The View from Uncle Henry’s

Uncle Henry’s was a fine place to celebrate a first year of writing.

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, just north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude — perhaps its greatest virtue. Not every lodging encourages just sitting and thinking, those necessary components of the creative process. Uncle Henry’s did.

While robins stitched their song through branches of dogwood and azalea and morning flared out across the sky, I was more than happy to sit and think, particularly about the nature of persistence, and how quickly a year can flee down corridors of time.

Uncle Henry wasn’t my uncle, of course, but the fellow whose name had become attached to the now-shuttered Mississippi landmark.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was sold in 1933 to William Wilkerson. Known in those days as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living and assorted illegalities. It lost, then re-gained respectability when the locals cut its connections to the Chicago mob. Finally, in 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Wright.

Sarah and her son George (now deceased) transformed Uncle Henry’s into an Inn and Restaurant. Tourist guides referred to it as a Bed and Breakfast, but none of the common terms quite captured its dusty reality.

A little shabby, quite a bit quirky, the place was imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. It was easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a “she” — the prototypical Southern Lady, temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

There’s no question Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. At dinner, more than a few locals gathered in the dining room, old-timers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking her polite question: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Some days later, I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House. They grinned, and one asked, “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” When I admitted I’d not only stopped there, but had lingered for a few days, the other fellow said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But that’s the good news – it’s not the Holiday Inn.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I made my sight-unseen reservation. A late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival had left me scrambling for a room. Motels were booked, and had been for weeks.

When I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, they had a waiting list in addition to their reservations. But, with the solicitous kindness I was coming to associate with Mississippians, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.” Once I arrived, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “and you can’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down into the dining room.”

That was fine by me. After all, Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, a pair of local boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to hit the road for the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult, but Tennessee Williams’ connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped Williams transform the Club into Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, reading Williams’ work and pondering what it must have required of him to transform his sleepy, Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I amused myself with the thought that he might have appreciated at least the tone of my own first blog entry.

I have things to say — words to write, metaphors to build, conclusions to draw, paragraphs to stack and reorder to suit myself and perhaps others…
If I’m to share my words and my vision, it [will require] energy and perseverance.

The confidence and declarative force of the words still seems entirely inexplicable to me. But I had persevered during that first year, at least in the sense that I had written, and on that late Mississippi afternoon, I found Williams himself eloquently affirming the importance of perseverance as a first step toward success.

Before my trip, I’d never read Tennessee Williams’ essay, The Catastrophe of Success. I discovered it as an addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag as travel reading. Originally published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, the essay was written as Williams celebrated an anniversary of his own. Three years had passed since the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie, and Williams finally was receiving recognition as a playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant – not only because I was in Tennessee Williams’ country, but because his words rang out with the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

The essay is filled with truth, memorable and recognizable truths that demand retelling. All of us hope to succeed, but Williams did succeed, marvelously well. Reflecting on the circumstances of his own life and career, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable.

The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every ince of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading the essay today, I find myself once again drawn through the veil of dogwood and azalea toward Moon Lake. I imagine Uncle Henry, and mourn the closing of his Inn. I remember Yazoo Pass, sluggish and narrow, winding its way toward Vicksburg, and consider my great-grandfather’s Union Regiment — the 34th Iowa — trembling there at the edge of their own great, unwelcome adventure.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores of the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like a riff of breeze across the Delta.

Where I sit, rocking in the late afternoon warmth, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning south and west while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and the perseverance begins again.

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Caring and Thinking: Two Men, Two Styles, One Goal

 

When William F. Buckley, Jr. died this year on February 27, I was touched by the on-air tribute given him by Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball.  I don’t always agree with Mr. Matthews, and I don’t always appreciate his style, but on that particular evening, he said something important. 

What struck me was not what Matthews said about William Buckley – his writing, his publications, his sailing, his extraordinarily privileged life – but what he said about himself.  As Matthews put it,  “To start out as a young conservative is not–let’s look at the facts–to end up there. But you have to start somewhere. You have to care before you can think, think before you can change your mind…   I owe that start to the man who died today at his desk…”

Those words came again to mind when I heard Tim Russert had died.  Like Buckley, Russert was a caring and thoughtful man, an extraordinary interviewer, and a bridge between worlds.  While Russert made the world of “inside the Beltway” politics more accessible to ordinary Americans, Buckley brought intellect and wit to  television and helped make erudite conversation the newest parlor game in town.  When I listed “good conversation” as my favorite sport on my Wordpress “About Me” page, it’s at least in part a testament to the influence of Buckley’s Firing Line in my life.  On the other hand, when I settle in with a cup of coffee and a printed newspaper or one of the blogs I follow, it’s partly because of a passion for political process that Tim Russert helped engender.

Certainly there were differences between the men: in background, temperament and style. 

The aristocratic and patrician Buckley could be – and often was – insufferable, pompous, or unutterably obnoxious.  He just as often was brilliant, despite his acerbic tongue and impenetrable vocabulary.  Buckley was all privilege, old money, and connections forged over generations.  Born in New York, he lived in Mexico and Connecticut before beginning first grade in Paris and being further schooled in London.  An accomplished harpsichordist who wanted Bach played at his funeral, he attended Yale and graduated into a life that became the stuff of legends. 

Tim Russert, on the other hand, was working class Buffalo, a “just-folks” sort of fellow full of homespun wisdom, compassion and a kindness toward others – even perfect strangers – that was legendary.  As E.J. Dione of the Brookings Institute put it, “Tim Russert knew it was as easy to be kind as to be cruel.”  No harpsichordist, he: it was The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who played Thunder Road at his memorial service.  Not given to the linguistic flourishes of a Buckley, he was intelligent and insightful, if just a bit uncertain of himself in the beginning.  When he first came to work for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Moynihan recognized his insecurity and gave him a classic piece of advice, saying, “What they know you can learn.  What you know, they never can learn.”

 As these things happen, each man became associated with his own remarkable television phenomenon.

Buckley’s Firing Line was must-see tv for years. After he died, Eric Konigsberg, writing in the February 29 New York Times rehearsed a bit of the history of the show, an hour-long PBS production.   Over the years guests included Louis S. Auchincloss, Alistair Cooke, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Simon.  Politicians weren’t the only ones who showed up.  Malcolm Muggeridge was there, as was Mortimer Adler and Jorge Luis Borges, Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. 

During Allen Ginsbergs appearance, the poet asked Mr. Buckley’s permission to sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna.  According to Richard Brookhiser, quoted by Konigsberg, “Bill was very gentle with him.  He said, ‘Of course’…  Mr. Ginsberg proceeded to play a long and doleful number on a harmonium, chanting along slowly and passionately,  And when he was finished, Bill said, ‘Well, that’s the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard.’ ”

That is pure Buckley, but Russert had his own, equally enjoyable style.  Until Eugene Robinson pointed it out, I hadn’t been aware of some Meet the Press  traditions.  “After each segment, a photographer comes out to take a picture for the archives.  When the taping is done, snacks are brought to the set and the guests linger for a while, chatting with the host about their families, about baseball, about the news of the day and about what’s likely to be the news of tomorrow.  It’s all so civilized that it feels almost anachronistic.”

In this photograph from Meet the Press archives, Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, cavorts with Russert, his wife Jackie Clegg and their daughters, Christina and Grace. after a taping at the NBC Washington studios on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007 (AP Photo/Meet the Press, Alex Wong).  There were many reasons newsmakers fought to be on Meet the Press, and while post-grilling socializing wasn’t at the top of the list, it surely played a role in the overall appeal of working with Russert.

It can be tempting to see Buckley and Russert as different ends of the thinking-and-caring scale, with Buckley the thinker and Russert the one who cared, but that simply isn’t so. Both men gave profound thought to the issues of the day and both cared deeply – not only about the issues, but about their life’s work and the people around them. 

Equally important was their passionate care and concern for what they understood to be their responsibility to the nature and development of civility in public discourse.  Whether writing, interviewing, or speaking, whether engaging the public by the persuasiveness of their ideas or sheer force of personality, both men brought passion, intellect and good humor to their love of truth and politics.

Given their dedication and passion, it seems perfectly fitting that both men died at their work.  William Buckley was writing at his desk.  Tim Russert was in a studio at NBC’s Washington News Bureau recording a voice-over.  Men of faith schooled in Jesuit traditions,  both understood the meaning of laborare est orare – to work is to pray – and both left this life wrapped in the mantle of that prayer.  

As I think about these two lives lost in one year, and about their contributions to our public life, I cannot help but ponder the need to maintain balance between caring and thinking.  Thought without care risks becoming judgmental.  Caring without the discipline of thought easily becomes sentimentality.  Finding the appropriate balance between the two is one of our most important tasks.

Though never granted opportunity to know these two remarkable men personally, I value their lives and work, and refuse to choose one over the other.  Like thinking and caring, they seem to belong together – two visions and two voices born of two different worlds which share a single goal: an engaged and informed populace willing to forego platitudes and easy answers in favor of discernment and commitment to difficult decisions.

Whatever their differences, the words of Bessie Anderson Stanley surely apply to both:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.

 
 
 
 
 
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