Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith. Doubleday Anchor, 1963 mass market paperback edition. Cover design by George Giusti. Smith’s memoir-essay-critique is an underappreciated masterful dissection of the South in particular and humanity in general.
Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston. First-edition clothbound hardback from J. B. Lippincott, 1939. The dust jacket is missing, and no designer is credited in the book. I picked this up for eight dollars a few years ago. I lent my paperback copy to a student years ago; she never returned it. (Good for her!).
Afro-Cuban Tales by Lydia Cabrera. 2004 trade paperback by the University of Nebraska Press. Book design by R. Eckersley; cover illustration by Lydia Cabrera. Cabrera (1899-1991), an ethnographer, went beyond documenting the tales and fables of her native Cuba: she synthesized them into new tellings, new variations (not unlike Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore work in Mules and Men and Tell My Horse). Cabrera deserves a wider audience.
WT: Do you read magazines?
BH: If someone would rave about a story in the New Yorker, I’ll read it. But you get a lot of that Woody Allen–New Yorker–Hamptons fiction. My [students] have to send off to the little magazines. I get the sense that only grad students read those.
WT: Writer’s writers?
BH: I don’t like that term, because I wouldn’t buy somebody’s album on a dare if they called him a musician’s musician. I don’t write to be a writer’s writer. I don’t want to be like the little-magazine writer. I don’t want to be that.
Categories are bad news. Being Southern will just kill you sometimes. It’s not always a graceful adjective. Sometimes it means, don’t bother because it’s gonna be [sings a lick from dueling banjos]. It’s gonna be: porch, banjo, Negroes. There’s a canned dream of the South that a lot of people get into, and I’ve resisted that stuff my entire so-called career. Ready-made Southernism just disgusts me, just makes me nauseated. I mean, you can’t see a movie without hearing that goddamned slide guitar. Shit, I’m just so tired of it.
From Barry Hannah’s interview with Wells Tower in The Believer.
Katherine Anne Porter in her Paris Review interview:
But it seems to me that your work suggests someone who was searching for new—perhaps broader—meanings . . . that while you’ve retained the South of your childhood as a point of reference, you’ve ranged far from that environment itself. You seem to have felt little of the peculiarly Southern preoccupation with racial guilt and the death of the old agrarian life.
I’m a Southerner by tradition and inheritance, and I have a very profound feeling for the South. And, of course, I belong to the guilt-ridden white-pillar crowd myself, but it just didn’t rub off on me. Maybe I’m just not Jewish enough, or Puritan enough, to feel that the sins of the father are visited on the third and fourth generations. Or maybe it’s because of my European influences—in Texas and Louisiana. The Europeans didn’t have slaves themselves as late as my family did, but they still thought slavery was quite natural. . . . But, you know, I was always restless, always a roving spirit. When I was a little child I was always running away. I never got very far, but they were always having to come and fetch me. Once when I was about six, my father came to get me somewhere I’d gone, and he told me later he’d asked me, “Why are you so restless? Why can’t you stay here with us?” and I said to him, “I want to go and see the world. I want to know the world like the palm of my hand.”
And at sixteen you made it final.
At sixteen I ran away from New Orleans and got married. And at twenty-one I bolted again, went to Chicago, got a newspaper job, and went into the movies.
The newspaper sent me over to the old S. and A. movie studio to do a story. But I got into the wrong line, and then was too timid to get out. “Right over this way, Little Boy Blue,” the man said, and I found myself in a courtroom scene with Francis X. Bushman. I was horrified by what had happened to me, but they paid me five dollars for that first day’s work, so I stayed on. It was about a week before I remembered what I had been sent to do; and when I went back to the newspaper they gave me eighteen dollars for my week’s nonwork and fired me!
I stayed on for six months—I finally got to nearly ten dollars a day—until one day they came in and said, “We’re moving to the coast.” “Well, I’m not,” I said. “Don’t you want to be a movie actress?” “Oh, no!” I said. “Well, be a fool!” they said, and they left. That was 1914 and world war had broken out, so in September I went home.
I always experience a mild depression whenever I type up what I have written. This act seems redundant. The work has already been done. I adore the praise of the public, no mistake. But the primary motive must be unpublic. Much more, I’d guess, the inner journey of the imagination itself. There is the ecstasy. The rest is simply good. Some money, a little fame. Not to be rolled over by time like a crab in the surf. Etcetera.
I write out of a greed for lives and language. A need to listen to the orchestra of living. It is often said that a writer is more alive than his peers. But I believe he might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted, thus more precise.
Read the rest of Barry Hannah’s essay “Why I Write” at The Oxford American.
“Sources Agree Rock Swoon Has No Past” by Barry Hannah. This short short was published in the June 2000 issue of Harper’s from a reading Hannah gave in 1986 at the Sigma Tao Delta Society at the University of Mississippi. The story appeared in Hannah’s 1988 novel Hey Jack!:
“Pa. Is it really true the old eat their young?”
“Couldn’t rightly say, son. I’m a mid man. Feels like I’m walking on ice meself. Go on down to the barn, ask Grandpa.”
Grandpa’s down there in the back shadows, some loose bales around his old brogies. Seems to be humming and eating, pulling a nail out of a rotten piece of board with a pair of pliers.
“Is it true, Grandpa?”
“Wyoming’s not my home . . .”
“Yer nuts, Grandpa.”
Sings, “Ate ol’ Granny in a choo-choo car”
Kid goes to the hut to see Grandpa’s father. Withered beyond longevity, a tiny man in dwarf’s overalls, deeply addicted to codeine and Valium, fears colored people; occasionally makes scratching protests on his old violin, which has become too large for him. Every disease has had its success with him. Now he’s bare;u a scab demanding infrequent nutrients. Bald as a beige croquet ball, he rolls his own.
They’ve fixed him up a mike with a cord into an ancient Silvertone amplifying box. Even his snores can be heard, slightly, out in the yard.
“Double Gramps, is it true that the old eat their young?”
“God damn, I’m old!” blasts over the kid, feedback piercing too. The old man faints, recovers, goes into a codeine wither.
“But my question. Please, Double Gramps.”
Almost accidentally, the old man fits bow to fiddle and scrawls out the grand trio of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Endlessly. It goes on the entire afternoon, amplifier picking up a prouder stroke here and there, screeching.
The kid grows up, a rock star, aging at twenty-three. He’s already eating the young by the thousands when the second though hits him.