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Notes from a Biographer

Southern Holiday, Part 3

March 20, 2013 | by

The Pinehurst Hotel, ca. 1940: the possible model for Tennessee Williams's Hotel Flamingo, where Blanche lived after she lost Belle Reve and before she moved to New Orleans.

The Pinehurst Hotel, ca. 1940: the possible model for Tennessee Williams’s Hotel Flamingo, where Blanche lived after she lost Belle Reve and before she moved to New Orleans.

Mississippi and New Orleans were on my horizon. Light in August and Streetcar Named Desire were on my mind. That is to say, Gene Smith was back in the mix. The morality and narrative techniques of Faulkner and Williams influenced his photography: he taped the text of Faulkner’s Nobel speech to the wall above his desk in his dilapidated Sixth Avenue loft and considered Williams’s oft-maligned, rarely seen Camino Real a pinnacle of American theater. Plus, he once made a portrait of Williams in a pool, swimming the backstroke naked with an apparent erection (try that aquatic feat, literary lads). The fog of Smith had returned to my Southern holiday road trip.

After an overnight stop in Mobile, Alabama, my destination was Laurel, Mississippi, south of Jackson and north of New Orleans. Laurel was the fictional hometown of Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois and her sister, Stella, and the site of their family estate, Belle Reve. It was Blanche’s loss of Belle Reve after the war that sent her to steamy, bedraggled New Orleans to stay with Stella and her ape-husband Stanley Kowalski. The rest is theater history. I wanted to spend some time in Laurel and then follow Blanche’s path into New Orleans.

The specter of Williams, beyond the nude pool frolic, has woven in and out of my research on Smith over the past few years. In a letter to a friend, Smith once referred to himself as “Tennessee O’Neill.” He photographed the 1947 opening of Streetcar on Broadway, and he photographed Williams in his New York apartment. Whenever the playwright or his work showed up on radio or TV, Smith rolled his reel-to-reel tape recorder. On one tape, Smith offered an impassioned monologue in favor of Camino Real. He also wrote desperate letters to Elia Kazan, director of Streetcar and Camino, semiveiled pleas for help to, he thought, a kindred soul.

Two summers ago, in preparation for an event at the Brooklyn Book Festival, a group of actors convened on Bergen Street to read a selection of Smith’s letters. After a particularly dreamy and melodramatic one, an actress exclaimed, “Smith is Blanche DuBois!” That’s perfect, I thought, and of course Blanche is also Tennessee Williams, who had her exclaim, “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be the truth.”

Blanche’s nemesis was Stanley, the archetypical midcentury bowling-and-poker-night white male, a war veteran, a beer-and-a-shot shift worker who—post-Depression, postwar—suddenly had cultural value as a consumer. The advertisements in Henry Luce’s Life magazine were aimed at men like him and their wives, people who found within their reach a higher rung. Thus, Life was Gene Smith’s Stanley Kowalski, an inexorable, tormenting mainstream force. For two of his classic photo-essays—“Country Doctor” (1948) and “Nurse Midwife” (1951)—Smith ventured to remote regions in search of a different truth, to illustrate the anti-Stanley, the heroic, earnest dignity of solitary caregivers. It was the impulse of a romantic trying to show a better way. Like Blanche, Smith ended up in an asylum, twice.

Before I left home, the novelist Allan Gurganus had recommended that I take the audio book of Light in August on my trip. He went on to compare Blanche DuBois to that novel’s Lena Grove, pregnant and wandering around Mississippi looking for the father of her baby. “Faulkner and Williams both hailed from ‘nice’ families a few generations down on their luck,” Gurganus told me. “The drive and ambition they attribute to their very different heroines, in Light in August and in Streetcar, reflect their own strange fates. The old order has faded and a new one is taking rank. These men were geniuses, born into dream-prone minor tribes from little towns in a defeated region. So Lena’s search for a father for her child and Blanche’s wish for the security of an oil tycoon who’ll spoil her mirror their creators’ quests. Each made a knight’s gambit, each going in search of acknowledgement, recognition, a place of honor and dignity, a place to stand, in the reconfigured modern world.”

I cued chapter one of Light in August on the Impala’s stereo when I entered Mississippi. For the next twelve days of driving, Faulkner’s words, read by veteran actor Will Patton, intoxicated me. I found myself longing for the next back road where I could let the words saturate me. A couple of times I picked up a twenty-four-ounce Miller High Life missile, drove to a remote site, parked, shut off the engine, and just listened to Patton read Faulkner.

Off Highway 1, near Rosedale, Mississippi.

Off Highway 1, near Rosedale, Mississippi.

* * *

The founding industry in Laurel was logging, the bastard cousin of farming. The entire state of Mississippi was essentially cleared for farming, making it the third-largest timber-producing state at one time. Today the population of Laurel has stabilized at around eighteen thousand after being twenty-five thousand in 1970.

I drove the Impala around town for three days, and it felt like there was a jacked-up pickup truck on my tail the whole time, uncomfortably close. I couldn’t shake them off. Constantly checking the rear-view mirror, irritated, I would pull over to let one monster truck pass only to find another one immediately sniffing my tail. In three weeks of driving around the South I had this experience only in Laurel and its environs. I didn’t feel this menace while walking around, only on the road.

I checked into Wisteria, a bed-and-breakfast in a historic white-columned mansion on a classic hardwood-canopied street near downtown, across the street from the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, which was founded in 1923 as a memorial to the Rogers timber family. The Rogers is as appealing a small museum as you’ll ever find, with a terrific library and an unusually good collection of European and American art. In the half-abandoned downtown, with Christmas decorations making things seem more forlorn, not less, I found two upscale restaurants and a coffee shop with fine tea and baked goods and high speed Wi-Fi.

The next morning, over a delicious breakfast of eggs, fruit, and sausage, I told the seventy-something B&B owner, Earl, that later in the day I was heading to Mize, a town of a few hundred people about thirty miles west of Laurel, to look for a relative’s grave. Earl blinked and his face pruned with concern. “I wouldn’t be caught there after dark with those plates on your car,” he told me. My rented Impala had Maryland plates. “That place—Sullivan’s Hollow [“holler,” Earl pronounced it]—is not known to be friendly to outsiders.” He paused then added, “Oh, well, you’ll be fine. It’s not as bad as it used to be.”

* * *

On May 8, 1960, Gene Smith taped a radio conversation between Yukio Mishima and Tennessee Williams during which the two writers favorably compared Japan and the American South, noting, in both, the unique blend of qualities “brutal” and “elegant.” Williams said, “A kind of beauty and grace. So that although it is horror, it is not just sheer horror, it has also the mystery of life, which is an elegant thing.” Mishima said, “It’s a very strange mixture.” In the United States, it’s a mixture that helped produce blues and jazz and Southern literature.

Transfixed by Will Patton’s performance of Light in August, I began the process of tracking him down. By the time he called me from his apartment near Union Square, I was toward the end of my Southern sojourn. I’d spent a week in New Orleans, several days in Shreveport and the Mississippi Delta, on to Oxford and then Athens, Georgia, with an O’Connor pilgrimage to Milledgeville. I was on my way back home to North Carolina, still listening to Light in August.

Patton was born in South Carolina and today he divides his time between Manhattan and the North Carolina mountains and South Carolina coast. He has a naturally subtle and pliable Southern accent, perfect for the varying voices and multiplying narratives of Light in August. He’s not just performing the role of narrator, or characters Joe Christmas or Lena Grove; he performs the whole complexity of Faulkner, with a hypnotic pacing of blues.

“I knew it would be demanding, quite a challenge,” said Patton of recording the book. “One of the gifts my father, a former minister, gave me was a love for Faulkner. Go Down, Moses was the first book that really got inside of me when I was a kid, and it never let me go. Then I read everything. Reading Light in August for the microphone was a process of letting that book move through me. It enters your brain and your heart and comes out through your voice. It’s a very intense experience. You live the book. It’s a great privilege to be inside a work of art like that.”

Listening to Patton talk about inhabiting Faulkner, I was left feeling that Gene Smith may have been happier working in a different medium than photography. He would have liked an artist like Patton absorbing his work, living inside of it, and rendering it. He longed for that kind of engagement. He couldn’t stand art exhibitions with “neat little frames” (his words). The pristine distance left him frustrated. In magazines, his work competed with full-page ads for vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. He tried to overcome that distance with extreme efforts in the darkroom and with visual narratives that he said were influenced by the likes of Williams, Faulkner, and Beethoven. He tried to extend his fever as far as he could, but in the end his art was an object to be gazed at, not words or notes to be performed and gazed at. Maybe he should have been Chaplin or Orson Welles, two more of his favorite artists (whom he also photographed). Then he could have had it all.

Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Sam Stephenson is Lehman Brady Joint Visiting Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He is currently finishing a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Photograph by Courtney Fitzpatrick.

 

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