Thursday, September 9, 2010

"The Warmth of Other Suns," and reviving a literary reputation at the Wren's Nest

The New York Times carries a glowing review of Isabel Wilkerson's new book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great Sunbelt migration of blacks from, and back to, the South -- and her own journey from Chicago to Atlanta in 2001. The book took ten years to write and a committed editor through two publishers (which even the Times admits is a "glacial" pace in publishing).

David Oshinsky of The Times writes the resulting 622-page book is "a narrative epic rigorous enough to impress all but the crankiest of scholars, yet so immensely readable as to land the author a future place on Oprah’s couch."

Wilkerson's approach to the story of the move back South of so many black families is inspired less by Studs Terkel than Steinbeck; The Grapes of Wrath figures as a writing model, focusing on the stories of three main characters around which larger ideas are woven. In a nod to the book's cinematic scope Wilkinson also name-checks the director Robert Altman as a reference point of interwoven characters and their stories.

Isabel Wilkerson (New York Times photo by Erik S. Lesser)

From today's Times article: "For a while during her research she would read a book a day. She went through a phase where she read about nothing but lynching and as a result, she said, was not very popular at dinner parties. She also became obsessed with the restrictions of the Jim Crow South, imagining the indignities her ancestors suffered. “There is no reference in the book to water fountains or restaurants,” she said. “None. It wasn’t necessary. It was important for me to talk about things you had never heard of.” The book describes instead the Birmingham law that prohibited blacks and whites from playing checkers together and the North Carolina courthouse where there were separate Bibles for blacks and whites to swear on."

Restoring more than a home at the Wren's Nest

Illustrating the complexity of the South's continuing literary traditions, over at the Wren's Nest blog there's a spirited, multi-part defense of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories by his great-great-great grandson, Lain Shakespeare.

Like many literary characters whose fame and popularity have slid into shadow over time and dispute, Uncle Remus remains a perplexing literary figure more unread and undiscussed than understood these days. Spike Lee's assessment of the fictional Remus as "the super-duper magical Negro" certainly makes Harris's creation the equivalent of Uncle Tom (which was based on the real-life Josiah Henson of Underground Railroad history) in Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist milestone Uncle Tom's Cabin. Here's Mr. Shakespeare's view, expressed in a series called Everything you know about Uncle Remus is wrong:

" ... scholars have branded Joel Chandler Harris as a 'nostalgic plantation romancer' who just so happened to pen nearly 200 folktales, the majority of them from a subversive African-American oral tradition. Explanations of this ideological chasm range from 'irony seems lost on Harris' to 'Harris probably did not understand this part of the story.'

While scholars have widely divergent opinions of Harris, it seems like his reputation as a 'plantation romancer' has been spun from one sentence fragment in the first Uncle Remus book’s introduction: '…a sympathetic supplement to Mrs. Stowe’s wonderful defense of slavery as it existed in the South.' For most contemporary readers, this has been enough to condemn Harris and his work."

Rehabilitating the reputation of the Uncle Remus stories for the 21st century is a tall order, resting more on matters of cultural anthropology than entertainment value. A white newspaperman from Atlanta writing black Civil War-era fables would be difficult to countenance today, but authenticity as a test of intrinsic value is a modern concept unknown in the 1890s.

It could be argued that, much like Harris's contemporary Mark Twain displayed in Huckleberry Finn, the Remus stories are best understood as fables for adults dressed in childhood innocence. Both stories are a knowing nod to difficult and thorny ideas. Whether or not, as Alice Walker claims, Harris "knew what he was doing" when he created "a creature to tell these stories," her opinion indicates a general idea Mr. Harris has a long road ahead of him toward a renewed literary acceptance, and Mr. Shakespeare his own difficult path ahead in reviving his great-great-great-grandfather's contemporary reputation.

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