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Book Review: Gather At The River by Hal Crowther

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The essay is a sometimes forgotten form of writing, often overlooked in favor of the burly novel, the well-researched non-fiction tome, even the pithy short story or poem. Yet done right, essays can be an art in and of themselves, and few writers understand that better than Hal Crowther.

Who? Well, he may not be a household name, but for years I’ve considered Crowther one of the best at what he does, up there with nationally syndicated columnists like Leonard Pitts and Ellen Goodman. His 1995 collection, Unarmed But Dangerous, one of my favorite books of essays ever, was a welcome tonic in the age of O.J., offering a distinct, smart opinionated voice that was never smug or self-promoting.

Crowther has a knack for fine turns of phrase that never feel like he’s showing off, as with George Will’s windy columns. “I suppose I’d be a secular humanist, if I had a little more faith in humans,” he writes. Crowther is that rare bird among essayists – decisive, yet not shrill. He refuses to play by “conservative” or “liberal” dogma, instead riding a line as the contrarian, willing to stand up for the doomed Waco Branch Davidians in one essay and tear into Bush’s war in Iraq in another.

His third book, Gather At The River: Notes From The Post-Millennial South, is united in its openhearted love for Southern culture. Crowther is a fine spokesman for the South, a region slowly losing its own distinct flavor in a sea of Wal-Marts and strip malls. Gather At The River was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, putting Crowther in the company of luminaries such as John Updike.

Gather At The River surveys a variety of Southern culture from the past several years, from analyzing Dolly Parton to a look at the fall of Trent Lott. He looks at the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack phenomenon as it relates to pure music – “the ancient rich brew of guts, grief and gospel intoxicates almost anyone who actually buys recorded music for the way it sounds and not for the hype it rolls in on.”

Crowther writes on race with a thoughtful elegance, such as in the piece on Lott, Jesse Helms and other Southern shames, “the old race dragons … coiled in the hearts of Dixie so long they hold the mortgage, and it takes generations to buy them out.” Another essay where a discussion of Crowther’s literary idol H.L. Mencken’s relevance in these times spins into a sprawling debate on the cynical culture created by television is a particular highlight, showcasing Crowther’s deft arguments and pointed conclusions. Crowther is old-fashioned in his views, occasionally curmudgeonly, but almost never is he offensive; he’s like the genial college professor you admired even if you didn’t always agree with.

It’s a sign of Crowther’s skill that even topics unfamiliar to some, such as a profile of author Marshall Frady or a look at a college friend who became a leading museum art figure, breathe with life and telling details. While there’s a definite regional slant to this collection, Crowther’s measured, original voice should appeal to any lover of fine essays. If all you think of when you imagine Southern culture is Larry the Cable Guy and the Dukes of Hazzard, Crowther’s reassuring voice offers a glimpse at an older, wiser face of the region that’s starting to be forgotten.

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