This Week in Magazines: An Electric-Fuel-Trade Acid Test and the South Rises Against the New Yorker

10/23/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Those old, wicked animosities between New York City and Conway, Ark., are heating up.


The latest issue of the Conway-based Oxford American, an engaging window on Southern writing and culture, takes after the famously Manhattan-based New Yorker for an August opus by Malcolm Gladwell in which he raised questions about the iconic status of Atticus Finish, protagonist of Harper Lee's To Killing a Mockingbird.

"If Finch were a civil rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict," Gladwell wrote. "But he isn't. He's not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He's...looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds."

In Oxford American, Warwick Sabin chides this as part and parcel of a "takedown piece," unfairly tagging Finch as an accomodationist and "Jim Crow liberal" given to encouraging people to "swap one of their prejudices for another." Sabin disputes the notion of Finch being complicit in the segregationist culture of the time and, getting clearly down and high-brow dirty, argues that, by Gladwell's standards, "we could just as easily call in question the commitment to gender equality by Northeastern liberals based upon the treatment of Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter.'"

Though I strongly suspect that this line of attack may not surface in any mid-term congressional elections throughout the Northeast next year, Sabin chalks up the chiding of the fictional Finch as part of a "continuing national obsession with Southern backwardness. To Malcolm Gladwell and his cohorts, even the progressives who long ago fought against racial segregation among their neighbors and friends in their small hometowns are not deserving of credit."

Whatever. The issue is best for something else, namely one of those inevitably alluring, if maniacally subjective, lists of the best Southern books of all time. It's probably most vivid for the lack of anything written in the past 50 years. So it's very ample group of 134 scholars and writes comes up with this top 10 when it comes to novels:

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936), All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946), The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961), As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952), Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor (1952) and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937).

There's an interesting, related piece, "Why Teach Faulkner's Masterpiece?" in which Graham Hillard, who teaches at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, concedes the book is complex, not an easy read and "resists casual intimacy." But in its difficulty, he's concluded, is partly its allure in how it forces the reader to interpret the process of writing, in the same way that Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jette" forces us to confront the process by which it was created. This comparison may not be fully convincing to those who read the book and, ah, well, get heavy-eyed and put it aside for good.

Now as far as the best Southern nonfiction, the top five are deemed: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men By James Agee and photography by Walker Evans (1941), Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945), The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash (1941), One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty (1984) and The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote (1958-1974).

---Yanks and Confederates can at least concur that Sept. 7 ESPN and Sept. 7 Sports Illustrated are pre-NFL season feasts with dueling predictions (the former picks the San Diego Chargers to win it all, the latter goes with the New England Patriots). ESPN does a nice job with profiles of the quarter-back-center relationship of the Colts' Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday and of maniacally-focused genius coach Bill Bellichick of New England (most interesting about the history of his relations with, and how he routinely alters the duties of, his own assistant coaches). Sports Illustrated's stronger on team profiles and both host a solid roundtable discussion among quarterbacks about their craft and makes the case as to why flamboyant wide receivers are the league's hottest commodity.

---"The Library, The Loo And The Fossils" in Sept. 21 Forbes informs not that a hedge fund mogul got his name affixed on the main building of the New York Public Library in exchange for his $100 million gift, but that another venture capitalist spent $25,000 to get his name stuck on a men's room at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder (the fellow poses at the open front door of the room). The general point of this opus is that nonprofits and governmental units, in part due to a lousy economy, are sharply expanding deals involving naming rights and, no surprise, raising some eyebrows among those who feel society can at times be cheapened, especially when names of business bigshots, are plastered on civic institutions such as schools and libraries.

Please be informed that among the tax-deductible naming opportunities afforded by nonprofits are parks benches by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy ($2,000), the mail room at an Elkhart, Ind., public television station ($50,000) and a sea otter exhibit at the Louisville Zoo ($1.5 million).

---"Jay Leno Is the Future of Television. Seriously!" is the Sept. 14 Time cover story, though it might have been, "NBC Sure Hopes Jay Leno is the Future of Television." James Poniewozik takes the comic's switch to prime time and argues that the major broadcast networks had best learn how to get smaller, and run themselves cheaper, "or else end up like American Buggy Whip Inc." Serious dramas, by this account, will become the province of cable while the old giants opt for "live events and cheap nonfiction."

---Sept. 3 Economist's "The Electric-Fuel-Trade Acid Test" suggests that, despite qualms and false starts, battery-powered cars may well be here to stay and constitute what two Harvard business researchers once tagged as a "disruptive technology," namely one that largely supplants the incumbent technology.

"Without the cost and complexity of many of the parts hitherto required to make a car, the shape of the automotive industry could be transformed as much as cars are. As for the oil companies, if the visionaries are correct, they risk finding themselves in the wrong business. Some researchers already have battery materials they reckon could be recharged in the time it takes to freshen up and have a snack at a service station. If they are right, the need for even a range-extender vanishes."

"That is still a biggish 'if,' of course. The efficiency of internal-combustion engines is improving, too -- and...electric cars have come and gone in the past. But propelling modern transport by means of serial explosions in an array of tin-cans does seem an incredibly primitive way of doing things. The time is ripe for a change."

---The Summer edition of American Music offers our Journey to the Obscure this week, with "Only in America: The Unique Status of Sound Recordings under U.S. Copyright Law and How It Threatens Our Audio Heritage." Sound recordings are treated far more harshly under copyright law than other creative works, like books, plays and photographs; especially if the recordings were made prior to 1972. Tim Brooks, chairman of the Copyright and Fair Use Committee of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, concludes:

"United States copyright law is unique in the way in which it blocks access to the country's rich audio heritage. Nearly every other country in the world recognizes the principle of public domain for recordings after a reasonable period of commercial exploitation and encourages both archives and private parties to preserve and spread the aural historical record."

"....The louder the opposition to the further expansion of recording copyright, and the louder the demand for a rational balance between the legitimate needs of rights holders and the public good, the more likely laws will be passed that redress the current imbalance in the United States and prevent it from spreading to the rest of the world. If that happens, everyone will benefit, rights holders and scholars alike."