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A Turn in the South.

A Turn in the South.

This is a curious book altogether. It lacks the coherence of Naipaul's earlier nonfiction and is more ramble than essay, full of chance encounters and long, breezy interviews with catfish farmers, waitresses, motel clerks, writers, and especially preachers, for whom Naipaul has always had a nose. It's charming to follow this Indian raised in Trinidad, who looks from his jacket photograph like an aged Seminole or Creek, as he checks in and out of rural motels in Mississippi and Alabama, discovers rednecks for the first time and tries to imagine that he's back on the Ganges: "In a pond beside the road on the way to Fort Oglethorpe [Georgia], cattle stood in muddy water up to their bellies--one might have been in India."

But this is not an idle ramble. It's soon apparent that Naipaul is taking a position, although whether this came to him beforehand or during the journey is unclear. What he argues, essentially, is that the New South (the fast-growing cities, the research centers, the prosperous university towns) is alienating and somehow evil, while the Old South, the poor and rural South, offers faith, community, and significance. This is fascinating to those of us who are more likely to associate the indecency of racism with the Old South and moral regeneration with the New.

His decision to condemn the contemporary and to revel in the bygone causes Naipaul to be curiously selective in his treatment of the race problem. He levels his outrage against Atlanta, the capital of the New South and a place where blacks are believed to have gotten ahead. His point about Atlanta is that blacks may have gained political power but not economic power, and that the one without the other is worse than no power at all: "Perhaps the very dignity that the politics of the city offered a black man made him more aware of the great encircling wealth and true power of white Atlanta. So that the politics of Atlanta might have seemed like a game, a drawing off of rage from black people."

As right as Naipaul may be about Atlanta, his conclusion that the city's racial progress is worse than nothing has another unstated purpose. It enables him to glorify parts of the Old South, where blacks are even less likely to move ahead. Once he's left Atlanta and headed for Charleston, Naipaul drops his cudgel and allows himself to be romanced by the "order and faith, music and melancholy" of the remnants of plantation culture. From blacks and whites alike, we hear that the past was better than the present, and several black people speak fondly of segregation, when at least they enjoyed the fellowship and cohesion of being victims, while now they've lost their place in the world.

A Baptist pastor from Tennessee explains how the civil rights movement itself has lost definition:

"In the old days...if you saw 5,000 blacks marching around a courthouse, and you asked them why they were marching, they would say they were marching because they weren't being registered as voters. If you saw black people demonstrating at a lunch counter, they would tell you it was because they weren't allowed to eat at lunch counters. There was no trouble at all about the cause then.

"Today...the issues are not as clear. Today, if you saw 5,000 blacks marching, the only thing they can say is, 'We are marching around the courthouse because we are still niggers to you.'"

That black people say they prefer segregation to what they've got now is a provocative notion that Naipaul puts to a strange use. He's no Orville Faubus, quite the opposite, and yet he comes close to adopting the arguments of old-line bigots that blacks and white were better off separate--so even in that way the Old South was preferable to the New. His sympathetic portraits of redneck heroes, and of decent white sheriffs and intelligent gentlemen farmers, are a welcome antidote to the unflattering caricatures we often get on television; but in the end his enthusiasms are suspect. "In no part of the world," says Naipaul, "had I found people so driven by the idea of good behavior and the good religious life."

He finds religion everywhere, even in things that aren't apparently religious: "religion was like something in the air, a store of emotion on which people could draw"; "it's more like religion" (speaking of a certain woman's attitude toward her family); "defeat like this leads to religion" (speaking of the Civil War); "that grief was special and was like religion."

Religion everywhere; a fascination for agrarian ritual; lost souls; a preference for the unhappy past; we've read it all before in India: A Wounded Civilization. Ultimately, you realize that it's not just the cow in Fort Oglethorpe but everything else in his journey through the South that reminds Naipaul of India, and that this whole trip is a kind of literal recreation. This would explain his rejection of the modern South in favor of "the past of which the dead or alienated plantations spoke."

The Old South as India, there are remarkable similarities: the consternation with a particular period when outsiders ruled (Reconstruction, the British occupation); a hearkening back to a golden age; a reverence for the native soil; an elaborate caste system with which to divide up the races; a preoccupation with one's place in society that's more important than money; a religious and political martyr (Gandhi, King) who preached nonviolence, led people to freedom, and was assassinated.

Yet in the end, precisely the same qualities that Naipaul identified as ruinous to India (a culture too bound up with fantasy, with ritual, with caste, with imaginative history, with defeat) he somehow sees as the salvation of the South. This idea leaves this white reader, at least, with the same uneasy feeling I get when I listen to an old recording of "Swanee, How I Love Ya," or "Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody."
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Author:Rothchild, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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