“Heads On Fire: Essays on Southern Fiction,” edited by Jan Nordby Gretlund


Jan Nordby Gretlund

Jan Nordby Gretlund

Reviewed by William Walsh

There is a reason I do not own a Kindle, a Fire HDX, an iPad Air, an HP Omni, or any of the many e-book readers, and it’s not because I’m against modern technology or I’m some hermit-like curmudgeon living in a 1950s cave who thinks the old way of doing things is the only way. Technology is awesome. I love nothing more than the fanciest hi-tech gadgets, just like the next techno-nerd. No, the reason I do not own an e-reader is because I love the touch and feel of a good book in my hands, writing in the margins in pencil, dog-earring a page as a reminder of where I left off, or double-dog-earring a page for easy access to a resonating quote. I love the feel of a good book, such as Heads on Fire, that I can hold, smell the pages, feel the texture of the thick stock paper, fan the pages, view in full spectrum the beautiful cover art. Heads on Fire is a beautiful book—a made thing containing many secrets to be discovered, beginning with the cover, a self-portrait by Madison Jones’s wife, Shailah. That’s just ground-zero for a launching point into Gretlund’s take on modern southern fiction.

Southern literature has a seemingly unlimited lake in which a critic can cast his fishing line, and so it is that Gretlund once again casts his hook into the murky depths of the southern mind with twelve enlightening essays on subjects not all that familiar to the average person or scholar. In his preface, when discussing the idea of whom the book is aimed at, Nordby states, “I am thinking of the lay reader, the guy lost before the screen, or behind the sports page, and general readers both within and outside the academy.” This recognition of the average reader, what I like to call the educated generalist, is precisely what makes this collection of essays valuable, and I believe it will be valuable not only to the average Joe, but the academic as well. It’s accessible on many levels.

Unlike Jonathan Gruber, who believes the American people are down-right stupid, I do not. I do not favor, and never have, the Northeastern elitist point of view that anyone not in their educated circle of friends does not have the capacity to comprehend how brilliant the elitists truly are or why we should bow to their overwhelming cranial faculty. In fact, I believe most people are very intelligent, as well as talented in their own way. Most people, but not all (I understand this) have a deep desire to learn, to expand their knowledge base, to be taught about technology, history, gourmet cooking, and a plethora of other subjects, including southern writers. With a voice that is not overbearing or condescending, Gretlund has presented twelve essays that speak to the reader more like a PBS history lesson than a scholarly dissertation. Where many books on literary matters are an insomniac’s best friend, these essays are downright interesting and accessible to the layperson and the scholar. Anyone with the desire to learn about a particular aspect of southern writing need look no farther than this collection.

How do you write about southern literature without a salvo of material on William Faulkner? And yet, Gretlund manages to do so, only touching on Faulkner as support for the other writers he writes about. I think we can pretty much agree that for the average person, Faulkner can be as difficult to understand as Chinese algebra. What Gretlund does in Heads on Fire is present essays on a few of the old guard but heavily weights the book toward the more modern writer. The old guard in this collection includes the more popular writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Eudora Welty, while the prominent modern southern writer includes the well-deserved Pam Durban, Clyde Edgerton, and Cormac McCarthy. And, of course, Gretlund cannot write about southern fiction without discussing one of the finest writers to come out of Nashville and the Agrarian movement, Madison Jones.

Nordby states in his introduction several of his purposes for the collection of essays, which is summed up precisely when he addresses Mark Twain:

I have made it my purpose to find the answers to a few questions: why was Twian’s ‘Little Dixie’ background an unspoken fact for so many years? And exactly when did Twain become a southern author; and why?

The question for all of these writers is when did they become a southern author and why? Some were born into it as a birth right. Others slowly evolved. Gretlund masterfully guides the reader along a historical sojourn for these fascinating answers. He also laments, and rightfully so, the fact that most of Madison Jones’s novels are out of print: “Madison Jones created a moral world and raised existential issues that transcend his time and place.” My wager is that if you ask the average literary academic they will not know Madison Jones, yet he is on par with Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, and any American novelist beginning with James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

The collection begins with “Fraught With Fiction,” which, like all of the essays, is a literary history lesson, as I have mentioned, but Gretlund refers to the fortune of the southern writer because he or she has “not become homogenized mainstreamers nor have they been immune to the great changes in their region.” One of the most important textural facets of the southern writer, Gretlund asserts, is the need for a “sense of place and of the past.   Fortunately, our southern writers can help [as] they bring common sense and new insight to old traditions.” Anyone who knows their Greek plays understands that there has been nothing new under the sun since Euripides and his buddies penned a few tragedies. With the exception of, perhaps, Man verses Machine, the old guard of Man v. Man, Man v. Himself, and Man v. Nature, there is little that is new. But the southern writer has a defeated and occupied history, and a voice, and stories handed down from generation to generation where he/she “has to look for the landscape behind a repetitive labyrinth of highways, motels, restaurants that do not serve grits, burger-places, gas stations, and shopping malls.” The modern southern writer, when successful, transcends that television-like cultural labyrinth, fighting through the past that includes the defeat of war and an occupation by a foreign enemy, and as Gretlund points out, “southern writers to this day were born with a past and in a present of prejudice and racism,” and now they can “write of other issues without reflecting the racist burden of the past.” Gretlund asks this in the form of a question and then proceeds to project his qualified and profound answers.

With the demonstrative and often stereotypical view the world, and especially the view the northern elite has in regard to the South and its culture, I find it impressive, as I have for years, that Jan Nordby Gretlund, who hails from Denmark, has such as knowledge of southern history, as well as of the United States as a whole. The year to remember in southern letters is 1835, a significant year indeed as Gretlund points out because it was the “defining moment” when “there was a first flowering of southern writing.” During this period there were wonderful achievements in the arts and letters but not long afterwards the Panic of 1837 when a depression struck the cotton plantations, as well as President Jackson declaring that “all payments for public land be in gold or sliver [which] meant that only plantations with large-scale economics, based on slave labor, could survive.” This is the beginning of the southern writer’s individual history, which for nearly two hundred years has bubbled up out of the ground in some form, and will continue to do so. If you want to understand the modern southern writer, first understand his or her history, and Heads of Fire is a good beginning for that.

Why is Edgar Allan Poe a southern writer when he wrote almost nothing about the south? Did you know that Mark Twain once met Winston Churchill? Churchill recalled the encounter: “He was now very old and snowwhite, and combined with a noble air a most delightful style of conversation.” Most people don’t know that Twain was rarely considered a southern writer, and was “a persona non grata in classrooms and anthologies for about fifty years after his death.” He really did not find his status as a southern writer until the 1960s. What about Eudora Welty, about whom Gretlund states, “everything she ever. . . wrote compared her doings with those of her mother.” It is here that Gretlund proceeds into the development of the writer as Welty “defined herself in relation to her mother,” a mother who saw “no humor in most things.” With Madison Jones, he is and will likely be for the foreseeable future a great novelist “transfixed in the shadows of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.” It’s like Al Oliver (you ask, who?) playing second fiddle behind Hall of Famers Roberto Clementé and Willie Stargell in Pittsburgh during the 1970s—sure he batted over .300 in twelve seasons (nine in a row) and ended his career with .303 batting average, but few are going to know or remember who he was. I hope this is not true, but unfortunately, Madison Jones may suffer the same fate, playing second fiddle to Faulkner and O’Connor, as well, perhaps Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Those three cast large shadows.

Jones and O’Connor were friends, and I remember years ago when Jones told me how O’Connor had given to him some peafowl, which he kept on his farm for years, until he vacationed one summer. He hired a neighbor kid to watch and keep the birds while he was gone, but upon his arrival home, all the peafowl had died. That image of loss seems to permeate Jones’s fiction and the loss of one’s culture, especially the land. As Gretlund notes, “Losing an acre of land is for a farmer like losing an acre of family identity; and selling a piece of land is like selling a piece of one’s self.” This, to me, is the essence of Jones’s fiction, the loss of the land and the loss of family, especially in his novels A Buried Land (1963) and A Cry of Absence (1971), arguably Jones’s masterpiece. If Jones can break clear of his destined obscurity, he may shine above all others as one of the country’s finest novelist, say like Herman Melville, whose books were all out of print by 1876, fifteen years before he died in 1891. It wasn’t until nearly thirty years after his death that Melville was resurrected. Perhaps, in time, Jones, posthumously, will find a permanent and lofty home in the canon of American literature. Gretlund’s essay, as well as his previous books on Jones, make the argument for Jones’s reputation. Jones is much like his literary themes, “concerned with the values that are native to an agrarian way of living, values residing in a family structure and togetherness, now largely of the past.”

It is Pan Durban who addresses race with humor, Gretlund points out, but even so, she “shows us that we can try to escape the racist within ourselves, but he will still be there.” With the tension of Ferguson, Missouri, and the strangulation death of Eric Garner by the New York City police, Durban’s themes immediately take on a more profound nuance, especially as “she satirizes a social order based on race. The main theme, relevant in any age, is what a blind allegiance to the accepted order can do to us.”

If you have read Clyde Edgerton, you’ll notice he can be summed up in his quote from Gretlund’s “Grandmas and Mummies”:

My parents’ experience had been exactly that of their grandparents, in many ways. The physical environment and social norms, cultural and religious norms, were what had happened to their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. —What happened to me? It turned out I went away to college, to Chapel Hill, and the resulting gap is in many ways what is interesting to me.

Like the cultural division of O’Connor’s grandmother and her family in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and like Julian and his mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” there is a cultural divide between Edgerton’s characters, and as Edgerton said, it was a gap in his life that occurred once he attended college. He addresses this issue in many of his novels. Gretlund ponders the idea of how we cast away the elderly by our more youthful society: “What does the young generation. . . care about the old and the dying, and/or their grandparents, if they only get to know them as somebody locked up in a nursing institution?” Gretlund concludes, sadly for the elderly, that “only people who die early enough are likely to escape the losses and reduction of old age.”

Toward the end of the collection, Gretlund gives the reader a sampling of the current crop of Southern writers, a glimpse into the future: Larry Brown, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, Dori Sanders, Josephine Humphreys, Kaye Gibbons, George Singleton, and others who together demonstrate that “today’s southern writers are not homogenized mainstreamers and are certainly not immune to the great changes in their region.” Today’s southern writers embrace mutability and run with it, but taking along with them the past, a burdened past with “prejudice and racism.” And it is the southern writer, Gretlund claims, who has accepted and readied a “use of the ethnic reality of the South, which is a reality of obvious, and sometimes less obvious, prejudice.” Gretlund makes it very clear that the southern writer has never shied away from past injustices, has never ignored racism or “suburbanized” it “away in new southern fiction.” The southern writer has made racism and prejudice his most profitable topic.

Gretlund ends the collection with two essays on Cormac McCarthy, making many fine comparative points between McCarthy and Katherine Anne Porter. His final essay, “The End,” is my favorite in the collection because it holds under the literary umbrella what I have always felt about McCarthy, and that is his complete understanding of evil, and specifically, the understanding of O’Connor’s Misfit in the form of evil incarnate, which is a perception of evil not very well understood by most novelists. A person would be hard-pressed to name another character more representational of the Misfit than Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men—emotionless, often deadly logical in his illogic, and quite simply a psychopathic murderer. The only thing Chigurh didn’t do is say each time he killed a person how they might have been a better person if there “had been somebody there to shoot [them] every minute of [their] life,” as O’Connor’s Misfit did in her short story. Over the course of time, Gretlund came to believe that McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, is “an impressive treatment of what is a main theme in American literature from James Fenimore Cooper until today, i.e. man’s inhumanity to man.” Gretlund goes on to further praise McCarthy when he states that “McCarthy is most successful” when “the reader is convinced that he witnessed IT, or at least its aftermath.” This is most certainly true of McCarthy, and probably to a lesser degree of the other fiction writers Gretlund so graciously discusses. The reader is allowed to view in real time, as well as in an historical pilgrimage, southern literature, in a quick shot from 1835 to the present. It’s compact, just right for the average Joe with a short attention span; however, once you delve into this collection of essays, you can sit back and relax, and take your time enjoying Gretlund’s thoughts as an educated generalist would. This collection of essays can best be described as a literary journey, like a Ken Burns’s documentaries, with all the nuances of intimate personal details about the writers, how they think, why they write as they do, what influenced them, and what it means to be a modern southern writer.

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