Two Rereads

This post is written in honor of National Arts and Humanities Month. We are highlighting different humanities topics that we are passionate about and hope you’ll share your passions with us too!

Next year marks the 45th anniversary of the publication of two novels by authors who were born in Alabama but who made their literary reputations elsewhere. I first read them as an undergraduate at college far away from the state. There, ironically, I learned much about the South’s rich literary tradition. Let me tell you why I plan to reread both of them soon.

I read In Cold Blood by Monroeville native Truman Capote for a course on “Violence in America.” Most of the non-fiction readings in the class dealt with issues of violence surrounding the Vietnam War, presidential assassinations, and urban riots. But Capote’s powerful account of the random murders of a Kansas family in 1959 struck at a deeper psychological element in American culture. I don’t recall that it especially captivated me as a young student, as I was more attuned to the larger social and political topics found in the other course readings. But as a middle-aged family man today, who watches TV shows such as “Criminal Minds,” I’m looking forward to diving into it again.

Interestingly, Capote celebrated the publication of his very dark masterpiece with a high-profile, high-society party at New York’s lavish Plaza Hotel. Called the Black and White Ball, it featured a sparkling coterie of celebrities, politicians, literary types, and fashion mavens. In 2011, AHF hopes to create a 45th anniversary reprise of the ball here in Alabama—but with the serious intent to raise funds for worthy educational and cultural groups and projects. Watch for details later this fall.

For a course on “Cervantes and the Picaresque Tradition in Literature,” I read The Last Gentleman by Birmingham-born Walker Percy. Percy lived most of his adult life in Louisiana, but his work was partially shaped by strong family traditions in Alabama and the Magic City. (For a fascinating depiction of Birmingham and its wealthy families such as the Percys at the turn of the 20th century, read the first chapter of Jay Tolson’s 1992 biography of Walker Percy, Pilgrim in the Ruins.) The main character in The Last Gentleman suffers from aimless detachment from his family roots in Birmingham and dead-end relationships. Though I haven’t started my reread, I couldn’t help peeking at one passage to share here. It deals with the protagonist, young Will Barrett, watching golfers on the course next to his suburban family home whence he has returned.

Whereupon he dismounted the telescope through which he and Jamie had studied the behavior of golfers who hooked their drives from number 5 tee into the creek. Some cheated. It was with a specific, though unidentified pleasure that one watched the expressions of the men who stood musing and benign and Kiwanian while one busy foot nudged the ball out of the water.

As a Kiwanian I am offended! I’m not saying that none of us would ever cheat at golf. (Actually I don’t play despite having a brother who is a professional golfer.) But we are men and women of action; we are neither “musing” nor “benign” as community leaders and philanthropists! Nor would we ever intentionally get our shoes wet! Just for that, Mr. Percy, I think I’ll have another go at your book—and pairing you with Mr. Capote will serve you right!