A READING BY HAL CROWTHER
Thank you very much. I wanted to say first of all, it’s great to be back here, back in a familiar town, a town where Lee and I spent a lot of time. I’ve been out with this book a little bit this fall, and the great problem with publishing is always the timing. A year or more passes between the final proofs and the book’s release, and almost anything can happen. in the meantime. My friend Curtis Wilkie had an actual pub date of 9/11/01 for his last book, and my friend Roy Blunt is out there somewhere, right now, trying to sell a book that’s essentially an insider’s walking tour of New Orleans. And that isn’t funny, though Roy is.
Compared with that, I can’t complain, but my last book took me to Washington, D. C., two days after the undecided presidential election of 2000. And here I am again, while hurricanes are flattening a different gulf state every few weeks, millions of Americans are refugees, most of the government is about to be indicted—or should be—and the Middle East is literally and figuratively bleeding this country to death. And here we come with our books, as if what we’re saying and what we’re selling is really as important as all those other things that you have on your minds. Most of us don’t think so, believe me. And the ones who do, you shouldn’t buy their books.
But half the cities where I’ve been the last few weeks, there were refugees in the audience—people who were either temporarily or permanently homeless—and I did feel like telling them that I was sorry I didn’t have something that was more relevant to their situation. But even the least of these books represent a lot of effort, and so we head out like Willie Loman, sample cases in hand. And never mind the timing. But the other irony concerns the other writers, who were out traveling on what we call the same cycle, who seem to be shadowing you from town to town, bookstore to bookstore. My shadow this year is Senator Trent Lott, who I understand to be in Richmond tonight. Is that true? I just missed Senator Lott in Oxford, and in Memphis, and strangely enough, there’s an essay in my book that’s not complimentary of Senator Lott, or his mama, or Senator Jesse Helms, or the late Senator Strom Thurmond. And I was amazed to see that both Lott and Helms published books at this same time. Senator Thurmond has not, but there’s nothing in their books that makes me think that he couldn’t, even now.
Oddly enough—this is a really strange footnote—there’s also a new autobiography from the 1950s movie star, Tab Hunter, who used to tell me his troubles. Mostly romantic, you can think what you want about that, but I weighed two hundred and eighty pounds at the time, so he probably wasn’t trying to woo me. That was back when he was playing summer stock on Cape Cod and I was the bartender at Latham’s in Brewster. And if you buy his book, I’ve already heard all those stories.
A review of a previous book of mine, called Unarmed but Dangerous, described my world-view this way: “Hal Crowther not only sees the glass half empty, he thinks the water smells funny.” Isn’t that great? This new book I think is as much a serenade to the new south as it is a criticism. And though, if you read it, you’re bound to disagree with many of my opinions on politics, literature, music, race, religion, etc., you’ll have to acknowledge that there’s a lot of affection in this book, and even a fair amount of sentiment.
Because this is a art museum, or the auspices of an art museum, tonight I’m going to read you a piece—there’s only one Virginian in it—actually my last book had several specific Virginia essays, this one less so. But this is a story that I don’t think will offend anyone—I can’t imagine that it would—and it has a moral, though not a happy ending. And I’ve never read it anywhere else, and I’d like to try it out on you. This is called “Portrait From Memory: A Prophet From Savannah.”
[“Portrait From Memory: A Prophet From Savannah,” from Gather at the River, by Hal Crowther, published 2005 by Louisiana State University Press.]
Thank you. There’s a shorter one that also is about art that I will finish up with here. I should introduce the subject a little bit. This is much lighter. This is a painter from North Carolina who was also a well-known evangelist, and he painted these terrifying visions, these visions of hell and the pit of hell and Christ with a sword destroying sinners, and they’re absolutely terrifying. They look like outsider art, but they’re very beautifully done. He happened to have trained in Paris, and had been a very serious portrait painter before he went into religious art. And they’re some of the most shocking things that you’ll ever see.
His family hated them so much that they buried them in the basement for many years until an art historian saw one of them, and since then they’ve been circulating. They haven’t been to the museum here, have they? McKendree Long? I don’t know, but you may still be able to get them, if you’d like to. But you won’t forget them if you see them. And they asked me to comment on these paintings, and I did. This is called “Sacred Art, Southern Fried: Harlots and Hellfire.”
[“Sacred Art, Southern Fried: Harlots and Hellfire,” from Gather at the River, by Hal Crowther, published 2005 by Louisiana State University Press.]
Thank you. Thanks.