Monday, August 31, 2009

The Oxford American, the Southern Magazine of Good Writing surveyed 134 Southern writers to ask them to name the best Southern novels.

I'm not sure what parameters were used to define Southern writers, or Southern novels, but there's no call for nit-picking.

Here are the top ten titles mentioned.

1: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)
2: All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
3: The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)

4: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)

5: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

6: The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy (1961)

7: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner (1930)

8: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

9: Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor (1952)

10: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
It's interesting that the newest novel on the list is nearly 50 years oldI suspect there would be a similar result for the best American novels at-large. That is to say, it will be 50 years before some of the best novels of today are recognized as having multi-generational staying power. Or maybe not. Other than the Twain novel, all of these were written in a 31-year span. Was it a golden era that won't cycle around again for another century or more?

Five of the ten were written before the Second World War, when Civil War veterans still roamed the Earth.
Several of these were fairly predictable, though I was surprised to see Wise Blood ranked so high. Long fiction was not considered O'Connor's strong suit, and I always thought of Wise Blood as an interesting (difficult) but not monumental work. I love O'Connor, and feel moved to revisit that work. As I prepare to close out my forties, it's pretty clear to me that everything I read in my teens and twenties could be re-read now as if for the first time.

I see Drew's favorite Walker Percy novel comes in at number six. I have this on my bookshelf, and have started it twice. Will have to give it another go. I confess I knew nothing about number ten, and had to look it up after reading this list. Apparently Oprah even produced a TV movie adaptation, starring Halle Berry. I never heard of that either.

How many of these have you read?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I'm back with my brood from 9 days of camping atop the Medicine Lake Shield Volcano

—the largest and probably least known volcano in all of the Cascade range (least known because shield volcanoes do not conform to the classic volcano shape, like Mt. Shasta seen beyond Medicine Lake in the photo above). It is breathtakingly rugged and desolate country, even today, but history tells us that no place in America was too remote or god-forsaken to preclude a prolonged and expensive Indian war.

My fascination with the Modocs and the Lava Beds continues to grow, and I've come back wondering why so little has been written about E. R. S. Canby. Maybe a little more reading on my part will answer that question. Maybe there is more out there than I realize, beyond the 1959 biography, and pieces in various periodic literature.

Far West tribes, too, are given short shrift in the literature. Two Lakota chiefs, a Hunkpapa and an Oglala, will be forever remembered for their part in the death of a vainglorious lieutenant colonel in Montana, but the Modoc who killed the only general to die in the Indian wars, and who did so reluctantly, falls short of the threshold of most general histories of westward expansion. East Coast media bias.

More on that later.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Melancholy, Scot and Robin, The Who, President's Wall, Brave Ulysses

This is the painting that hangs over my computer (my poor digital photograph does not do it justice). I enjoy staring at in it from time to time as I withdraw from the keyboard, sit back, and take a breath. There's something mesmerizing about Grant's countenance. Images of him are weighty, with a wisp of melancholy that is always felt, if not intended.


This is a rare, one-of-a kind portrait. It was painted by a street artist in South Koreacommissioned by my good friend Scot Halpin and his wife Robin. Scot handed the man a small photograph of Grant, and returned a couple days later to pick up this stunning painting. Scot, who passed away about a year and a half ago, was an important person in my life, and his untimely death makes the Grant painting all the more cherished. Scot was not a Civil War buff, but he knew about my interest and surprised me with this gift. I have other reminders of Scotincluding a few of his own paintingsbut the Grant portrait speaks to me every day. Usually, it's very polite, but sometimes it's sarcastic.

I will dedicate another bit of writing to Scot, as this may not be the best venue, but suffice it to say hemore than anyone in my life other than Jerry, my eternal Berkeley Writers Club compatriotand Robininspired me to never give up the dream that artist's dream from a young age, and which the world and life conspire to squelch every day in every way. He, more than anyone I have known before or since, lived the life, and walked the walkmaking his way in this world as an artist, a musician, a free thinker. He, more than anyone, served to remind that creating art will always matter more than the reasons we all come up with to put it off, or let it go. What I've been putting off, among other things, is writing. But I've not let go, and am excited more about it now than ever.

Robin has begun an ambitious and fantastically beautiful project to post one of Scot's paintings, and a piece of his musical legacy, more or less every day for a year. See her tribute site here.

Robin's blog was highlighted at The Who's official web site, where the band expressed their condolences, and recounted the night in 1973 when then 19-year-old Scot Halpin was recruited from the crowd at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to finish the set for a passed-out Keith Moon. Scot was Rolling Stone's "Pick-Up Player of the Year." You can see video of Scot's great Who adventure on YouTube. TimesOnline published this obit. Scot's 15 minutes of fame.

I'm not a collector of presidential portraits
or at least, I didn't set out to bethe Kennedy photo (left of Grant) was something I glommed onto when my parents died, and is inscribed to my father. The Lincoln photo (right of Grant) is a print of that beautiful glass negative fragment. The Production Director gave that to me after it was used on the cover of a Stanford University Press catalog. We had these images scattered around the house, and it was my wife's idea to collect them together on one wall. Now I love to scrutinize them in quiet moments (with my kids, that means the middle of the night)they are inspirational figures all.


I'm no Grant groupie, and it would never occur to me to take an ad out in the Civil War News to attack Grant detractors, but I'll say unabashedly that he is the Civil War-era figure that I have always gravitated toward in my reading, and that I never tire of studying. Some of my long-time Civil War correspondents will see this as validation of a certain bias, and it's true I believe he was the preeminent general in a war well-stocked with intriguing and successful officers.

He was a small, unassuming man (hmmm, just like me). A failed farmer, an officer who had given up on a military career. By 1854, having risen to the rank of captain, he resigned from the army
a dead end roadand went to work as a clerk in his father's leather shop. In other words, he was pretty ordinary.

When the war started, he struggled to get a commission, finally getting command of a regiment as colonel of the 21st Illinois in 1861. In relatively short order, he was commanding armies. By the end of 1863 he was promoted to Lieutenant General, the first to hold that rank since George Washington, and placed in charge of all United States forces. By 1868 he had completed the transition from anonymous small town store clerk to President of the United States (but he was not the shortest president
in your face, Madison!)

I'm inspired by Grant's calm demeanor, which sometimes showed cracks, to the point of weeping (hmm, just like me!), and his seemingly unambitious rise to the top. He was an enigma to many, a man who gave few hints of potential greatness, then achieved spectacular things. I love that he wore "the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general," rather than the full regalia to which he was entitled. To me, that captures a quintessential American spirit, one that disdains ostentatiousness, even in a regimented military culture. He was a brilliant warrior, and a kind and gracious victor. And he left us the best memoirs of any officer on either side of the Civil War.

I've looked at a lot of Grant photographs, and am confident that this is the one from which the South Korean artist created such a beautiful painting. It's nearly the only Grant image I can find where he seems to be looking directly at the camera. The buttons, the ear, the tufts of hair sticking out, the precise pattern of the white underneath the chin and on the collar, the just visible star on the top of the shoulder strapall seem to be spot on.

Thanks anonymous South Korean painter.
Thanks Ulysses. And thank you, Scot.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A final comment about LSU Press's bacon being pulled out of the fire, at least momentarily. . .

I should have mentioned, given my own experience, that the "good news" about university press's surviving rounds of severe cost cutting is pretty bad news to the people who lost their jobs. LSU reportedly cut about ten positions from their staff. News stories of staff cuts at companies across the board are so commonplace now it hardly warrants mention (University of Missiouri Press? Half its staff. University of New Mexico Press? Employee revolt!).

On the bright side, visit Drew Wagenhoffer's Civil War Books and Authors blog to see mention of some of the intriguing new (Civil War-related) university press releases, and previews of other interesting titles coming down the pike. Our cherished scholarly press's are still doing what they do best, with the staff remaining.

The book I'm most excited about seeing is another in the University of Tennessee Press's incomparable "Voices of the Civil War Series," entitled In the Shadow of the Enemy: the Civil War Diary of Ida Powell Dulany, co-edited by my good friend Steve Meserve. I felt gratified to be able to contribute two maps to the project. All of the books in that series (series editor Pete Carmichael) are works of art in every way: editing, design, composition, manufacturing.