A Frank look back

From Violins to Violence: A Memoir by Marshall Frank.
Fortis Book, 2007. 308 pages

In Tom Stoppard’s Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, a character says: “My problem is that I am not frightfully interested in anything, except myself. And of all forms of fiction autobiography is the most gratuitous.”

And so it is. Many of us reach an age, the October of our lives, when we suddenly become garrulous in speech, particularly around the young. We are like the old men who once gathered on courthouse lawns, the old women who once sat at quilting bees; we who were silent so many years, bound by the necessities of making a living and raising our children, feel compelled at age fifty or older to offer listening ears the sum of what we have observed and learned. Our sentences often begin “When I was a boy” or “When I was a little girl” or “Folks back then ...,” followed by a singular moral pronouncement with an apt accompanying tale.

Literature deprived

Certain genres of literature fare better when critically judged by the standards of that particular genre rather than by any general literary criteria.

Christian fiction, for example, while entertaining and appealing to a certain audience, would be buried — with no hope of resurrection — if reviewed by critics from the New York Times or The Atlantic Monthly. Romance novelists attract different fans, but the reputations of those novelists yellow and fade faster than the cheap paper on which their books were printed.

Dad’s take on father’s day

Father’s Day, surely a boon to the greeting card industry and certain segments of the male apparel industry, has taken on greater meaning than ever for me this year. My own father is in reasonable good health. I am a father of four children and a grandfather. I feel very much a link in a paternal chain these days especially when I take my grandchildren into my arms. I hold them and feel as if through them I will somehow live another eighty years or more into the future.

Schwartz discusses impacts of Catholicism on four British writers

A country which has accepted the mantle of “empire,’ however inimical that mantle may be to its professed destiny; a country which sells itself off to its competitors, which elevates cheap goods for consumers at the expense of its own safety and welfare; a country which forces its citizens to remove their shoes at airports to search for sock bombs while leaving thousands of miles of its borders open to intruders; a country obsessed with sports, games, and entertainment, which worships at the altars of “American Idol“ or “Lost“: such a country, such an empire, will not only founder one day, but will be cheered in its death struggles by most outside observers. We need read only the histories of Rome and Great Britain to see the fate that, given our present course, awaits us.

Another look at Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe: An Illustrated Biography by Ted Mitchell. Pegasus Books, 2007. 341 pages.

Thirty-three years ago this month, at the dreg-ends of an evil winter and a harsh spring, I went to the library at the University of Connecticut and obtained a copy of Look Homeward, Angel. My personal life had become a mess, I felt lost and alone in New England, and I looked for a touch of home in Thomas Wolfe’s first novel.

A hard day’s work

On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs by Tim Barnwell. W. W. Norton, 2007. 224 pages.

For a time my father’s love affair with decaying barns and farmhouses became something of a family joke. If he decided to take a back road to get anywhere, those of us in the car with him knew that we were in for a long ride. Every time we would pass some swaybacked, gray barn with half the tin roof missing or a farmhouse with a tumbledown chimney and windows like gray, broken teeth, my father would slow or even stop the car. Sometimes he would reach for his camera or sketchbook — he was both an amateur photographer and painter — and we would inwardly groan. We knew then we might be stopped for a while.

“They’re disappearing,” my dad would say each time. “All these old buildings are crumbling away.”

Some of his best paintings were of old barns and rural scenes. Hanging above me as I write is one of the first watercolors he ever attempted, a painting of a barn on my grandfather’s farm. At one point my father owned his own small farm in Traveler’s Rest, S.C., and he also made several paintings of that property.

At least once he’d gone to one of these derelict buildings and collected timber from them, incorporating the weathered beams and siding into his house. He collected small farm tools as well — hammers and awls and scythes and mauls, and knew how they were used.

At the time my siblings and I were bored with his side trips and snapshots. We’d come of age in rural North Carolina, in the great tobacco country around Winston-Salem where we were surrounded by hills and barns and farmhouses. Some of those buildings looked ancient indeed, and some were already disintegrating into dust and splinters, but our father’s warnings still seemed premature. Surely the barns were as an immutable part of the landscape as the red clay fields or the mules and tractors that shaped them.

We were wrong, of course. The tobacco fields of Yadkin County gave way to grapes and wineries. The barns fell apart or were pulled down to make room for housing tracts, condominiums, and suburbs. A good number of Americans have never seen a mule in the flesh, and tractors are used as much for mowing as for plowing.

For most of his adult life, Tim Barnwell has documented through photographs and oral histories this same trend in Southern Appalachia. In his latest book, On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs (ISBN 978-0-39306267-0, $35), Barnwell brings together more than a hundred of the black-and-white photographs of rural Appalachia he has taken over the past 25 years.

Although this volume contains pictures of buildings, abandoned cars, apple trees, and snowy pastorals, the majority of Barnwell’s stunning photographs are of farmers, their friends and family members.

Here is Kella Buckner with his mule, pulling a sled of rocks in Madison County; here are families putting up hay. There are shots of youngsters playing on a tire swing and attending a church social. Here are photographs of a hog killing, of beans being shelled, of tomatoes and other produce picked from gardens, of cane being ground at a molasses mill.

Doubtless everyone will find certain photographs in this book that they prefer over some of the others. My own particular favorite can be found on page 28. Titled “Doug Messer, resting from tilling field, 2003,” this photograph shows Mr. Messer hunkered down at the edge of a muddy field. In one hand he holds a cap with what appears to be a military logo. In his other he clutches a rag with which he has clearly just wiped the sweat from his face. He sits with his face and body in profile to the viewer. His face, a picture of heat and exhaustion, has as many gullies and furrows as the land around him.

His eyes are nearly closed; a hank of hair falls across his brow. His mouth hangs half-open as if he can’t quite catch his breath. Around his waist he wears a brace. In the background stands the tiller, the tool with which Messer has worked the field. The photograph reminds us, if we need reminding, that it still takes a man to work the machine that works the field and that the man will often take a beating from the work.

In addition to the photographs, On Earth’s Furrowed Brow includes more than 30 pages of oral histories taken from conversations between Barnwell and the people he photographed. We meet Alton Price, who has never ventured more than 75 miles from his home. We meet Plato Worley, whose father drank a cup of hot water for breakfast, water throughout the day, and a glass of milk with supper; Worley remembers when he finally persuaded his father to try an orange soda. We meet person after person who grew up in a family of 10 children or more.

What is refreshing about On Earth’s Furrowed Brow is Barnwell’s refusal either to romanticize farming or to regard our region’s past with melancholic nostalgia. That farming is tough, body-breaking work we can see in the faces of those who spent themselves on the land. And while there is a sense of nostalgia here, of a people and a way of life giving way to new ways and irrevocable time, Barnwell’s photographs give us a feeling of hope for our own future. We sense that we, like these people, will face our own struggles, that like them we will find our own solutions and make our own peace with change.

The first lady of the South

First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War by Joan E. Cashin. Belknap Press, 2006.

Civil wars are marked by a bitterness and a bloodlust that go beyond their conventional counterparts. The vicious fighting in Iraq serves as only one more example of the brutality of such a war. The English Civil War, the twentieth century wars between Communists and their opposition in Russia, China, and Vietnam, the Spanish Civil War: all illustrate the terrible carnage derived when citizens from the same country fight among themselves.

Hootnoggers: History, definitely delightful

First, the tomatoes. Then the applause.

Rob Neufeld’s Mountains, Heroes & Hootnoggers: A Popular History of Western North Carolina (The History Press, ISBN 978-1-59629-183-6, $19.95) is not, as its title suggests, a popular history of Western North Carolina, but is instead a collection of anecdotes and sketches, arranged in a loose chronology, about people and events in these mountains.

Southern Comfort

Cornbread Nation 2 by Lolis Eric Elie. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

In the last 50 years, home cooking has given way to frozen meals, microwaves, and fast foods. Restaurants in many cities are jammed, even on weekdays, and busy families often find it simpler to toss supper into the microwave than to make time for real cooking.

Livingroom predators

Relentless Enemies: Lions and Buffalo by Dereck and Beverly Joubert. National Geographic, 2006. 176 pages.

Four years ago, my family visited the Knoxville Zoo. It was February, and the cool weather seemed to make the animals unusually active, particularly the big cats.

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