Reading Hal Crowther’s “Cathedrals of Kudzu” (2000)

Hal Crowther’s writing about the South is full of head-on honesty, biting wit, and humane nuance in a way that too few writers of nonfiction are, and this collection  gives a well-rounded view of his style and substance. Published by LSU Press in 2000, Cathedrals of Kudzu offers twenty-nine short columns broken into four sections: “The Pen,” “The Sword,” “The Cross,” and “Sweet Home Carolina.” The foreword was written by historian Fred Hobson, and the back cover blurbs read like a who’s-who of late twentieth-century Southern-ness: Pat Conroy, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Reynolds Price, Richard Bausch, and Marc Smirnoff. Couple that with the fact the Crowther is married to novelist Lee Smith – of Fair and Tender Ladies fame – and it seems appropriate to use the word quintessential when assessing his work in the context of Southern culture.

Hal crowther cathedrals of kudzuCathedrals of Kudzu is not for the reader who wants yet another version of the quaint sentiment, “Look at us, we’re Southern! Aren’t we charming?” Crowther’s writing can be funny and is often full of a good-natured outlook, but that characterization shouldn’t overlook the soul-searching stare with which he takes on the South as a subject. With this writer, there are no easy answers, no pundit-style pronouncements, no quick nuggets to appease one’s desire for certainty in a crazy world. More accurately, Crowther acknowledges that it’s a crazy world and proffers the insights he has garnered while living in it.

The first section of the book is titled “The Pen,” which should point the reader’attention in the direction of Southern writing. We begin with a column on James Dickey, whose notoriety as a fiercely independent soul is perhaps as great as the merit of the literature he produced. Next is the column which gives the collection its title. That one focuses on what “Southern Gothic” means and is. Looking back over my marked copy to write this post for Nobody’s Home‘s editor’s blog, my first underlinings came in third selection “Strangers in the Swamp,” which deals tangentially with the subject of race, and among Crowther’s sentiments, this one was among the first I underlined: “From intimate exposure, I’ve developed a pathological loathing for political correctness.” Agreed, I thought. (I went to college in the early to mid-1990s, and recognized quickly the limitations and problems of that generally well-meaning outlook.) And in the next paragraph, he continues,

Is it as bad for America as the institutionalized racism and matter-of-fact msiogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia it was intended to displace? Of course not. But it’s just as bad – in some ways worse – for literature, history, journalism, or any discipline that pursues some form of truth.

When we’re discussing something as complex as Southern history, there can’t be omissions and exclusions. If we’re to understand it, the whole corpus has got to be on the dissecting tale. On the opposite page, Crowther then continues, “No one is entitled to edit reality, no matter how distasteful, to save anyone’s feelings.” These paragraphs were the point where I knew I liked Hal Crowther.

Subsequent columns in the section discuss those people and places we’d  expect: William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Erskine Caldwell, and finally, New Orleans. And Crowther handles them with a complete lack of diffidence, with the vigor seen in the above passages. Though there is praise in his words, it is not wanton, and though there is rancor, it is not gratuitous. Crowther aims at the bull’s eye, not at the target generally. As one example, in the column titled “The Cobbler’s Petition,” he has this to say about Southern poetry’s trek toward greater obscurity:

As they lost readers on the high side and on the low, poets huddled together for survival, holed up in universities and writers’ colonies, published in small magazines and small presses that Waldenbooks doesn’t carry. Their work naturally took a turn toward opacity and solipsism, and little of it filtered out.

The second section of Cathedrals of Kudzu is titled “The Sword,” which focuses on war and violence, the Civil War in particular. Here we find Crowther’s thoughts on Stonewall Jackson, the Ku Klux Klan, the descendants on Civil War veterans, narratives of the Lost Cause, and other requisite subjects. As I continued to read, I recognized that Crowther and I see eye-to-eye: there must an honesty about the past that does not serve to bog down or impede the region’s progress on issues such as race, inequality, and injustice. In “The Family of Man,” he writes,

Multiculturalists’ protests are invariably symbolic, as symbolic and often as simplistic as their abuse of history and literature. Can’t we teach students the mistakes of the past without inciting them to waste their precious indignation on the defenseless dead?

This was definitely written in a different time— twenty-plus years ago, when division was not as severe as it is today, when a writer could dispute the conclusions of one side without being regarded as condoning the conclusions of the opposing side. There wasn’t as much polarization, and the collection shows that. Despite quarreling with the multiculturalists, in a later essay in the section Crowther explains a group he calls “the unteachables— whites who won’t grasp the critical fact that it isn’t black people who are keeping them down.”

Of course, no one could write about these subjects without bringing up the heavies: WJ Cash, Robert Penn Warren, George Wallace, Frank Johnson. And Crowther does. Yet, we see from his columns that it might not be bigots or ultra-conservatives  or Agrarians who are the South’s biggest problem . . . it might be the kind of bureaucrats who perpetrated the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, people he calls the “Eternal Official” and the “hard-eyed Man of Science.” These might be the ones we should worry about most:

Every race, region, and ethnic group produces them. Bureaucrats attract and promote them. They don’t make the rules, they just enforce them. They don’t invent the nightmare schemes, they just implement them. [ . . . ] I’ve always been acutely of the bloodless ones and the difference between them and me.

The big-time symbols might make good targets, they might make good sound bites for documentarians, and their images might be easily coopted into instant messaging platforms used by fundraisers . . . but I agree with Hal Crowther here, too. No George Wallace, no Robert Shelton, no Ross Barnett could have ever been successful without the multitudinous numbers of people who cooperated, who saw opportunity even in evil, who were “just doing my job.” On the macro level, the narrative returns to the public face of the movement . . . but we should forget that what so many Civil Rights leaders taught: movements are made up of people.

With brilliant literature and the messy past out of the way, there is only one place to go next: religion. Section III, “The Cross,” is subtitled “Varieties of Religious Experience.” Who better to start with than shyster evangelists, a breed of con-men not unique to the South but certainly widely applicable to it. The section’s first column  “A Feast of Snakes” was eerily prescient of both the Trump era and “cancel culture,” written twenty years earlier, during the final years of the Clinton presidency. Crowther writes, “Strong, inflexible beliefs can be a great help to an individual. But when too many people hold them in common, almost invariably they get to believing that everyone should hold them.” Reading that in 2022, I couldn’t help but conjure images from modern politics, on both the right and the left.

After delving into other partially or quasi-religious topics, like radio preachers, dogs, and Elvis, Crowther takes yet another turn into what seemed like prescience to me. “Cross Purposes” discusses guns, and his opening paragraph reads:

The most democratic feature of the fully armed society is that it opens up the front page and the evening news to everyone. Nothing satiates the media’s hunger for violent possibilities, and no American is so humble, despised, or disadvantaged that a little firepower can’t elevate him to instant celebrity.

It used to be, you had to do something newsworthy to get on the news. I think of Big Daddy’s line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that nobody prints your name in the paper until you die. Not anymore. Now, all a person has to do is own a gun and use it. And there certainly will be news coverage, which the person won’t get to watch because he’ll be on his way to either jail or the morgue.

But the mythic narrative persists. God and guns, the t-shirts read. Just come and try to take ’em, says the bumper sticker on the pickup truck. Those images and slogans came to mind as I read, but did not hit as hard as this passage, which foretells both the riots in Charlottesville and the attack on the US Capitol on January 6:

A ragged army of rejects, addled and dispossessed, drawn from the dregs of the white underclass that defines itself with racist theory and armed paranoia. Under what banner would such a rabble fight?

Today, we now know what banners: the Confederate flag and Trump 2020. Yet, don’t be quick to assume that Crowther condemns them outright. Instead of choosing sides, in the manner of the divided discourse of the 2020s, the writer reminds the reader of the power of myth. For “many honorable Southerners,” there is a need for an unflappable narrative of “courage, sacrifice, and an inalienable right to their own history.” God is part of that. Guns are part of that. And unfortunately, a pervasive and unending feeling of being disaffected and under-attack is also a part of it, too. The “ruby red” South couldn’t survive without it.

The final section “Sweet Home Carolina” is specific to Crowther’s home state of North Carolina. Somewhat shorter than the other sections, it begins with a caricature of Doc Watson playing a guitar that is shaped like the state. Of the five, I found “Unsafe at any Speed” to be the most meaningful; it deals with the  political trend in the 1990s South toward “late-model reactionaries,” the kind who merged state-level legislative action with post-Civil Rights fears and the agendas of politically astute Christian groups. The results, again equally prescient when considering Crowther’s point from a latter day perspective: high levels of incarceration, tensions between police and communities of color, and a “victims rights” movement that was centered on “revenge.” These were the ideas that were built into the US Congress’s “crime bill,” and this was the coalition that would elect Texas governor George W. Bush in the same year that Cathedrals of Kudzu was published.

Cathedrals of Kudzu was not on my original Editor’s Reading List. I actually wandered up on it in a local flea market, where it was one among several Southern history books in a cluster on a shelf. All in the cluster were older titles, all inscribed with one man’s name inside the cover, so I assumed they were discarded after he passed away. (Sadly, this is common among avid readers whose families show no affinity for their book collections.) I looked up the man’s name, and the previous owner was a veteran of two wars and had been  honored in our mutual hometown by being inducted into the local hall of fame. He will never know, of course, that his books found a good home with a person who values them, and him. Hal Crowther commented several times in his columns that Southerners value history more than the average American. Perhaps that’s why the books’ legacy matters to me.

About this collection and what it has to say on beliefs, myths, and narratives in the South, Hal Crowther comments with cutting precision on the disparities between what Southerners proclaim to be our beliefs and the way we Southerners live our lives. The nuances that are created in the resulting space are enigmatic, problematic, and sometimes even downright absurd. It is important to remember that, if this book was published in 2000, that he was writing these columns in the 1990s, but I’ve also remarked on how much of what he wrote came true. The socio-political trends that were building momentum in the 1990s and 2000s had reached cruising altitude by the 2010s, with 24-hour news, social media, and other forces acting as the wind to their backs. Frankly, it was refreshing to read someone who was calling bullshit on these trends in their infancy.