All my life I have dreamt of taking a road trip through the American South. By which I mean: Start in New Orleans, drive north through Mississippi. Stop in Oxford. Then Memphis, over to Nashville, then back down through Atlanta, Birmingham, and Montgomery and end up in Jacksonville.
I’ve done bits and pieces of that trip over the years. I’ve gone back and forth between Atlanta and Birmingham many times. (Is any Southern city more strange and haunting than Birmingham?) Montgomery I’ve gotten to know well in recent years. I feel like I'm always going to New Orleans and Nashville, on some kind of work trip. But I’ve never put it all together, in one grand tour. I really should have done this in my twenties. But back then I was full of all sorts of East Coast snobbery: back then, I was living in Washington D.C., and my idea of visiting the South was to cross the Potomac into Alexandria. Little did I know! So here I am in my late fifties, with one great life experience still ahead of me.
There are restaurants I want to visit, runs that I’d like to do (or re-do, as the case may be). Running up the streetcar line along St. Charles in New Orleans, and then adding on a new loop of Audubon Park is as good as urban running gets in the United States. A few half-mile repeats on the oval in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. I could go on. There must be good places to run in Jacksonville or Memphis. Would someone please tell me? (Don’t bother with Nashville. I’ve tried and failed many times there already.)
But the real thrill of the trip is not the trip itself. It’s the preparation for the trip. A trip as monumental as this demands a reading list. A few months back, I tweeted out a request for suggestions. I have now thought about what the Twitterverse told me, added a few more ideas in the interim, and I’m ready to share my results.
Please, by the way, feel free to quarrel and quibble as you see fit. That’s what this exercise is all about.
My strong preference is for nonfiction over fiction. But I am willing to entertain a few novels. Let’s be clear, though: This is not intended to be your freshman English syllabus at Ole Miss. This is also a good time to admit that I was force-fed Faulkner in college, and hated every moment of it. (Although this may be because I went to college in southern Ontario, and few things make less sense than reading Faulkner when there is two feet of snow outside your dorm window.)
All books, including honorable mentions, are ranked according to my own secret, arbitrary algorithm. (U.S. News does it that way. Why can’t I?)
I’m sharing the first batch of books here, in Part I. The balance will come next week.
Okay! Here we go.
1.) Carry Me Home. Diane McWhorter won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her memoir/history about her native Birmingham in the era of the Civil Rights Movement. I was lucky enough to read this book before I went to Birmingham for the first time, and it made me fall hopelessly under Birmingham’s spell. Plus—does any historian write as well as Diane McWhorter? I’m not sure. The greatest delights of Carry Me Home are the portraits McWhorter paints of lesser known figures in the Civil Rights Movement, like the diminutive, indomitable Fred Shuttlesworth. (My favorite moment: when the Klan tries to kill Shuttlesworth for the umpteenth time by bombing his house. A crowd gathers to mourn his passing when suddenly… out of the wreckage… Shuttlesworth emerges, dusts himself off and declares: “I ain’t dead yet!” There is much, much more along these lines in Carry Me Home.)
2.) Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell. A controversial choice! I read it when I was a teenager and naively thought, like many millions of people before me, that it was a grand, gothic yarn. But I had lunch with a friend recently, who just re-read it, and she reminded me that it is appalling. And so it is, which makes it all the more important to put it on this list.
I know the fashion these days to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. But can we please make an exception for Gone with the Wind? Read it and discover the vile lies that Southerners in the mid-20th century told themselves about their own history. I interviewed one of my favorite writers recently, Gary Pomerantz, who reminded me that in Atlanta of that era people referred to Gone with the Wind as “the book.” Not the Bible! Gone with the Wind!
Speaking of Pomerantz, I’m going to add his magnificent history of Atlanta: Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. If you have even the slightest curiosity about how Atlanta became Atlanta, you must read this book.
The book about Atlanta I really want to read, though, is a novel by a black writer about the world of Morehouse and Spelman and that corner of middle class southwestern Atlanta. When I put out my Twitter request, my former Washington Post colleague Michele Norris recommended Meridian by Alice Walker, which I think qualifies. Add it to the list!! Are there any others? Here are Michele’s other suggestions, by the way:
3.) The Warmth of Other Suns. Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Detroit and New York and Cleveland and all other points north and west.
I must confess that I was inexcusably ignorant of this part of the black experience until I started work on my current project, which is about black Los Angeles. And you cannot understand contemporary Los Angeles and all of its many discontents until you grasp the significance of the fact that thousands of African Americans moved West in the 1940s from Louisiana and Texas. But back to Wilkerson: the reporting in this book is unreal. If I were teaching a journalism class, I might just make everyone read The Warmth of Other Suns and call it a day.
4.) Mississippi is tough, especially since—as I’ve explained—I have a Faulkner problem. So let’s go back to my Twitter-helpers.
I also asked my editor Camille Baptista to weigh in. Camille has serious literary chops, and here’s what she said:
Next week, the second half of my Southern Road Trip Reading List: New Orleans, Memphis, and beyond.
But before I go, some apologies and qualifications. There is no Pat Conroy! But technically, I can’t do him because he’s South Carolina, and on this particular road trip we’re not swinging over that far. (I will say though that I first read Pat Conroy as, like, an 11 year old, and the world he presented seemed unbelievably exotic from the perspective of a kid in southern Ontario.) I also still remember reading a LIFE magazine essay about his teaching experience, titled—and I can’t believe I remember this, because I remember nothing—“Conrack, You’re Crazy.” Look it up!
In lieu of reading Conroy’s classic, The Prince of Tides, I suggest you just watch The Great Santini, with Robert Duvall in maybe his finest role. But only once you’ve completed the assigned reading!