cover image Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South

Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South

Hal Crowther. Louisiana State University Press, $24.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-8071-2594-6

In his foreword Fred Hobson dubs North Carolinian Crowther ""a throwback"" who resembles the best literary journalists of the early 1900s more than contemporary essayists. Indeed the self-described ""born Luddite, anchorite, forest hermit, destroyer of telephones"" is an uncommon essayist: a moralist, a widely read generalist, a modern-day Mencken who never hesitates to offend when extolling the virtues or probing the flaws of his favorite subject, the South. These 29 essays (many first published in the Oxford American) skillfully blend the personal and the polemical, experience and reportage, high culture and low, the spiritual and the secular. Crowther's range is best displayed in ""God's Holy Fire,"" which takes to task no less an impressive cast than novelist Reynolds Price, Martin Luther, Kierkegaard, God and the New York Times Book Review. In ""The King and I,"" his uncertain regard for Elvis becomes a touchstone for exploring what's wrong with contemporary America (a recurring theme). Even bemoaning our sorry state, Crowther writes with saving wit and flair, deploring ""the Graceland Cult as the state religion of the degenerate `voodoo republic' that is replacing Mr. Jefferson's dignified democracy."" Crowther brings both native insight and objective detachment to his analysis of the South's writers (James Dickey, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy), heroes (Stonewall Jackson, George Wallace and Wallace's nemesis, Judge Frank Johnson) and icons (belles, yahoos, radio evangelists). ""We'll soon be anachronisms, subjects like me,"" he allows. But if Crowther is a throwback, he's also a keeper--and likely the best essayist you've never heard of. (Aug.)