Down There on a Visit

For years now I’ve been looking at a photograph Walker Evans took in the summer of 1936 in the South. I thought of it again while getting ready to travel to the South a few weeks ago. At the intersection of two dusty, unpaved roads stands a dilapidated building with a small porch and a single gas pump. There’s no human being in sight. The intense heat and the bright sunlight must have made the locals, a few of whom can be seen standing on the very same porch on another occasion, seek shade. The shutters of the two upstairs windows are closed except for small openings where the slats are broken or have been removed. The postmaster and his wife, who run the pump and the store, are most likely napping, their heads covered with newspapers to protect them against the flies.

Downstairs, in the small side room with a scale and rows of bins for the mail, there are a few letters whose recipients live too far or receive mail too rarely to bother making the trip. With so little to see and so much to imagine, a photograph like this is an invitation to endless conjecture. There’s nothing more ordinary, nothing more American than what it depicts: a small town one passes with barely a glance on the way to someplace else.

This June, driving around Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, I decided to pay a visit to Sprott and Hale County, where Walker Evans and James Agee collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their photographic and verbal record of the lives of three dirt-poor tenant farmer families in the region. I wanted to, as it were, poke around the photograph on my wall. I drove from Mobile past a series of tiny little towns with names like Sunflower, Wagarville, Sunny South, Catherine, and Marion. It was early Sunday morning so my daughter and I were a bit dressed up, hoping to find a church along the way and attend a service. We saw plenty of houses of worship, but oddly, not much activity around them yet. Driving through one of the bigger towns, we were surprised to find a huge Wal-Mart open at 9:20 with dozens of cars parked outside.

The other puzzle was a number of abandoned churches both in towns and in the countryside. I recall a small, unobtrusive, white wooden church sunk in the earth, the grass and weeds grown tall around it. It had a thick, squat steeple, a single door, two windows on each side covered up with boards. The sky over it was cloudless, the quiet so deep we could hear the crows flap their wings as they flew over our heads in alarm. The people who came to pray there must have died or moved away years ago, but the spirit they sought after lingered on. I wondered if there was anything left inside the church, a hard bench, a hymnal, a suspended oil lamp, a skeleton…

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