Monday, March 30, 2009

Regionalism, Local Color, Kentucky Writing, Gurney Norman as Poet Laureate

Jeff Birkenstein, one of my students from years back who got his Ph.D. in lit from University of Kentucky, just sent me an email with the good news that Gurney Norman has been appointed Poet Laureate of Kentucky.

I have known Gurney’s work for years, but had never met him until last June when we both wound up as speakers at the International Short Story Conference in Cork. Gurney was there to talk about his experience as a student of Frank O’Connor when he was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, while I was there to talk about O’Connor’s theory of the short story in his wonderful little book The Lonely Voice

I was sicker than a dog with some terrible lung infection that made me cough so much that I had to turn down an invitation to sit at Edna O’Brien’s table at the conference banquet. Instead, I stayed in my room coughing so much I thought I would die. (This is the point where you are supposed to feel sorry for the old feller) So I was not very good company when Gurney and I had lunch together one day and talked about growing up in Eastern Kentucky.

Gurney grew up in Hazard, Ketucky, which is only about an hour’s drive up the river toward Virginia from my hometown of Paintsville. He got his journalism degree at University of Kentucky in 1959, just a year before I graduated from high school and went to Morehead State College for my undergraduate degree. Gurney was friends with Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, and other Kentucky writers while at U.K. Two of his professors there were Robert Hazel and Hollis Summers.

I met Robert Hazel in the summer of 1960 when I attended a Writer’s Workshop at Morehead, put together by Albert Stewart. Al got me a scholarship to the Workshop, where I got an award as “Most Promising Fiction Writer.” (This is the point when you are supposed to chuckle at the boy) Hot damn! Heavy stuff for a country boy right out of high school. Hollis Summers was one of my favorite teachers a few years later when I was a graduate student at Ohio University. He taught a seminar called “Stylistics” and taught me the value of placing just the right word in just the right place. (Forgive me, Hollis, if I do not always make you proud.) It surely is a small, small world in the tristate area of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio.

While I was at Ohio, Gurney was at Stanford, studying under O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, and Malcolm Cowley. After a stint in the army, Gurney was a newspaper reporter in Hazard, Ky., before going back to Palo Alto in 1967 to work with Stewart Brand on the Whole Earth Catalog. His best known novel, Divine Right’s Trip, was originally published in The Last Whole Earth Catalog and then later by Dial.

Gurney’s wonderful little collection of short stories, Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories was published in 1977. He then became a teacher in the University of Kentucky creative writing program, later becoming its Director. He is still a powerful force at UK and indeed all over the state.

When I heard about his appointment as Poet Laureate, I got out my copy of Kinfolks, which my brother, who lives in Kentucky, sent me several years ago. It’s still in print. I encourage you to order your own copy from Amazon. The central character, Wilgus, grows up in the mountains and does the best he can to manage the unpredictable behavior of his kinfolks: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and family friends. It is one of the most honest books about the folks of Appalachia that I have ever read. Gurney is a great defender of the integrity of Eastern Kentucky people. Like me, he will not tolerate anyone making fun of “hillbillies.”

While I am feeling homesick for the mountains, I will impose upon you some other recommendations about Kentucky writers. By far, the best single volume of short stories by Kentucky writers is Home and Beyond, edited by an old friend of mine, Morris Grubbs. Published by the University of Kentucky Press in 2001, it includes some of the very best stories by writers from my home state from the 1940s right up to the year 2000. In addition to the widely known Robert Penn Warren, Caroline Gordon, Jesse Stuart, Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, and Barbara Kingsolver, there are wonderful stories by James Still, Billy C. Clark, Hollis Summers, David Madden, Jim Wayne Miller, Richard Day, Guy Davenport, Chris Holbrook, and Chris Offutt. One of Gurney Norman’s best stories, “Maxine,” is also included. It’s still in print. As someone who is interested in good short fiction, you will find’s God’s plenty here.

James Still is the quintessential example of how the writing in this book is both regional and universal at once. For although he has the language of the people of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky "down to a T" and although he knows their customs intimately as an insider, readers who find such regional particularity the main merit of his fiction miss what makes him great. It is Still's ability, without the slightest hint of sentimentality, to magically transform fascinating difference into sympathetic sameness and thus make Nezzie Hargis in "The Nest" break our hearts trying to be "a little woman." There is no "local color" here, no "marginality," no "exoticism," no "social significance"--just pure narrative that is real and transcendent at once.

For those of you who do not know the work of James Still, please let me recommend him highly. James Still was 94 when he died in April, 2001 in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, where he had lived, mostly alone, for over sixty years in a small log cabin on a branch of Little Carr Creek in Knott County.

A writer's writer, never widely read, he was, however, respected and praised by such peers as Katherine Ann Porter, James Dickey, Cleanth Brooks, Marjorie Kinnman Rawlings, and many others. Gurney Norman, Kentucky writer and director of the University of Kentucky creative writing program, called Still the "most influential Kentucky writer of the last 50 years," the parent of all Kentucky writers who came after 1940.

Although Still is best known for his classic novel of the struggles of a coal-mining family in Eastern Kentucky, River of Earth (1940), and his short-story collection, On Troublesome Creek (1941), many critics believe that in his precise and lyrical use of language, he is primarily a poet. When his collection The Wolfpen Poems was published in 1986, James Dickey said the book established Still as the "truest and most remarkable poet that the mountain culture has produced."

Wade Hall, emeritus professor, and a leading authority on Kentucky literature, has said that no one had ever captured Southern Appalachian folk life better than Still. "He was basically a poet," said Hall, with an economy of words that lifted his prose to the level of poetry. This is a view shared by, among many others, Wendell Berry, one of Still's former students, who says Still gives his prose the economy, liveliness, and density of poetry.

Jim Still was one of my teachers at Morehead State back in the early sixties. He introduced me to Gogol, Chekhov, and Turgenev. I was fortunate enough to pay him a visit in 2001 in the Hospital in Hazard, just two days before he died. I wrote a tribute to him in Appalachian Heritage.

The critical issue I would like to raise with this blog posting concerns so-called “local color” or ”regionalism.” I quote below a brief excerpt from an interview I did with a very fine contemporary Kentucky writer a few years ago: Chris Offutt, who teaches in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

May: Flannery O'Connor once said: "The woods are full of regional writers, and it is the great fear of every serious Southern writer that he will become one of them." Do you feel that way?

Offutt: I have never had anybody call me a regional writer. Is Philip Roth a regional writer because he writes about New York? Is James Welch a regional writer because he writes about Montana? Is Flannery O'Connor a regional writer? Is William Faulkner? I think we are beyond those terms. Those were earlier distinctions, when the term "regional writer" essentially meant a second-class writer. By that I mean, writers who were unable in the sophistication of their work to get beyond their immediate surroundings. And there are many, many writers like that all over the country. I don't know what it is related to. It is not related to intelligence or ambition. Flannery O'Connor rarely left her state. Eudora Welty still lives in the house she grew up in. So it's not about leaving. Maybe it is about depth of the writing itself. When I write, I write to be remembered. I write for the masters of literature, not for the region.”

The stories in Chris Offutt's first book, the well-received 1992 Kentucky Straight, were so firmly situated in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky that, Faulkner-like, he included a map, with story locations labeled. In this, his second collection, he has moved most of his characters out of the mountains, mainly to the wide-open spaces of the West. However, the Eastern Kentucky hill country remains a central force in these stories, for no matter where Offutt's mountain men go, the hills haunt them.

His second collection, Out of the Woods is richly flavored with Appalachia, not by local color descriptions, sentimental nostalgia, corny dialect, or trendy marginalized social context, but by characters who think and sound genuine.

The collection's title story, about a thirty-year old man who has never been out of the county, is the best. To secure his position with his new wife and her family, Gerald agrees to drive an old pickup two days to pick up his wife's brother who has been shot and is in a hospital in Wahoo, Nebraska. While this may seem like a simple task, for a mountain man it is fraught with unease; the land in Indiana and Illinois is as flat as a playing card with no place to hide, and at night the sky seems to press down on Gerald in a threatening way. When he arrives to find his brother-in-law has died, Gerald meets the woman who shot him--marveling at her purple hair, the gold ring in her nose, and the fact that it all happened over a dispute over a blond wig.

Gerald makes some common-sense arrangements and a few man-to-man deals with the authorities and heads back to Kentucky with his brother-in-law's body in the back of the pickup, stopping once to mound a pile of rich Illinois topsoil for his garden on the body. This homey traveling grave becomes comically grotesque when Gerald stops at a gas station and a dog starts to dig in the dirt; the smell is so bad a man thinks Gerald is taking a dead hog to the renderers. In this carefully controlled account of a simple man's homey, heroic management of an extraordinarily ordinary situation, Gerald's final gesture is to tell a public lie--that Ory was accidentally shot--for the sake of his in-laws.

Chris Offutt is the first fiction writer since James Still to accurately capture the life of the people of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Like Still, he understands and respects his characters. He does not exploit them as trendy exotics, nor does he revel in local color quaintness. Offutt is not a modish socialist with a multicultural message about marginality, but a carefully controlled craftsman who knows how to use language to reflect the essential humanness of his characters. He is not a sociologist playing back a tape recording or illustrating abstractions, but an artist, transforming mere external reality into poetic meaning.

Here is another excerpt from my interview with Offutt:

May: It seems to me that some people who have no idea about the people who live in Appalachia still make judgments about what they call ignorant, red necked, hillbillies. I've been called redneck. Have you ever been called redneck?

Offutt: Oh, yeah, and I don't like it. I feel sometimes like I am a one-man political action group trying to let people know that words like "hillbilly" and "redneck" are very painful. They are on par with any other racial epithet. A lot of people don't understand that. "Redneck" is exclusive to rural, white, poor people, usually men, and a tremendous amount of stereotyped behavior goes along with it. It is always a negative term. There is no equivalent term for rural poor people, for example, in Connecticut. It is almost always Southern. A lot of big city newspapers in the North will use terms like "redneck" and "hillbilly," whereas they would never use hurtful equivalent terms for various racial groups or religious groups.

May: I agree completely; I just wanted you to say it for the record.

Offutt: It pisses me off. I never allow it to happen. Somebody recently gave me a tape of country western music on which they had written in pen, "screaming hillbillies." I tried to explain that a person like me does not think "hillbilly" is a very nice word.

May: White rural Appalachians are perhaps one of the last cultural minority groups in American that it is still quite acceptable to make fun of.

Offutt: That's right, and it's just too bad.

One of the most basic problems about stories largely centered on place is the danger of the dreaded label of "local color" or "regionalism." In a little book called Kentucky Story that my old teacher Al Stewart gave me forty years ago, the editor James McConkey felt he had to remind readers that it was the "manner" of the writing, not merely the "matter" that was important, insisting that the regional details in the stories were used in such a way "that a greater understanding in gained of the universal human spirit." Hollis Summers, in his introduction to Kentucky Stories, published at about the same time (1954), also noted that what was at stake was the artist's "what" and "how," not the sociologist's "why" and "where." To my mind stories should be read, as Hollis Summers said of the fictions in Kentucky Story, not as regional artifacts, but as "stories, succeeding or failing on their own merits."

What do you think? Every writer has to situate his or her work in some particular place? What is it about being specific about “place” that might place a writer in the category of “regionalist”? What are your thoughts about “local color?” How does a writer transcend such labels? Or should one try to transcend such labels? I appreciate your feedback.

1 comment:

Rolf said...

Back up again trying to catch up on the wonderful stuff written in this blog.

Regionalism: This is a struggle for me. I'm working through Flannery O'Connor's stories, those in A Good Man is Hard to Find. I find I’m thinking about regionalism because I’m trying to answer the question for myself about the limits and lens of place. With O’Connor, clearly, these stories would not be the stories they are without that evocation of place. How could you have the Misfit say these exact words, “"It's no real pleasure in life" without the dark hollow of that countryside around him? How could The River take Bevel so easily without the preacher, his namesake, to call him down? But can one tell such dark and powerful stories without the existence of a dark and powerful place? Or, better yet, for me, how does one construct such a dark and powerful place?

No one would argue that such a construction was clearly within O’Connor’s tool kit, and no one would argue that it defines her and her writing. And it’s more than just physical place, but perspective as well. Dark, as noted, but also Catholic and if not pitiless then remorseless.

I'm thinking "It's no real pleasure in life," does not belong in a story about Southern California, unless ironically sprung by a literate and self-aware madman. ON the other hand, maybe it will work in the right hands.

I’m resisting the ownership of place in my work. Probably a mistake. I want the object of the story to define the place. And perhaps because we are more worldly a crew than the writers of the middle last-century, we who write today might be able to get away with it.

But I’m not sure the literate, reading public will allow it. How does one define a writer? They are southern writers, minimalists, Cheeverish suburbanites, London’s calls into the wild; it seems writers have a tag defining their place, not just physically but emotionally as well. Updike’s land of moneyed frustration, Munro’s woman in search; we read them to expect the same place.

My work is not doing that. Not sure I can focus quite in that way. All I can get sometimes is the reaching into the same place of the heart. Maybe that will do.

Rolf Yngve