilk–advocated for more parlor-appropriate suasions, including the drawling balm of noblesse oblige and masterly paternalism. Cobb does a remarkable job highlighting the triangulated efforts undertaken by anxious if genteel patriarchs in their efforts to avoid the crass techniques of hooded if vicious clowns while at the same time ensuring that blacks never became especially uppity. A cotton plantation only worked when all players knew their place. But anarchy lurked when too many black bodies were turned into strange fruit. This was a vice that squeezed the South.

The Federal Government was central to honing this more refined, or at least less explicitly violent, approach to preventing blacks from getting too uppity. Federal expenditures on levees and railroads, in addition to wartime measures for crop support, enabled powerful whites to control Federal pursestrings in a way that enhanced their bargaining power over blacks while keeping the trashy whites at arms length, preferably deep in the swamplands Many blacks went north but, as C. Vann Woodward has shown, that migration did not necessarily work out so well, as racism turned out to be just as vicious on the upside of the Mason-Dixon line as below it. Other blacks knew the power they held in the Delta, and engaged in their own negotiations with nervous planters, often to their advantage. But then again there were those cross burners back in their shacks, ready to put on a show when necessary, demonstrations of vile hatred the genteel types would step aside and let rage when necessary.

It was all a tragic balancing act, one that, as we listen to the blues–and we should always listen to the blues–we have an obligation to notice. Good news is that Cobb has written a history you can hear.


Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert

Madam Bovary is pretty much essential reading, at least for those who buy the idea of essential reading. But Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is a lesser prerequisite for those who fret about their canonical bone fides. The novel comes up in polite conversation just enough, though, for those of us insecure enough about our own readerly accomplishments (and obligations) to consider putting that notch in our belt. And it is for this reason alone–the quiet guilt of the pseudo-well read–that I plucked it off my shelf of aspiration and bore into it.

From page one, as the protagonist watches the banks of Paris slip past as he sails down the Seine, I was hooked. Sentimental Education  is unforgettable, charming, surprising, and sometimes brilliant. There are two aspects of the novel that linger for me. The first is that the protagonist, Frederic, is not a very likable fellow. He’s shallow, petulant, inconsiderate, haughty, and a trust fund brat. But in the opening scene he does something that eventually rescues him, and has us rooting for him, and finally makes him nothing short of a hero to humanity: the insufferable little shit falls in love. And he falls hard, with a Madame Arnoux, who is all class, if not in wealth at  least in demeanor. And he stays in love with her. It never wavers (despite being unconsummated). And that love becomes so powerful, and eventually convincing, that it redeems him. She becomes what every human, implicitly or explicitly wants to be–the center of another’s obsession. So there you have it: a love story.

The second remarkable aspect of this novel is that it’s also a political novel. The revolution of 1848 (lots of revolutions in 19th-century France) gathers steam as if heated by the social intrigue and desire that drives the novel. Personal relationships become political and politics get very personal. Tantrums are thrown. Barricades are stormed. Whores feel their power. The industrialists are humbled. There is so much more plot weaving here than in Bovary, but the upshot is a novel that vibrates on several levels at once. I have no idea how fiction writers pull it off, but I’m always happy to enjoy the outcome. I imagine this is a book I’ll return to.

The Color of Water  by James McBride

There are scores of once-downtrodden memoirs these days (Educated, Hillbilly Elegy). But McBride’s soars a bit higher because his voice soars with the story. This rarely happens in memoirs. Typically, when it’s any good, the voice starts strong, original, but, by page 75-100, goes flat. Trust fades, inconsistencies emerge, and questions arise over authenticity. In the two aforementioned books mentioned the authors never quite probed that part of themselves that enabled them to thrive in the academic world, making their unlikely origins the only part of the story that really mattered. But it’s not all that really mattered.

There is something so incrementally trustworthy and loving in McBride’s voice as he narrates his and his siblings’ trajectory from the projects to professional and personal success. At the core of this transformation is McBride’s mother, a Jewish woman whose life was almost crushed by systemic abuse and oppression, much of it from her father and first husband. McBride eases into his ambition as he eases into an appreciation of this remarkable woman, not to mention a unique view on race–the color of water–that derives not from slogans or trends, but the grit of daily experience. That kind of message hits the heart’s sweet spot, and only drives deeper as the book progresses.

Ironies of the real life variety–rather than the clever literary sort–ground the memoir in a rendition of motherhood that will feel familiar to anyone who has marveled over a mom. “Mommy”–or Rachel Shilsky– is a woman who, “could make no decisions.” McBride explains, “Even the simplest choice, like whether to have a Touch-Tone telephone or a rotary one, required enormous, painstaking deliberation. If the furnace broke down it stayed broken, not just because she didn’t have the money to fix it, but because . . . well . . . just because.”

McBride allows his mother’s flaws to be human, normal, and genuine, and therefore he must have felt a certain satisfaction–or something like it–when, at the end of the memoir, he lists what he and his twelve brothers and sisters have gone to do in their professional lives: graduate from Yale med school and become a medical director at Merck, graduate with a PhD from Columbia University and become a chair of the history department at Penn State, become a chemistry professor, and, of course, there’s James, our Oberlin and Columbia educated, who became a “writer, composer, saxophonist.” May the man and his pen and horn howl for ages.










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