Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books,
Writers and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart
by John S. Sledge
University of South Carolina Press, 278 pp., $19.95
“Good books are all too rare; flawed ones, common; and terrible ones, ubiquitous.” —Sledge
“Difficulty is ordained to check poltroons. Things ordinary and easy are for the vulgar, ordinary people. But rare, heroic, divine men pass along this way with difficulty, that destiny may be constrained to yield the palm of immortality.” —Giordano Bruno
The words offered here are an homage to newspaper book reviewers, an almost vanished druidic tribe—and an attempt to parse the poltroons from the champions—the lowly, earnest few—those erstwhile Cassandras, yawping in the wilderness, who do not even exist for the majority of readers. Those, to borrow a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, who “carry the fire.” More specifically, it is about the Books Page of the Mobile Press Register here in Dixie (now defunct), one of the best such pages on any given Sunday in America (I say)—and its long-time editor, John Sledge.
While the book at hand, Southern Bound, came out in 2013, I review it here in hopes of reaching a wider audience, as I cannot imagine it as anything but a joy to bibliophiles of every stripe. And it is, indeed, a lachrymose lament on the death of serious newspaper book reviewing—which was always problematic in the best of times—as well as a paean on its passing.
I was prompted to finish my review of John Sledge’s book by a funny and typically fine article he wrote for the recent issue of Mobile Bay, a monthly journal of things here on the Gulf Coast. Sledge reminds us of Oscar Wilde’s 1882 visit to Mobile, Alabama’s port city—the “Azalea City” and once called the Paris of the Confederacy. Wilde hit it off here in Dixie, contrary to the expectations of some, so much so that Varina, Jefferson Davis’s wife, invited him to Beauvoir, their home in Biloxi. As Sledge notes: “Wilde gave the ex-president of the Confederacy an autographed picture of himself, which, incredibly, survived Hurricane Katrina and is still on display at Beauvoir.”
I smiled when I read Sledge’s quote, as it reminded me of a quip by Wilde I used when I did a piece for the Register on absinthe and writers, where Wilde remarked upon sampling the green-fairy’s elixir that its effect was “like having tulips on his legs”—whatever that means. That Sledge, the newspaper’s book editor of seventeen years, would “greenlight” such a piece for such an uber-conservative daily (at the time—it now comes out only three times a week) speaks to his capacious and liberal-minded approach to all things literary. No, belay that, what it’s really a testament to is his profound love of books.
As George Orwell noted in his 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel”: “For a long time yet the blurb-reviews are going to continue, and they are going to grow worse and worse; the only remedy is to contrive in some way that they shall be disregarded. But this can only happen if somewhere or other there is decent novel-reviewing which will act as a standard of comparison.”
True words, and there was, perhaps, never a Golden Age of book reviewing. Yet one might be forgiven if Orwell’s words strike one as quaint, as the modern book reviewer/critic (certainly not the blurb-meisters) blithers forth blind into the apocalypse—trees dead, murdered by the hack-writers and reviewers (poltroons) who cannot be obliterated, apparently, short of an atomic attack. (They, too—like cockroaches—I believe, will survive.)
Walter Edgar, native Mobilian and retired University of South Carolina historian, notes in his foreword to Southern Bound:
It is tragically ironic that this book will appear almost simultaneously with the end of John Sledge’s run as book-page editor for the Press Register—victim of the paper’s orientation to the Internet. It is a loss not just for the City of Mobile, but for all of us who believe that books, especially those about the American South, are an important part of who we are.
Clearly, what has happened is, indeed, Orwellian, in the manner of 1984, yet death and silence do not come from a Soviet gulag here (the obvious model for Orwell’s Big Brother); rather, it is eradication by suffocation under a tsunami of literary pabulum and word mush—and the on-rush of a technology which only seems to makes us dumber.
As for the freelancers who relied upon newspapers to give their critical words voice (certainly, it was never about the money), there is a different situation, as newspapers flame to earth like flying monkeys from Oz. (Well, factually, it they didn’t, they should have.)
We are the dead.
Also in the foreword, Walter Edgar evokes H.L. Mencken’s 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” (beaux-arts) wherein Mencken, in typical high hyperbole, lambasts the post-Civil War South for its cultural and intellectual aridity.
Down there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-point etcher or metaphysician. It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity . . . [and] for all its size and wealth . . . it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.
Anathematized by the old Southern writers and earning him shibboleths such as the “modern Attilla,” younger Dixie scribes took his words to heart. One need not credit Mencken with complete vatic clarity—after all, the Southern renaissance in letters had not occurred—to understand that his words at the time rang true. (In fairness, he later said, “the essay . . . dates badly, but I have let it stand as a sort of historical document.”) Also, there seems little doubt now that “Sahara” helped jumpstart the South’s literary awakening , as Mencken well himself understood: “. . . there is reason to believe that my attack had to do with the revival of Southern letters that followed in the middle 1920’s.”
Still, even at his most scathing, our beloved Baltimore curmudgeon would look for “violets” in the desert, literary blooms in the wasteland, the occasional worthy Southern writer. As Edgar puts it:
If H.L Mencken were to drop in on the world of 2013, he would caustically dismiss the cultural wasteland of most modern newspapers, but assuredly would recognize a camellia bush in full bloom in the Book Page of the Mobile Press Register.
I must interject here that Mencken’s vitriol continues to have traction even a century later, especially as it addresses the general cultural level in the South (as elsewhere in America). Americans do not read, the dumbing-down is stark and obvious as literacy levels continue to plummet into a veritable Marianas Trench. We are the stupid.
As to the situation in the New South—remember that Mencken railed against the lower orders, saying, “It is as if the Civil War stamped out every last bearer of the torch, and left only a mob of peasants on the field.”
Perhaps a bit draconian, yet with truth , it seems the Snopses have clearly triumphed, at least in part, and it’s only a short hike in the woods to find some genetic-recessive tribe who still drag knuckles and mouth breathe, and have children with hands for ears. Of course, I kid—reading Mencken can lead to bald exaggeration. (Yet, even the Bard of Baltimore, even at his most acid, seems dated and quaint now, at least to this modern reader. For some reason, when I read him, it evokes the image of a fat frog pondering a freshly found Ipad.)
The unlettered among us are an easy target.
More distressing, and more to the point, perhaps, are the number of citizens with advanced degrees, professional jobs, and so on, who never crack a book, or if they do, it’s the ubiquitous and terrible one, or perhaps worse, the typical one. And surely, the demise of newspaper book pages is not a Southern disaster, but a national one, as Americans, in the main, have never been great readers anyway. We’re about the business of business, a Babbittry of a people of action, and not much given to introspection. We are, in the main, deeply anti-intellectual, and the “egg-heads” among us are always suspect. In the South, particularly, the image of the antebellum sage, weary with leisure and exuding ennui, sipping his bourbon and effusing immortal thoughts—though such creatures may have almost existed—never represented the general reality. “Gone With the Wind” the Old South was not.
W.J. Cash’s essay, “Mind of the South,” from its 1929 publication in Mencken’s own journal, “American Mercury,” provides a corrective to the idea of a widespread literate gentry.
The very legend of the Old South, for example, is warp and woof of the Southern mind. The “plantation” which prevailed outside the tidewater and delta regions was actually no more than a farm; its owner was, properly, neither a planter nor an aristocrat, but a backwoods farmer; yet the pretension to aristocracy was universal. When the Southerner has read at all, he has read only Scott or Dumas or Dickens. His own books have been completely divorced from the real.
So, it comes as no surprise that the obliteration of a newspaper book reviews, devoted to readers and book aficionados, would garner much notice, even by the brass who run such enterprises—who, after all, don’t read either. Even with the flourishing of Southern literature, the rise of general basic literary, and all the rest since Cash wrote these words in the early 20th century, the search for Giordano Bruno’s “palm of immortality” clearly is not a demotic activity. The higher learning and the intellect, as Sven Birkerts notes in his The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), are as suspect as ever.
Verbal intelligence, which has long been viewed as suspect as the act of reading, will come to seem positively conspiratorial. The greater part of any articulate person’s energy will be deployed in dumbing-down her discourse.
This reviewer can personally attest to the perils of being polysyllabic south of the Mason-Dixon line. First, almost no one will ever understand what you’re saying, and second, it might be dangerous to your health. You might even be accused of being a Yankee, and this is gun country.
In such a parched landscape, Sledge’s book page was an unfailing and constant artesian treasure.
It’s true, the Register’s Book Page was, in a sense, elitist, but only as it privileged readers. It was never solely about the usual suspects with their high academic degrees and who are—too often, it seems—cloistered in their self-licking lollipop universes. Sledge’s book page was open to all.
If more hard-bitten editors might have criticized this approach as too academic or high falutin’, I soon delighted to discover that the Books Page readers ran the gamut from the stereotypically expected types—English professors, lawyers, doctors, suburban women, and librarians—to the unexpected—ditch diggers, security guards, cafeteria workers, dump-truck drivers, and stevedores. This diverse readership was conservative, liberal, and radical; black, white, Asian, and Native American; straight and gay; rich and poor. What they all had in common was a thoughtfulness and curiosity about the world and how books and literature can inform these things.
Southern Bound contains some one-hundred-plus essays by Sledge, from over eight hundred written from 1995-2012. The guidance given to Sledge upon taking over the Books Page was fairly broad, with the single caveat that it be about Mobile and the South, yet there was great leeway as the collected essays/reviews here show. They are organized thematically, which is a help to readers, but which could belie the Pages’ eclectic content on any given Sunday. Sample categories include “The South,” “The Civil War,”—predictably enough—as well as topics such as book banning, local writers, literary censorship and controversy, reviews of foreign works and classical literature, criticism and promotion of local Southern talent, and even poignant comments on other dying book pages—a bravura bouillabaisse of all things bookish—the whole gamut.
My favorite piece from Southern Bound is “A Father’s Reading List Holds Share of Treasures,” from the section “Elysium,” an homage and touching elegiac to his father, the late E.B. Sledge. Of singular note here, it must be mentioned, is the elder Sledge’s now famous military classic With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, a memoir of his experiences as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific during World War II. As Sledge the Younger notes in another piece, “Pacific Battleground Is More Than a Memory”:
My father died of stomach cancer in 2001. During the following decade his book achieved heights that he never could have imagined. In 2007 With the Old Breed was prominently featured in Ken Burns’ “The War” on PBS and in 2010 was a major source for the HBO miniseries “The Pacific.” During the miniseries the book went to number one on the New York Times Best Seller’s List, and was translated into over a dozen languages. The book remains in print and is still a strong seller.
“The Pacific” was produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielburg. Please treat yourself and watch these two fine specials. And one more thing:
Read the book. Read the book.
There will a test on Friday.
From “Sahara,” again (may as well wind up with Mencken):
But in the [Old] South there were men of delicate fancy, urbane, instinct and aristocratic manner-in brief, superior men—in brief, gentry. To politics, their chief diversion, they brought active and original mind. It was there, above all, that some attention was given to the art of living—that life got beyond and above the state of mere infliction and became an exhilarating experience . . . They like to toy with ideas.
If we privilege W. J.Cash, we might say that Mencken himself has fallen prey here to the myth of the Old Southern aristocracy, that moonlight-and-magnolia malady which romanticizes a fallen and refined antebellum aristocracy and culture, which was surely never ubiquitous; yet still, in part, perhaps flourished enough to provide an ideal, even if it were never truly and commonly reified in the quotidian moment.
It’s a good ideal, though, I think. And a noble one—and Mobile, Alabama does have enough magnolia and haunted memories to rightfully lay claim to such a legacy . It’s the spirit to be better and smarter than we are, and the torch in the darkness is the written word. It’s a spirit that inscribed itself every Sunday in the Mobile Press Register’s Books Page, all those years under the good shepherd Sledge, and Southern Bound resurrects, and makes available to a wide audience, what? A divine afflatus, I say—perhaps, even a glimpse of Bruno’s palm of immortality.
Thank you, Juanito.