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Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South
Stubborn Voice in the South

by Susanna Rodell

All of us need heroes. No matter what we do, whether it’s building houses or fixing cars or writing newspaper columns, it’s a clean and healthy thing to know there’s someone out there doing it better.

I have a few. I’m particularly blessed in this: One of my heroes is local. It’s nice to have your role models walking the same streets you inhabit. It reminds you to keep trying to lift your own game; it keeps you alert.

I still remember my first Hal Crowther column. Id recently moved to these parts and I picked up a copy of the Independent weekly. Identifying the paper with that amorphous adjective, “alternative,” I was expecting hippy-dippy ramblings. Crowther was writing, as I recall, about the way bad movies invade your dreams, your most private cranial nooks, the violation of it. It was a fine, articulate, curmudgeonly piece of writing. I was astounded.

With time, I learned not to be surprised. The delight has never abated, though. So I was gratified when Crowther’s new book, “Cathedrals of Kudzu,” appeared just as I was about to leave for the beach. Time to read (a rarity) and a whole bookful of Crowther to fill it.

It only lasted two days, since I couldn’t stop myself from motoring through the thing way too fast. But what a feast! The book collects Crowther’s writings on the South, most of them from the Oxford American, the magazine on Southern literature published in Oxford, Miss., by John Grisham. All the way through my gratitude kept growing for this sane, impassioned, stubborn voice in our midst. I kept folding page-corners back, wanting to return.

Crowther has that gift to which every writer aspires: the ability to pull a thought, a feeling, an opinion, out of the recesses of our hearts before we even know it’s there, to make us recognize it and then to articulate it better than we could hope to express it for ourselves. Those moments of recognition jumped from the pages.

Crowther on the deconstructionist trend in recent literary criticism: “To the strictest postmodern critic, an author is something like a helpless pointer on the Ouija board of literature.”

In an essay about crime and retribution, and Davidson County’s notorious Sheriff Hege: “An abiding curse of the Southland is that our native fools are so picturesque.” How true. Sheriff Hege is really no joke, but still we have one of his hilarious posters on our wall, the man himself posed against his spiderweb-patterned patrol car, surrounded by nostalgically clad convicts in striped pajamas and the legend: “Do the crime, do the time.” It’s irresistible.

Crowther’s sheer erudition is intimidating to those of us who haven’t managed, no matter what the excuse, to keep the passionate consumption of literature as a primary occupation. Every time he mentions a book I haven’t read, or one I haven’t read recently enough to carry its wisdom into the daily world with me, I cringe a little. Then I resolve to do better.

The thing that’s so endearing about Crowther, though, is his flawless discrimination. Unlike many intellectual curmudgeons, he doesn’t throw out all of popular culture. His reverence for Doc Watson stands firmly beside his homage to James Dickey. And if in his touching and eloquent essays on matters of the spirit he chooses Annie Dillard over Pat Robertson, well I’m not about to argue.

There’s something Old Testament about Crowther’s voice, something fine and unbowed. He reassures me. Riding down the interstate, listening to public radio, my teeth clenched as I listen for the 478th time to the babblings of the announcer: “UNC health care, leading, teaching, caring,” it helps just a little to know Crowther is out there, that his outrage over these saccharine incursions into our eardrums would match my own.

“I’m shy around people I admire,” he admits in his essay on Doc Watson. Me too, which is why, on the couple of occasions when I’ve been in his company, I’ve always felt awkward. But I’m so glad he’s there, and that in this collection I now have a big chunk of Crowther to keep me company.

In his essay on the fate of poets in our time, he makes a plea for their tolerance: “Don’t abandon us, don’t give us up. Sometimes your erudition is too much. Even if we had the learning for it once, few of us have maintained it. We haven’t kept up. But we’re still listening, still counting on you.”

If I tried to write a plea to Crowther, it should sound something like that.

The News and Observer
August 8, 2000


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