Foreword by Fred Hobson and illustrations by Steven Cragg. Hal Crowther prides himself on being one of the last generalists in a professon of specialists. His eloquent essays on culture, history, politics, religion, arts, and literature have established him as one of the most influential Southern journalists of his generation. Cathedrals of Kudzu represents his ambition to "cover" the South-"its writers, politicians, geniuses, saints, villains, and eccentric folkways-with the same wide-angle lens H. L. Mencken used to capture all of America in the 1920s. To cover it, in other words, from a judicious distance, but with the ironical bite of his own not inconsiderable prejudices. "Like Mencken," reads Crowther's citation for the 1992 H. L. Mencken Writing Award, "Hal Crowther has the narrowed pupil of a sharpshooter, the hairy ear of a heavy artilleryman, and the ballistic rifling of an implacable anathematist."
In these superb essays, most of them first published in The Oxford American, he sorts out a whole warehouse of Southern idiosyncrasy and iconography, including the Southern belle, Faulkner, James Dickey, Stonewall Jackson, Cormac McCarthy, Walker Percy, Erskine Caldwell, guns, dogs, fathers, trees, George Wallace, Elvis, Doc Watson, the decline of poetry, and the return of chain gangs. Unlike Mencken, who was incorrigibly cynical about his subjects, Crowther is capable of affectionate, even sentimental, concessions-even to some of the most dubious players who cross his stage.
These are very personal essays, though they include a wealth of reporting and research. They're conversations with the reader, who is invited to bring his or her experience and prejudice to the topic at hand. There's no quarter given, but no ideological orthodoxies to reassure one faction or alienate another. Crowther is an intellectual free agent. In his essays, the book page and the editorial page find common ground.
Taken as a whole, Hal Crowther's pieces offer a portrait of the modern South with a rich backdrop of its history and its classic literature. More personally, they present a vivid intellectual self-portrait of the man Kirkpatrick Sale has called "the best essayist working in journalism today."