Madison Smartt Bell

  • Strange Fruit (1944) by Lillian Smith

    Best sellers of yesteryear often don’t wear well, so I have only recently read Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, in spite of having a sense of its political importance and iconic place in the canon of southern literature (and despite having once received a prize named after the author). I was expecting a tract and so was astonished by its amazing success as a work of art. Smith is pitch-perfect in capturing a great range of voices among both races and all classes of the 1920s rural and small-town South, in a style that might be a fusion of Zora Neale Hurston and the early Eudora Welty. Her phrasing

  • culture April 16, 2010

    Kissing the Mask by William T. Vollmann

    Japanese Noh theater would seem to be an odd subject for William T. Vollmann, were it not for the fact that nothing human is alien to him. Indeed, he is one of the very few writers among us about whom the latter statement can be made without irony. His appetite for all human behavior is so truly omnivorous that the book’s subtitle—Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with some thoughts on Muses (especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines—is not an exaggeration.

  • culture August 06, 2009

    Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 by Matthew J. Smith

    The large segment of the Haitian population that is unable to read or write inhabits an oral history culture, which produces, when looking into the past, a curious foreshortening. First comes the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the only successful slave revolution in history and an event with whose fundamentals practically all Haitians are reasonably conversant. Then there's a compressed, indeterminate period of confused and repetitious instability, ending with President Woodrow Wilson's decision in 1915 to use the collection of outstanding American and French loans as a pretext for installing

  • Reflections

    Madison Smartt Bell

    Flannery O’Connor warned us some fifty years ago that any work of fiction burdened with instructional intent was doomed to become a tract. Or as Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

    Most American novelists seem to act on these principles (whether or not they’ve actually heard them announced). And there is something quite sound in the idea that flaming political passions make for bad art. The fact that it is extremely difficult to define the boundaries of any event while it’s happening has led American novelists to