blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Part I

Gregory Donovan: On Sunday morning, April 28, 2002, I was able to talk with Hal Crowther, sitting on the porch of the cabin he owns with his wife, the novelist Lee Smith, in the mountains of North Carolina. Hal and Lee had invited a gathering of friends and family to join them there and to attend MerleFest, the annual bluegrass and acoustic music festival honoring the late Merle Watson and his father, Doc Watson, which was being held not far away in Wilkesboro.

I've spent some time in Williamstown, and I've poked around at Williams College—I have some friends who worked there—and I know that was part of your preparation for a life in writing. Was there anything special about the Williams experience that was remarkable or especially helpful or important?

Hal Crowther: I think it confirmed my sense of myself as an outsider—as a kid from a very small town. I didn't live anywhere a long, long time, but the town where I'd come to college from was a town in Appalachia. It was about eight hundred people, and there I was [at Williams] with the children of the very privileged, mostly. The first thing I tried to do was fit in the best I could, try to remember which loafers to wear and that sort of thing. And then I realized that that was demeaning, and I decided to play Li'l Abner and see how that worked, you know, to look as country as I possibly could. A lot of people—they talk about these places being full of snobs and rejection. Williams is a small school where everybody knows everybody else. It's not like Harvard or Princeton, where everyone is immediately segregated into the good eating houses and the middle ones and the poor ones. Everybody knows everyone else, so it's not a place where people are crushed by snobbery, but you're always aware that you're surrounded by the children of senators and CEO's and so on.

And, although I didn't come up in college with a real strong class sense or class animosity, I came up with a confirmed sense, which I already had, of being an outsider. It started in the town where I lived, because my parents were educated. They were teachers, and we were in a place where almost no one had gone to college, and my parents weren't from there. I had no kin there, so I was an outsider already. And if you did well in school, you were an outsider. And sports was the only way in, which I pursued almost to the destruction of all my joints, which I'm suffering now. But I desperately—because I was a big kid—tried to fit in the only way I knew how, which was by sacrificing my body, right? So I was already feeling like an outsider, and Williams definitely put more of that into me. I think my idol when I was there was a guy named Red Fred Schuman, who was a political science professor, who had been investigated by McCarthy; and everybody knew that Red Fred was one of the main targets of the McCarthy Committee; and Williams college had voted, I think, by one vote to keep him. But he was a symbol of this sense of outsiderhood, and I watched him walk around the campus and said, "Someday, I'd like to be like that."

GD: In your article, you raise the subject of social class—you address that quite directly—and you mention that's a subject we usually refuse to take up in this country. I'm reminded that Paul Fussell has taken up that topic in his book, Class: A Guide through the American Status System, where, among other things, he indicates that there are only two classes that wish to remain invisible in American society: the very rich and the very poor—but, meanwhile, everyone else prefers to offer only mute evidence of their class status, and otherwise it's a matter that Americans just don't talk about much.

HC: Well, a great myth, you know, that every man can be President, every man can be king. And, of course, it's not true, but it's not true for different reasons. In Europe it's definitely a caste system that is very hard to overcome, particularly in England, where so many of our ancestors came from But in this country, it's technically true, and it's the great myth that everybody claims to. . . And it's the reason that right-wing politics do so well in this country, because there's this impression that everybody can be the CEO and everybody can be the U.S. senator, so there's no reason we should identify with losers and people who're going to be on the bottom of the barrel. There's no reason that you should vote for politicians that are going to try to help the poor and the disadvantaged. And I that's the great weakness, maybe, of the American electorate; it's that it believes profoundly in this "upward mobile" myth, and it's manipulated, of course, by cynical people.

GD: Absolutely—I've seen that over and over again.

You also prepared for your career at the School of Journalism at Columbia, correct? I wonder: How did that confirm you in, or even turn you aside from, your goals?

HC: That was a bit of—it was almost like a toss of a coin. I had lawyers in my family, and I applied to UVA law school, and I applied to—you also might be able to tell by the way I write—I also applied to divinity school, not because I was a member of any particular church but because I was real interested in religious questions and spirituality, and I just could see myself in a pulpit, I guess. And, of course, I was an English student, I graduated, and my degree was in English literature, so I also considered graduate school in English, and I just didn't know. Back in those days, you didn't start choosing a career when you were a freshman, particularly not at a liberal arts school like Williams.

And unfortunately, at that stage of my life, when—I graduated young, I was twenty-one, I guess—I didn't have any real notion, and I was a little lazy, and someone told me that law school was real hard and real boring and that English graduate school, particularly at the places that I had applied, was really hard. And I just said, "Wait a minute—journalism school! You know, I bet there are a lot of people there that are kind of slow. Ha!" And, lo and behold, I was right! You know, it's a very good journalism school. But journalism school is another one of those vocational schools that's been elevated to the level of academe, which really shouldn't be. This will get me in trouble, but I really think that it's true. I think that the difference between a real journalist and a non-journalist has nothing to do with formal education. Journalism is a gift and an instinct. And I'm not saying that journalists are not smart and journalism's not important; I'm just saying that things that are passed on from one to the other are not the main things that make a good journalist. I think the only really positive thing about going to Columbia Journalism—and my attitude there was not good, and I don't want to get into that, but the trouble with me, as many people who read my essays may already have figured out, is that I will pretty soon tell you what I think—I encountered some great people there. I had a class with Jimmy Breslin and the late Dick Schaap and some of these wonderful New York newspaper characters. That was life educational, tremendously so.

Breslin had a class where, half the time, Breslin didn't show up, but he'd send one of his flunkies in, some bookie or something. Some guy, some member of his group, his entourage, would show up. A guy named Fat Thomason, a four-hundred-pound bookie, used to come and say, "Well, Jimmy's in Brooklyn, you know, and there's a fire out there, you guys! And we're gonna go out there, and we're gonna catch the fire, and we're gonna have a few brews." And the whole class would be in the subway. It was really very educational, but not in a sense of probably learning how to write journalism or how to think journalism even. But, in New York, you got to meet a lot of the people who would and could hire you, which, back in the 'sixties, when jobs were plentiful, turned out well for me.

GD: You know, you're talking about another aspect of the background you feel that you've acquired—by accident perhaps—that helped lay the foundation for the writer you've become. Do you have any other sort of work experiences, or other experiences of that nature, which you feel also shaped the writer you would become?

HC: Well, I think, yeah—I digress, but I'll get back to the working. I think the thing that mainly makes me the permanent outsider, the guy that never quite identifies with any group, is the sense of having been in a place where there was no one quite like me ever. You know, just fate did that to me. In the suburbs they're all alike, and that's something that my wife, Lee, and I have in common, that we're from towns so small that the classes were all melted together. We had friends with no teeth, and it wasn't because we sought out the poor; it's that they were there, and people who came to class with their clothes spattered with manure. And it was something that we took for granted, that there were people like that, and some were interesting and some were not, but they were around us all the time. And yeah, I had the sense, this blue-collar . . . My brother, incidentally, who's also very educated, teaches English at Georgia Southern—my brother has this really powerful, Bolshevik sense of belonging to the working class—I think much stronger than mine, but maybe Williams spoiled me a little bit.

But the idea that I had is that I wanted to identify, to show solidarity, if you will, and it didn't quite work. I came from three or four generations of sedentary men who spent most of their time with books, and I went to work at the steel mill in Pittsburgh. My grandfather—my mother's father—was a steel salesman; he was in the steel business, and he had some connections, and he got me this really coveted job working in the cold-roll mill. The cold-roll mill was a place where the temperature was only a hundred and twenty-five. Closer to the blast furnaces, it was like a hundred and seventy. And I learned so quickly that I was not cut out to be a real John Henry, a kind of working man of the people. It struck me right away that, somehow or other, I had to use what I had, which was the ability to understand texts and express myself, to make a living because I wasn't going to be able to do it with my body. My temperament was all wrong. It's not only that I was a sissy in some ways, but my temperament was wrong.

GD: Well, you seem always able, or even eager, to find aspects of the truths you discover and present in your writing which manage to get everybody from every part of the political spectrum angry at one point or another.

HC: Yeah, it's not being a contrarian. Of course, the piece that's running in Blackbird about Mencken—I think it's really important to—it struck me while I was reading about Mencken, how people like Mencken and, I think, like myself and a few others come about: It's not because we're just contrarians; we don't express an opinion only to shock or outrage or to offend people, that we find their outrage amusing. We do it because we were raised to believe that you absolutely accept no authority except your own informed authority.

That's the way I was raised, and it's clear that that was the way Mencken was raised. We're around these incredibly opinionated men, overbearing men, arrogant men, if you will. You can be crushed by those men. There are sons in these families who end up saying nothing, right? Working for big corporations and hanging their heads, and that's their life, and remembering the dad that shouted. But others, who are really their fathers' children, who have the spark, fight back. They fight back, and the only way you can fight back against a man who has read everything and is a master of rhetoric and speaks really well—my father was a historian, a lawyer, and he just spoke really well—and the only way to fight back is to read, read, read, think, think, think, turn it all over, and get your own ability to respond. And I've been doing that all my life, in a sense. I've been kind of responding to my father. But the first thing that he taught me, or the valuable thing he taught me, was, "Accept no authority." He didn't say, "including mine," but that's what I added to it. And I think it's the give-and-take, it's the fighting back against the authority figures in your own life that turn out somebody like that.

But it's also, as I try to say in the essay, also the arrogance of people who are privileged to some extent, who have that middle-class background in the sense that they can take the Promethean fire, that they can reach up and take the torch, that they're not excluded from that, and that there's nobody particularly above you. The sense that I'm an outsider is very different from the person who thinks he's from the wrong side of the tracks and feels crushed by it and feels everybody's putting him down and is defensive about it. I was very much the opposite—I didn't think there was anyone on earth who was better than I was; I mean, that's the way I was raised, and, as I say, I came from some privilege, surrounded by books and so on. No money really, just a certain privilege and a certain family tradition. And I never felt inferior to anybody. I'm one of those people who's shy by nature, but I'm never shy because the person next to me has some huge reputation or a lot of power or something. I respond exactly the same to the president of U.S. Steel as I would to a shoeshine boy at Grand Central. I have the same manner with both of them, which I hope is a pleasant one. But I'm not cowed, and, of course, Mencken was not cowed. And that is part of our class background, and it's also a part of this tradition of disputatious men of the old school.

GD: Well, that brings up something I've been thinking about in preparing for this interview. I was reading Matthew Arnold's preface to Culture and Anarchy the other day, and I ran across a passage which mentions that he was referred to as "an elegant Jeremiah" in the press, and that phrase put me in mind of you.

Arnold wrote, "For this very indifference to political action, I have been taken to task by the Daily Telegraph, coupled, by a strange perversity of fate, with just that very one of the Hebrew prophets whose style I admire the least, and called 'an elegant Jeremiah.'" Arnold goes on to repeat that phrase several times, obviously relishing it.

Then, after taking the English to task for their habitually dim view of "curiosity," he goes on to explore the word's other, more positive meanings in his first chapter, titled "Sweetness and Light." He writes, "Nay, and the very desire to see things as they are implies a balance and regulation of mind which is not often attained without fruitful effort, and which is the very opposite of the blind and diseased impulse of mind which is what we mean to blame when we blame curiosity." It strikes me that, besides being an elegant Jeremiah, you also share with Arnold that "balance and regulation of mind," that sort of "curiosity," that allows you—and perhaps compels you—to seek the truth, to follow that "desire to see things as they are," no matter where that desire might take you.

HC: Yeah. I'm against anyone who abuses the truth or logic or language. I just think—that's the reason, I guess, that I'm not politically predictable at all. Because I tend to agree with people on the Left, people with progressive political ideas, but they play the game too. They construct false rhetoric; they make groups that all agree that they agree and use their political power by standing shoulder to shoulder—which is valuable in some ways. But in my field—I talk about that in one of the essays in my book, Cathedrals of Kudzu, I talk about—it's not worse than all the things we had before—you know, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and so on—this new sort of political correctness, we all agree; but it's terrible for people who are in the business of communicating because there's this constant sort of censor. The censor's coming from your own friends and supposed allies.

And I find myself fighting back against that, all my life. And one of the heroes—you can see, there're a couple of essays in the book, in Cathedrals of Kudzu, that really kind of show the way I think, and one of them is "The Last Southern Hero," about Frank Johnson. Frank Johnson was not a liberal. Frank Johnson was a Republican judge from north Alabama who detested Northerners trying to come down and civilize the South as much as he detested the Ku Klux Klan. Although he would have stood on the Left because he was a man of principle. But he hated these people. And the important thing to Frank Johnson was that people behave decently, that they obey the law, and then that there was some sort of a civilized contract between people. And sometimes it took him to the Right, and sometimes it took him to the Left. But he stood in the same place, and that's the kind of person I've always admired, people like Mencken and like Frank Johnson, who don't want to march with this team or that team or that army or this army, who are absolutely determined to steer their own course. Consequently, politically, sometimes I have no friends at all.  

Part II

GD: I'm wondering about what would warm up Mencken's pen and mind these days—about what exercises you about what's going on. It's a troubling time, isn't it? It's confusing, it's alarming. . .

HC: Yeah, I think our culture's breaking down completely. Again, this is political, and this is radical politics almost. I think, without noticing it, just through the . . . sort of the workings of the marketplace, we're living in a society in the United States where corporate will—not concerted corporate will—I'm not saying that they get together as some people on the Left believe, that they go out to—Bohemian Grove, is it?—in California, and they all sit around, and they figure out their plans to enslave America for the next five years—I don't believe that—it's just the way the marketplace works that you can make quicker profits by constantly combining your forces with other people in merger after merger, buyout after buyout. So things get bigger and bigger and more and more remote, not only from the consumer, but from their own employees and from any sort of responsibility, from their investors. They just get larger and larger, and they have these enormous arms that produce media, that produce advertising, that subvert academia—not because they have a concerted purpose, but just because they're trying to do business and make the most money that they can. Maximize their profit.

Maximizing the profit for enormous, gargantuan corporations has totally taken all the juice out of America, and most Americans don't even see it. This is what always kind of astonishes me, that a right-wing radio demagogue can stir up people easy against the federal government, which is usually kind of clunky and run by people who are second-rate and basically is still, to some degree, at our beck and call. We can throw these people out of office; even though they are totally supported and chosen by corporations, we have some power over them. But if you try to stir up people against corporations, they just go blank; and, I think, partly because they spend their whole lives in electronic media, looking at these presentations (which are basically happy-face presentations) of giant corporations, these commercials. This is what people see, this is what they know, it's part of their lifeblood; and they cannot think of the people who put the happy face on the screen as the Other or as a threatening other.

This is the hardest message, and that's why my favorite national columnist—you know, a daily columnist—is Molly Ivins, because she's absolutely (and incidentally, she was in my class at Columbia, along with Geraldo Rivera—the famous trio)—but Molly has been on-message for twenty years. She's just saying, "Look, wherever you want to find out what's going wrong in this country, just follow the money." And you won't go wrong. Follow the money. That's why a lot of these conservative pundits, these George Wills and so on—basically, if you analyze them at all—I'm not against them because they're conservative; I have some very conservative attitudes myself—they're not following their own logical trail. Basically, they're stopping here and making camp and refusing to read the writing on the wall. And it's kind of pitiful. Some of these people are celebrated for being wrong time after time after time after time. And I think even in our field—I'm getting away from daily journalism more now; but in that field, I think people should be held accountable. I think, as people look back and find out what I said about the breakup of the Cold War, what I said about what happened in Central America, what I said about elections and who would win and who they would appoint and all these things, if I'm always wrong, I think I should be out of work. And I don't understand why, in this country where everything breaks up into these ideological teams, why people who are never right are not only still working but are celebrated. That's just a little . . .

GD: You know, I think both you and I are in an unusual situation with regard to the American public at large, I guess because we're writers. (And, in my case, I may be even more severely out of step because I'm a poet, and poetry is certainly not something the public is paying much attention.) Instead of the written word, people are into the "quick" media—television, radio. . . While on the other hand, I think that my work and my training in the analysis of texts is in part what helps keep me from being completely snowed by the media and the powers that be. . .

HC: Well, you recognize rhetorical devices, and most people don't.

GD: Are we dinosaurs, are we on our way out? Are we just marginalized, or how are you seeing that?

HC: Well, I think, in a sense, we're probably going to be forced underground. There was a book I read recently—I think it was published by Norton and was by a fellow named Berman—it was something like, not the death, but The "Something" of American Culture [The Twilight of American Culture, by Morris Berman]. And he just explains that this is not going to turn around any time soon. But he uses, as an example of what might be done, the monks in the Middle Ages, who sort of went into the cloisters and kept copying Aristotle, waiting for the thaw; and things can change. I can't look in a crystal ball and see how it's going to change.

There was a terrible article in the New York Times not long ago. It was about the National Magazine Awards—I can plug myself; I'm a finalist for a National Magazine Award in Commentary—and there was an article about those awards and talking about some of the writers who'd been nominated. But the writer sort of implied that we were indeed all dinosaurs. Then he interviewed a bunch of new, young, hot magazine editors, and they were all basically saying, "Nobody reads beyond the first six paragraphs. You know, people criticize my magazine because all our articles are eight paragraphs long—hey listen, I'm giving you the part that's all anyone ever reads anyway." Of course, I'm burning, but I know this is to some degree true. And I'd be one of the first people to be a dinosaur, I think, because I work by indirection; I use sometimes slightly arcane rhetorical devices. I'll steer the reader in one direction, trying to amuse him all the time, if I can; but I'll take him in one direction and then kind of show him that that's not really where I'm going, kind of slowly veer back or even abruptly drop back. And I use these devices, and you have to read it, you have to read it fairly carefully, and it's not short. I couldn't even write an eight-hundred-word essay like the ones syndicated columnists write now. To me, it takes eight hundred words to say "hi." I can't really do that. But, if you start reading at the top to see what it's about and whether you agree with it in the first four paragraphs, you're not going to read me at all, or you're not going to understand me. And so I'm out of business.

And that's not quite as true, I think, of poets. That's another problem especially, because you've got to pay close attention. Any literature where it requires, not only a certain amount of background, but a lot of attention is going to be in trouble. I think the last literate people to be completely obsolete probably will be the storytellers, the novelists, because that's something people can respond to, and they are used to narrative. Not complicated narrative, but narrative. Soap operas, professional wrestling—those are narratives, you know. And, if you give them a big, chewy narrative . . . I think one of the strange things is that you can't get a person to read a two-thousand-word essay, but you can get them to buy a seven-hundred-page novel. That gives you some insight into the human consciousness, in the way people absorb literature and words. But I think that people that use elaborate personal devices are going to be the first ones to be obsolete.

GD: Is there anything in your writing life that you feel some sort of regret about or you feel that you neglected, or some other things you wish you had done? And another question, growing out of that: What direction do you feel you're heading towards?

HC: Well, this isn't a broad-brush thing, it's a more personal thing, but I went to a college that has produced, as it turns out, about two-thirds of all the top museum directors and curators in the United States. It's sort of a mafia, the Williams Art Mafia. And it turns out that Lane Faison, who is now ninety-four years old and is still lecturing brilliantly around the country, and these two others [from the Williams art faculty], that are also ninety and still alive, were three of the greatest art historians in the country, and I didn't even really know this. I was busy being a fraternity person and so on and didn't pay as much attention as I should have. I was wrapped up in my major, and there were some really interesting English teachers there too. But I missed all this; and, of course, the Clark Art Museum, one of the best collections of Impressionists in the United States, is right there. It's one block from my fraternity, and I visited it twice, I think, during my entire undergraduate years.

And I love art, I love painting in a way that's almost surprised me as I get older. When I go to Washington and New York now, galleries and museums—that's just about all I do. It used to be almost exclusively basketball and baseball games and so on, and I really wish that I'd picked up more of the language to write about it [art]. I have written about art in a personal, impressionistic . . . almost on the level of free verse, just responding to it. But the background that I passed up there at the place where it was most available to me, I regret a lot.

I have a couple of favorite painters that I promote and I'm dying to write about. One of them is Charles Burchfield, one of the great native American painters. I sometimes refer to him as "the American Van Gogh." He was a relatively obscure painter; he's now famous among the cognoscenti. His paintings, mostly watercolors, are extremely expensive now, but he's still not one of the big names, partly because he—I identify with this too—he went against the grain. He was popular back when he was doing bleak, industrial landscapes. Back in the 'thirties, when that was popular, he was a well-known painter then and had big galleries in New York and so on; but as painting became more abstract, he became totally contemptuous and made all these remarks about these fools who couldn't draw and refused to have anything to do with that art world. Hopper, who was his friend and who had the same agent—Hopper was smart enough to keep on playing the game with the museums and serving on juries and shaking hands with the Abstract Expressionists, so his work remained really famous. And Burchfield went back to western New York, to the woods where he'd always lived, and just did these wild kind of landscapes that are informed by—it's Expressionism almost, because most of what you see on the canvas is coming out of Burchfield rather than back to him from the landscape that he's looking at. And there's just nothing like them. Some of the later ones that he did when he was in his sixties, to me are just the most mesmerizing things that any American painter ever did. And he also wrote a journal for fifty years—he was one of the truly articulate plastic artists. I'd love to talk about Charles Burchfield. And every once in a while, when I'll meet someone at a party in New York or something, who, someone tells me, is an art publisher, I'm always keeping my powder dry. This is something I'd really like to do.

But the book that I'm writing now—and it's hard because I've been sticking with this under-two-thousand-word form for so many years—it's funny how you become your form, in a certain way. If I don't get up to fifteen hundred words, I feel I haven't expressed myself; if I get over twenty-five hundred, I feel that I've written War and Peace. It's just this bell that goes off in my head; I feel like I've been out on the road for hours, and it's really hard for me to expand that. But the book I'm writing is going to be called Babe in the Woods, and it's about innocence, which I think is a very important thing. There's a big essay on innocence in my book, Unarmed and Dangerous. The sense that childhood is valuable is one of our best inventions, and the combination of commercial exploitation, sexual exploitation, the breakdown of the family and the home is turning children into commodities and sex status symbols and so on, and they no longer receive the respect that they deserve. These are going to be long, extended essays on everything from child abusers to baseball and the Puritans and Nathaniel Hawthorne. There's just a lot of stuff in there, a lot of personal stuff in there, and I hope—I've written, I don't know,150 pages—and I really hope to finish it this year, but it's the toughest thing that I've tried.  

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