The American South has always been treacherous to those who try to describe and explain it, and capture its reality. The finest writers in America have written fiction about it—many of them intentionally—but it traps its more earnest interpreters into using it as a kind of Thematic Apperception Test. It isn’t so much that writers distort it as that they so easily select from it themes and issues that reveal their own concerns more clearly than they do its essence. Even Gunnar Myrdal’s classic An American Dilemma did not help me much, when I read it, to understand my own homeland, although it certainly helped me, twenty-five years later, to understand Jan Myrdal’s Confessions of a Disloyal European.
Disloyal Europeans are probably a generally more reliable and less solipsistic lot than white racists. European disloyalty being, in the present moral climate, so much more easily justified than white racism. Mr. King’s book, which ought to have been valuable, is badly marred by the state of mind in which he wrote it. “It is not my individual confession alone,” he observes in his Introduction, “but a gratuitous admission of guilt on behalf of all white racists, past or present, malignant or benign.” Gratuitous is right. There are still two or three things in this world that a man cannot do until he feels ready, and then has to do for himself. Confession is one of them, though not, for most people, the most urgent.
White racism, God knows, has led to serious enough evil to merit further study as well as confession; and Mr. King is almost ideally qualified to observe and comment on its curious manifestations. He was born in 1929, in the mid-Texas village of Putnam; his family moved from there to a hamlet in southeastern New Mexico near the Texas line when he was thirteen, and soon moved back to Texas—this time to the raw, growing town of Midland further west, where he remained until he joined the army in 1946. He was discharged in 1949 and returned to Texas to enter Texas Tech in Lubbock. But he reports that he found its crudeness and racism intolerable, left before his first year was out, and took a series of jobs, working when he could as a newspaper reporter on small New Mexico or Texas papers.
The army had stationed him at a Signal Corps Photo Center in Astoria, Long Island, from which he had visited Greenwich Village and developed a taste for intellectual life:
“What do they talk about?” a G.I. friend asked as I tried to explain this puzzling new world into which I had stumbled. “Well,” I said, “things.” “What kind of things?” “Just…things.” I was trying to say that these new people talked primarily of ideas, an experience so alien that I could give it no name.
Accordingly, Mr. King tried to get a job on a New York City paper and “having offered myself in vain to all Manhattan journals, I gave the Brooklyn Eagle, the Long Island Press, and even the Newark Star-Ledger their missed opportunities.” What a pity he missed, by a few years, The Village Voice. His efforts failed, however; and, in a sense, Mr. King never did leave Texas. He remained there, working as a reporter, until 1954 when he went to Washington as an assistant to a moderate Texas congressman, since defeated by a more racist adversary, whose identity is not revealed in the book. Such a job, like all diplomatic assignments, demands and supplies a measure of extraterritoriality.
It also provides a vantage point from which to observe the operation of white racism on a national scale; as in a somewhat different way did Mr. King’s experiences as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1970. What he saw as a working-class child—the son, as he repeats almost obsessively throughout his book, of a night watchman—in a small town in Texas before World War II differs markedly neither in kind nor in degree, only in form, from what he saw nearly forty years later at Harvard and, as the book closes, from a summer cottage on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in September, 1970. This may be true enough. Certainly the basic flaw in Mr. King’s book is not exaggeration; the chronicle of abuse and humiliation he provides could be reproduced in the experience of every black American. Yet his book, though it convinces, fails to move the reader—at least until near the end when it approaches tragic dignity.
(The Epilogue by Roger Wilkins, though, is something else—and really does move the reader to pity and terror: an account of the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club at which the Vice President of the United States played Dixie on the piano while the President and the other guests sang; the guests ranged from Julius Hoffman and William Westmoreland to Ralph Nader, but included no blacks except for Wilkins and Mayor Washington of Washington.)
The reason for this failure is Mr. King’s peculiar style, which in this book becomes very much a matter of content as well. Mr. King chooses to write in the hackneyed tone, overblown yet cynical, of the world-weary journalist with a putative heart of gold. The dust jacket compares Larry L. King to H. L. Mencken—which is, after all, less embarrassing than comparing him to M. L. King, Jr., would have been. For the effect is one of great self-contempt—the worst possible defect in a man who is trying to evoke respect for the humanity of others. He can say nothing simply and let it go at that, and sometimes his sentences do not make sense, as in:
In 1903, the Supreme Court verified which way the racial winds were blowing in upholding a test of Alabama’s law disenfranchising black voters through “literacy” tests.
I don’t know what he thinks “verify” means; but a newspaperman ought to know.
Most of it, especially when he is writing of his youth, is just desolately cute. He comments on his enlistment in the army:
At the slightest opportunity I hinted to young bobby-soxers that some dangerous, if highly classified, military mission awaited my special warrior’s skills. The hope here was that my uncertain future might encourage intimate farewells, though possibly my act might have been more persuasive had not word been carelessly circulated that World War II’s fighting phase had been concluded almost a year earlier.
Of prostitution around Times Square toward the end of the Forties:
Though I think more white ladies than black were then in the street-walking profession on that turf, intelligence sources inform me this is no longer true.
Of his apathy and growing dislike for Texas Tech:
Multiple requests from the Dean of Men that I drop by his office for curative chats were blithely ignored.
The one episode dealing with a relationship with a woman, treated as high, nostalgic comedy, is even more striking. It begins “at a meeting in the Baptist Student Union (to which I had been attracted in pursuit of a particularly well-stacked young child of God),” and shortly reaches its climax when he accepts
…that most ominous of bachelor invitations: to visit her family acres on a convenient weekend for the purpose of meeting Mom and Dad…. My lady looked fetching in snug blue jeans and a blouse pleasingly endowed. Though I do not recall that my aroused instincts included the matrimonial, when we arrived near sundown at the family ranch it soon became apparent that our common future was assumed in other quarters. While the mother bustled around choosing victims for Cokes or Kool-Aid, a giggly little kid sister blurted, “You gonna marry Carol Jane?” Frantic adult shushings merely reinforced the idea that perhaps this thought was not the sole property of an indiscreet child.
But Mr. King escapes. Later in the evening, when Carol Jane’s father has taken him aside for man-talk and negotiation, he mentions that he was in New York in the service, and hopes to return. This brings up the subject of “niggers.” Mr. King responds with:
“Before I went up to New York, I really didn’t know anything about Negroes. I mean, I thought we were better than they are. Hell, that’s just not true. They’re as smart as white people—some of ’em may be a damn sight smarter.”
I don’t believe the old man would have been more shocked had I pronounced myself gay.
Since, on the testimony of this book, Mr. King has now worked through his earlier white racist feelings, and perhaps exhausted his interest in this vein, would it be presumptuous to await a later volume on the subject of women’s liberation, or liberation generally?
Between Confessions of a White Racist and Yazoo there are links as well as similarities. Mr. King appends a Note of Appreciation: “To Willie Morris, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine, who on a rainy, boozy midnight another life ago, encouraged me to follow my heart in abandoning the conventional restrictions of politics for the freer uncertainties of writing—and whose munificent talents have since been available in the most fumbling hours.” Mr. King’s distinction between writing and politics seems a little too sharp to me, as it probably also does to Mr. Morris, whose work is, in fact, much more political than Mr. King’s, as well as a pleasure to read. He has more interest in and shows more insight into how societies work; while Mr. King rests content to come on as a good-old-boy turned lamb-of-God, bearing away the sins of his fellow-citizens before they have finished savoring them, like an overeager waiter.
Though less of a moralist, Morris displays deeper moral interests than King. The subject of Yazoo is the moral predicament of the South, not just its guilt. The book is about the moral meaning of the whole Southern experience. Morris expresses this in a section toward the end of Yazoo in which he compares Mississippi to Texas:
In the fifteen years since my friends and I on the student daily were censored by the established powers for concerning ourselves with issues which mattered in those days of McCarthy and Dulles, Texas at the true sources seems to have changed hardly at all, so that after a time it struck one from after who once cared deeply for its fractured, extravagant façades as a somewhat cheap and boring parody of itself. It lacked the blood and darkness and, yes, character of Mississippi, which, despite its despairs was slowly forming deeper strata in torment and incertitude—deepening and extending itself toward something at once rich, various, and distinctive.
Mississippi was maddened and bewitched; Texas, in its institutional aspects, was merely beholden, and as crude and self-satisfied as ever. Once again its university was in the hands of xenophobic know-nothings…. It all came down to the quality of money that controlled, and Texas as a society, despite some of the most articulate dissenters in the nation, remained as firmly the domain of the most uncivilized wealth in America as it had two generations before.
So Texas seemed more bereft than ever of that dark and brooding generosity of the soul out of which the things that matter always derive; it had not summoned the courage to try itself, for in the end it had been corrupted and isolated by nothing more complex than simple human greed, and the noisy, stale narcissism that powerful and established greed entails.
Mr. King, for his part, sets the scene of a minor but ugly confrontation he faced, “as I drove my family toward Texas upon the adjournment of Congress during the early 1960s,” with this comment: “We were in the area of Mississippi where Charles Mack Parker (another young black alleged to have wanted his way with a white woman) had been dragged from jail by a mob and horribly killed…. I had always found that part of Mississippi so brooding and sullen that I felt uncomfortable breathing its air.”
This passage is much less interesting and evocative than Mr. Morris’s dark lyric. But here I feel, against my better literary judgment, a preference for Mr. King’s response. For, if “the things that matter always derive” from “that dark and brooding generosity of the soul” with which Mississippi is so abundantly endowed, then Mr. Parker’s murder and that of Emmett Till, as well as the deprivation of civil rights sustained by Messrs. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner and the more recent slaying of the Jackson State University students, are among the expressions of that generosity, since they matter quite a lot. Maybe such prodigality is what happens as a result of too much soul food over too long a time; but whatever its source, it must be curtailed. Generosity of soul that expresses itself by tearing other people’s souls from their helpless and tormented bodies is not a tolerable social characteristic.
Mr. Morris, of course, does not suggest that it is. His point, as I understand it, is essentially that evil in Mississippi is less banal than in many places where it takes less atrocious forms; and that the prospects for redemption are therefore much better. Since, as a Southerner, I would like to believe this, I must guard against willful credulity. And Morris makes his eloquence less convincing by applying it to situations so trivial and commonplace that it seems forced and even empty. He ruminates about the benign influence of the young man who was his basketball coach eighteen years earlier and is now superintendent of schools in Yazoo City, observing that “coaches are very important to adolescent boys, for they are examples and ideals, they siphon off the terrible adolescent fears, they provide a sport and organize an alternative to the dark private sexuality of the boy. It is not an ignoble calling.”
To those of us who have learned from Dave Meggyesy, Jack Scott, or personal experience just how hard it is for an athlete to keep a coach out of his hair, let alone his private sexuality, light or dark as the case may be, this statement peters out into absurdity. And when Mr. Morris goes on to note that at their last meeting Coach Kelley, as he still calls the superintendent, “had dark circles under his eyes, and though he has changed remarkably little from the boy he was eighteen years ago, he was plainly a totally exhausted man,” it is not entirely clear what he means to imply. Yet even this is less troublesome than the way Morris ends the book:
I believe that what happens in a small Mississippi town with less of a population than three or four apartment complexes on the West Side of Manhattan Island will be of enduring importance to America. It is people trying: loving, hating, enduring cruelties, perpetrating them, all caught, exacerbated, and dramatized by our brighter and darker impulses. Its best instincts only barely carried the day, and still may fall before anything really gets started (for we are mature enough in our failures by now to know how thin is the skein of our civilization), but nonetheless these instincts responded in ways that served us all. How many other little towns in America would have done so well? Southerners of both races share a rootedness that even in moments of anger and pain we have been unable to repudiate or ignore, for the South—all of what it is—is in us all….
I am sure this is true of the South; but stated in this way it would be true of almost any place short of Disneyland. One could certainly have said the same thing of small towns in Russia; Vladimir Nabokov often does, writing from Ithaca or Switzerland or wherever is most convenient. One could say it of Venice, which is another place people like to speak fondly of and be buried in, richly but tastefully. Nostalgia is a valid enough form of agony; but it is not evidence of a continuing relation to a place.
Morris called his previous, and to me more convincing, book North Toward Home and ended it on a note of muted exaltation as his Delta Airlines plane banked sharply over Jackson in take-off for New York. Home is where the heart, or whatever means one uses to maintain circulation, is; and there is ample evidence in Yazoo that he was right the first time. The book is full of anecdotes about encounters and thumbnail sketches of people in Yazoo City that are as static as snapshots in an album: Superintendent Kelley is one of these.
The liveliest, most convincing, and most moving parts of the book are those that show how much conflict in the South already resembles conflict in the rest of America: the ease with which black and white students begin to know one another and the petty determination with which their elders block their efforts to come together, not so much out of prejudice as out of political fear. One of the first things the high-school administration did in the course of integration, for example, was to create and maintain, without consulting the students, dual student body presidencies, and eliminate most of the school’s program of social activities. “The mayor, Jeppie Barbour, made several phone calls to white parents warning them of the integrated coffeehouse” some of the high-school students were trying to set up off campus. “Then the City Council condemned the building. Later the students talked with some white adults about renting them another building. No help was forthcoming.”
Not only race relations but those between generations in Yazoo seem to be approaching the American norm. Morris mentions bringing Norman Podhoretz with him to a party in Yazoo three years ago, so that he might “see the South”; but even by then there doesn’t seem to have been too much that was different to see. The people at the party might have got more out of seeing him: Yazoo City, at that time, had had a Jewish mayor for more than a decade whom Barbour since defeated; but some of them, perhaps, had never seen a Yankee before.
Indeed, one of Morris’s major purposes in writing Yazoo seems to have been to show Mississippi off to his new friends in the North. They share a common ancestry, which counts for a lot in the South. He notes on the second text page of the book: “A great-uncle of William Styron, my Virginia friend now living in the East, was the state treasurer when my great-uncle was governor. My great-grandfather was a leader of the Mississippi legislative committee that impeached the Republican Reconstructionist governor, a proper New Englander named Adelbert Ames, the great-grandfather of my friend George Plimpton.” End of paragraph. All trails lead ultimately to Plimpton; and most Southern males are proud to know famous football players, even if they are also writers. But Mr. Morris’s preoccupation with his present status obtrudes on his discussion of what really is unique about the South; while his loyalty to it must make it difficult for him to be explicit about or even consciously recognize the source of its attractions.
For what is most appealing about the South is not the wonderful progress it is making toward being just as democratic as the rest of the United States—no cups need be awarded in that league—but its relative freedom from guilt about its own racism. Racism in the latter half of the twentieth century has taken the place of lust in the latter half of the nineteenth; we are all deeply ashamed to have such feelings and confess them loudly enough; but what, after all, is a poor sinner to do? Meanwhile, the thought of the South is as refreshing as, in earlier days, a visit to a really bawdy house might be; a relief not so much from horniness as from hypocrisy, at the opportunity to call a spade a spade.
Rape is certainly a crime; and lust may be a sin, but sex is here to stay. What is needed is not sexlessness but decent people and institutional arrangements that acknowledge its force in human affairs while minimizing its potential for insult and injury. Ethnocentrism, too, seems pretty universal. It is probably quite true that the Cheyenne Indians called themselves “human beings,” just like it says in Little Big Man. Many aboriginal groups, unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the existence of people unlike themselves, call themselves, in effect, “the people”—though not usually with the expectation that when other folk shout “All power to the people!” they will mean them. Indians, for some reason, are just as racist as anybody else.
If Willie Morris’s hopes are realized, decent people in the South will have begun working out such improved institutional arrangements, without prejudice, perhaps, to their prejudice. I surely hope he is right. I share his memories of having grown to—whatever it is Southerners do grow to—along the Yazoo line. My boyhood, like his, was punctuated by the sound of Yazoo and Mississippi Valley trains steaming majestically along. “Houphouet-Boigny!” they used to say: “houphouet boigny; houphouet boigny,” abandoning the capital letters as they receded into the distance. It never occurred to me that those engines were trying to tell me something about the future that, all in all, does have its comical side.
September 2, 1971