Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Zachary J. Lechner

Zachary J. Lechner teaches history at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia. His book The South of the Mind: American Imaginings of White Southernness, 1960-1980, was published by the University of Georgia Press in September 2018.

Recently I asked Lechner about what he was reading. His reply:
Although my research specialization requires that most of my reading pertain to US history, I try to branch out into other areas, when possible, to keep my mind stimulated and to pick up writing techniques from other authors, including novelists.

Currently, I’m on a bit of a Joan Didion kick, inspired by my recent viewing of the 2017 Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. I just finished reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Didion’s classic collection of 1960s essays, many of which, in some way, detail the unraveling state of American society. The book’s centerpiece, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post in September 1968, remains a stunning, fly-on-the-wall account of the San Francisco hippie scene as its initial heady idealism devolved into drug-fueled paranoia and ugliness. Didion’s image of a five-year-old child, lips coated with white lipstick, tripping on acid can still shock readers (as it did me) more than 50 years later. Even when Didion places herself in the middle of her essays, which occurs frequently, she remains somewhat aloof, a cool observer taking it all in from a critical distance. She’s alternately intrigued and repelled—often at the same time—by the various subcultures, from Las Vegas quickie wedding parties to a Communist Party USA splinter group, that she encounters.

I just started Didion’s Play It as It Lays, her 1970 novel about a former model and actress who ends up in a mental institution. (Didion is obviously captivated by “things fall[ing] apart,” as a Yeats poem she quotes at the beginning of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” puts it.) Although I’m only twenty pages in, I’m impressed by the author’s ability to say so much with so little. Her writing is deceptively simple. In fact, every word is there for a reason. I can only imagine how much she labored over this book.

In between Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It as It Lays, I read historian Mark R. Cheathem’s The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson (2018). I happened to receive a free copy, and I’m fascinated by the politics of the Jacksonian period. Cheathem sees the birth of modern political campaigning emerging gradually during the presidential elections between 1824 and 1840. Where Cheathem’s somewhat textbook-like account excels is in its analysis of the various aspects of the era’s shifting “cultural politics”—material culture, political music, print culture, auxiliary organizations, and so on—that, along with an increasingly sizable electorate, led to an astounding 80 percent voter turnout in the election of 1840. I found Cheathem’s discussion of that contest between incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren and Whig challenger William Henry Harrison revelatory, especially the book’s explanation of the Whigs’ sophisticated electioneering techniques.

Soon, I’ll jump back into background reading for my current research project (Jimmy Carter’s cultural and political iconography) with historian Nancy Mitchell’s Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War (2016). I’ve heard good things about it.
Learn more about The South of the Mind at the University of Georgia Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue