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Cathedrals of Kudzu:
A Personal Landscape
of the South

Hal Crowther
Louisiana State University Press
192 pp.



The Wag Chats with
Hal Crowther

Essayist Hal Crowther laments the writer's difficulties in the age of political correctness and tells us why he thinks the South offers writers such rich material.

Kudzu was imported into the South and pretty much took over--and now the title of your latest essay collection, Cathedrals of Kudzu, celebrates it. I happened to notice that, over the years, you've occasionally lived outside the South yourself. Is there any similarity between yourself and the kudzu of which you write?

Actually, I'm kind of a mixed breed. My father's family was from Greensboro, North Carolina, and my mother's family was from Boston. So I really am a hybrid. But I think having the Other in your experience—being sort of a half outsider—gives you a better vantage point to understand certain things.

I grew up on naval bases mostly in the South and then went away and came back again when I was in my thirties. I've lived in the South about three-quarters of my life, and I believe I remember kudzu from my childhood. It's been here longer than I have.

The image that's in the book actually came from a very specific thing that happened to me one morning up in Kentucky. I'd been up pretty late the night before, and when I woke up and looked out the window, here were these enormous buttresses and spires. It looked like the Cathedral of Notre Dame covered with leaves. And I thought, Good God—who knows what's under there. It was just an image I couldn't get away from.

WAG: Is the South a rich source of material for you?

Crowther: It really is. There were some things I had ideas about that were misconceptions and memories that weren't quite accurate memories. But of course, I married a Southern writer and came to live in the midst of a whole group of Southern writers in North Carolina, so I've been educated by the experts over a period of time.

It turns out to be a more and more fascinating thing. The South is the only place in the United States where people think of themselves in a constantly, distinctly regional way. Of course, there's been a lot of theories about that—whether it was the fault of the Civil War or the Industrial Revolution, and so forth. But it's so true: the more you lay that over the way people behave down here, the more it fits.

WAG: How does the South affect a writer's storytelling voice?

Crowther: The narrative voice is something most Southerners grow up with. Maybe it's just the length of time they spent in the hot weather, not moving too much, long before television and air conditioning, trying to amuse themselves out there with their fans and so on. I'm not sure how it came about—porches, I think.

You think of the porch as associated with the South. You can go through communities in other parts of the country sometimes for hours without seeing anyone sitting on a porch.

WAG: You were an editor at Time and wrote screenplays, but now you concentrate primarily on the personal essay. Could you tell us a little bit about that evolution?

Crowther: I think everyone's medium evolves over the years, if you're lucky enough to move towards what you like best. I was a reporter and a section editor for both Time and Newsweek for a number of years, and the problem there was a limited scope for my opinion. And I am very opinionated. I think I might have been a preacher if I was something other than a journalist.

For years, it frustrated me. I remember when I covered the Angela Davis case for Time: everything I said about Ronald Reagan had to be rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. I was slipping in what I thought were incredible digs at this man, and every one of them was rooted out and thrown away by the editors.

Over the years, the pressure kind of built up, and when I came back to North Carolina and started a paper with a partner in Raleigh, all of a sudden I was a columnist who had no one to second-guess him. I became first a very outspoken columnist, a very angry one, back in the early Eighties. Then it kind of evolved into more of a philosophical, hopefully literary kind of essay.

It was very much a long evolution, and the kinds of things I do now have a lot to do with John Grisham and Marc Smirnoff at The Oxford American giving me all that lovely space and just letting me do as I please.

WAG: One of the essays you include in Cathedrals of Kudzu is about political correctness. Why are we so afraid of words today?

Crowther: It has to do with a positive thing, which is the empowerment of minorities—'minorities' being defined broadly as liberals, in some cases, like college professors and certain types of people who feel like underdogs because of their politics. Once they came into power, they found the first thing they could influence was speech and media, unfortunately. Basically, in this country or any kind of democracy, if you have the power, you will use it, both wisely and unwisely. Now, I ask this question in my essay: is the kind of thing we have with political correctness--this terrible controlling of speech--is it worse than what came before? Of course, it's not. It's not worse than racism and misogyny and homophobia.

But it's worse for writers. And that's the point I was trying to make. In my profession, it's the worst thing there is because if you write something and you know you're offending a large group of people (including your peers), it's a kind of constant, subtle censorship that operates on you all the time. If you've read the piece, you know how much I loathe it.

The other problem for progressive people is that if you do some of these really unnecessary and ridiculous thought control tricks, you make liberals and progressive people look silly—look non-serious—which is something, considering the state of the media anyway, we don't need.

WAG: Is it tougher to be a liberal these days?

Crowther: I'm considered conservative in a number of areas myself. I guess that's one of the reasons that my syndicated column has always been pretty hard to find compared to, say, George Will: I tend to cross up editors who expect me to go one way or the other. But I do consider myself a progressive on most major issues, and I do feel that the progressives are on the defensive.

There's been an attitude ever since the Reagan years that it's all right to be totally selfish and callous and to aggrandize and enrich yourself and not apologize. For some reason--maybe because most of the media are owned by enormous corporations—the progressive, the liberal, has to defend himself and explain why his views are valid.

He's on the defensive, in a funny way.

WAG: One of my favorite essays in the collection is about the great Southern poet, James Dickey. There's been a lot of controversy lately over the fact that he might have led what is referred to euphemistically as an invented life: he created the myth of James Dickey. Is that such a bad thing?

Crowther: It's a bad thing for his family and friends, but I think it's almost natural for creative writers. If you go through the history of major figures, they all lied. Hemingway lied. Faulkner lied. André Malraux made up so many biographies that when he died, they had to sort them out. Even his best friends didn't know the true facts of his life. It's their native impulse-particularly so for a poet or a novelist. I can't deny that I've felt that impulse myself.

In the case of Dickey, he believed that art justified everything, and he thought of his life as art. He came up with a new version of himself every day.

On a larger scale, it's one of the problems we have now: we have this tremendous emphasis on personalities, with everyone writing their memoirs. Sometimes it seems like there's almost more interest in the individual than in the things he's written. That's a terrible problem. If you didn't know who Dickey was and you just came to the poems, you'd be stunned. Yet at a certain point in his career—because of the way he lived, either because he made a fool of himself or offended people gratuitously—critics were condescending to him. Not in any way because of what he wrote but because of the way he behaved.

WAG: You're married to Lee Smith, one of the South's better-known novelists. Do you ever bounce ideas off each other and decide who's going to attack a particular issue?

Crowther: We definitely do, actually. It helps a great deal. She's a great reader, and she's someone who appreciates the mainstream, popular view and lets me know when I've gone over the top, when I'm too angry or when I'm—at least in her opinion—a little arrogant about my opinion. She says, "Well, that may be true, but that really won't fly." And what I supply her is something that she has no respect or regard for whatsoever, which is fact. She writes five-hundred-page novels and then I have to go back and say, "Well, it was '41 that was Pearl Harbor, and it was the same year that Joe DiMaggio hit the fifty-six consecutive games, and the Berlin Olympics were in 1936, etc. And so we do help each other a great deal. We're both good readers of each other.

You can't really live with someone, I think, if you compete with them in an unhealthy way—I think that's something that could destroy almost any relationship. I think if I were a novelist or she were an essayist, it might be a little more difficult. But I'm not about to try to write a novel.

WAG: You've written screenplays in the past.

Crowther: Yeah, I have. I can't say I did that out of my native impulse—maybe more out of the fact that at that time, I needed a lot of child support in a hurry, and it was a very good, quick way to make money. But I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. I went to Los Angeles in a very interesting time, in the late Seventies, early Eighties. I did a few things I was proud of and a lot of things I was ashamed of. I picked up a talent for dialogue, probably, but I'm not ready to test that out.

I think a novel takes a certain kind of writer, a writer who can sit with a group of characters for two years and not get bored. I'm a reactive writer. I've been a journalist most of my life. And I sort of lose interest after a few days if new things and new angles don't keep popping up for me.

WAG: How long does it take you to go from an essay idea to the finished draft?

Crowther: It depends on the length between deadlines. At one time in my life, I was a columnist who wrote five columns a week for a paper in Toronto. You can imagine that kind of pressure. Now, of course, I write more like every other week. I take a good long time. Usually, I'll take a week of research and then a week of writing. So for fifteen hundred, two thousand words, there's a lot of preparation.

Of course, you can't really compare the things I write to something that a newspaper columnist has to do for a much shorter deadline. I've won a couple prizes where I was competing against newspaper columnists, and I was quick to say that that really wasn't fair.

The difference between a column and an essay is that the column is an immediate reaction in which you respond to something that happened that day or that week, and an essay is something where you have the time and the space to go back and bring in all the other things you know and make the connections.

WAG: You won the H.L. Mencken Award a couple years ago for your essays.

Crowther: That was one I was proud of. He was one of my idols when I was a young man.

People say that politically I don't resemble Mencken, and that's true. But what I got from Mencken is the theory that if it isn't entertaining, if it doesn't challenge and engage the reader, if it doesn't push him in the chest a little bit and make him sit up, then he's not going to finish it. An essay is short enough so that a reader should be engaged and excited all the way through.

Mencken's language was sort of this lure, this bait, that brought in readers, and I've always tried to do that myself.

WAG: I saw a quote that put you two in perspective. To paraphrase, it suggested you considered it your duty at some point in your career to anger every single reader you ever had.

Crowther: That's how they promoted my last book, Unarmed and Dangerous--"Something to offend everyone." And I suppose if you read that book carefully, you will find something. But I want to say that this new book, Cathedrals of Kudzu, is a much more affectionate, much more positive book. I was sort of surprised when I started putting the collection together to find how much praise and gentleness is in the book compared to the last one I published.

—Interview conducted by John Porter

Posted March 1, 2001


Author Photo Credit: Susan Woodley / Background Photo Credit: Nancy Marshall

A former editor and critic for Time and Newsweek, Hal Crowther devotes his essays in the bimonthly Oxford American to Southern manners and letters. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and is married to novelist Lee Smith.



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