March 20, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
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. Read More »
February 28, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
A week before I began my holiday road trip in December, I learned that in 1936 Time Life’s founder and publisher, Henry Luce, and his wife, the flamboyant Clare Booth Luce, purchased a three-thousand-acre former slave plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, only twenty miles from the poverty-stricken region where Smith made his classic “Nurse Midwife” for Life in 1951. The Luces made Mepkin Plantation their vacation estate.
Did Smith know this? Is that why he fought so hard to celebrate the African American Maude Callen amid pages of Life’s whitewashed Madison Avenue ads, to shove the contradictions in Luce’s face? It’s hard to know, but I think probably not. Smith left behind voluminous bitter letters to replaceable bureaucrats, but I haven’t seen any to moguls. He tended to make dragons out of windmills.
What is known is that, in 1949, the Luces donated part of Mepkin Plantation to the Trappist Order of Gethsemani of Kentucky, creating Mepkin Abbey. When Henry died, in 1967, his body was laid to rest in the property’s gardens. After Clare’s death in 1987, her body was buried next to his. As a serial graveyard explorer, I knew I had to see these graves, which, together with Callen’s abandoned and crumbling clinic, form an unlikely set of Berkeley County monuments to Life magazine’s midcentury power. Read More »
January 30, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
On Tuesday morning, December 11, I drove a rented 2013 Chevrolet Impala out of Chapel Hill on I-40 East, the first miles of a twenty-two-day road trip around the South, with points as far west as New Orleans and Shreveport. These were the first Christmas plans I’d made on my own in forty-six years.
Without children, my holidays since 1995 have alternated between my parents’ house in eastern North Carolina and my in-laws’ in Pittsburgh. Over a nearly identical duration, I’ve been researching the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. Now I’m working to finish my last book on him. The first stop on this Southern holiday journey is Berkeley County, South Carolina, a former slave-plantation region near the coast where Smith photographed his 1951 Life essay, “Nurse Midwife.”
The truth is that I’m tired of Gene Smith. Read More »
August 20, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
I arrived at the spring-training complex of the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Florida, around ten A.M. It would be a typical mid-nineties March day under a relentless sun. I was looking for Charlie Montoyo, the forty-six-year-old manager of the Rays’ top minor-league affiliate, the AAA Durham Bulls.
Outfielder Jeff Salazar pointed me toward the “half-field,” a regulation infield with no outfield on the outskirts of the sprawling complex. A chain-link fence separated the infield dirt from a swamp. There, I found Jamie Nelson, catching coordinator for the Rays organization, tossing pitches to Venezuelan catcher José Lobatón, who was crouched in full gear. He caught the balls, exploded out of his position behind home plate—helmet and face mask falling off each time—and threw darts to second base, where Montoyo straddled the bag and gloved the throws, then tossed the balls underhand into a rolling cart.
The three men executed this drill for fifteen minutes, saying nothing. I considered returning to the car for more sunscreen. Then I thought about “deep languor,” a term Richard Ford once used to describe the pleasant monotony of baseball and its routines. Read More »
May 18, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
In November of 2001, I picked up Joe Henry’s album Scar and was stunned by the opening track, a slow blues number called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” Henry, a white man, sang from the point of view of the black icon, expressing the comedian’s love-hate relationship with himself and his audience. Henry had the audacity and sensitivity to pull it off, with help from a spiraling, dipping, dripping saxophone solo by Ornette Coleman.
Scar was released in May of that year. Henry couldn’t have known how tearful the nation would be that fall. He closed the album with these lines from the title track, sung in a careful, mournful tempo:
The blade of our outrageous fortune,
Like a parade, it cuts a path.
Light shows on our foolish way
And darkness on
If I love you, to save myself
And you love me because we are
So fool to think that our parade
Could leave a path
And not a scar.
And I love you with all I am
And you love me with what you are,
As pretty as a twisting vine
A mark so fine
But still a scar.
The album resonated with me throughout that first post–September 11 holiday season, more than Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, which was released on that particular Tuesday, a coincidence that generated new claims of clairvoyance from Dylanologists. Henry’s album cuts deeper. Read More »
March 20, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
From 1993 to 1995 I stumbled in two graduate programs, first economics and then religious studies. I was undone by advanced calculus and cultural theory—couldn’t handle the rigor of either, the puzzle of value unsolved. The abstract challenges of school were leavened by my job at Quail Ridge Books, an independent store in Raleigh. There, I shelved hardbacks and backlist paperbacks by Baldwin, Banks, Berger, (Amy) Bloom, Boland, Gass, Grumbach, Gurganus, Le Guin, L’Engle, Malamud, McCarthy, Mitchell, Munro, Walker, Wideman, (C.D.) Wright, (Charles) Wright, (Richard) Wright; I managed the magazines and literary journals, worked the cash register, and made friends with the customers.
I met the late Don Adcock there. A jazz flute player and the longtime band director at North Carolina State University, he first heard bebop in 1945 when he stepped off a battleship in San Francisco and wandered into a joint where Howard McGhee was playing. Fifty years later he would walk into the store and instantly identify whichever jazz musicians were playing on the house stereo—Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Al Haig, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Lee Morgan, Bunny Berigan—and he knew all the songs, too. He often visited the store with his wife, the poet Betty Adcock, who taught at the local Meredith College as well as at Warren Wilson. Don and Betty became critical sources of encouragement for me as my writing developed, and I spent many afternoons at their Raleigh home—a modern, postwar structure with a flat roof surrounded by heavy woods.Read More »