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FW: H-South Review: Catsam on McWhorter, _ Carry Me Home_

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    fyi..aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: Ian Binnington, H-South [mailto:binningt@uiuc.edu] Sent: Monday, November 18, 2002 2:19 PM To:
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: Ian Binnington, H-South [mailto:binningt@...]
      Sent: Monday, November 18, 2002 2:19 PM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Catsam on McWhorter, _ Carry Me Home_


      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-South@... (November 2002)

      Diane McWhorter. _ Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle
      of the Civil Rights Revolution _. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 701 pp.
      Pictures, endnotes, selected bibliography, and index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN
      0-684-80747-5; $17.00 (paper), 0-743-21772-1.

      Reviewed for H-South by Derek Catsam (derek.catsam@...), Department of
      History, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

      _"Bombingham" Revisited_

      This is a book with epic designs. Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in
      nonfiction, widely lavished with praise in reviews, a _New York Times_
      bestseller, Diane McWhorter's 701 page tome, _Carry Me Home_, is equal
      parts work of history, investigative journalism, and memoir. This very
      epicness, this scale, this ambition, provides the book both its greatest
      strengths, of which there are many, and its greatest weaknesses, which are
      also noteworthy. Its grandeur alone will earn it a place amidst the civil
      rights literature of this era, especially among general readers who like
      their history to be gripping, grand, purple and sometimes a bit
      overwrought. Given that the original manuscript was three times the length
      of the finished product, one both wonders what ended up in the dustbin and
      appreciates the judicious touch of her editor. Other reviewers have
      mentioned J. Anthony Lucas and Taylor Branch as models for this book, and
      those examples seem fitting, as they too were similarly ambitious and in
      important ways flawed. _Carry Me Home_ nonetheless does not reach the
      heights these books scaled despite their shortcomings.

      McWhorter is a native Birminghamian, and that fact is salient to her story
      both in its unraveling and in its content. Her prodigal daughter's status
      gives McWhorter an insider's perspective, but this viewpoint can also be
      grating in its solipsism. Her family still lives in Birmingham, and as we
      soon see, they play a role in this story, albeit perhaps not as important a
      role as she thinks they do. She now resides in New York where she is a
      journalist and freelancer who contributes regularly to _USA Today_ and the
      _New York Times_ and whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and
      newspapers. This is her first book, and as first books go, one can't help
      but admire her reach even if it often exceeds her grasp.

      Broadly speaking, this is the story of race relations in the American city
      where race relations were most contentious. Her telling stretches from the
      end of the 1930s through to 1963, when Birmingham took center stage in the
      revolving backdrop of locales that had provided the setting for the most
      dramatic events in the struggle for racial equality. Her epilogue takes the
      story from 1963 through the 1990s. Because of the recent resolutions to the
      Birmingham Church Bombing Case that provides McWhorter with her preface,
      her study of Birmingham's troubled past, a past that earned the city the
      sobriquet "America's Johannesburg," seems especially timely.

      Despite what some reviewers might want to believe and have tried to convey,
      much of this narrative is not entirely fresh. From an historian's
      viewpoint, Glenn Eskew's _But For Birmingham_ has not only told this story,
      but he has done so with an analytic and contextual depth that McWhorter,
      for all her verbiage, can not match. Similarly, another recent book, Andrew
      Manis' _A Fire You Can't Put Out_, has explored Reverend Fred
      Shuttlesworth's estimable role in Birmingham with sympathy and depth. S.
      Jonathan Bass's _Blessed Are the Peacemakers_ has recently provided us with
      the most insightful treatment of Martin Luther King's letter from the
      Birmingham jail. [1] Others have admirably addressed other important
      aspects of Birmingham's and Alabama's past that McWhorter reiterates
      without adding a great deal. But because of its comprehensiveness, even
      when _Carry Me Home_ represents old wine in new skins, it comes from a
      fruitful vine.

      By far the least useful element of the book is McWhorter's inclusion of her
      family's story as what she calls a "metaphor" for Birmingham's history.
      Birmingham does not need metaphors. It certainly does not need gratuitous
      and self-indulgent reflections on the author's past to illustrate why that
      past matters, why Birmingham was or was not, as her subtitle indicates,
      'the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution." The Birmingham story
      is bigger than any of its main participants, never mind being bigger than a
      family whose connections to the events of the age were peripheral at most.
      Just as a man running a marathon has no need for a treadmill, the
      Birmingham story hardly has need for an overarching metaphor. This is an
      ill-considered affectation that should have been excised. Readers
      interested in a more successful attempt to weave a personal story into
      larger civil rights events should take a look at Mary Winstead's newly
      published _Back to Mississippi_. [2]

      McWhorter has been lauded for her writing style, and she writes well.
      Except for when she doesn't. As the book progresses, she develops a
      particularly noisome habit. Every few paragraphs, she inserts section
      breaks. In a long book such as this one, periodic breaks are important, as
      they can allow for transitions within a chapter that tries to cover a range
      of themes and ideas and plotlines. Many of McWhorter's section breaks do
      not do this. Instead, they seem to take the place of transitional sentences
      and segues. Chapter twenty, which is fourteen pages long, contains a dozen
      such breaks. The ten pages in chapter twenty-six contain an average of a
      section break a page. This is too much -- and these chapters are
      representative, with some being even more excessive. It is hard to tell if
      these are places where she hastily cut her colossal original manuscript, if
      she is unwilling or unable to write transitional paragraphs, or if she does
      not trust her audience to be able to draw out the themes she is exploring.
      None of these possibilities is especially appealing.

      Furthermore, for all of the grandness of scale of _Carry Me Home_, it
      sometimes gets bogged down in detail. Historians constantly hear about the
      telling use of little observations that pepper the works of journalists.
      And it is true that many historians could afford to learn from nonfiction
      writers who publish for readers outside of the academy and their use of
      anecdote and scene setting. But there is something to be said for economy
      of language. All details are not equally valuable, and when McWhorter mines
      every quotation, describes every facial trait, blurts out every ancillary
      fact, it becomes difficult to discern what is important as opposed to what
      is merely interesting.

      These qualms aside, and they are not insubstantial, especially given the
      gushing response this book received in much of the popular press, McWhorter
      does contribute a great deal. She has told (or re-told) a story that weaves
      together a number of the important themes of the civil rights movement,
      viewing them through the lens of Birmingham's history as well as its
      political and social environment. The standard cast of characters appears
      as do literally hundreds of others. Fred Shuttlesworth and Jim Bevel; Bull
      Connor and George Wallace and John Patterson; the Kennedys and Martin
      Luther King, Jr. (whom McWhorter seems to try to go out of her way to
      slight at every opportunity, apparently to try to debunk a mythology that
      many historians have been addressing for several years now) and Gary Thomas
      Rowe, the Klansman and F.B.I. informant. And appropriately, as it marks the
      climax and in many ways the _raison d'etre_ of her book, we meet the four
      victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Addie Mae Collins,
      Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, as well as "Dynamite
      Bob" Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry, two of the Klansmen responsible for
      that atrocity from which the segregationists of Birmingham would never
      fully recover their fiefdom. McWhorter begins the book with the story of
      the church bombing and ends it with some fine investigative work bringing
      the perpetrators of that evil deed to light.

      In beginning with the church bombing, McWhorter commences _in medias res_,
      but she quickly jumps back in time to sketch Birmingham's, and where she
      sees fit, Alabama's, social and political development in the years prior to
      World War II and then thereafter. We learn especially about the "Big
      Mules," Birmingham's industrial elite, and of the schisms characterizing
      white Birmingham's upper crust. The book is as much about these schisms as
      about civil rights, and sometimes race relations seems merely a tableau
      against which the city's social tensions play themselves out. This is not
      to say that McWhorter does not try to keep race front and center, but since
      her focus is so clearly on white Birmingham and its Byzantine inner
      workings, we sometimes lose sight of what social historians might call the
      agency of black characters. McWhorter admires the civil rights workers, she
      clearly believes that Fred Shuttlesworth and the other locals struggling to
      make a go of a movement for social justice in perhaps the least receptive
      city in America for such a movement are heroes, but they still seem to
      revolve around the constellation of white Birmingham throughout the book
      rather than the other way around. In a sense this would be fine -- white
      supremacy, white resistance, white politics in the Jim Crow South, these
      are all fertile regions for exploration and much remains to be done on
      them. But this is not the book that McWhorter or Simon & Schuster have
      presented her as having written. There is thus a dissonance here that is
      unsatisfying for those of us who know the story she tells, and who were
      looking for more (though in some ways, perhaps, also less).

      An example of this comes with her sections on the Freedom Rides. In some
      ways, her handling of this epochal movement, which still and inexplicably
      has not received full historical treatment, embodies her strengths and
      weaknesses. [3] Her detail is marvelous, if excessive. Future scholars of
      the Freedom Rides will have to consider closely her work on the events in
      Birmingham. Nonetheless, she gets so caught up in the minutia she has
      unearthed (much of which has appeared before) and especially about the
      white comings and goings that she only tepidly presents the Freedom Riders
      and their perspectives. This is not damning, but it does seem
      representative of the sometimes misplaced emphasis at work throughout the
      book.

      In the end, after the long struggle, there were enough whites in Birmingham
      who felt like Sid Smyer, a local lawyer and, as McWhorter identifies him,
      "perfect servant of the status quo," who, during negotiations over the
      city's fate in 1963 said, "I'm a segregationist, but I'm not a damned fool"
      (40, 407). Slowly some of the city fathers came around, but not without a
      fight, and not without considerable bloodshed and loss of prestige to the
      city.

      McWhorter does not really proffer an argument about Birmingham representing
      the climactic struggle of the civil rights movement so much as she shows
      telling (sometimes) detail after telling detail and expects that the
      conclusion is self-evident. She certainly tells the story and often she
      tells it well. But as important as Birmingham was, it fit into a larger
      national context. The Freedom Rides reached a crescendo in Birmingham, but
      they hit others in Montgomery, Anniston and Jackson too. King periodically
      showed up on the scene in Birmingham, revealing the city's importance, but
      he also acted in Atlanta and Albany and countless other places. (King had a
      lot on his plate, which might be one reason why he occasionally had mixed
      feelings about Birmingham, though McWhorter rarely shows the complex King,
      preferring most of the time to go with the self-serving caricature that
      allows her to pit locals against King in eternal zero-sum struggle.)

      Birmingham, if it was one movement -- and her presupposed argument clearly
      implies that it was -- was a turning point. But so was Montgomery. So were
      the Freedom Rides. So were the student sit-ins and the voting rights
      campaigns and the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery March and
      the integration of Little Rock Central High and Ole Miss and the University
      of Alabama. So if Birmingham was "the climactic struggle of the civil
      rights movement," and I'm not convinced that it was not, she still needs to
      do a better job of demonstrating the whys and not just the whats of the
      events in that benighted city in the years in question.

      This is thus a good but flawed book. It is big and has intentions on
      comprehensiveness. It is worth reading, but despite the confirmation of
      greatness implied in the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize and the fawning
      reception of many reviewers, it is a work with many flaws. There are many
      wonderful books out there on the civil rights struggle that will get swept
      up in the undertow of this book, books that do a better job of elucidating
      their subjects and expanding our understanding of an era that still
      fascinates, repels, amazes and awes us. One wishes that those books would
      get more of the attention that they deserve while still leaving a place for
      ambitious works like McWhorter's.

      _Notes_

      [1]. Glenn Eskew, _But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in
      the Civil Rights Struggle_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
      Press, 1997); Andrew Manis, _A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights
      Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth_ (Tuscaloosa: University
      of Alabama Press, 1999); S. Jonathan Bass, _Blessed Are the Peacemakers:
      Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter
      From Birmingham Jail"_ (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,
      2002).

      [2]. Mary Winstead, _Back To Mississippi: A Personal Journey Through the
      Events that Changed America in 1964_ (New York: Hyperion, 2002).

      [3]. There are two works forthcoming on the Freedom Rides that should help
      to rectify this glaring gap in the historiography. One is Ray Arsenault's
      forthcoming book with Oxford University Press. The other is my own project,
      which is my dissertation from Ohio University and which I hope to publish
      in late 2003.

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