Daily Archives: 10 August 2004

Down Home: A Landscape of Small Ruins

Regular readers know I’m an avid fan of V.S. Naipaul, from whose book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples I’ve excerpted many passages on this blog. I thought it only fair to accompany Naipaul as he encounters some of the Christian peoples of a part of the world with which I’m more intimately familiar. So I’ve begun reading A Turn in the South (Vintage, 1989). And it does not disappoint.

The epigraph quotes the first two lines of the following reply by Warwick to his king in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part 2:

There is a history in all men’s lives,

Figuring the natures of the times deceased;

The which observed, a man may prophesy,

With a near aim, of the main chance of things

As yet not come to life, who in their seeds

And weak beginning lie intreasured.

That is certainly the goal of most of my reading these days. And the following passage rings true to me, an expatriate son of generations buried in family plots scattered over the landscape of Virginia. Naipaul’s opening chapter is entitled, “Down Home: A Landscape of Small Ruins.”

JIMMY WORKED in New York as a designer and lettering artist. Howard was his assistant. Jimmy, who could become depressed at times, said to Howard one day, “Howard, if I had to give up, and you couldn’t get another job, what would you do?” Howard, who was from the South, said, “I would go home to my mama.”

Jimmy was as struck by this as I was when Jimmy told me: that Howard had something neither Jimmy nor I had, a patch of the earth he thought of as home, absolutely his. And that was where–many months after I had heard this story–I thought I should begin this book about the South: with the home that Howard had….

Later [after arriving in Bowen/Peters, North Carolina], we went out for a drive. Hetty [Howard’s mama] knew the land well; she knew who owned what. It was like a chant from her, as we drove.

“Black people there, black people there, white people there. Black people, black people, white people, black people. All this side black people, all this side white people. White people, white people, black people, white people.”

Sometimes she said, “Black people used to own this land.” She didn’t like that–that black people had lost land because they had been slack or because of family disputes. But blacks and whites appeared here to live quite close to one another, and Hetty herself had no racial complaints. White people had been good to her, she said. But then she said that that might have been only because she liked people.

It was a landscape of small ruins. Houses and farmhouses and tobacco barns had simply been abandoned. The decay of each was individual, and they were all beautiful in the afternoon light. Some farmhouses had very wide eaves, going down low, the corrugated iron that once provided shelter now like a too-heavy weight, the corrugated-iron sheets sagging, fanning out in places.

We went to see the house, now abandoned, where Hetty’s father had lived when he had sharecropped for Mr. Smith. Bush grew right up against the open house. The pecan trees, still almost bare, just a few leaves now, were tall above the house and the tobacco barns. The colors were gray (tree trunks and weathered timber) and red (rusted corrugated iron) and green and the straw-gold of reeds. As we stood there Hetty told us of the death of her father in that house; the event was still vivid to her.

Another house, even more beautiful, was where Hetty and her husband had lived for ten years. It was a farmhouse with a big green field, with forest trees bounding the distance on every side.

Home was not for Howard just his mother’s house, the little green house that was now closed up, or the new concrete-block house she had moved to. Home was what we had seen. And we had seen only apart: all about these country roads, within a few miles, were houses and fields connected with various members of Howard’s family. It was a richer and more complicated past than I had imagined; and physically much more beautiful. The houses I was taken to were bigger than the houses many people in Trinidad or England might have lived in.

But, still, in the past there was that point where darkness fell, the historical darkness, even here, which was home….

TWO DAYS later, in New York (and just before I began my true Southern journey), I talked again with Howard, to make sure I had got certain things right. About the presence of Asians and Cubans and Mexicans he said, “I get very pro-American when I think about that.” And that pro-American attitude extended to foreign affairs, which were his special interest. So, starting from the small Southern black community of Bowen, Howard had become a conservative. He said, “I think that when you come out of a Southern Baptist background that is the groundwork of being a conservative.”

UPDATE: The Tanuki Ramble adds more on Naipaul, including the following passage from A Turn in the South, which the Tanuki read about a year ago.

That had been the great discovery so far in my travels so far in the South. In no other part of the world had I found people so driven by the idea of good behavior and the good religious life. And that was true for black and white.

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