A Southern writer reflects on the lessons learned from a lifetime dedicated to literature.
In his latest work, Gaillard (English/Univ. of South Alabama; With Music and Justice for All: Some Southerners and Their Passions, 2008, etc.) pays homage to the many writers who came before him. Though subtitled “A Reader’s Memoir,” it’s more than that. A mix of biography, autobiography and literary criticism, the result is a heartfelt love letter to literature. Wavering precariously on the border between critic and bibliophile, Gaillard bucks both roles by combining them, bringing with him a lifetime spent buried in books. While each chapter explores a particular theme—race, region, reportage, etc.—his conclusions come not from his own experiences, but the experience of reading others’ work through a historical lens. As such, when tackling Southern race relations (a subject in which Gaillard is well-versed), he pairs Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird alongside the tragic real-life story of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teenagers sentenced to death based on little more than scurrilous testimony. The author repeats this juxtaposition of life and literature throughout, providing an evaporative effect between fact and fiction. Gaillard’s revelations are mostly modest, and though he sets forth the occasional semicontroversial claim—in one instance he argues that the 1960s work of Nikki Giovanni and Eldridge Cleaver was “more catharsis than literature”—it is his ability to rise above this fray that makes for a pleasurable reading experience.
An exuberantly written account of one writer’s leap toward understanding life’s intersection with literature.