The Magazine

Improbable Dream

A Southern editor recalls his time and place.

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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This is an age of mystifying book titles, including the one that adorns this memoir. 

H. Brandt Ayers

H. Brandt Ayers

associated press

But it should be no surprise, at least for Southern readers who have wrestled with their mixed heritage, that Brandt Ayers speaks of being “in love with defeat.” He drops a clue by adopting an epigraph from William Faulkner: Quentin Compson’s anguished response—“I don’t hate it”—to his Canadian college roommate’s questioning why he hates the South. “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” repeats Quentin inwardly, as if to assure himself that the dark chronicles of miscegenation and murder he has recited are psychologically survivable. We know from other sources, alas, that Quentin soon drowned himself in the Charles River. He was, it seems, too much in love with defeat.

And what is the relevance of this prologue to the less maddening, if sometimes perilous, journalistic career of H. Brandt Ayers, editor and proprietor of the Anniston (Ala.) Star? He is neither Compson nor Thomas Sutpen, and his industrial city is a long way from Yoknapatawpha. 

In fact, it is in some ways too bad that his subtitle stresses the political aspect of a tale of cultural upheaval and renewal in the Deep South. These titular stretches are a bit melodramatic for the chronicle of a Southern editor’s energy, conviction, and distinction in doing his part to make the South—and his city and state—better places for both blacks and whites than they had been in his youth. 

Yet, as the great historian C. Vann Woodward taught us, the South is incurably peculiar—“un-American” in the sense that its scarred history often negates the nation’s positive myths of victory and optimism. Its collective identity is marked by atypical experiences of poverty, defeat, and racial evil.

So what Ayers means by a love of defeat is that his political and cultural tribe of Southern liberals (impatient with Jim Crow and bent on overthrowing its evils) were born to incompleteness.

Here is an example: Ayers devotes many pages to the L. Q. C. Lamar Society, a typical enterprise of the 1970s, the decade when the logjam of racial discrimination was finally broken. The Lamar Society was a gathering of young Southerners determined to cure Southern ills without sacrificing regional virtues; it was named for a Mississippi statesman who won a place for himself by paying a famous tribute to that fiercest of Yankee scolds, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. 

Lamar pled, amid the ruins of the Civil War, for intersectional understanding. Those who assembled under the Lamar Society banner in 1973 had in mind that their newest of New Souths would preserve the best of its cultural legacy (pit-cooked barbecue and other delicacies; jazz and the blues; small-town friendliness; the beauties of the wild land; etc.) while luring investment southward and building model cities. It would shed racism and provincialism, while avoiding Yankee mistakes. No dark satanic mills or forelock-tugging industrial wage slaves, please! 

Alas, the vision was, in part, thwarted by what befell Atlanta. Ayers has some sharp words for that city’s engulfment by concrete, asphalt, and impersonal sprawl, much as he has words of nostalgia for the old charms of Charleston and Savannah.

Ayers has the gift of tongues and generosity, the latter being noteworthy in his search for the hidden best in even the worst of his foes. He is no innocent. He knows where the bodies are buried, but that tragic consciousness doesn’t override his quixotic (in the best sense) optimism. Yes, he has been an occasional assailant of windmills, but he has clung to “impossible dreams.”

I reserve for last one correction. Ayers refers, at least thrice, to racial segregation as “apartheid,” the Boer term for “apartness.” That was indeed the aspiration of the Afrikaners. But in the Southern American context, it can be a treacherous misnomer. Segregation in the American South, for all its demeaning fetishes, never enforced “separation” of black and white. Quite to the contrary, the two races grew up in an enforced intimacy—propinquity without equality, it was sometimes called. It was lucky for us all that this was so, for when legal segregation collapsed, the barriers to be crossed were more psychological than physical.

But this is a blemish in a distinguished memoir full of wit, wisdom, and good reporting. Brandt Ayers is one of those notable heirs of the knight of La Mancha, resolved to better his world, heedless of cynicism. If this was in some ways an impossible dream, he stuck to his mission, and Anniston, Alabama, the South, and the nation are the better for it.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure