HILLBILLY SYNCHRONICITY

My Fellow Americans. . .

November 9, 2016 in SOUTHERN JOURNAL,U. S. Politics | Comments (2)

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By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

 The networks were so unprepared for Donald Trump’s win that my election night switching caught only one panelist who could speak with authority for the key voters euphemistically called “white – no college degree.”  He was J. D. Vance, the black-haired concise-speaking author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” an immediately personal story of his poor and violent family from Appalachian Kentucky.

I was reading it in October along with another pre-election bestseller, the radical history “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg. These books are cultural not political, but they explain something about the “populist uprising,” as Vance termed it in an interview while adding that Trump understood the anger behind it but offered no solutions.

Apart from politics, my research represented an obsession with my father’s hardwood Appalachian roots. He was always wanting something far away. His sisters talked of North Carolina when we visited their farms near Lyons, CO. They were pretty and spoke in sweet accents. My father drank. He died. I was about to set the periodic ancestry project aside when, suddenly, up popped an email from a total stranger in Longmont, Colorado. I’ll get to the deep synchronicity* of it in a few minutes.

Writer-lawyer Vance’s family moved from Jackson, KT, to Middleton, in southern Ohio, so his grandfather could work in the Armco steel mill. It rusts away now under a Japanese name. His grandfather died as an out-of-work alcoholic. His mother, pregnant at high school graduation with his older brother, was more in love with drugs than any of her half dozen husbands.

His elegy is for his grandmother, who raised him. She was a heroic exemplar of the lost mountain culture of pride and toughness. She disciplined him relentlessly to pursue self-improvement through education and even, among other folksy wisdoms, learning golf because “that’s where rich people do business.” (Trump is an international developer of golf courses.)

Mamaw, as he called her, represents the culture lost when the families of several generations were uprooted by economics and dropped dead by economics. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” as my father used to say. I had his brother-in-law minister, a chaplain of the Arizona National Guard, read it at his graveside ceremony. Vance does not mention churchgoing in Middleton, but I suppose religion was a part of the lost culture because in every North Carolina hollow where I searched for Calloways there was a church — usually Baptist — often looking forsaken. Vance observes out of nowhere, “I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah — with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families — wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio.”

Utah voted for Trump despite his insults of Mitt Romney and Romney’s strident case against Trump. Romney is a popular sectional president of  the LDS Church. This tells you something.

Vance joined the Marine Corps after high school, served in Iraq, returned as a motivated student at Ohio State. I doubt we would know of him if he had not, somehow, been accepted by Yale Law School. His narration of the dissolute recruiting there by rich and powerful law firms leaves no doubt that a prestigious degree is a ticket up and out of all the lesser classes, that it is a platform from which to publish a bestseller or even run for high office. (George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton went to Yale. Barack Obama went to Harvard.)

The book by Isenberg, a professor at Louisiana State, is about “The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” in the words of the subtitle. She refutes the inspirational tradition of “this new man, this American” that was still being taught when I was a journalism fellow at Stanford 36 years ago. She writes of “an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises – the dream of upward mobility – and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable.”

Much of the book is a laborious etymology, beginning in 16th Century England, of “white trash” and its synonyms, which she itemizes: Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people. Hillbillies.

“The Civil War was a struggle to shore  up both a racial and a class hierarchy. The Confederacy was afraid that poor whites would be drawn in by Union appeals and would vote to end slavery,” she writes. In other words (my take), the plantation elite engaged the poor in a war against their own interests. They were little better than slaves.

By contrast, she writes, “The ‘one percent’ is the most recently adopted shorthand for moneyed monopoly, bringing attention to the ills generated by consolidated power, but the phenomenon it describes is not new. Class separation is and has always been at the center of our political debates, despite every attempt to hide social reality with deceptive rhetoric.”

Of politicians, she observes, “They are seen wearing blue jeans, camouflage, cowboy hats, and Bubba caps, all in an effort to come across as ordinary people. But presidents and other national politicians are anything but ordinary people after they are elected.”

The entertainment industry founded this kind of costuming with fake ethnic TV comedies like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and “The Dukes of Hazard.” Elia Kazan was perhaps the first in the industry to take the Southern ethnicity seriously with “A Face In The Crowd” starring Andy Griffith as a self-styled “country boy” singer who rises to stardom and destructive tyranny.

And then there was the dark characterization of mountain degeneracy in “Deliverance,” the blockbuster based on the novel by the drunken poet James Dickey. Isenberg describes him as  a privileged Southerner who “reinvented himself as the child of hillbillies.” The strange youth in the “dueling banjos” scene was a high school kid chosen by the casting directors for his appalling appearance. Now in his sixties he was found working in a Walmart and complaining he could barely make ends meet.

And so I watched the election results and heard white trash voter euphemisms and remembered my paternal ancestors and the email a month ago from Longmont, CO.

Hello Larry, I live in the house in Longmont where your Grandfather lived. I’ve been here for 24 years and love the history of the place. Last year we had to cut that beautiful huge black walnut down. I had some of the wood milled and wonder if you would like a piece?

Yes! Black walnut, a dark-streaked hardwood of gun stocks and fine cabinets now too valuable now for anything but veneer. Native of the low wet eastern states. Unheard of in high dry Colorado. And Joseph Robert Calloway, my interesting grandfather!

p1030817Three days later, Bob Carroll rumbled into Crestone on his new black Harley on the way to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Two rough slabs were bungeed to the chrome carrier. We met at Crestone’s only breakfast café (now closed).

My first question was how did he make this strange connection – a tree and me? Carroll, a retired phone company technologist, knew the chain of title for his house and so he searched “black walnut” and “calloway.” He came across my recollection of my father and I planting a black walnut sapling in our back yard when I was growing up in south Denver. One of his sisters had brought it from Madison County, in western North Carolina’s mountains, where J. R. Calloway and my grandmother, Margaret Holcombe, were third-generation natives, at least. The essay was about looking for Calloways – and black walnut trees — in the mountain hollows there.

I don’t know what to do with the black walnut mementos, but I like them. I imagine my grandfather planting that tree in the same memorial spirit that my father and I planted that sapling 60 years ago. Carroll had to hire a construction crane to the tree out of his yard and lay it on a truck for the trip to a saw mill in northern Colorado. He counted about 100 rings. The family left North Carolina and lived perhaps two years with relatives in Oklahoma, where my father was born in 1912. They arrived in Longmont with their three daughters and three sons in 1913 and bought the house on Bross Street. They stayed put. They had gone west.

Wallace Stegner called the West “the geography of hope” in an essay on wilderness that owed a lot to the tradition of Frederick Jackson Turner. I have loved both works, as I love the view from my home – snowy fourteener mountains uphill, undeveloped Old West plain downhill. And I want to believe Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” which says 400 years of a receding frontier evolved American character, that the lessons of communal survival under frontier hardship explain our exceptionalism and our devotion to equality.

Isenberg should know it well because she earned her doctorate from Wisconsin, where Turner taught, but she does not deal with it by name. Her thesis to the contrary is this: “Historically, Americans have confused social mobility with physical mobility. The class system tracked across the land with the so-called pioneering set. We need to acknowledge that fact. Generally, it was the all-powerful speculators who controlled the distribution of good land to the wealthy and forced the poor squatter off his land.”

Okay. I have seen this kind of injustice. The history of the West, as Stegner once said in a seminar, may be one big real estate deal. And now a developer is president.

Still, my grandfather at age 40 took his family west. And they had a good life. He served as Longmont chief of police from 1915 to 1923 when he went to work for the U.S. Treasury Department as a law enforcement agent. When Prohibition ended in 1933 he became assistant county assessor. His long obituary in 1942 spoke of respect, family, church (Southern Baptist) and many, many friends. Many of his grandchildren were successful, some rich. And he got the hell out of the South but kept a tree from North Carolina.

The tree my father and I planted was still there when I stopped by my childhood address last year. It had a canopy that shaded most of the yard, and I understood then why my father had placed it like a crooked stake in the center. I had always checked its little green umbrella for black walnuts every summer – not knowing it takes about 60 years for these trees to mature and bear. So it is still there. But the house is gone. In its place is a three-story border-to-border single family dwelling worth about $750,000 to $1 million. The developers are . buying postwar houses in beautiful south Denver and scraping them to build little mansions.

 

*Synchronicity, a word invented by C. G. Jung, is a meaningful conjunction that is not of our doing. It is like the arc of a bat crossing the arc of a pitch when both batter and pitcher are blindfolded.

 

 


Singing Through Ireland

A response to Churchill’s question

August 27, 2016 in JOURNEYS | Comments (1)

 

Schola Cantorum singers

 

By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

We went to Ireland in the summer of the political year 2016 with a group that often burst out in song. They sang in enormous cathedrals, among grey monastic ruins, at a sacred lake shore, on a green moor above the ocean, and in pubs. Everyone was talking about Brexit and how it would screw the Irish – a familiar theme in the history of British politics.

In 1921 young Winston Churchill, a negotiator of the oppressive Anglo-Irish Treaty partitioning Ireland, rose in Parliament to defend it. He asked:

 “Whence does this mysterious power of Ireland come? It is a small, poor, sparsely populated island, lapped about by British sea power on every side, without iron or coal. How is it that she sways our councils, shakes our parties, and infects us with great bitterness, convulses our passions, and deranges our action?”

First king with harp

First king with harp

Churchill did not answer his rhetorical question. I will not attempt an answer except to say that the symbol of Ireland is not a lion but a harp and that Ireland responds not with a roar but with songs and stories. Patricia and I listened to these as we accompanied the small Schola Cantorum choir of Santa Fe on a concert tour from Dublin to Sligo to Armagh to Westport to Galway.

There was, for example, a monk who had a white cat. In the tight margin of a scriptorium manuscript – vellum was precious in the ninth century — he scribbled a light poem equating his cat’s mousing with his own scribing. A translation from the Old Irish concludes:

So in peace our task we ply

Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his.

 

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.”

 The curators of The Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin chose the unknown monk’s verse as an introduction to the present exhibit. For, in its sweet imagery the Book of Kells is about the monks who made it. They were graffiti tricksters. They stretched the vow of poverty to exclude possession of cats. Their surviving artistry is uniquely Irish, with bold calligraphy and bright colors. Their interlocking images are impressive in detail but not intimidating – even though the text of the Book of Kells is the four Gospels in Church Latin.

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South By South Park

A story served on a golden plate

October 25, 2015 in JOURNEYS | Comments (2)

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By LARRY JOSEPH CALLOWAY

In late August of the saddest summer, speeding through the emptiness of Colorado’s South Park on the way to Denver to see “The Book of Mormon” and to attend my high school class reunion, I lightened up by writing. Not texting – that’s unlawful – but writing, which is OK if you do it in your head.

I worked up a concept for an episode of “South Park,” the cartoon where foul-mouthed little kids living in perpetual winter, constantly undermine their politically correct parents. The two former CU-Boulder students who created “South Park” also created “The Book of Mormon.” I was driving through the geographical reality, a national heritage area, wondering how the two satirists were getting away with mocking the sacred reality.

My mind-draft of the episode began with those shitty little kids suspecting their parents of marching with a subversive militia. The adults have been secretly preparing for a demonstration. They have been hailing the image of a uniformed leader and saluting an enemy flag.

The obscene little kids don’t care about plots to overthrow the government, or whatever. Their concern is the rigorous activity will introduce parents to the idea of discipline and this could lead to child discipline or worse – like, military school.

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“Spotlight” At Telluride 2015

My last Telluride Film Festival review

September 11, 2015 in T-ride Film Fest | Comments (6)

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t-ride aerial

September: Telluride

 

By LARRY JOSEPH CALLOWAY

NEWSPAPERS, the first drafts of history, also used to write the loglines of movies. The logline for “Spotlight,” debuted at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival and my hope for a lot of awards, goes like this: A quartet of Boston Globe investigators, publishing under a “Spotlight” logo, shames the Catholic Church, the legal profession and journalism itself in a year of stories about the systematic burying of cases of sexual abuse of children by parish priests. The 2003 Pulitzer Prize panel called the work “courageous,” and the screenplay by director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) and Josh Singer portrays that courage with artful intelligence.

We all know the general story, but this telling is new. It unfolds like a thriller. The reporters discovered a pattern of concerted reaction in contradiction of the “just a few rotten apples” p.r. strategy of the Church. When an activist group supporting the victims, mostly kids from poor Boston parishes, would manage to get a case to court, a conspiracy of silence descended like a dark curtain. A pedophile priest would get some time off and a transfer. The family of the child or children would get a patronizing visit by the archbishop and $20,000 (a limit set by a strange Massachusetts statute). The case would then be officially sealed and the victims, not the defendants, would be abandoned to live in shame.

The Spotlight reporters led by Walter Robinson saw the pattern and were the first to expose it after diligent research. Robinson is played by Michael Keaton, who is not the star because the ensemble including him, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian James is the true star. They repeatedly attempt to interview lawyers who say they can’t talk because they would be disbarred for violation legal ethics. When Robinson ridicules this, a lawyer responds that he was just doing his job. Robinson asks, then, whose job was it to look after the victims?

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Get Cam, Find Cab, Make Film

Documentary Films At Telluride

in T-ride Film Fest | Comments (0)

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By LARRY JOSEPH CALLOWAY

To get started on a documentary film you don’t need documents or film. Just take a camera – it doesn’t have to be expensive – to an interesting situation and the world will provide, if you wait long enough. The devil is in the editing. These new possibilities for non-fiction production were delightfully demonstrated in Jafa Panahi’s “Taxi” at the Telluride Film Festival.

He was in big trouble with Iranian security, and if he was seen filming he would be arrested. So he came up with a plan. Masquerading as a taxi driver, he rigged a cab with small cameras and hit the streets of Tehran. The resulting ride is, well, great taxi theatre. We see the actual humor and humanity of a country depicted by our politicians, who have never been there, as a bleak and dangerous enemy.

A loudmouth passenger sits in front complaining that a neighbor in a hurry hopped in his car and it would not go. Then the guy saw all the wheels were gone and it was sitting on blocks. If a couple of these thieves were hanged in public that would stop this car stripping, he says. A diminutive passenger in the back seat, a teacher dressed in black and covered, says, “I can’t believe what I just heard.” An argument ensues at a pitch that would make an American talk show host proud, and the loudmouth gets so mad he orders Panahi to stop and let him off.

And that’s just the first scene. There is a smuggler with a selection of DVD movies, another with banned CD albums. The taxi is flagged down at a traffic accident and Panahi rushes him to the hospital. A film student argues about the rules against depicting reality. A flower lady is going to visit political prisoners. A mugging victim spots his mugger but declines to do anything that would subject him to police interrogation. . . . If you film it, they will come.

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