The ethereal myth of the Old South

Driving south from the North, we tried to spot exactly where the real South begins. We looked for the South in hand-scrawled signs on the roadside advertising ‘Boil Peanut’, in one-room corrugated tin Baptist churches that are little more than holy sheds, in the crumbling plantation homes with their rose gardens and secrets. In the real South, we thought, ships ought to turn to riverboats, cold Puritanism to swampy hellfire, coarse industrialists with a passion for hotels and steel to the genteel ease of the cotton planter.

Most of what we believe about the South, wrote W.J. Cash in the 1930s, exists in our imagination. But, he wrote, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the South is therefore unreal. The real South, wrote Cash in The Mind of the South, exists in unreality. It is the tendency toward unreality, toward romanticism, toward escape, that defines the mind of the… More…

A cashier at The Discount Store

More than forty years ago, on the eighth floor of an auditorium in Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis, the artist Red Grooms created a unique installation. He called it The Discount Store (1970). The work was commissioned by the Walker Art Center, which was still in the process of building its now-famous permanent home in Minneapolis. With great foresight, The Walker Center also commissioned a documentary film (by Al Kraning) on Grooms’ project. Watching the film gives some idea of what it must have been like to experience the artwork.

Grooms constructed The Discount Store after visiting a Target Discount store in Crystal, MN. He created huge, ten-foot tall wooden cut-out figures to represent the various costumers in the store. He painted the walls to look like aisles filled with an abundance of cheap goods — everything from toys, to soap, to guns (Target used to sell guns… More…

A Passionate Journey begins

The Written Image” was an exhibit of German Expressionist art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But it was not the exhibit of German Expressionism you might expect to see — none of Ernst Kirchner’s lurid scenes of degenerated Berlin society smeared across the streets. It was a show, rather, of portfolios, periodicals, works sketched on single sheets of paper. Featured among them were the so-called “wordless novels.” In one glass case was a 1926 copy of Frans Masereel’s My Book of Hours.


Frans Masereel was a Flemish artist whose primary medium was the woodcut. The woodcut genre thrived in Europe during the interwar years. Masereel and his contemporaries were drawn to woodcuts as they were to cartoons and silent film, media in which images were dominant and words were few. This was appropriate… More…

"Always – though not quite so much after death." – Joan Rivers

I never thought I’d watch it after Joan was gone. I’m talking Fashion Police — a show on E! whose raison d’etre is to extol and goof on gowns at red carpet events — after the death of its presiding spirit, Joan Rivers. Truly, a profoundly shallow and frivolous entertainment, but one that I acknowledge I became modestly addicted to.


I hereby confess that I like looking at gowns. The only thing that gets me to go to the supermarket is the chance to peruse In Style magazine for the line-up of Gwyneth, Julia, and Jennifer (several of them) in gowns split up from or down to the navel, and to study the comparative pix of Kim Kardashian and Gwen Stefani in the same outfit, accompanied by reader-response percentages as to who wore it best. This interests me… More…

News to me. Pass the tissues.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” Robert Frost admonished. He was talking about the “clarification of life” that poetry brings, and you don’t see clearly through tears. Also, being a stoic New Englander, Frost was temperamentally disinclined to emotional display, even in the face of extreme tragedy, of which his poetry has no lack. Instead of crying, the boy who loses his hand to a buzz saw in “Out, Out” —  gives a rueful laugh of shocked disbelief. And then he dies. Nobody in the family cries either: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

Another reason for the no tears rule is that reticence tends to increase rather than diminish pathos, which is to say, less is more. The boy doing a man’s job in “Out, Out —,” denied even a half hour of childish leisure… More…

Will grow up. Does grow up. Has grown up.

One day in the summer of 1896, Maxim Gorky’s mind was blown. Gorky was attending a Russian fair and had gone to visit an exhibit by a couple of Frenchmen known as the Lumiére Brothers. Sitting in a darkened room, Gorky saw what seemed to him a photograph of the streets of Paris projected onto a large screen. It was a nice photograph, but Gorky was not particularly impressed. He’d seen plenty of photographs before. Then the damn thing began to flicker and come to life. This was something new.

Gorky watched what was happening on the screen in deepening amazement. He wrote about the experience a couple of days later:

Carriages coming from somewhere in the perspective of the picture are moving straight at you, into the darkness in which you sit; somewhere from afar people appear and loom larger as they come closer to you; in the foreground… More…

From Humphrey Ploughjogger to plowjag666

I distinctly remember when I stopped reading online comments about my essays. For some time I had been reading them on a website of a magazine that published me and allowed unedited comments. To my disappointment, no knowledgeable critic had pointed out errors in my work that I could correct, or made informed arguments that forced me to rethink my position. The commenters seemed more interested in insulting one another.

Mrpoophispants, for example. The avatar that went with the name showed a wailing baby in diapers. (I have changed the name and image slightly, to protect the guilty). In the comments section under my essay, Mrpoophispants accused the Incredible Hulk (again, I have slightly changed the name) of being like Hitler. No, the green and musclebound Hulk told the baby in diapers, you are like Hitler. It went downhill… More…

"Descends the snow"

When I was two years old, or maybe four years old, it snowed in Las Vegas. The snow covered the concrete and the sand, and the alleyways between the casinos downtown. Even though I’m sure the snow was only an inch or so deep, it made a big impression on the citizens of the city, who cancelled work and daily life and left their cars right in the street just to behold the sight. At least, this is how I remember it. I remember that everything felt stopped and strange, like it must when miracles occur — thrilling but inexplicable, everybody making shallow angels on the sidewalk and lobbing small, powdery snowballs at each other that would fall apart in mid-air.

The snow never came back to Las Vegas, at least, not until many years after I’d gone. But… More…

Summit of the Sierra Nevada by Thomas Moran

I ducked into the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue on a cold January day and found myself in one of its frequent free exhibitions, this one on the halls of the third floor (there are also exhibits on the ground floor). The show was of prints by two nineteenth-century artists: the British J.M.W. Turner and the American Thomas Moran.

Sublime: The Prints of J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Moran” at the New York Public Library, New York. Through February 15.

The prints in question were mostly etchings and engravings. These techniques are not widely understood by the general public, but it helps to know a bit about them in order to appreciate the intricacy and finesse of the art on display.

An engraving uses a tool, called a… More…

Unless it's a carrot carnation

I had never heard of a carrot carnation. But when, back in the 1980s, several of my fellow staffers at the office of a Texas State Senator in Austin wanted to learn about them, I went along to kill some time. (There are downsides to working in the legislature of a state with an anti-government culture, but it does provide you with a lot of free time).

We soon found ourselves in the auditorium of the convention center in Austin, surrounded by thousands of middle-aged suburban housewives. On stage, a woman resembling Martha Stewart showed how, with a knife and a little imagination, fruits and vegetables can be turned into ornamental table settings, like carrot carnations.

Many years later, I came to realize that I had witnessed one extreme of the artistic spectrum. At one end of the spectrum… More…