Commentary Magazine


“And That's What I Like About the South”

A brief cautionary tale for those who do not believe in fate. In my twenty-second year, in the middle of a two-year hitch as a draftee in the peacetime U.S. Army, I was informed by a lean and gruff staff sergeant at Fort Hood, Texas, that I had qualified to work as a clerk-typist at a recruiting station in either Little Rock, Arkansas, or Shreveport, Louisiana, and was asked which of the two towns I preferred. I reckoned I had roughly ten seconds to make up my mind. I recall thinking that Shreveport, being in Louisiana, probably had the better food, and I knew that it had something of a reputation for being a wide-open town; yet Little Rock was a few hundred miles closer to Chicago, where I was from.

“Little Rock, Sergeant,” I said, permitting propinquity to win out over profligacy. Before the next year was out I had met and married the woman who is the mother of my two sons; and I had published my first piece of writing, which settled me in my determination to become a writer. From those three words—“Little Rock, Sergeant”—marriage, family, and vocation followed. I have no complaints about any of this, but even today I cannot keep from wondering what my life would have been like if I had said, “Shreveport, Sergeant.”

On the south side of Chicago there is a restaurant named Febo’s over whose bar is the slogan, “Febo’s, Famous for Nothing.” Three years before I arrived there—the year of my arrival was 1959—one might have said the same about Little Rock. The only fact I could have cited about the city, apart from its being the state capital, was that it was the birthplace of Brooks Robinson, the great third-baseman of the Baltimore Orioles. But by 1959 the city had already become famous—infamous, to be more precise—for the forced integration of its Central High School, which was accomplished in 1957 only with the aid of federal troops called in by President Eisenhower.

In the autumn of 1957, in fact, as a senior in college, I along with a friend had driven through Little Rock on a trip around the South. I remembered the city as being hilly; I also remembered a rather overweight young National Guardsman leaning on his rifle and dozing off while standing guard on the lawn of Central High. From that perspective the crisis did not seem much of a crisis. But the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, considerable though its consequences were for the nation at large, was easily the most decisive event in the history of the city—and, as I discovered on a brief recent trip to Little Rock, made after an absence of roughly twenty years, it remains the decisive event.

Although I had stayed awake the better part of the night during the Trailways bus ride from Killeen, Texas, crowded in my seat near the window next to a heavy-set woman smelling of talcum powder and sachet who was reading Christian Science literature, I nevertheless arrived in Little Rock feeling exhilarated. After the sere flatness of central Texas, the green undulating landscape of Arkansas raised the spirits. There was the additional inspiriting fact that, owing to there being no Army base near Little Rock, I would be able to live in an apartment by myself. This was no small luxury after spending the past eight months sleeping in the same room with some two hundred men, listening to them snoring, belching, sneezing, wheezing, flatulating, occasionally crying out in their sleep for mother, and otherwise producing a cacophony that might have been as music to the ears of John Cage but was distinctly not my notion of ideally restful conditions. The Army is a total environment, from which, morning to night, one never escapes, except in sleep or in the recesses of the imagination. In coming to Little Rock, where I would presumably work only a regular day, but no more, with my evenings and weekends free, I was escaping this total environment. Arriving in Little Rock, I felt the exquisite delight of someone who senses he has really gotten away with something.

I checked my duffel bag at the bus station, bought a newspaper, and two hours later had my apartment. It was a studio with a minuscule kitchen and a private bathroom (a private bath—“Aladdinish!” as Theodore Dreiser might have put it). Containing a double bed that rolled out of a closet, two pieces of a battered gray sectional couch, two wooden chairs and a small table at which to eat, and another table that I could use as a desk, it was a simple enough dwelling but, hallelujah, mine own.

My apartment was at the south end of Louisiana Street, fourteen blocks from the recruiting station in downtown Little Rock where I was to work, and across the street from the eastern end of the governor’s mansion, whose current occupant was the redneck populist Orval Faubus. A block away was a Safeway supermarket, where I bought a few dishes, a single service of aluminum flatware, glasses, a coffee cup, a kitchen knife, a pot, a frying pan, a kettle for boiling water, a can opener, four cans of Campbell’s Soup, some packaged cold-cuts, a white bread, a dozen eggs, a jar of instant coffee, a carton of orange juice, and a $3.98 West Bend alarm clock. Apart from the alarm clock, the only appliance in the apartment was a small Olivetti portable typewriter that I had bought for $35 from a sergeant at Fort Hood who needed the money to pay for a ring job on his car. The apartment had no television set, no radio, no phonograph, no air-conditioner, no fan, nothing on the walls; it did have Venetian blinds. I never had enough extra money to install a telephone, but there was a pay phone half a block away on the corner of Main and 17th Street. Simple Southern living; I, at least, would never live so simply again. After living on Army bases, I felt I had it knocked—absolutely made in the shade.

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Little Rock was a city of fewer than 200,000 people and the U.S. Army recruiting station occupied a three-story, fake-Romanesque former bank building on Main Street near the center of downtown. I worked on the mezzanine, with three other enlisted men and a spinster civil servant who wore her gray hair in braids pinned atop her head and who regularly invited me, a heathen Israelite, to join her for services at her fundamentalist church. The first floor was given over to administrative functions; on the third floor, medical examinations were done. I typed the results of the physicals. These results could sometimes be rather startling. Boys who had been recruited from towns in the fastnesses of the Ozarks, or in the back country, where there were no medical services, would, on being examined, be revealed to have punctured eardrums, or hopelessly rotted teeth, or venereal disease, or incipient tuberculosis. The minimal weight limit for getting into service was then, I believe, 106 pounds, and some couldn’t make it, so that the sergeants who recruited them would take them out and fill them with ice cream, bananas, and beer and bring them back to have them reweighed. Recruiting sergeants working out in the field had strict quotas; if they did not fill them they lost their jobs, which they did not want to do since recruiting was regarded as light duty.

But it could not have been any lighter duty than mine. I worked for a gentle and good-natured sergeant named Wilson Duncan, who was a drinking man of the kind known as a bibbler. He would duck out from time to time during the day for a few belts, returning with his spirits and good humor refreshed. We were overstaffed. We reported for work at 8:00 and rarely had any typing to do after 3:00. Fairly often, after spending an entire weekend alone in my apartment without speaking to anyone, on a Monday morning at 10:00, Sergeant Duncan would say, “We got things pretty much under control here, kid. Why don’t you knock off for the day?” We typists all did a lot of knocking off.

I had enormous amounts of time to myself, more than I have ever had in my life. I filled it, insofar as possible, with reading. I was a big customer at the Little Rock Public Library, which was on Louisiana Street between the recruiting station and my apartment. A magazine and tobacco store downtown carried such magazines as the New Statesman, the Spectator, Encounter, the New Leader, and the Economist, and I was a regular there, too. ( I was already a subscriber to COMMENTARY, Partisan Review, and Dissent.) On steamy Southern days I would sit in my apartment, with no shirt on, reading away for three-and four-hour stretches—four hours was about my limit. I would punctuate these reading sessions with walks. At one point I bought a basketball, which I would dribble over to a schoolyard three blocks away, there to shoot a hundred free throws, then return to read Sidney Hook’s The Hero in History, F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition, or a Balzac novel. Days would go by in which I spoke to no one.

Nights, when there was no movie in town I cared to see, I would walk down to the empty lot on 17th and Main Street where, most weeks, traveling revivalists and faith healers set up their tents. The evangelist would usually arrive on Monday, often driving a Cadillac with the extravagant tail fins of the late 1950′s and followed by a huge truck which contained the large tent, the folding chairs, the organ, and the sound system that were the tools of his trade. By Tuesday he would be in business. I could hear the music from my apartment. It would begin with gentle hymns, such as “By and By We’re Going Up to See the King,” and build to the driving rhythms of “We’re Tentin’ Tonight.” The audience for these shows were poor and rural folk: the women often swollen by a starch-laden diet, the men often missing a few fingers, many teeth, and wearing farm overalls. A segregated section was set off to the side for Negroes. There was never a shortage of crippled and elderly. An atmosphere of the carnival freak show suffused everything, at least for me, who stood on the edge of the tent, taking it in.

These performances built to a crescendo. Much chatter about the wonder-working power of Jesus Christ was interspersed with hymns blasted out on high-powered organs. The evangelist would wing it, his accounts of heaven and hell being interspersed with cries to the Lord—“Can you hear me, Jesus?” “Do you know we love you, Jesus?” “Oh, blood of the lamb!”—followed by enthusiastic amens. After an hour or so of this foreplay, the screws were applied. The evangelist knew, oh yes he knew, there were people here tonight who needed to be saved, who had not yet come to Jesus, but would do so tonight, amen. “Won’t you come forth, won’t you meet with Jesus now?” he would whisper into the public-address system. Sometimes parents would bring their children forward to the stage, or wives their husbands. “I love you, Jesus,” some among them would call out. Some would writhe with ecstasy, or faint dead away. Those who were saved were led off to a smaller tent toward the side of the lot, there to fill out a card giving evidence of their salvation on that night and to be assigned to one or another of Little Rock’s many fundamentalist churches; there, too, I do not doubt, they were hit up for money.

The wildest of these shows were of course those put on by the faith healers, who would tell people that if they came to Jesus they could throw away their crutches, slip off their braces, shake free of their arthritis; their boils, tumors, and cancers would fall away. “Oh, thank you, Jesus thank you, Jesus,” the evangelist would yawp, not wishing to take for himself the credit for miraculous cures. “Do you love him? Can you feel him here with us tonight?” Organ music full blast: “Oh, we’re tentin’ tonight, oh, we’re tentin’ tonight, tentin’ on the old camp grounds.” “My assistants will pass among you. Give what you can to continue the work of the Lord, the Father and the Son. Give all that you can.”

It was the purest Elmer Gantry. I had read the novel, seen the movie, and now night after night watched the real thing from which both were drawn—and somehow never grew tired of it. Watching it I felt a combination of pity, revulsion, and sheer admiration of craft. I became a connoisseur of these performances, a student of the methods of the laying on of hands, of the babbling in strange tongues, of the hitting up for cash at the precise right moment. Once, as I stood at my usual place outside the open tent, a fleshy woman in a house dress, pale and with thinning hair, emerged from the tent to address me. “Won’t you join us?” she asked, in a treacly voice. “You know he died for you.” Speechless, I turned away, a shiver running through my body, and did not return for the remainder of that week.

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I yearned for company, but the kind of company I required was not available. Somehow, during the last four or five years, I had crossed the line and become a member of what I think of as the “bookish class.” This had both its advantages and its disadvantages. Among its advantages, it meant that I could defy Pascal, who said that man’s problems began with his inability to sit quietly by himself in a room, by being able, in fact, to sit very quietly in a room, with time out every so often for a hundred free throws, at least so long as I had a book or magazine to read. Among its disadvantages was that I now found myself a little bored after a few hours in the company of people who were not interested in the rather specialized things that I was interested in: books, ideas, writing, art.

During the week I went to lunch with the young men I worked with at the recruiting station: an airman from Alabama who was recently married; a Marine sergeant named Jackie Taylor the story of whose life was the alimony and child-support payments he had to send monthly to his former wife back in Texas; a landscape architect from Cleveland who sent out signals to me that he was secretly a homosexual; two fellows who helped administer physicals, one from Baltimore and another from Columbus, Ohio, both of whom had battled their way through college without, I think it fair to say, education ever having laid a glove on them. This sounds suspiciously like intellectual snobbery, though I prefer to think it factual reporting. We all got on well enough; it was merely that I sensed, and sensed that they sensed, that there was no place for our friendships to go—except, every so often, for a couple of beers after work.

I must have seemed, to put it very gently, more than a little strange to them: a lone Jew, a young man who brought books to read during coffee breaks, someone who had strong opinions on integration (very much for it), and who in winter took to wearing a dark gray Brooks Brothers tweed overcoat over his uniform until told, gently, by Sergeant Duncan that in wearing that coat he was out of uniform. I must also have seemed a bit dreamy, which I began to be, for all the reading I had been doing led me to believe that I could write. It was in the Army in Little Rock that, for the first time, I felt the palpable excitement of writing—the sensuousness of it, the feeling of power and control that came with knowing how sentences worked. Before, I had felt vaguely, inchoately, that I might someday like to write; now I felt the day had come in earnest.

My reading, now that it had a specific motive, became all the more passionate. Whereas, before, I asked about everything I read, What does the author mean?, I now asked as well, How does he do it? Words inflamed me. “Eschew,” “deliquescent,” “amanuensis,” I wished to compose sentences into which such words could be fitted. I would study sentences in writers I admired to understand their architecture. Elegance for me was available only within the frame of prose. I discovered the use of the dash—a banner day. The subtlety of the semicolon was at last revealed to me; I was delighted by its magical power of demonstrating connectedness. I lived in a state of nearly perpetual interior excitation, which could be shared with no one. I was in verbal heat.

I began working off some of this heat by writing letters to the editor of the Arkansas Gazette, a newspaper which, the year before, had won a Pulitzer Prize for its editorial coverage of the crisis over the integration of Central High School. These letters, moralistic and no doubt very pompous, were duly printed and went duly unnoticed. I have to strain to remember what they were about: no doubt they pointed up contradictions in Gazette editorials, or satirized the statements of segregationist politicians, or remarked upon the behavior of foreign regimes (about which everything I knew I had myself read in the Economist). When I took to dropping off these letters in person at the newspaper, I was instructed to take them up to Mr. Neil, who worked on the editorial page and was responsible for the correspondence column.

A few years later Jerry Neil, who had become my friend, told me how he viewed his work as the lead editorial writer on the the Arkansas Gazette “I drop off my wife at her job,” he said, “and get into the office by eight. I spend the first part of the morning telling General de Gaulle or Harold Macmillan or some other European head of state to get his act together. I next accuse Lyndon Johnson of chicanery, or remind Faubus what a blockhead he is. Then I break for lunch, at which I manage to stay just sober enough to be able to return to the office to paste up letters before knocking off for the day. It’s a pretty good racket.”

Jerry Neil was one of those superior Southerners—not a fake Southern aristocrat, or the son of a wealthy family who went off to Princeton or Yale and remained an Ivy Leaguer for life, but a bright young man who, after going to the state university, marched off to Europe for World War II and returned able to participate in the wider culture of the world while never forgetting his origins. He had read widely in European history and English literature. He admired Max Beerbohm, H.L. Mencken, and A.J. Liebling. He had the old-fashioned journalist’s love of oddity of character and appetite for a comic anecdote. His laugh, which it was always such a pleasure to be able to voke, resembled the exhale of a snore. He dressed with refinement and thought the same way.

Why the heavy drinking? I do not know for certain, but I suspect that Jerry Neil was a disappointed man. As an editorialist on the Arkansas Gazette, he had done a good deal of the work for which the paper’s editor, Harry Ashmore, had been given the credit. He had been offered other jobs on other papers—the New York Herald-Tribune, I seem to recall, and also the Wall Street Journal—but for his own private reasons turned them down. Perhaps he regretted this; perhaps he felt he lacked the nerve to try himself in the larger world. Harry Ashmore had left the Arkansas Gazette to join Robert Hutchins at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, there to get somehow lost in the great dialogue. Another bright young writer named William Whitworth left the Arkansas Gazette to go to work for the New Yorker and eventually to wind up as editor of the Atlantic. But Jerry stayed on, pasting up those letters through an alcoholic haze until his death, at age fifty-eight, in the late 1970′s. I do not know what he saw in me, but even now I am glad that he saw something.

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It was to Jerry Neil that I ran with one of my two contributor’s copies of my first published magazine article, a report on Little Rock that appeared in the New Leader. “Nice piece,” he said, looking up as he finished reading it. He was no doubt being charitable. It was a composition modeled on those travel pieces that James (not yet Jan) Morris used to write for Encounter, anecdotal and heavy on impressions. I cannot locate a copy of it today, but my recollection is that it was vastly overwritten. I seem to recall a number of its sentences beginning with the phrase, “In any event”; “at any rate” also got a pretty good workout. I had no illusions that the New Leader was a great magazine, but I was nonetheless thrilled to be published in the same journal that also published Sidney Hook, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bertrand Russell, Lionel Trilling, and a number of other writers whom I then read with nearly complete reverence.

For a young writer there is no duplicating the excitement of first publication. In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton tells of the day she opened her mail to discover that three different magazines had accepted poems of hers. Such was the fever of her excitement that she ran up and down the staircase in her house, long skirt lifted, over and over again. I carried my letter of acceptance from the assistant managing editor of the New Leader in the pocket of my uniform shirt for days. At work at the recruiting station, I would sneak off to the john to read it again, for the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth time. I am now of the company of Hook and Niebuhr and Trilling, I would say to myself. Hot damn!

Had I not published that rather fragile magazine piece—“in any event” and “at any rate”—I should probably not have married as young as I did, which was at twenty-three. I recall that in one of his books Edmund Wilson, not known for delicacy in these matters, remarks that young men seek out the company of women owing to “the accumulated brimming over of spermatozoa.” Not unbrimful myself, I had carried on with such young women as life in Little Rock had set in my path. At one point, I had known (as the Bible has it) a woman who, I later learned from Sergeant Jackie Taylor, was under surveillance by the FBI for associating with potentially violent segregationists. If she were under surveillance, then so, presumably, might I have been—not too close, I hoped. But when the young woman—bright and good-hearted with a lovely sense of humor—came along whom I was to marry, I plunged ahead, in good part because I already knew what I wanted to do with my life: make more sentences, paragraphs, pieces, books, an activity to which marriage then seemed no obstacle but instead a convenience. (It is, of course, neither.) So one sunny afternoon I informed Sergeant Duncan that I needed an hour or so off, and slipped out to the office of a justice of the peace across from the courthouse and married. Two months later, on my way to being discharged at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, I left Little Rock with a Southern wife, a portable Olivetti, and a |200 dark green Ford sedan, a combination out of which someone with a proper knack would have been able to write a corking good country-and-western song.

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II

Four Years later, in 1964, I returned to Little Rock, now with children and furniture, after working at editorial jobs on magazines in Chicago and New York. New York on a small salary with children seemed a punishing place; it was also a city in which I was not getting much writing of my own done. A move seemed in order. Now that I had something resembling a trade—that of magazine editor—what could be cleverer than to light out for a place, Little Rock, Arkansas, where it wasn’t practiced, for so far as I knew Little Rock had no magazines? But then it seemed to be my fate not so much to move to a place as to flee another place.

The last time I had landed in Little Rock I had come on a Trailways bus from the southwest; now I would be arriving on a Greyhound bus from the northeast. Not much in the way of progress, I fear. My wife had preceded me with our children, also by bus, and had rented a house before I arrived. I had stayed behind to see our furniture put on the moving van and to sell my small library to a man from a used-book store near Union Square, who carried it out in three trips with a shopping cart. I retained only my copies of Max Beerbohm’s slender volumes, a beautiful green-covered Bodley Head edition of Ulysses, and a set of Macaulay’s History of England, which I still haven’t read.

My wife had rented a house on Cumberland Street, only a few blocks away from my Louisiana Street apartment, for the price—wondrous, after New York—of $100 a month. It had three bedrooms, a large living room and dining room, and a glass-enclosed study that led onto a porch large enough to be called a veranda. (One morning a few months after we moved in, my wife, in a parody of Tennessee Williams, swept onto the veranda in her nightgown and asked, “Are the boys from the university here yet?” “Why Blanche darling,” I replied, “you know the university moved away thirty years ago.”) The house was originally built for the daughter and son-in-law of the woman who owned the large white house next door. That woman had died, and the daughter, now herself a widow, had moved into the larger house. She was of the old school, and the last person in Little Rock, man or woman, whom I was to hear refer to Negroes as “darkies.” On the same block, to the south of the house we lived in, in what once must have been the stable, lived a family who had originally come from a small town in southeastern Arkansas; the man was one of those Southerners who, though without much conversation, could repair anything from a toaster to a DC-10.

Throughout my time in the South I was always running into men who could make and fix things. I met men whose advice on how to repair my used cars involved my removing the engine, or installing a new clutch, or putting in something they called a “throw-out bearing”—advice I was perfectly unprepared to take. I met men who knew how to breed animals, lay out driveways, do elaborate wiring, remove tree stumps with dynamite. On my first job I worked with a man who, on weekends, was building his own house—from scratch. I, on the other hand, could make one thing: sentences. But then on a desert island whom would you prefer to be with, a man who knows how to purify water or a man who can spot a dangling modifier?

Since there was no staggering need in Little Rock for a man who could make or fix sentences, I felt lucky to get the job I did, which was as something called “administrative officer” of the North Little Rock Urban Renewal Agency. During the time I worked there—roughly seven months—I administered nothing. North Little Rock was a town of forty or so thousand people located across the Arkansas River from Little Rock. It was for the most part less prosperous, less interesting, more ragged and redneck—mutatis mutandis (to say the least), it might be considered a Jackson Heights or Astoria to Little Rock’s Manhattan. The idea behind the urban-renewal program was to give the town something like a raison d’être by clearing land for a sleek new produce market center and rehabilitating some of the more dismal Negro neighborhoods with the aid of injections of federal housing funds.

My job at the North Little Rock Urban Renewal Agency turned out to be, precisely, making and fixing sentences. I wrote publicity releases and edited correspondence written by other staff members that went off to Washington or to regional offices in Dallas. At one point I published a 2,000-word profile of the town’s mayor in the now defunct magazine Pageant; the mayor was a suave version of the good-ole-boy type who, in his late forties, was still getting into bar brawls while attending mayors’ conferences in Northern cities. I omitted the brawls from my profile and featured instead the hundreds of new mercury vapor lamps he had put up in North Little Rock. Around the office I spoke almost exclusively that lingua franca of the American male, sports, with a special emphasis on Southwest Conference football. The work was dull but the pay was low.

To supplement it I had begun to review books fairly regularly for the New Republic; I had, as always in the South, a good deal of time on my hands. I felt myself gradually becoming something of a Southerner. I drove a series of hopeless used cars, including a Corvair (the car, unsafe at any speed, on which Ralph Nader made his reputation) and a twelve-year-old Cadillac—a real cream puff, as they say out on the lot—the maintenance of whose shaky transmission was paid for by reviews of the works of John Updike, Norman Mailer, and George P. Elliott. At home we acquired a dog and two cats. My three-year-old son had taken to calling his infant brother “honey-chile baby.” I awoke at 3:00 A.M. to go fishing in the White River with my father-in-law. I never hunted, but I did on occasion belt down moonshine. I danced to shit-kicking country bands at highway honky-tonks in whose parking lots one could always depend on finding some youthful good ole boy vomiting his guts out. Once, after someone tried to break into our house at night, I borrowed a revolver from a co-worker, which I kept in the drawer of my night-table in the event the burglar returned. (Thank God, he never did.) On that same night-table lay the bound galley proofs of Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation. Anybody around here want to talk about two cultures?

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In between discussing the relative merits of Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal, the coaches, respectively, of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas Longhorns; writing letters to the director of the regional office of the Housing and Home Finance Agency; and listening to endless friendly assurances from my coworkers about how most Negroes down South liked things just as they were, I somehow managed, while on the job, to find time to write an article entitled “The Row Over Urban Renewal” that was accepted by Harper‘s. Publication of this article marked a turning point. As a result of it, I became, for a period of about four months, one of this country’s leading housing experts (of whom there were not too many). As for my expertise, my article ran to some 5,000 words; on the entire subject of urban renewal I should say that my complete knowledge ran to something like 7,000 words. But let that pass: the country needs experts, and for the moment, however fraudulently, I was one of those in housing. I appeared on a panel about the subject along with Edward Banfield and others at the University of Chicago Law School; I was offered a job as director of public relations for the planning commission of the City of Baltimore; I was approached for the job of speech writer in Washington for Robert Weaver, then Secretary of Housing.

But the most interesting offer I had was to become the first director of the anti-poverty program of Pulaski County (which encompassed Little Rock, North Little Rock, and the surrounding area). One afternoon I was called in to the offices of the United Fund to speak to a man named Cal Ledbetter, who was from an old Little Rock family, had a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton, and nourished political ambitions as a middle-of-the-road progressive in state politics, to ask if the job would be one I would care to try. After thinking about it for a day or two, I said that I would indeed. The year was 1965, and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, from all reports, had begun in seriousness. I was twenty-eight years old and this job gave me my first opportunity—no small incentive—to be a boss. The salary was $9,600. The pay was still low, but the work suddenly seemed a lot more interesting.

Ours was not to be a large program, at least not at the outset. I had a budget that allowed me to hire four people with the job title of field workers, and a secretary. As field workers I hired two young men, recent graduates of Southern black colleges; a very savvy white woman named Ruth Arnold, who had been around in the days of the Central High School integration crisis and who had worked for the Arkansas Council of Human Relations and knew an enormous amount about the personal lives and politics of the leading figures in Little Rock; and an acquaintance who had been working as a teacher at the Arkansas School for the Blind, where some years before the Indian writer Ved Mehta had been a student.

Our offices were two rooms above the United Fund headquarters. The first day on the job, a man who worked for the United Fund entered my office to inform me he had alerted the other occupants of the building that we would have Negroes—pronounced, in that day, “Nigras”—working for us who would be using the same upstairs men’s room. (“Here we go,” I thought, the line from Phil Harris’s old song, “. . . and that’s what I like about the South,” playing in my head.) Our task was to define the extent and locations of poverty in Pulaski County and, after having done so, to determine which of the various anti-poverty programs we wished to apply for. We were also—and this was chiefly to be my job—to explain the purposes of the anti-poverty program to the community at large and to those poor sections of the community that were to be its beneficiaries.

My preparation for this job—apart from my role as one of the country’s leading housing experts, which still had another month or so to run—was that I was a liberal, and hence could be expected to care about the poor, and that I had read Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America. The rumor had it that someone had put Dwight Macdonald’s lengthy New Yorker review of Harrington’s book under the nose of John F. Kennedy, and from it the President derived the notion of mounting a war on poverty some day. I recall having been impressed by the book the first time I read it—a portion had earlier run in COMMENTARY—but I can testify that it is not a book that richly repays rereading. Its definition of poverty, and especially its statistics, are wobbly in the extreme; at one point Harrington seems to have (if I remember rightly) something like between a fourth and a third of the nation as poor. Even I, who then wished to believe the worst about the United States, could not quite buy that one. But if Harrington’s statistics were somewhat cooked to begin with, in the months ahead I nevertheless served them up reheated in what were to be my many local appearances as Little Rock’s poverty guy.

As the poverty guy, I became a minor media figure in a small city—the adjectives are important here. I was often interviewed by the local press; I appeared frequently on the five and ten o’clock news. At 6:00 A.M. once I was on a television show called “Eye of Arkansas,” delivering my Harringtonian statistics sandwiched in between a black quartet that sang “Mack the Knife” and a woman who ran the local gourmet food shop in a demonstration on how to make crêpes. I spoke before Rotary and Kiwanis Club luncheon meetings. I drew misty eyes from the pretty and well-heeled young Southern ladies of the Junior League when I told them that there were children in Harlem who had never seen an orange. (How the hell did I know that? I must have read it in Harrington; but how the hell did he know?) But my most surprising speaking engagements were in Negro churches. In these churches the most humdrum things I would say would be greeted by amens, hosannas, and choruses of “Say it out, man!,” “Oh, yeah!,” and “We hear you talkin’!” Had I not had a fairly accurate sense of my intrinsic dullness as a speaker, I might have been encouraged by this response to try my hand at a little faith healing.

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What did Little Rock’s blacks think of me? Insofar as they thought of me at all, it was probably as another white man passing through town. I tried to deal as evenhandedly as I could with the two young blacks who worked for the anti-poverty program, going to lunch with them when we were all in the office, making certain that they were invited to all parties and social functions. But they had been brought up to handle themselves with extreme circumspection around whites, and it was not always easy to break through. One of the two took to calling me “Boss,” inserting the word into nearly every sentence he addressed to me, until one day, when he said, “What’s happening, Boss?,” I replied—humor not always being a clear advantage in race relations—“Nothing much, Rochester,” which got a nervous laugh of the kind comedians call “tension release.”

One evening the director of the Little Rock Urban League, a black man not much older than I, arranged a meeting for me with what then passed for the black power structure in the city. I was there to explain the rudiments of the anti-poverty program. We sat at a rectangular table. The director of the Urban League, opening the meeting, assured me that this was to be an informal session. “Gentlemen, allow me to introduce our new anti-poverty director, Joe Epstein, to you. Joe, going around the table from your right, this is Reverend Fulks, Attorney Bledsoe, President Simpson of Philander Smith College, Dr. Win-gate. . . .” Informal? Everyone in the room seemed to have a title but me, which struck me as a comic reversal of old black-white roles that also carried a touch of the spirit of Amos ‘n Andy. After I had my say, the others spoke, each with a strong ceremonial flavor. There was something of a performance quality to the evening, with the proviso that everyone in the room except me had no doubt seen the performance scores of times before. What they said among themselves after I left, I cannot know. Some must, at a minimum, have felt a strong distrust, for the anti-poverty program promised to shake things up—that, in any case, is how I sold it to them—and the men gathered in that room had actually all done quite well with things as they were. Potentially they had something to lose if the anti-poverty program succeeded. As it turned out, they needn’t have worried.

My dealings with the authentically poor were hardly any closer. I visited segregated schools, where, especially in the outlying areas, facilities had passed to the stage beyond dilapidation, windows had no screens, and flies settled on lumpy food in dark cafeteria kitchens. I accompanied my staff of field workers through ramshackle houses, where wooden stoves gave off the only heat in winter and holes in walls were plugged with rags and broken windows covered in cardboard. On one such tour of a so-called “poverty area,” I mentioned to a black woman who was the local school principal that it was ironic all these sad houses seemed to have television sets. “Mr. Epstein,” she said, “please do not knock those old television sets. Because of them the children in these homes hear what little good English they are likely to hear before they get to school.” I recall attempting to explain to a young, bloated black woman, the mother of four illegitimate children—not a welfare racketeer, but someone who had had these children through passive ignorance—how important voter registration was, and noted that my explanation was greeted with the deepest, the most hopeless, incomprehension.

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Poverty in Little Rock was real, but was the anti-poverty program? It was certainly real in the sense that there were offices and jobs and a man named Sargent Shriver in Washington who was the national director of the program, and checks flying around for millions of dollars to pay for salaries and services. But was it real in the sense of having any hope of bringing about the social change it promised and of the kind that I, as a local director, envisioned for it? Social change entails the transfer of power, and the record would appear to show that people who have power have not been known to give it up cheerfully. Nor have there been many instances of power being given to the powerless because the powerful feel an aching sense of the world’s injustice. People have to take power for themselves. Was the delusion of anti-poverty bureaucrats such as myself monumental in thinking that we could transfer power that was not ours to transfer? Before I was on the job three months, I began to wonder about this.

All the grants I had hoped to apply for had behind them the dream of social change. Such roundly popular, noncontroversial programs as the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which supplied teen-agers with summer jobs and fattened everyone’s payroll, and Headstart, which gave poor children a year of pre-schooling with free breakfasts thrown in, were no great problem. But I had it in mind to set up a legal-aid program (through which the poor would be able to sue for their rights), a birth-control program (which would at length lighten their economic burden), and a voter-registration drive (which, under the guise of registering poor people to vote in an election for the anti-poverty board, would make them a political force). More exotic programs were available; I seem to recall chuckling at what seemed to me the idiocy of something called “foster grandparents,” which would give older people money to baby-sit for poor working mothers. But I had little interest in such things. Give the poor lawyers, condoms, and the vote, I thought, and you have given them a lot.

There was a minor problem or two. Lawyers, physicians, and local officials didn’t quite feel as I did about these things. Everyone was worried about going too far too fast, and so such grants as I was able to apply for were rather piddling ones. Worse news, people to my Left, on whose support I had counted, were not hugely impressed by the anti-poverty program.

Now, nothing makes a liberal more nervous than not to have the approval of people to his Left. In this case, the people to my Left were the young men and women in the civil-rights movement, which, in Little Rock, meant the people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office in one of the city’s black districts on 9th Street. Although I never became close to any of the SNCC people, I greatly admired them. What I admired about them was very simple: their physical courage. They had engaged in sit-ins and protests in tough Arkansas towns like Pine Bluff and Jonesboro at a time when they stood to have their heads bashed in for doing so. The then-leader of SNCC in Arkansas, a white man roughly my own age named Bill Hansen, had put in much time in jails across the South. Hansen was tall, slender, very political, and quite humorless. Once, after we had lunched together at a small restaurant on 9th Street, he dropped a few coins for a tip. “Why, Bill,” I said, “Trotsky never tipped. He felt that tipping only supports a corrupt system, you know.” Hansen picked up the coins.

Still, there was the physical courage, a fact not to be denied or washed away by psychology. People with a bent for psychology used to say that Bill Hansen had arrived at the point where he rather liked a good beating, which seemed to me a crummy notion. You may not care for someone who has returned from the front, but you have to respect his having been there. It was less easy to respect those kids, graduate students most of them, who came down South from Columbia, the University of Michigan, Boston University, and elsewhere to spend their summer in the civil-rights movement. They did odd jobs around the SNCC office; some of them taught at Philander Smith, Little Rock’s black college. I recall asking a young man working for his Ph.D. at Columbia how he liked teaching at Philander Smith. He told me it was usually interesting, though there were some bad days, such as, in particular, when he had attempted to discuss the poetry of Paul Valéry in class. I must say, I had not thought such naiveté was possible in the world.

One sunny Sunday morning I drove out to the countryside to attend a statewide meeting of SNCC, where I explained how the anti-poverty program worked and how SNCC could apply for grants for programs of its own. But there was not much interest in what I had to say. SNCC was undergoing its own troubles. The organization had come into being during a time of great moral purity. There were segregationist laws on the books of the states of the South, and they needed to be challenged. Young SNCC kids, black and white, at the risk of their lives, challenged them. “In every social movement,” Bayard Rustin once told me, “you need people who are willing to go to jail for their cause.” But now the action seemed to be moving elsewhere. Protest itself seemed all but played out. On school integration, public accommodations, voting rights, and much else the segregationist South had in effect surrendered. Yet all SNCC knew was protest.

Not long after this, sitting in my office, I received a phone call from a young woman in the SNCC office who had come to Little Rock for the summer. She informed me there was to be a protest march on the state capitol building, and she thought I would want to be among the marchers. “If I were to march with you,” I said, “you understand that my usefulness here would be at an end.” “That’s your problem,” she said, and hung up. Around this time Stokeley Carmichael, with much fanfare, announced that “Black is beautiful,” which really meant there was no longer any place for whites in the civil-rights movement. I sensed that my own time in the South was nearing its end.

Other, more personal items were involved. Petty inconveniences began to loom large. I had to wait a full day after its publication date to read the New York Times; the New Yorker, which I used to read on Tuesday in New York, didn’t arrive until the following Monday in Little Rock. The town had no decent restaurants. The one Chinese restaurant in Little Rock, as an accommodation to the local populace, which was used to mopping up gravies, served slices of white bread with its meals. I no longer found it quite so amusing when, during the holiday season, local television announcers pronounced the word Hanukkah so that it sounded like Chattanooga. I longed for bookish conversation. I was growing tired of judging everyone by his views on race. I realized that I hadn’t the temperament for compromise that is required of an effective bureaucrat. In spirit I was leaving the South and when I was offered a job at roughly twice my then-current salary to become a senior editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. in Chicago, I took it and left the South in person.

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III

My chief link with Little Rock was snapped with my divorce in 1970. Without a Southern wife, there was no reason for trips to the South. Yet, having lived in the South during crucial periods in my life, I have subconsciously come to consider myself partly a Southerner—in a way that I do not consider myself partly a New Yorker. I know I generally feel at home among Southerners. Not long ago I met with a magazine editor from Mississippi, who told me he had returned home recently to be with his family and, as he put it, “to talk a little Southern”—the phrase reminded me of talking a little Yiddish. For him, clearly, the South represented something akin to the old country, and I have felt something of this myself.

By now long an outsider, I had nonetheless maintained a former insider’s interest in Little Rock and in Arkansas generally. I noted the demise from the national scene of the bulldog-faced Senator John McClellan and the retirement of the urbane J. William Fulbright, who used to tell his constituents back home that his real interest in foreign policy concerned his attempt to sell Arkansas agricultural products abroad—both to be replaced by smooth younger men who might as easily have come from, say, Michigan. The glad-handed and politically powerful Wilbur Mills, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who insisted on going directly to first names on the few occasions I met him, had long since met his political Waterloo in the company of a stripper in the Tidal Basin in Washington. Orval Faubus, at seventy-six, had mounted a last campaign for governor (after serving six terms), but had his hopes for a last hurrah snuffed out in a sound primary defeat. My own political ambition in Arkansas was to be appointed state boxing commissioner, a job which, since the state holds no boxing matches that I know of, would leave plenty of free time for other things.

A few years ago, I received a letter from a reporter on the Arkansas Democrat, a business letter, which ended by his remarking, with Southern courtesy, that I was “a small legend in Little Rock.” I answered that I did not know about the legend, but, being under 5′7″, I would accept the small part. I also noted, to myself, that I ought to return for a visit. But to visit whom? My friend Jerry Neil had died; I had heard that Ruth Arnold, who had remarried and moved first to Washington, D.C. and then to Denver, had suffered a terrible stroke. Other friends and acquaintances were growing elderly; I was growing no younger. When I learned that Ruth Arnold and her husband had returned to live in Little Rock, I finally made the trip.

It had been twenty years since I last lived there, and the first thing I noticed upon arrival is that they had moved the airport on me. I remembered the old Little Rock airport as very small, almost cozy. Of major airlines, only Delta flew to the city, and one could never fly direct but invariably had to make a stop first either in Memphis or St. Louis. No longer. The airport itself now looked like the airport in almost every other secondary city I have been in. The weight of time pressed down upon me. The son who had called his younger brother “honey-chile baby” was now working in San Francisco; the honey-chile baby himself had graduated from college a month before. Being in Little Rock again I felt as if someone had turned the time-machine abruptly forward—almost violently so.

Much of this feeling was owing to the fact that my old mental landscape of the city had been altered. A new freeway tore through the center of town. The walk down Louisiana Street between my apartment and the recruiting station was now interrupted by it; the recruiting station itself had been torn down. Where I used to watch the revivalists, a small shopping center was being built. Downtown Little Rock had been transmogrified by several new skyscrapers, in which law offices, insurance companies, brokerage firms, and psychotherapists did their business. Main Street shopping was now all but dead, for downtown Main Street had been turned into a mall, but a mall that was obviously a bust, or so, walking along its deserted blocks at four in the afternoon, I gathered from the preponderance of discount and cut-rate shops. Except at midday, when there was some lunch-time traffic on the street, downtown Little Rock felt like Wall Street on a Sunday. People drove in their air-conditioned cars into the air-conditioned garages in the basement of their air-conditioned office buildings and then drove out again at night to their air-conditioned homes. The white middle class was moving farther and farther west, doing its shopping in suburban malls and plazas, sending its children, where the money was available, to preponderantly white private schools.

The old Marion Hotel had been razed. It was there that politicians used to gather when the state legislature was in session to do their drinking and make their deals. I used to have my hair cut in the basement of the Marion by a barber then in his seventies who kept a portrait of Jesus Christ alongside his barbering tools and a pair of pajamas in his towel cabinet; the pajamas were there in the event that it snowed—which it did about once every three years—and he had to spend the night in the hotel. Where the Marion had been, a new glass-and-red-brick skyscraper hotel and convention center now stood. Across the street an old fleabag of a hotel called the Capital had been beautifully restored, its old marble and wood handsomely refurbished. I was taken to lunch in its restaurant, an absolutely up-to-the-moment, altogether elegant establishment, with waiters announcing the day’s specials and rolling out the sweets trolley at the close of the meal. I heard that a French-Swiss couple had opened a placed called Jacques and Suzanne a number of years ago, and a few of their chefs, having left them, had begun restaurants of their own. Refugees from Vietnam and Taiwan had also opened restaurants in town; the days of chop suey mopped up with slices of white bread were obviously over.

Stately mansions, in the antebellum style, once inhabited by single families, had been broken up into apartments, some of them sold as condominiums. The Arkansas Arts Center, built not long before my second stay in Little Rock, was currently housing a Surrealist show. On the way to see it, driving over in a rented car, I heard over the radio that the first cellular car telephones were now available in Little Rock. Some of the older homes on the east side were being expensively revamped—by, it was said, yuppies. Yuppies, car phones, trendy restaurants, continental food, Surrealist shows, skyscrapers, freeways slicing through town, suburban malls—from one perspective progress, or at least modernization, seemed to be playing a strong hand in Little Rock.

From another perspective, it seemed as if nothing had changed and some things had even worsened, giving that decline-and-fall feeling that overtakes us all at different times in contemporary cities. On the east side of Little Rock the houses of poor blacks appeared as desolate—and as desolating—as ever. A broken-down car, two wheels missing, rested exhausted at the side of a house whose porch was half-collapsed; out front, three barefoot children and a pregnant mother who appeared to be in a stupor stood on a scraggly lawn. The scene might as easily have been set in 1932 as in 1986, awaiting capture by a photographer like Walker Evans. It would take more than snappy government programs to lift such a family out of its morass. And not even snappy programs were forthcoming. What was left of the anti-poverty program, now run by a black director, was reported to be in tatters; there were even murmurings of scandalous dealings in real estate on the part of program officials. The school system, too, was said to be in a parlous state, standards visibly slipping, mayhem in high-school classrooms always a distinct possibility.

In Little Rock, blacks are currently in control of the city’s welfare and educational establishments. The media, which normally adore scandal and exposé, have apparently declared hands-off. A friend of mine, a liberal and a former Catholic priest who served on the anti-poverty program board when I was the program’s director, averred that he hadn’t the heart to speak out about what he knows to be so. To speak out would be to court being called a racist, which, given Little Rock’s heritage, is the last thing people of good heart can bear to hear. So people pretend—as they do in other cities, North and South—that it isn’t there while hoping that, in time, the thing that isn’t there will go away.

_____________

 

Progress, regress, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; on a three-day visit to a town I once knew well, I could not finally make up my mind in which direction Little Rock was headed. A moment when progress seemed to shimmer with promise was when I visited the downtown offices of a new journal to be called the Southern Magazine. It is one of a stable of local magazines, one a business weekly, another a monthly on the model of New York (Ten Best Places in town to get barbecue, ice cream, a hiatus hernia, etc.). What impressed me was the youth-fulness of everyone in the office—the median age looked to be about thirty—and their go-ahead spirit. I was reminded of something told to me by Midge Decter, who had worked for the Mississippian Willie Morris when he was editor of Harper‘s and when that magazine had a great many Southerners as contributors. Those Southern boys could be hugely talented, vastly ambitious, Midge Decter had remarked, but they always seemed to want to stop for a beer. With the staff of the Southern Magazine gathered about me, I retold this story. “Remember this,” I said, underscoring the moral, “and try not to stop for a beer quite so frequently.”

The next day at lunch I joined the editors of the Southern Magazine for—what else?—a beer. They took me to what they said was the best barbecue restaurant in Little Rock, a black-run place on the far south side of town. A combination of soul and rock blared away on a radio turned all the way up. The barbecue was as good as advertised. We talked about magazines, with me, in this circle the wily old veteran, doing much of the talking. Outside it was up around 100 degrees. A walk sixty or so yards from the restaurant to the car was enough to set one’s shirt clinging to one’s back.

One of the chief editors of the new magazine, himself a Southerner who had worked for Playboy in Chicago and had now returned home to the South, drove me back to where I was staying. Through mists of heat, we drove past once-grand and now rather exhausted-looking neighborhoods, over freeways with skyscrapers in the background, down thoroughfares festooned with franchise operations of every kind; and driving along we talked about his return to the South, the new South really, where he hoped to finish out his professional life.

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When I lived in Little Rock, I now realize, the old South had been in its last throes. I hadn’t much approved of it then and I was not all that pleased with the new South now. What was I: a utopian, or merely a habitual complainer? Sometimes, in my imaginings, I had thought about returning to live in Little Rock, where life is less expensive, more scenic, calmer, rather out-of-it perhaps but not unpleasantly so. But this, I recognized on my recent visit, was sheerest fantasy. The city has changed and so have I; a chapter of my life—two important chapters, actually—are over, and there is no call for an epilogue or afterword. It isn’t so much a matter of not being able to go home again, for Little Rock was never, strictly speaking, my home. It is more a matter of beginning to learn at long last that one of the things that makes the past so wonderful is that it cannot, finally, be recaptured.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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