“Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart”
Author: John S. Sledge
Publisher: The University of South Carolina Press
Pages: 280 $24.95 (Paper)
From 1995 until just last fall, 2012, John Sledge was the editor of the “Mobile Press-Register” Books Page.
Every Sunday Sledge would print an assigned review or two, carefully edited by him and his wife, Lynn, and a column or book review of his own. Over the years, there were over 800 columns, and this generous volume, “Southern Bound,” is a selection of 110 of those pieces, about 20% of his half-a-million-word output, as it turns out.
The reviews and columns covered all genres: fiction, non-fiction, some poetry, photography, architecture, of course (Sledge is an architectural historian with the City of Mobile ), with a special emphasis on local Mobile and Alabama authors and reviewers. The page was very popular with readers.
It is no digression, therefore, to point out that when the “Press-Register” cut its staff radically and retreated to three print editions a week, the paper, sadly, dropped the Books Page. There are precious few of these left, anywhere.
We are fortunate then to have this collection, an exhibit of an endangered species.
One might reasonably think that book reviews have a short shelf life. And that is true if the sole purpose of the review were to advise the reader: buy this new book or don’t.
But, there is usually a lot more than that going on here. Some reviews, usually non-fiction, summarize a book in such a way as to inform the reader a little on a subject he might never read 300 pages about. I am happy to be educated, briefly, concerning the lives of the architects Philip Johnson and Wallace A. Rayfield or about Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house Fallingwater.
Sledge includes a large selection of writing about the South and the Civil War, from Edward Ball’s study “Slaves in the Family” to the memoir “Co. Aytch” by Confederate soldier Sam R. Watkins to a book on the life of Viola Liuzzo, killed in Lowndes County in 1965.
Appropriately enough, Sledge’s writing features books by south Alabama authors such as Winston Groom, E.O. Wilson, Frank Turner Hollon, Michael Knight, Tom Franklin, Eugene Walter, Roy Hoffman and others. We need sometimes to be reminded what a fine literary culture we have in and around Mobile.
Reviews constitute less than half of this volume, however.
Over the years Sledge made and wrote up a series of what he calls “Literary Pilgrimages” to such places as Oxford, Mississippi, where he writes of Faulkner’s house and Square Books, and Savannah, Georgia, where he takes in the Mercer House and other sites of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” as well as New Orleans, Greenville, Mississippi, and, in Alabama, Monroeville and Old Cahaba.
Sledge allows himself more space in these pieces to describe locale, record some conversations had on site, and expand on what these literary places evoke in him. With Sledge, longer is usually better, and one does not say that every day!
Since Sledge edited the page he could also give himself permission to write about books that were not new, and some of these work very well as columns. He revisits writings from Chapman’s translation of Homer to Willa Cather’s “O! Pioneers,” Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans,” Gibbon and Proust, whatever was on his mind or in his hand at the time.
Sledge has a section entitled “Controversy and Censorship” in which he includes pieces that take up subjects such as then-representative Gerald Allen’s proposed bill in 2004 to purge school and public libraries of books which promote “the homosexual agenda” by portraying “the gay lifestyle as natural or benign.” Concerning these books, Sledge quotes Allen as saying “I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them.” Truman Capote fans would not have been happy about that, but Allen’s bill never got out of committee.
Sledge also writes of the uproar over Tuscaloosa author Brad Vice’s collection of stories “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train.” The volume won the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction but the award was taken back when Vice was accused of plagiarism. Some thought too much had been borrowed from Carl Carmer’s “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
Vice replied that his technique was not stealing, but rather an accepted, post-modern literary device and an homage to Carmer. Vice lost the prize, but whether that was the proper action was not and probably cannot be resolved
The volume ends with a section entitled “Elysium,” essentially eulogies. Included are figures such as Willie Morris, Eudora Welty, George Plimpton and Sledge’s father, Eugene Sledge, author of “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa.” This last piece, reprinted several times on his father’s birthday, is given pride of place, the final note sounded.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”