Sunday, September 11, 2005

In Dixieland Helms takes his stand

Pick up the book review section of any major newspaper on a Sunday morning and you'll find a variety of books essayed, some reviewed interestingly and some not, according to your taste or the reviewer's talent; some reviewed favorably and some not. You don't, typically, find two reviews of the same book. If a review takes issue with the book, you don't, typically, see a positive review of the same book right beside it.

Yet that's exactly what you do see in today's Raleigh News and Observer. When Tim Tyson, in reviewing Jesse Helms' memoir, saw fit to gore an ox, the editors saw a sacred cow, wounded. And so, in the interest of "fair and balanced" criticism, they recruited a second review: reprinted from the American Spectator.

Helms titles his memoir Here's Where I Stand. Considering what, as Tyson shows, he leaves out of the story--the decades of race-baiting, beginning with his WRAL-TV commentaries--there's a certain irony to it. Or at least a Melvillian "subtilizing," as when Helms distances himself from his work on the 1950 campaign of Willis Smith, who opposed Frank Porter Graham in the Democratic primary for senate. (See other versions of his role in "one of the meanest and most racially divisive [primary elections] in the country's history" here, here, and here.)

Though he might, as Tyson suggests, have been "tempted to steal Eleanor Roosevelt's old book title, 'Some of my Best Friends Are Negro,'" the modest title he did choose brilliantly invokes that masterpiece of Southern subtlety, I'll Take My Stand, the 1930 "manifesto" by "Twelve Southerners" whose ostensible concern was the creeping corrosion, through industrialization, of religion, the arts, and other core values of the good southern life. Wendell Berry comes out of this deeply Jeffersonian thinking. But the book is more than it pretends. Try as they might, critics cannot ultimately rescue I'll Take My Stand from its roots in southern racism.

One of the Agrarians repented. Robert Penn Warren wrote the following in 1965 in Who Speaks for the Negro?

Back in the winter of 1929-30, when I was living in England, I had written an essay on the Negro in the South. I never read that essay after it was published, and the reason was, I presume, that reading it would, I dimly sensed, make me uncomfortable. In fact, while writing it, I had experienced some vague discomfort, like the discomfort you feel when your poem doesn't quite come off, when you've had to fake, or twist, or pad it, when you haven't really explored the impulse.

The essay was a cogent and human defense of segregation--segregation conceived of with full legal protection for the Negro, equal educational facilities, equal economic opportunities, equal pay for equal work.

As Fred Hobson points out, the essay he was referring to is "The Briar Patch," his contribution to I'll Take My Stand. Forty years ago, as Hobson writes, "Warren felt he had some long-overdue explaining to do." Tim Tyson is right: It's too bad the same impulse hasn't come to Jesse Helms.

UPDATE from Tyson:

Dear N&O folks:

Eager to see my name in the paper again, happy, as I always am, to remind my mother and all her friends that I am gainfully employed, I opened my Sunday N&O this morning to see just how that darned Peder Zane messed up my latest review. (Just kidding, he's actually the best editor I've ever worked with.) And I have to say I was surprised and disappointed to see that the N&O was running two reviews of Jesse Helms' pathetic new memoir, HERE'S WHERE I STAND, the one I was asked to write and another one a reprint of an article in THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR by a right-wing ideologue who knows nothing about North Carolina.

The silver lining here, of course, it that we can all look forward to an expansion of the N&O's fine book page. This will buck the national trend of closing or shrinking the book page, and demonstrate courage and adherence to principle. We'll need a bigger book page, to run all those second reviews of books whose initial reviewer did not admire them. Surely y'all have not created a special policy just for a former US senator who made no effort to write a decent book, and thus whose only claim to special treatment is his power, money, and fame. And so I assume that I will be getting some extra book assignments out of this, and my mama can look forward to seeing my byline in the paper more often. Otherwise, of course, this would be a craven abdication of principle and the creation of a special policy for one book that the N&O has no plans to apply to other books.

I once labored on a book for nine years. It was a book about North Carolina and the civil rights movement, and it focused upon events in 1959-1961 that one could read about on the front pages of the NEW YORK TIMES, LONDON TIMES, PRAVDA and many other papers around the world, even though these events occurred in a small town in North Carolina. Though it was a homegrown story, it had much larger implications, the reviewers thought. And all of them agreed, too, that the book was exceptionally well written. The Organization of American Historians, which does not care that much about literary merit, actually, but focuses on scholarly importance, gave it two of the four major book awards that OAH hands out each year. The literature of the civil rights movement changed a good deal because of this book. But it did not get a review in the NEWS AND OBSERVER.

Meanwhile, Jesse Helms brays into a tape recorder in between naps and gets not one but two reviews from the N&O, one of them handpicked to present a favorable review of the book. And it was a deeply dishonest review, too, because anyone with any intellectual integrity, even if Jesse Helms was their hero, could not deny that this is a pretty bad book. I am a professional historian, able to read tax records and city directories without falling asleep. And a book by Jesse Helms is inherently interesting to me. But this one, well, the level of craft and candor here is so low that I fell asleep reading it over and over again.

Well-rested from all these naps, and happy to see my name in the paper again, I return to my Sunday rituals and leave you to yours. But I wanted to thank you for expanding the book page to accommodate two reviews of every book, unless the first reviewer likes it. It's more work for Peder, of course, but he's a talented and hard-working editor, and perhaps you can hire him an assistant.

All best,

Tim Tyson

Timothy B. Tyson, Professor of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Visiting Professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture, Duke Divinity School, Senior Scholar of Documentary Studies, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

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