On this rainy, day of hail in Alabama, an essay has ballooned to 8000 words and a novel creak-cracks along, and so I find myself thinking about Southern women writers of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
How long they lived and some of the words they wrote…Their stories and lives have soothed me in the past and I’m thinking about them today and why the mattered so much to me.
So in no particular order…some of their words and some of their stories.
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Lulu Carson McCullers died at 50. 1917-1967. Columbus, Georgia
I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, Ballad of the Sad Cafe
In 1986, Kiffen and I went to the first Carson McCullers Symposium in Columbus, Georgia. The composer, David Diamond, was there and Edward Albee too. I am ashamed to say I gave my play “Make Me A Sacrifice” (a terrible, honking play) to Edward Albee, who was so kind and said he’d read it on the plane. I was 24. I didn’t know any better. Then we drove Phenix City, Alabama where we stopped at a yard full of pink ceramic pigs for sale. The lady, Dot, who was selling them said, “Y’all know you want one. Lay Away Plan Available. Christmas is coming!” She gave me her business card which said, of course, “Dot’s Pigs.” I felt like we’d met one of Carson’s characters. (And I’d escaped my temp job in Atlanta for a whole weekend away.)
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Mary Flannery O’Connor died at 39. 1925-1964. Milledgeville, Georgia
The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.
A Good Man is Hard to Find, Good Country People, Wiseblood
I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” without having any idea what it was about. When I read it, I thought – wait, what did I just read? Flannery O’Connor made me laugh and pay attention to the landscape where I was living in East Tennessee – a place I did NOT want to be. I was dating someone who did not like me much, so it was a bad time, and Flannery O’Connor made me laugh when I feeling pitiful and glumpy. I was 21. I had just come home from England and I did NOT want to be back in Knoxville. Then I found Flannery O’Connor. Later, I named our son, Flannery. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have named him Atticus, but back in 1988, the only other name we were considering was Isak after Isak Dineson. And he was simply Flannery not Isak or Atticus. I made many pilgrimages to Milledgeville. Here are some pictures…
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Mary Ward Brown died at 95. 1917-2013. Marion Junction, Alabama
He considers me just a uterus with legs.
Tongues of Flame, It Wasn’t All Dancing
I took Norah to meet Mary Ward Brown in 2008 with our friend Nancy Anderson. We sat at her table bathed in winter sunlight, cardinals and robins alighting on her bird-feeder. I’d been teaching nonstop all week, and I was exhausted, so it was a relief to sit at this table with Mary, who felt like a friend. The only other thing she had to do that day was burn off some of her tobacco land in the afternoon because of a government thing, which I didn’t understand, but her morning was free to talk stories. It was warm day for late February, and Norah spied giant buzzards flying over head. The wild turkeys, buzzards, and road-kill on the back roads of Alabama fascinated my California daughter. She also found Mary’s feral kittens enchanting but she could not entice them to be petted. Nancy took Norah to Marion to do some shopping, so Mary and I could “get to work!”
Picture by Nancy Anderson
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Helen Norris Bell died at 97. 1916-2013. Montgomery, Alabama
I try to set the words on fire to see if they will burn.
The Christmas Wife, The Burning Glass, Water Into Wine, The Cracker Man
I went visit Helen too. She smiled when she spoke of Peter Taylor. “I was a finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award. They flew me to DC and gave me 1500 dollars—if you won the whole thing you got 5000 dollars. Peter Taylor got that. He’s a love, dead now. Anyway, they asked me to go, and I said yes. Well, William Gass was there, and he told the audience, ‘I’m not going to read to you. A writer is not a performer. I don’t write to read aloud. ’Well, those folks paid fifty dollars a head to come to that dinner and hear us read, but he got up there and talked about how he wasn’t going to read and too bad for them—and I realized that I was going to have to get up and go next, and I said to Peter Taylor, ‘I’m next…I have to follow that?’ And he nodded—he was very sympathetic, and I got up there, so nervous, and I said, ‘I can think of nothing nicer than to read to you all this evening.’ Well, they were like butter. They just melted.”
Picture by Kiffen Madden-Lunsford
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Nelle Harper Lee died at 89. 1926-2016. Monroeville, Alabama
Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman.
I wrote a biography about Nelle Harper Lee, but I will say Monroeville is a place that draws me back again and again. I’m 8,000 words into an essay on Harper Lee and Monroeville. It won’t cooperate or stop growing. Here is a letter I wrote to my editor about Patricia Neal coming to the Old Courthouse to read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”
I just had an hour talk with the curator, Jane Ellen Clark, at the Monroe County Heritage Museum. Last Friday night, Patricia Neal and Joel Vig performed Truman Capote’s A CHRISTMAS MEMORY at the Courthouse in Monroeville and Harper Lee came. The courthouse was packed!
Harper Lee and Patricia Neal were both in wheelchairs, and they hugged each other and were so glad to see one another. They both said how much loved each other. Harper Lee had never been in to the see the exhibit of the Truman Capote Room and the Harper Lee Room, and she looked at the picture of Henry Bumstead and said, “He was a beautiful man. He got down on his hands and knees and measured the courtroom.”
She saw the picture of herself and Truman standing beside his brand new Chevy convertible and said, “He was so proud of that car. That was the second trip to Kansas.”
She did think Sook’s coat under glass was “ridiculous” and said that Sook never wore anything like that…
Anyway, Joel Vig, who looks so much like Truman, has been corresponding with her, and he got her to come…She’s in assisted living in Monroeville now.
I would have given anything to be in the room…but Jane Ellen said it’s clear from how her face softened at the memory of Truman that there was never a real falling out, which is what Gerald Clarke said in his email.
If I can put any of this in this – just a paragraph of Harper Lee watching Patricia Neal and Joel Vig perform a CHRISTMAS MEMORY in the Courthouse in Monroeville. Jane Ellen said they’re all still flying high.
That story did not go in the biography as so many others did not, because they just couldn’t fit, and what would today’s children know about Patricia Neal, married once to Roald Dahl, who played the first Mrs. Walton? Not a lot. I did ask my friend, George Thomas Jones if he went to see the performance, but he said they were charging “Hollywood prices” at $35.00 a ticket to see A Christmas Memory.
So George did not go.
George Thomas Jones and AB Blass
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Eudora Alice Welty died at 92. 1909-2001. Jackson, Mississippi
A good snapshot stops a moment from running away.
Delta Wedding, The Optimist’s Daughter, One Writer’s Beginnings
My father sent me a long newspaper article about Eudora Welty that I taped on the wall and read again and again. It was 1989 or 1990 and we were living in a tiny apartment in Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Flannery was a baby and I was pregnant with Lucy. Kiffen’s brother kept asking us for money and showing up wasted. I couldn’t stop reading about Eudora, and I began to read her stories. I recalled how one of my Sewanee students, who lived in Jackson, Mississippi, said,”Miss Eudora has a note on her front door that says: ‘Go away. I do not want to meet you.’ That’s a little rude, don’t you think?” But it made me so happy to hear that story.
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Kathryn Tucker Windham died at 93. 1918-2011. Selma, Alabama
I think we need to be put back in touch with our childhood…to be reminded of what’s important, like memories about people we loved, or things that happened to us that affected our lives, things we can laugh about and shed a few tears about… I think storytelling is a way of saying ‘I love you. I love you enough to tell you something that means a great deal to me.
13 Alabama Ghosts & Jeffrey, Odd-Egg Editor, Alabama: One Big Front Porch
I wrote a story about Kathryn too. It was called “Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie.” My daughter, Lucy, did all the illustrations. Here is one of them that I especially loved. Lucy cut up a green sweater to make the spanish moss in the trees in the Selma graveyard, a place that Charlie and Kathryn often visited. e.
When I interviewed Kathryn when Kiffen and I were in Alabama in 2007, and she offered us okra and black-eyed peas. I asked her about covering the Civil Rights in Selma, and how Selma had changed. She looked sad and said, “Selma is not any better today I don’t think. I think it’s more racially divided now than it was back then.” She did not think much of Selma’s mayor, a man she had lost hope for due to his need to take credit for everything. When she sent him a letter to argue a point, he wrote back informing her that she was “opinionated” to which Kathryn admitted, “I could not disagree.”
Then she laughed and took a sip of iced tea.
By Lucy Lunsford
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Sunset last night on our street.