A Whiff of Magnolia
BY NICHOLAS LKMANN
A TURN IN THE SOUTH by V. S. Naipaul.
Alfred A. Knopf, $18.95.
IN ITS FIRST chapter V. S. Naipaul refers to A Turn in the South as “my last travel book.”He refers now and then to the physical toll exacted lay the months he spent on the road (his asthma acted up in the South). Also, he realizes that the genre—“travel on a theme,”he calls it—is becoming difficult to bring off, especially in the United States. “The place is not and cannot be alien in the simple way an African country is alien,” he writes. “It is too well known, too photographed, too written about; and, being more organized and less informal, it is not so open to casual inspection.” The rhythms of travel writing are so natural for a writer—impressive research can be conducted in a manageably brief time; the narrative structure is automatic— that the impulse to write travel books lives on long after their original purpose has disappeared.
The great age of travel writing, the middle and late nineteenth century, closely followed the roughly coincidental births of the middle class, the railroad, and the modern book-publishing industry; travel books were invented to tell readers about places they could plausibly dream of visiting themselves, though it might be a great project for them to do so.
In the late twentieth century many of the best travel writers have tried to keep the genre alive by concentrating on the Third World, which is still relatively inaccessible to the tourist, or have used exotic, pre-modern modes of travel, in the manner of Paul Theroux in his trains and Jonathan Raban in his boats. Naipaul’s idea here is that even on more familiar ground, a progressive unfolding of the writer’s ideas about the place can allow the travel-writing form to triumph over the deglamorizing effects of interstate highways and chain hotels. But he is Quite stern in setting forth what a difficult task this is.
At the beginning your interests can be broad and scattered. But then they must be more focused; the different stages of a journey cannot simply be versions of one another. And, more than the other kind of travel, this traveling on a theme depended on luck. It depended on the people you met, the little illuminations you had.
He might have added that his inexperience with this book’s territory increased the challenge. Naipaul refers to his first travel book, The Middle Passage (1962), which is about his native Caribbean, as a kind of companion volume to A Turn in the South. The technique of the two books is quite different, though, because in The Middle Passage it’s clear that the main points were all in Naipaul’s mind before the trip; as he traveled, he was looking for confirmations of his judgments and for ways to illustrate what he already knew he was going to say. In the chapter on Trinidad, where he grew up, there is not a single interview, and Naipaul does not hesitate to fire off extreme-sounding pro-
nouncements (“I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical”). In the South he is groping toward understanding, and his narrative consists largely of a succession of accounts of his talks with the wise souls he found to guide him.
In the face of all these difficulties Naipaul performs extremely well, especially in the early going. For about the first half of the book his main subject is race (in particular, race in a former slave state), which his personal history gives him some grounding in. Naipaul manages to discuss race relations without communicating any sense that he feels himself to be a member of either race. No American writer could achieve this kind of evenhandedness, and it gives Naipaul’s perceptions an almost built-in originality.
His writing is clean and beautiful, and he has a great eye for nuance. He lacks the traditional reporter’s skills: he can’t get an interview with Andrew Young; his choice of locations and sources is fairly predictable; and he is sometimes vague on names. But he extracts what seems to be the maximum possible insight from every encounter. In The Middle Passage. Naipaul made good literary use of his youth—he was headstrong and physically adventurous. Here he uses his middle age. Many years of intense travel and reading have given him the ability to put everything in a larger context, so that you’re always aware of the historical and economic forces that have conspired to make each place he visits the way it is. He can sense which moments in a conversation with a stranger contain true self-revelation, and he knows it and backs off when someone is feeding him a line. Again and again he will wander into a situation rich in cliché-generating potential and come out of it with a nugget of true perception.
His trip to Atlanta coincides with the Forsyth County anti-Klan march of 1987, an occasion that was designed to convince out-of-town reporters that the civil-rights movement was starting up again. Naipaul goes to Forsyth County, understands that its racial history is “unbearable in every detail,” but also sees that the march “was like a ritual conflict, played out before the cameras, and according to certain rules,” in the service of “the good, safe cause.” He interviews several members of the muchpublicized new generation of black city politicians in Atlanta, to whom the word power is almost always attached; without at all minimizing how much progress there has been, he sees that the truth about power in Atlanta is that “city politics gave position without strength.”
He is very good on the complexities of black and white attitudes. He grants whites that an important shift took place, over the past generation, when they fully accepted the end of a formal caste system, but he constantly emphasizes that the black and white social and economic worlds arc still almost entirely separate, perhaps even more so than they were before the civil-rights movement.
The white patricians among the people he talks to take pride in the warmth that they imagine interracial master-servant relations had in the old days, but his black subjects regard these elaborately restricted friendships as part of the game they had to play with white people, not anything to feel nostalgic about. Naipaul perceives the hollowness at the core of the traditional white romanticism about the plantation South— rhe way that nobility is imputed to antebellum society by insisting on the uniqueness to the South of what are really the most ordinary of virtues (good manners, love of family) and fuzzing up the fact that the society was based on slavery. Naipaul has also picked up on other keys to the self-concept of southerners who consider themselves “people of quality”: the idea that every family was once wealthy, and an obsession with the ancestral plot of land (including, especially, the burial plot). These shadings may sound obvious when baldly stated, but it is quite rare for first-time visitors to the South (or southerners, for
that matter) to understand them as well as Naipaul does.
Naipaul portrays the black South as being caught up in a post-civil-rights agony, deprived of its old cohesiveness and its old cause. He records, with a tone of distinct disapproval, the impulse of some of the blacks he visited to externalize all black problems. He summarizes his talk with Marvin Arrington, the president of the Atlanta City Council: “Black people needed opportunity; opportunity could be provided only by the system. So that he seemed still to be laying responsibility on others.” Naipaul is a self-help man. He likes being told that blacks have to take responsibility for their own problems. Hosea Williams, the oft-jailed former aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., is compared to Gandhi for advocating “the switching of reforming attention from public issues to private, from the external foe to the internal.”
This line of thinking leads Naipaul to an extravagant, and interestingly argued, admiration for Booker T. Washington, who these days is usually a second-rank figure in the pantheon of black heroes. Naipaul shares Washington’s primness (he considers it worthy of mention when his black interviewees are late for appointments or do not maintain their homes neatly enough for his taste) and agrees with Washington’s diagnosis of the main black problem as the need to overcome the aftereffects of slavery. Taking a position that is now extremely unpopular among American race-relations experts, Naipaul says that “the irrationality of slavery and the years after slavery had made many irrational and self-destructive.” He praises Washington for having defined his task as “the inculcation of self-respect in a subject people through the idea of work and service.” He treats Washington as a more important writer than his archrival, W.E.B. DuBois, who is usually regarded as canonical by the academic establishment.
Naipaul’s view of the black South seems to derive from his view of Trinidad: there slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the island and its people became economically superfluous, and a society that Naipaul considers corrupt and second-rate came into being. In the South a slavery-like system existed until well after the Second World War, and the United States is “a place of greater potential” than Trinidad—so, Naipaul believes, there’s still time for blacks to avoid a Trinidad-like fate.
IN MY LIFETIME civil rights has certainly been the most important change in the South, but not the only important change. After civil rights (and resulting in part from civil rights) comes what might be called the denaturing of the South. When I was growing up in New Orleans, during the fifties and sixties, it was still possible to understand the South in Faulknerian, or at least Margaret Mitchellian, terms: as a place defined by agrarianism, military defeat, and the original sin of slavery. Perhaps the civil-rights movement and the centennial of the Civil War intensified the old southern preoccupations beyond what they would otherwise have been, but you still did hear occasional talk about the Lost Cause.
Since then the white South has become, compared with its hookworm-ridden past, fat and happy. When white people talk about “the southern way of life,” it actually isn’t any longer a code phrase for white supremacy; it connotes the “totally planned community “ around a golf course, cheese grits and honeybaked ham at the pre-game brunch, a five-year subscription to Southern Living. The South used to produce florid politicians who wore galluses, but now it supplies Washington with men with sculpted hair and aviator glasses, a change symbolized by Trent Lott’s holding Theodore Bilbo’s old seat in the Senate. The South no longer pretends to have a distinct set of values; what it believes in now is a slightly relaxed and more tradition-bound version of the basic American commercial creed. Even that most obviously strange of new southern institutions, right-wing video evangelism, in large measure serves the function (as Frances FitzGerald suggests in Cities on a Hill) of a settlement house for rural poor whites trying to make sense of their new lives as suburbanites.
It’s this South, the Sunbelt South, that Naipaul can’t quite come to terms with. He visits a few of its obvious venues—Research Triangle Park, in North Carolina, the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Atlanta, the Nissan plant outside Nashville— but his descriptions of them are flat and dutiful. His own life has not equipped him well to understand a business culture. As he admits, with his usual admirable honesty, in describing his tour of the Nissan plant, “1 had had . . . almost no experience of the twentiethcenturv world of work; and had few means of understanding the adjustments people made.” Also, the idea of the
South that he has been constructing doesn’t have room for these places. At the Research Triangle, he notes, “the South seemingly abolished here.”
The pre-modern South is not only more intellectually accessible to Naipaul; it is also much better as literary material. Thus the second half of the book in effect presents the baseline South, the society that existed between Reconstruction and the Second World War. All Naipaul’s energy goes into describing characters with deep ties to the land, and everything from country music to Jesse Helms is understood as an expression of agrarianism. A Turn in the South ends with an elegantly modulated series of images built around the mechanization of tobacco farming in North Carolina—but that happened two generations ago, and as a final image it works as a glimpse of the long-ago past, not as a portent of the future.
Probably the most substantial rising class in the South over the past two generations has been the white lower-middle class, much of which has become middle-middle or upper-middle. The realtor or savings-and-loan vice president or regional sales executive whose parents were farmers or schoolteachers is a familiar figure—maybe even a dominant figure—in the South today. He is, ironically and usually unknowingly, a beneficiary of the end of segregation, which made the South safe for corporate headquarters. Naipaul misses this type almost entirely, in part because he is working from the old notion of a tripartite (patrician whites, poor whites, blacks) class system in the South. After some visible struggling he settles on the idea of the poor-white class as “rednecks”: frontiersmen transposed into the present, “people with a certain past, living out a certain code, a threatened species.” They have a distinctive tolk culture (“the wonderful baseball hats”), an almost Islamic devotion to religious fundamentalism, anti a politics based on suspicion of outsiders.
Naipaul has no actual contact with rednecks, except when he observes them at places like the Elvis Presley shrine, in Memphis. His great source on them is a man he calls Campbell, a businessman in Jackson, Mississippi. Campbell gives Naipaul the kind of disquisition on rednecks, filled with specific details (“they’re gonna go to Shoney’s to eat once every three weeks”), that is a part of the standard verbal equipment of every well-off white conservative male southerner. I suspect that the pretensions to expertise on rednecks that southerners like Campbell display are a further sign of what the writer John Egerton has called “the Americanization of Dixie”: the successful man nowadays presents himself as having risen from the people, rather than as being a lord of the manor. Campbell says, “I’m probably a redneck myself.” Naipaul’s response, one of the very few false notes in this book, is, “And when he said that, Campbell won me over.” Naipaul is exquisitely aware of the vicissitudes of black society and would never let a middle-class black get away with saying, “I’m probably in the underclass myself.”In tolerating Campbell’s line of baloney he shows how badly he needs this description of rednecks to be true.
Most rednecks who still have red necks got them working on construction sites owned by men like Campbell, not by walking a row behind a mule. Most southern patricians have become invisible— maybe they’re all busy working over their genealogical tables and nursing their bourbon-and-waters. The South has finally thrown up the sort of success stories with a drawl that it has been trying to produce for a century, people like Ted Turner and Cybill Shepherd, who give off no air of defeat or provincialism. All these developments lurk very much in the shadow of Naipaul’s account, and that’s why he gets rednecks a little wrong: for him, the real South is simply the Old South. □