Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63

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A Year in Reading: John Lingan

I just reread Hellfire because Nick Tosches died in October and I needed to pay some kind of tribute. 2019 turned out to the year when I became a “music writer” above all else, and years ago Tosches, more than any author, inspired me to consider music as a literary subject in the first place. Over the course of his career, he wrote about opium dens, the mob, boxing, Las Vegas–and that doesn’t even include his fiction, which I resolve to read in 2020. Those novels are filled with devilry, literal and metaphorical, and have an uneven reputation. But he started by writing about music, first as a critic and essayist for early rock magazines like Creem and Crawdaddy, then as a biographer.

In Country (1974), Hellfire (1982), Unsung Heroes of Rock n Roll (1984), and Dino (1992), he wrote a sordid history of American pop culture stretching from blackface minstrelsy to the Rat Pack. His research was always thorough (I believe he was the first person to identify the early-19th-century origin of the term “honky-tonk”) but ultimately secondary. His real interest was mythology. He described musicians as primordial forces borne from holler shacks, bereft steel towns, and Pentecostal villages, fated to carry earth-shaking messages and ultimately self-destruct.

Hellfire is considered a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, but it’s really more of a nonfiction-novel, right from the preface in which Tosches depicts the painkiller daydreams of Graceland-era Elvis. That’s the first of many, let’s say, unverifiable assertions and scenes, though others exhibit incredible archival work and original interviewing. The book is written in a mock-Biblical cadence that casts the creator of “Great Balls of Fire” as a flesh-and-blood venue for a cosmic battle between the forces of sin and grace. Here is how Tosches narrates the most cliched rock-bio requisite, infidelity:

Women had thrown themselves on him for five years. Wherever he went, it seemed, cheap-perfumed thighs parted, lithe and yielding in the windblown reeds of Turtle Lake–had parted first to receive whatever scrap of garish, stinking fame and glory they might, then later to receive the grotesque wraith of that fame and that glory. Every time he disgorged himself in the mouth in the mouth of whoredom, he cursed all women for what they had to him shown themselves to be.

Tosches was foremost a stylist: He seemed to choose new subjects and stories purely in order to make the same observations over and over again. He wanted to rub his readers’ faces in the mildewed underland beneath show-business glamour, and thus the entire American project. He insisted on the fundamental lasciviousness of intimate human behavior, no matter whose. And he saw everything–business, entertainment, seduction, literature–as work, as a racket, a word he often used. He was a cynic’s cynic, but also a true working-class voice in contemporary mainstream publishing. In interviews he described growing up in postwar Newark, cleaning his father’s bar in the mornings before school. He never went to college. In The Nick Tosches Reader, one of the liveliest collections in existence, he rattles off payment details about his assignments and publishing contracts. When he was cruising at full altitude (Dino, about Dean Martin, is the masterpiece), he was as inspired and fearless as any writer I know. He was well-suited to music in part because he had such incredible rhythm in his prose, and such nightclub crudeness in his worldview. 

The best books I read in 2019 all reminded me in some way of Nick Tosches. There was the psychological intimacy and pointillist structure of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices. The scope and obsessiveness of Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years trilogy. Gayl Jones’’s Corregidora and Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot had the same unflinching closeness to human cruelty and transcendence. Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel, and William Carlos Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel are both quasi-documentaries organized around patterns of human speech and interior thought. Even the lyrics of Purple Mountains, the record that turned out to be songwriter David Berman’s final testament, had Tosches’s barfly-magus sense of humor and musical history.  

Toni Morrison died this year too, of course, and it was Melville’s bicentennial, two good reminders of the fulminating, visionary branch of American literature. Nick Tosches fit right in there, even if he only associated with the type of people who don’t really fit in anywhere. I’ll miss him. 

Difficult History: On John Lewis’s March

John Lewis, the congressman who bears the scars of his march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma in 1965, made his debut as a graphic memoirist this fall at the age of 73. March: Book One, which he co-authored with his press secretary Andrew Aydin and the award-winning artist Nate Powell, is a somber little book. There are two more volumes planned for this series, so there is much more story to be told.  Still, through Powell’s pen, we have a strong sense of Lewis’s difficult history. A child would learn a lot more from March than he would from the two-dimensional cartoons of “respectable Negroes” that covered the walls of my fourth-grade classroom.

On the morning of January 20, 2009, Congressman Lewis sits in his office where he is visited by a mother and her two sons. He tells them the story of his life, beginning with his impoverished childhood in Pike County, Alabama, beginning really with young Lewis’s love for animals. Lewis, we are told, was a lonely child, content to sit in a dark barn in the company of his family’s chickens, whom he cared for and for whom he delivered eulogies at their funerals. Powell draws these chickens through Lewis’s eyes, endowing each of them with their own individual humanity. He draws young Lewis through our contemporary eyes, lined and old and wise before his time. Lewis the beautiful child of the earth, 14 pages of young Lewis and his chickens. It’s the best part of the book.

The young Lewis is smart enough to discover the injustice of the world into which he is born. He grows appalled by the hypocrisy of preachers who drive nice cars in his hometown. He becomes a preacher himself and turns out to be a prodigy. He leaves town, meets his hero Dr. King, and enters under the tutelage of Jim Lawson. “Looking back, it must’ve been the spirit of history taking hold of my life,” he narrates.

Lewis and his cohorts take part in workshops in non-violence, preparing for the confrontations they will face when they finally start doing sit-ins. We see them play the roles of their oppressors, adopting the most terrifying of facial contortions. A number of comic book artists have described their artistry as a form of acting, whereby they get inside the heads of their characters and endow them with the proper expressions. Powell captures the turmoil of these young activists, the rage and determination and the competing waves of self-loathing and self-respect that swirl in their heads as they push themselves through these workshops. You understand why a sizable number couldn’t take part in the protests that mark the final pages of the book.

Is this the way to depict civil rights leaders? Was the civil rights movement made up of men who overcame the limitations of their earthly flesh to create something closer to a heaven on this earth? Ta-Nehisi Coates diagnosed the problem in his Atlantic blog a few years ago, after noting the little-known story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s demagoguery during the Montgomery bus boycott. King had chastised black men who needed decent transportation to work so they could provide for their families and who did not wish to join the movement. “There are Negroes who will never fight for freedom,” King said. “There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will co-operate with their oppressors.” Coates wrote,

[T]he narrative of black super-morality never connected with me. The people just never really seemed human, so much as they seemed like rather divinely passive reactions to white racism. The Montgomery boycott is the perfect example. The way it was told to us, sheer magic and Christian spirit made the boycott work. Castigation and intimidation surely would have doomed it. Except any deep study of activist and activism always reveals moments like this, moments that cut against the narrative of victory through pure moral force.

The history of the civil rights movement is littered with moral compromises, class conflicts, and power rivalries. That history has been told elsewhere, most famously in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, but it never made it into my elementary/middle/high school. If I knew about that history, I think I would have liked these men more. King’s capacity for mediocrity makes his capacity for greatness that much more interesting and that much more extraordinary.

With that said, Powell’s Lewis is also extraordinary and interesting, though he is not made interesting through the use of the corrective anecdote as much as through a depressive eye for the world in which he lives. “We Shall Overcome” appears in the script, but the book could not be set comfortably to a rousing gospel soundtrack. In March, the civil rights movement is a brutal place, where young men torture themselves for the great cause, and where the moments of euphoria are all too rare. Lewis has told his story many times before, most notably in his 1998 memoir Walking with the Wind in which he explained his life as a path that “involves nothing less than the pursuit of that most precious and pure concept I have ever known, an ideal I discovered as a young man and that has guided me like a beacon ever since, a concept called the Beloved Community.” The strive forward for that concept feels like optimistic folly when you look at Powell’s cool articulation of the segregated South.

Powell’s Lewis sweats and slouches and wears ill-fitting clothes. He takes the world before him as it is, but drives himself forward by holding onto visions of a world Powell does not draw because it does not exist. One suspects that Lewis, for all his Christian faith, doubts that world’s existence as well. And it is that doubt along with the ability to ignore it that is extraordinary, interesting and heroic. March is not an uplifting book, but it has its own weird brand of optimism. The world the civil rights movement created is imperfect but far less so than the world into which Lewis was born.

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