My copy of Contempo has arrived!

Just got here today: my February 1, 1932 edition of Contempo. No, the Post Office wasn’t that slow; I bought it off eBay (and the USPS was right on time).

I ran across this footnote in the life of William Faulkner while attending my daughter’s graduation from UNC last month.  Minter’s 250-page bio, for example, doesn’t even mention that Faulkner visited Chapel Hill, much less that he contributed to this journal, and neither does his Wikipedia entry. The librarian at the university’s Southern Historical Collection, learning of my interest in Faulkner, retrieved their copy from the files, and I bought this one from John LaPine in Chicago (5 stars, by the way).

contempo_front_pageWhat is known is that the author visited Chapel Hill in October for at least three days (there is some controversy over the exact length of his visit), stayed drunk most of the time, and upon sobering up, learned that he had agreed to contribute to this journal, published by a couple of UNC students. It was a most unusual periodical, founded by a couple of young communists who also finagled pieces from such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Elliot, and Sinclair Lewis. The primary owner later moved to New York and became a highly successful stockbroker while never renouncing his left wing views. But that’s another story. (Click for a larger image)

The entire 2/1/1932 edition is credited to Faulkner, who gave the publication some poems and a short story that he hadn’t placed in more prestigious (and profitable) publications. Despite his binges, Faulkner was at the peak of his creative powers, having already published The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, having the manuscript for Light in August (my favorite) with him, and with his masterpiece Absalom! Absalom! only four years in the future. One of Contempo’s editors presciently wrote that Faulkner was “the most creative, most original and most potential writer that America has produced.” Such an opinion of Faulkner was not widely shared at that time, but 17 years later, he would win the Nobel Prize.

I had been living in Oxford about a year when the author died, so it’s possible that I saw him. I have no such memories, but I do have an original of the February 1, 1932 edition of Contempo and that will have to do.

[Note: the information on Faulkner in Chapel Hill and his association with Contempo is from “A week or 3 days in Chapel Hill: Faulkner, Contempo, and their contemporaries,” Jim Vickers, North Carolina Literary Review, Vol I, No 1, 1992. Available on-line from the NCLR site.]

On the Waterfront

A beautiful day for walking around Savannah — temps in the mid-70s and no rain.

Maersk WisconsinAnd it was a busy day on the waterfront. This is the Maersk Wisconsin coming in, passing by the mega-yacht Hyperion, a river boat, and what appears to be a dredge. Click on all pics for a larger view.

tall_ship_savannahThose of you who know Chuck Spinney (or may recall him from Robert’s Coram’s book), may also know that he claims to be cruising the Med with his wife and some sort of dog. But I swear that this ship is a clone of their’s. I must admit, though, that it’s been a few years since I’ve seen their boat, so I could be mistaken. Still …

If you do visit Savannah, you could choose from big convention hotels (e.g., Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott) and several smaller hotels and inns. But Savannah also abounds in B&Bs. Here’s one, the Forsyth Park Inn.

Forsyth Park Inn

And the living is easy

Spring day in the Carolina low country looking out on the golf course at Hidden Cypress. Click for a larger view.

Hidden CypressTaken from an elevated walkway through one of the swamps in our development, Sun City Hilton Head.

Note that the sky is indeed Carolina Blue, which is a little odd because although we’re looking towards North Carolina, the border (at South of the Border) is about 200 miles away. To be entirely honest with you, the sky looked about the same in both places. We did drive past Pedro’s place on the way back here from North Carolina today.

Charleston, where the living is also easy, is only about 75 miles up the coast. Like Charleston, rice plantations also dominated this area, and to this day, gated developments are usually called “plantations.”

Monterey Square

Pulaski MonumentOne of our favorite places in Savannah.

The centerpiece of the square is, somewhat incongruously, the monument to the Polish general and American Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski, who was mortally wounded in the Battle of Savannah, October 9, 1779. The square is named after the American victory in the Battle of Monterrey, Mexico, some 67 years later. (FYI, there was a “Battle” of Monterey, California, during the same war, but except for the mix-up in spelling, it had no relation to this square.)

It’s a breathtakingly beautiful square, one of  22 surviving squares in the city. Many of these date back to the city’s founding in the 1730s, although Monterey is one of the later additions. To make things only slightly confusing, Pulaski Square, also dedicated to the General, lies only a few blocks away.

In addition to the monument, the square is home to the Mercer-Williams House, built for the great-grandfather of composer Johnny Mercer and, facing it across the square, to Congregation Mickve Israel, pictured below right, the third oldest Jewish Congregation in America.

Congregation Mikve IsraelIf you haven’t visited Savannah, it’s well worth a trip. So like its older cousin, Charleston, but so different, with its picturesque squares and somewhat kitschy waterfront. Although it boasts a cathedral to rival any in the US, nobody ever called Savannah the “Holy City,” and it doesn’t exude the studied aristocracy one finds south of Broad.

The city is about a 15 minute drive off I-95 just inside the Georgia/South Carolina border, and easily accessible by nearby Savannah Hilton Head Airport, where Gulfstream bizjets are built. In addition to a Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton, the squares host a myriad of boutique hotels and B&Bs, and you’ll find the usual assortment of business & tourist hotels nearby (we like the Residence Inn).

A generation ago, you wouldn’t have dared walk around Savannah much away from the waterfront. Then in 1978, the Savannah College of Art and Design was founded, and the transformation has been amazing. We live 20 miles north of downtown and come in about once a month to stroll the squares and parks, stop in at one of the many coffee shops (art colleges seem to attract them), and maybe take in a museum or antebellum home.

Ghosts of Ole Miss

Just caught Wright Thompson’s “Ghosts of Ole Miss” on ESPN. The film documents the integration of Ole Miss by James Meredith in September 1962, an event some consider as the last battle of the Civil War.

As it turns out, I was a student at University High School in Oxford on that fateful night, but slept through the whole thing (as did James Meredith).

Native Mississippian and Oxford resident Thompson did a brilliant job of capturing the social climate that led to the riot as well as the long period of rebuilding and redemption. It’s hard for me to explain what Mississippi was like in 1962 and how far we’ve come: We now have, for example, a black homecoming queen and student body president (both elected by the students).

The film also honored the 1962 Ole Miss Rebels, who went undefeated that fall and whose success played not a small role in helping the university recover.

I have three degrees from Ole Miss and would not hesitate to recommend the school to anyone.

Read an interview with Wright Thompson about “Ghosts of Ole Miss.”

The Casual Vacancy, a casual review

J.K. Rowling’s’ new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, is positively Faulknerian. No, I’m not talking about the length of her sentences, but in tone and characterization, it reminds me of his classics like Absolom, Absolom! Light in August, and The Sound and the Fury:

  • It takes place in a small town and exploits long-standing relationships among the town’s inhabitants
  • It deals with “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as WCF put it in his Nobel acceptance speech. And so many of them to deal with.
  • There are Snopeses, lots of them.
  • It’s really dark. Few people laugh, and when they do, it’s rarely a good sign.

Fiction is such a personal preference, so I hesitate to recommend specific works to other readers. As for me, I liked it, but then I like Faulkner a lot, too. And such contemporary noiristas as James Lee Burke. Rowling truly lives up to Faulkner’s imperative:

[Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.

Can Pagford be a 21st Century Jefferson and Yarvil the new Yoknapatawpha? She left enough threads hanging that it should be easy, if she wants to do it, to weave a new tale about them.  I, as a former resident of Jefferson, certainly hope she does.

In our backyard this morning

With Tropical Depression Beryl barreling down, at least so we hope. So far, we’ve had virtually no rain, but it looks like the Okefenokee, which has lost more than half its acreage to fire, is getting a good soak.

When the wind is right (wrong?), we get a lot of smoke from the fires down there, more than a hundred miles away.

The heron is standing in a golf cart track, watching the action on the 13th tee.

Quantum Blues

Legendary bluesman Sam Chatmon (1899 – 1983) would never fly to concerts. If he couldn’t go by car or bus, he didn’t go. When asked why, he explained:

It ain’t that I’m scared of flying. It’s just that if I’m up there and it’s somebody else’s time to go … I don’t want to have to ride down with’em.

You have to let that one sink in for a minute.

Chatmon was from Hollandale, once a vibrant hub of the blues in the Mississippi Delta, on Hwy 61 about 20 miles from my wife’s home south of Inverness.

[Many thanks to the article “Sittin’ on top of the world,” by Hank Burdine in the May/June 2012 issue of Delta Magazine, pp. 38-40.]

Agiity and deception

Fighting for Honor
The history of African martial arts traditions in the Atlantic world
by T.J. Desch Obi
University of South Carolina Press, 2008
346 pages, including 124 pages of notes and bibliography

Reviewed by Chet Richards

Kum yali, kum buba tambe! (He is tricky, so I will win by being tricky, too!)

As a southerner of European ancestry, I had long wondered how slave owners kept control over their victims. On many plantations, slaves vastly outnumbered owners and overseers, and because of the hard nature of their work, many slaves were in much better physical conditions than their owners. Why didn’t the slaves revolt or simply leave?

It turns out that many did. Most Americans are familiar with the Underground Railroad and may even recall the Nat Turner Rebellion (1831), the Fugitive Slave Acts (1793 and 1850) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857). But there are a couple of other ways slaves used to preserve their honor and sometimes even their freedom. One of these was “maroonage,” where they would abandon their plantations and settle in the swamps, rugged hills and dense forests of the South. It has been estimated, for example, that the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina may have harbored maroon communities totaling perhaps 2,000 escaped slaves.

The other was simply to resist. As T. J. Obi meticulously documents in this study, Africans and their descendents brought with them an arsenal of well developed martial arts styles. These provided the basis for preserving honor withing the slave communities and even, on occasion, to resist vicious beatings by overseers.

There were two keys to making this work: deception, because an unarmed defender had to close with his attacker, and agility, to avoid weapons and complete the attack. Obi includes these under the label “tricknology.”

When fighting a white oppressor, the ideal was to strike a butting-style head blow and finish the fight before it even developed. … As such butts had to be delivered at close range to be effective, a fighter had to use trickery to close the distance under some innocuous disguise.  (p. 109)

Readers familiar with Boyd will immediately recognize the concept of “operating inside the OODA loop.”

The book itself is quite academic and heavily footnoted, reflecting its origins in doctoral research. That said, however, it’s not a heavy read and is packed with interesting tidbits. Did you know that maroon communities survive to this day in the mountains of Jamaica, where they won their freedom by successful resistance some 50 years before the official abolition of slavery in that colony? And slave societies developed all manner of methods to conceal their existence from their owners. In one area, for example, the message “weevils in the wheat” meant that overseers had discovered that a meeting was planned and so it was being postponed.

Perhaps the most fascinating conclusion of the book is that African martial arts techniques still survive in the Americas. Perhaps the best known example is the Brazilian capoiera, but Dr. Obi’s research on site in the low country of the Carolinas documents their existence in the Gullah communities and their descendents into the 21st century.

[You want agility? Check out this YouTube video of a capoiera demo. The kicks and sweeps from inverted positions are typical of Angolan fighting styles.]

America’s First Metropolis?

This could rate near the top of the Greatest Wonders You’ve Never Heard Of category. Suppose that here in the United States, in Louisiana, there were the remains of a city older than Troy. We’re not talking about a few mud huts around a campfire but a city of several thousand souls built on more than 7 miles of raised structures and adjacent to a mound containing some 27 million cubic feet of packed earth.

That mound, known as “Bird Mound” for the agreed interpretation of its shape as seen from above, once stood some 100 feet tall. It was apparently built in one spectacular three-month effort. A quick calculation suggests this would require a  worker population of 2,000 – 3,000 people that would have to be fed and managed for this period. Even at its remaining 72 feet, it is the second largest mound surviving in the US, next only to the somewhat later Monks Mound in Illinois.

What really makes Poverty Point interesting is that the 7 miles of living structures are laid out in a precise geometrical pattern of 6 concentric semi circular ridges, each roughly 6 feet high. Obviously this indicates a high degree of planning and social organization — people didn’t just say “I’ll build my hut over there, by that stream.”

And every one of the 27 million cubic feet of earth for the Bird Mound was carried to the site manually in hand-woven baskets. To make it even more intriguing, there is no sign of agriculture. This 400 acre site was apparently built by hunter-gatherers. Think about that in terms of surplus calories.

Enormous kudos to the State of Louisiana for maintaining it in superb condition. Poverty Point is a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status.

How to get there: It’s about 15 miles off I-20  between Vicksburg and Monroe, about an hour and a half from the Jackson airport. Directions and other information on their web site.

More ideas for an expedition off the beaten path in my next post.