A Turn in the South

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The best travel books are those written by intelligent observers who begin their trips without preconceived ideas, who take care to talk with people who vary in social class and in outlook, and who even in their enthusiasm preserve a healthy skepticism about the validity of any single point of view. This was the kind of observer which V. S. Naipaul resolved to be, when in 1984, while he was attending the Republican national convention in Dallas, he projected a travel book about the old slave states of the Deep South.

As a native of Trinidad, born into an Indian family, and now a resident of England, Naipaul has long been fascinated with the situation of ethnic minorities and with the problems of societies emerging from colonial rule. After early novels dealing, often comically, with Indians in Trinidad and in England, he wrote works which were more political in nature, focusing on the problems of postcolonial countries in the Caribbean and in Africa. His nonfiction book An Area of Darkness (1964) presented a pessimistic picture of contemporary India, and Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) explored the political and religious turmoil in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In all of his work, Naipaul has written from the vantage point of one who is outside the mainstream of society. Even though he was part of a small Indian enclave in Trinidad, he belonged to an ethnic minority, and as a Brahmin and an educated man, he was even more alienated from the general population. In England, he was a Caribbean Indian; in India, a native of Trinidad; in the Islamic countries, a foreign writer reared as a Hindu. Perhaps because he is not committed to a monolithic social pattern, Naipaul can enter new situations with an amazing open- mindedness. For American Southerners, who for a century and a half have been accustomed to being told what they believe, how they behave, and why they behave so badly, generally by visitors with predetermined ideas, Naipaul’s book is a welcome change.

Naipaul’s background helps to explain his interest in exploring the Deep South. Like the colonies of the imperialistic period, these states have a fascinating past, heroic as the explorers and conquerors who created their kind of order from wilderness and jungle, tragic as the slaves who were the basis of that civilization. They are also interesting as the only part of the United States which has been defeated, conquered, and occupied. Black and white, its people cannot escape from a consciousness of the past, in which each race sought what it defined as freedom.

Understanding the complexity of the society which he was to explore, Naipaul entered the South without a clear plan. In such a project, he comments, he prefers to work by chance, to talk to people as he encounters them, to follow up leads as he is given them, and, above all, to listen to the words and phrases he hears. Like a conscientious researcher, he planned to formulate his conclusions only after he had obtained his material. This decision was a happy one. As Naipaul comments early in the book, what he had assumed would be his theme, the race issue, was dealt with fairly easily. The real subject of his book was a characterization of a country, “That other South—of order and faith, and music and melancholy—which I didn’t know about, but of which I had been given an intimation in Dallas.”

Naipaul began his journey in New York City, with a black artist named Howard, originally from Bowen, North Carolina. Struck by Howard’s deep sense of home, Naipaul visited the small town with his friend and found that the issue most crucial in the South is that of how to deal with the past. Some whites and some blacks insisted that it was best to forget the past and to concentrate on the future. Howard admitted that he had been bothered by the fact that his town never changed, and yet his own security seemed to demand that the community, based on family and church, always be there for him. In a visit with Albert Murray, an Alabama writer who studied at Tuskegee Institute fifty years ago and who now lives in Harlem, Naipaul explored the same issue. In his later trip to Tuskegee, he saw the same kind of...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)