Jewish World Review July 21, 2014 / 23 Tammuz, 5774
The fragmentary South
By Paul Greenberg
Years ago, a decade ago, an old friend emailed me a classic Southern news story. It went down straight. Neat. Like a shot of Early Times. The story came out of the Mobile Press-Register in
That newspaper has since been reduced to a fragment of its old self, and now puts out a print edition only three days a week. The oldest paper in that state, the Press Register or one of its predecessors had been publishing daily since the early 1800s. The same thing happened, briefly, to
It was. The headline was simple, straight-faced, and it made you want to read on: Preacher Says He Was Beaten by Mourners.
Below the hed was a story by Staff Reporter
The rest of the story had just about every element of the Gothic South:
Violence, of course.
Disappointed heirs involved in a dispute over, of course, land.
And, perhaps most Southern of all, theology -- and not your nice, lukewarm, diluted mainstream variety, either. But your old-fashioned, holy-roller, speakin'-in-tongues, damnation-and-hellfire brand of religion, topped off by a fistfight. (What, no snake-handlin'?)
I had to wonder: Was this a news item or a short story by
The name of the preacher in the news story was
Brother Bethel in
It wasn't clear which of Brother Bethel's various observations about the deceased, or about the congregants, inspired several of the brethren to take him to the back of the church later and put the hiatus on his fiery sermon. Forcibly. Nor can I vouch for how seriously he was pummeled in the process. Reports differed. But I do know that you don't read many news stories like this one anymore. Why is that? Is it part of the rampant Americanization of the South? Have we all grown as respectable as New Englanders? Or just forgotten how to tell a good story in these latitudes, once the epicenter of the American narrative tradition?
I doubt it. I bet the South is still out there, and that it holds just as many stories as it ever did. My theory is that we in the press -- excuse me, it's now The Media -- can no longer see those stories, hear them, feel them, know them. We've been to college. We have degrees in journalism. We know what an inverted pyramid is when it comes to writing a lede for a story. We know every which way to say something, it's just that we may no longer have anything to say.
In short, we've come down with a chronic case of the respectables. We've been so busy trying to be
"Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks," she famously observed, "I say it is because we are still able to recognize one."
Can we anymore? It's been more than twice 20 years now since
Sure enough, now we write about the latest fraudsters in big business, or the current crop of politicos, their ups and downs and sideways, as if that were what really counted in this world and maybe the next -- the ultimate reality. As if all these people in button-down collars and pin-striped suits, and their now just as respectable female counterparts, weren't the real freaks. For not recognizing themselves as such.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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