Monday, 11 July 2011

Week 14: State - North Carolina

Hmm, maybe I should delete the "50 weeks" section of this blog (I honestly have no idea what week I'm on any more), but, for now at least, I have returned to carry on...

The colony of Carolina was established in 1663 when King Charles II of England granted a charter to start a new colony on the North American continent. Named in honour of his father Charles I (Latin: Carolus), the colony split into North Carolina and South Carolina in 1712 due to disputes over governance. Prior to this Sir Walter Raleigh established two colonies on the coast of North Carolina in the late 1580s, but both failed, though the capital of North Carolina, Raleigh, was named in his honour. It got its nickname The Old North State as the state did not vote to join the Confederacy during the Civil War until President Abraham Lincoln called on it to invade South Carolina. During the war North Carolina provided at least 125,000 troops to the Confederacy— far more than any other state, approximately 40,000 of whom never returned home. North Carolina was impoverished by the Civil War and hard hit by the Great Depression but Tobacco grew into a major industry, and today North Carolina is the leading producer of tobacco in the country. The state is also the largest textile employer in the United States, though in recent decades offshoring and industrial growth in countries like China has forced the economy to diversify and today Charlotte, the largest city in the state, is the second largest banking center in the United States (after New York). The western section of the state is part of the Appalachian Mountain range, and The Black Mountains subrange are the highest in the Eastern United States (Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River). Tourism is the dominant industry in the mountains, and the state overall is the 6th most visited in the country in being, amongst other reasons, a top golf destination. North Carolina is also home to Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, the largest military base in the United States. Severe weather occurs regularly in North Carolina and on average, the state receives a direct hit from a hurricane once a decade (only Florida and Louisiana are hit more often). North Carolina can claim two notable firsts: the first gold nugget found in the U.S. was found at the Reed Gold Mine (now a National Historic Landmark) in Cabarrus County in 1799, and the states unofficial motto "First in Flight" refers to the states honor in being the site of the first successful controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight, by the Wright brothers, near Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

The television show most associated with North Carolina is The Andy Griffith Show, which aired from 1960 to 1968. The series is set in the fictional small town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and was based on the real-life town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. The film Bull Durham (North Carolina is a state known for minor league sports) was based on the Durham Bulls of the Carolina League, and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and the Oscar winning film adaptation follow a Confederate deserter's trek home through North Carolina... Firstly I started reading Serena by Ron Rash (set in 1929 against the backdrop of the North Carolina timber industry) but lost interest a third of the way through. Next I picked up a Thomas Wolfe novella (a North Carolina native) that turned out to not even be set in the state, and finally settled on The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt.

Charles Chesnutt was an American author of mixed-race descent whose novels and short stories explored complex issues of racial and social identity in the post-Civil War South. His 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition was a fictionalised retelling of the rise of the white supremacist movement in Wilmington, North Carolina, leading to the Wilmington Insurrection (or Massacre) of 1898 when whites took over the city and threw out the elected biracial government.

Review to follow at some point...

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


Well, the inevitable happened and the drama of life got in the way of keeping on schedule with my reading and blog-posting, as well as a disappointing book choice for North Carolina that I struggled through to about the halfway point before giving up. Nevertheless I intend very soon to pick up where I left off with a new book for the state. Watch this space...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Mid-Atlantic States - A Summary

Time for another summary. I'm now around a week behind schedule (at least, I need to check!). Hopefully I'll stumble upon some nice short books soon. So unlikely I'll be picking Gone With the Wind for Georgia...

Week 7

The State: New York

The Book: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)

Week 8

The State: New Jersey

The Book: American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Week 9

The State: Pennsylvania

The Book: Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Week 10

The State: Delaware

The Book: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Week 11

The State: Maryland

The Book: A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler (1998)

Week 12

The State: West Virginia

The Book: Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (1953)

Week 13

The State: Virginia

The Book: Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

Virginia and Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

The Battle of Chancellorsville, the principal engagement of the Chancellorsville Campaign, was the fifth costliest battle of the American Civil War. 17,197 Union and 13,303 Confederate casualties were counted in the fighting which lasted from April 30 to May 6, 1863 (May 3 was the second bloodiest day of the Civil War). The campaign was the most unevenly balanced of the war, and is known as Confederate General Robert E. Lee's "perfect battle" for his victory against a Union army better supplied, better rested and twice their size (60,892 against Maj. Gen Joseph Hooker's army of 133,868). Although the result was a victory for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia he lost some 22% of his force in the campaign, and just as seriously, he lost his most aggressive field commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, to friendly fire, a loss that Lee likened to "losing my right arm." In reaction to the Union defeat President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, "My God! My God! What will the country say?" Although Stephen Crane was born six years after the end of the Civil War he surprised critics with his realistic portrayal of the battlefield in Red Badge of Courage, and it is widely believed that he based the battle on that of Chancellorsville, possibly taking inspiration from war stories told by members of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the Orange Blossoms), who first saw battle at Chancellorsville, in the town square of Port Jervis, New York where he resided. An overnight success at the age of 24, Crane died in 1900 following a severe hemorrhage of the lungs, aged just 28.

Red Badge of Courage was adapted into a 1951 film by director John Huston. Huston felt the film was his best to date but MGM were troubled by poor audience test results and what they felt was an anti-war tone to the film, and cut 19 minutes from the film. The Battle of Chancellorsville was also depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name. In the novel of Red Badge of Courage though, there are no references to the time and place of the action, and in a sense they are not important, as the novel is a study of the psychological fear felt by the soldier. In fact, because it follows a battle from one soldier's pespective it is (intentionally so) hard to follow what is happening on the larger scale, or even who is winning the battle (at times the private can barely see beyond ten feet for all the smoke on the battlefield), and it's to its credit that it effectively places the reader in the thick of the battle. At the time Red Badge of Courage was praised as a modern work and it still holds up as one of the most vivid fictional accounts of war on the front-line written.

Next: North Carolina...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Week 13: State - Virginia

Virginia (named perhaps for the "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I) is internationally reknowned as the site of the first English colony in the United States, Jamestown, founded in 1607 following a previous 1584 expedition by Water Raleigh to the "New World". One of those first settlers was John Smith, who in December of 1607 was captured by a Powhatan hunting party and, somewhat disputably, later claimed he was spared from execution due to the intervention of the chief's daughter, Pocahontas. Pocahontas later became famous when she converted to Christianity and married the English settler John Rolfe with whom she travelled to London in the last year of her life. Jamestown was the capital of the colony for 83 years (from 1616 until 1699) but today exists only as an archaeological site. Williamsburg became the colonial capital in 1699, but during the American Revolutionary War the capital was moved to Richmond at the urging of Governor Thomas Jefferson (due to Williamsburg's vulnerable location). Virginia was also the site of the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, in 1781. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" (due to its historic title "Dominion" given by Charles II in remaining loyal to the Crown during the English Civil War) and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there (including four of the first five - George Washington (who also commanded Virginia's forces in the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War), Thomas Jefferson (who also founded the University of Virginia, a world heritage site, and designed The Virginia State Capitol, home to the Virginia General Assembly), James Madison, and James Monroe). African workers were first imported in 1619, and by 1860, almost half a million people, roughly 31% of the total population of Virginia, were enslaved, a division which contributed to the start of the American Civil War. During the war Virginia joined the Confederate States of America, while 48 counties in the northwest separated to form the new state of West Virginia, which remained loyal to the Union. General Robert E. Lee, born in the state, was the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and during the war more battles were fought in Virginia than anywhere else. Today the largest ancestry group in Virginia is African (19.6%), mostly descendants of enslaved Africans who worked on plantations, and in the 20th century Virginia played a key role in the civil rights movement, most notably in 1951 when Barbara Rose Johns, an African American rights activist, campaigned at the age of 16 for integration at her school in Farmville. In 1989 Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected as governor in the United States. Virginia has the highest concentration of technology workers of any state, and computer chips became the state's highest-grossing export in 2006. The Department of Defense is headquartered in Arlington at The Pentagon, the world's largest office building, and Virginia has the highest defense spending of any state per capita, providing the state with around 900,000 jobs.

Several films about Pocahontas have been made, including Walt Disney's 1995 animated feature, and Terrence Malick's 2005 The New World, both of which presented a fictional love affair between Pocahontas and John Smith. Three versions of John Fox Jr's novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, set in the Appalachian Mountains at the turn of the 20th century, have been filmed (the most recent in 1936), whilst numerous films set during the American Civil War have featured Virginia due to its prominent role in the war, including the 1965 James Stewart film Shenandoah and more recently Gods and Generals, which depicts the battles of First Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) was also the basis for my choice of book for Virginia: Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, first published in 1895.

This may be considered cheating, as the setting of Red Badge of Courage is never revealed (the book is a psychological examination of a single soldier during his first combat experiences in the Civil War), but historians have generally agreed that the battle depicted is that of Chancellorsville, and Crane also wrote a follow-up short story featuring the same protagonist who apparently explicitly states the setting of the novel. Plus I've fallen behind schedule and need something short to read!

Review to follow this week...

Monday, 30 May 2011

West Virginia and The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (1953)

Harry Powell, the widow-killing antagonist of Davis Grubb's West Virginia-set Night of the Hunter, was based on the real-life serial-killer Harry F. Powers who operated from his small home, Quiet Dell, near a West Virginia hamlet where he lived with his wife Luella, posing as a "wealthy widower" in lonely-hearts columns. In 1931 it would become known in the media as the "murder farm" when the bodies of Asta Eicher, 50, a Chicago widow and her three children (Greta, 14; Harry, 12, and Anabel, 9) were unearthed in the grounds of Power's garden and garage during the investigation into their disappearance. Eicher, who struggled to raise her three children, had responded to an "American Friendship" ad which read "Wealthy widower worth $150,000. Has income from $400 to $2,000 a month." After the family went missing a series of love letters led the police to Powers home where the bodies of the mother and children had been buried in shallow graves. The body of another woman was discovered in the garage, Dorothy Lemke, a 50 year old divorcée from Northboro, Mass who had gone missing around the same time. Although Powers only ever confessed to the five murders, there was a strong suspicion that he killed before, and a search of his home yielded a trunk-load of correspondence from more than 100 love-starved widows and spinsters from all over the country suggesting that he had been operating as a love racketeer for more than a decade. In 1932 Powers was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. There are numerous similarities with Harry Powell of Night of the Hunter, most obviously his name, that he operates in West Virginia, and that he preys on lonely widows, but Davis Grubb's protanist is not solely motivated by money. Instead he is compelled by what he believes to be the word of God to take the lives of sinners, specifically lustful widows (the money is further motivation). In this aspect the character is firmly routed in the Southern Gothic tradition in its use of irony to examine the character of the rural South. Powell - who has love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands - claims to be an agent of love but is in fact the complete opposite.

The book also includes some wonderful descriptions of the Ohio Valley, where the majority of the book takes place:

"In the Ohio Valley it is the river that gives and takes the seasons. It is as if that mighty stream were the vast, alluvial artery of the land itself so that when the towns grow weary of snows and harsh fogs the great heart pumps green spring blood down the valley and the banks are warmed and nourished by it and soon the whole environing earth blossoms despite itself and the air comes alive and lambs caper and bleat upon the hillside paths. And so now it was the prime of spring in the bottomlands. Soon the redbone hound would kelt in the creek hollows on nights when the moon was a curl of golden hair against the shoulder of the Ohio hills. Soon the shantyboat people would join their fiddle and mouth-harp racket to the chorus of green frogs down under the mists in the moonlit willows."

I took great relish in reading this book. Despite its pulpy subject matter it's very well written, it moves at a lightning pace, with some truly nail-biting sequences in which the serial-killer pursues the children in an unrelenting almost Terminator-like manner down the Ohio River, and the character of Harry Powell is a wonderfully horrific creation. I re-watched the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed Robert Mitchum film adaptation after finishing the book (I've not seen it in ten years). It still holds up as a great, truely unique film in its appliance of an expressionist style to a rural setting, and although the book doesn't have the surrealism of Charles Laughton's vision it's a shame that it has been overshadowed by the growing reputation of the film over the years. Most of the films dialouge is lifted straight from the page, and it's to Grubb's credit that he created such a believable monster.

Next: Virginia

Monday, 23 May 2011

Week 12: State - West Virginia

West Virginia, originally part of the state of Virginia, became in 1863 the only state in the Union to secede from a Confederate state during the American Civil War, following sharp division over the issue of secession from the Union (its original Native American name of Kanawha was subsequently changed to West Virginia). Following its founding it became known as The Mountain State for being the only state to lie entirely with the Appalachia Mountain range (also explaining its motto - Montani Semper Liberi, "Mountaineers are always free."), a factor which has profoundly affected its economy (West Virginia is second only to Wyoming in coal-production in the United States) and the lifestyles of its residents. John Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" describes the experience of driving through the West Virginian countryside, and many locals refer to their home state as Almost Heaven, in reference to the opening line of the song. West Virginia is the least populous south-eastern state, and only 1.1% of the state's residents are foreign-born (the lowest in the country). The largest city and state capital is Charleston.

Films set in West Virginia include The Mothman Prophecies as well as the 1975 non-fiction book which formed the basis for the film (both focusing on Point Pleasant in Mason County), Wrong Turn (set in the forests of West Virginia), and the 1955 Robert Mitchum thriller The Night of the Hunter, which just so happens to also be the book I've selected for this state.

After struggling through Anne Tyler in Maryland I knew I had to pick something I would enjoy this time, and I know I can't go wrong with this one. Although the film, now considered a classic, was a critical and box office failure on its initial release, the book by Davis Grubb, first published in 1953, was a bestseller and National Book Award finalist, and is now well regarded as a classic of the Southern Gothic genre.

Review to follow this week...