Milkweed Editions

‘Graceland, At Last’ unfolds a Southerner’s wise and hopeful essays

New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl looks forward to the day when the South “will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.”

Since 2017, from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, Margaret Renkl has written a column for The New York Times that covers, as the paper puts it, “flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.” She made a splash in 2019 with “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss,” a fragmentary memoir that repurposed some of the material from her column. It was a good book that invited Renkl’s fans to wonder when a more conventional collection of her columns might be published. In “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South,” they have a welcome answer.

Renkl is a lovely writer, and to read her work is to be reminded that as a younger woman, she once aspired to be a poet. In one sense, she’s realized that dream; her lyrical sentences sing from the page. In an August essay from last year, when pandemic lockdowns were in full swing and more trouble was on the national horizon, Renkl mused on a mole in her backyard: “In these days that grow ever darker as fears gather and autumn comes on, I remember again and again how much we all share with this soft, solitary creature trundling through invisible tunnels in the dark, hungry and blind but working so hard to move forward all the same.”

Passages like that one underscore Renkl’s sublime style. But it’s no discredit to her to consider the fact that without her regional roots, Renkl might not have been chosen to write a regular column for the Times. Her role, both a privilege and an abiding complication, is apparently to be a Great Explainer of All Things Southern to the rest of the country.

Renkl seems deeply aware of how thorny – and potentially limiting – that job can be. “I’m not the voice of the South,” she offers as a disclaimer, “and no one else is, either, because in truth there’s no such thing as ‘the South.’”

In “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?,” one of the book’s wisest essays, Renkl echoes many other commentators as she suggests that in a globalized economy, old regional distinctions aren’t as sharp. “Far more urban, far more ethnically and culturally and politically diverse, the South today is no longer a place defined by sweet tea and slamming screen doors, and its literature is changing, too,” she writes.

But Renkl doesn’t entirely discount a special role for writers in her part of the world. “Maybe being a Southern writer is only a matter of loving a damaged and damaging place, of loving its flawed and beautiful people, so much that you have to stay there, observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.”

This wounded condition, a legacy of the South’s fraught history, seems an analog of sorts for America’s current national mood. In the wake of a pandemic and racial and political strife, the broader culture also seems ill at ease. It’s why Renkl’s essays, though written by a child of the South, resonate with particular urgency.

Her eloquent essays about the environment, often based on her backyard observations, are especially apt metaphors for these national injuries. “During my childhood in Alabama,” she recalls, “every highway and back road was alight with butterfly weed, which belongs to the family of milkweeds. In summer it formed a bright corridor of orange flowers so covered with orange monarch butterflies that from a distance it looked as though the flowers themselves were taking flight and floating on the breeze.” But Renkl notes that many factors, including the widespread use of herbicides that kill food supplies for monarchs, have sped their decline.

It’s heartening to see a columnist for a major American newspaper writing regularly about nature with a passion the media’s chattering classes typically reserve only for politics and entertainment.

Renkl’s essays invite comparison with those of Brooks Atkinson and Joseph Wood Krutch, two journalists of an earlier generation who also traversed easily between columns on nature, culture, and the work of the government. Atkinson was a Times theater critic who wrote perceptively about woods, water, and sky. Krutch, also a theater critic, was an equally deft chronicler of nature, particularly in the Southwest.

Renkl’s noteworthy predecessors, largely forgotten today, understood that the work of literature and art, governance and the great outdoors are inextricably linked – part of the great chain of being that defines the human condition.

American readers have erred in letting the likes of Atkinson and Krutch lapse into obscurity. “Graceland, At Last” is a timely reminder of what they’ve been missing. Renkl’s columns deserve to be read again, and for years to come.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘Graceland, At Last’ unfolds a Southerner’s wise and hopeful essays
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2021/0915/Graceland-At-Last-unfolds-a-Southerner-s-wise-and-hopeful-essays
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe