By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Writing about a book is like singing a song about a song: It rarely works. Yes, there are a few exceptions to the latter, the “American Pies” and “Singing in the Rains” and a few other classics. Book reviews, however, lose their effectiveness after grammar school.
Essays about books tease with a few excerpts that make you think you’ve read the book when you have not. Authors are grateful for the mention, but it might be best to point and leave, to direct your readers to someone else’s writing by simple mention of a title. Here goes: “ Bylines: Writing from the American South 1963 to 1997” by Joseph B. Cumming Jr.
I’m hereby pointing, hoping you’ll order the book, buy it, read it. I never understood, by the way, why pointing is considered rude. The world would be a quieter, less confusing place if people were allowed to point.
It’s easier to tell you about the man than the book, a story which, in this case, cannot be told without including a woman, Joe’s wife Emily, who is as much a part of Joe as yellow is butter.
For decades Joe was Newsweek’s Atlanta correspondent, covering the civil-rights movement in the Deep South, Ground Zero. “ We learned to spot the smell of fear and courage, to feel the sting of tear gas, the shock of armed troops in American towns, and occasionally, we heard the sickening clunk of blows,” Joe writes.
Later, ready for a quieter life, Joe moved to nearby Carrollton, where he taught college journalism. By the time he and Emily befriended me – such a fine and unexpected miracle, to have them “ adopt” me – Joe had retired again, from teaching, but not to sit by the fire and muse. He was the busiest retired man I’ve ever met, busy reading and singing and acting and writing plays or love poems to his wife each Valentine’s Day.
Theirs is a timeless love story, in the tradition of E.B. and Katharine White, who seemed, at least from a distance, perfectly suited intellectually and emotionally. And as White did in his introduction to Katharine’s gardening book, Joe excels at describing his lively wife.
In a 1977 essay for Esquire called “ To Love One Woman,” he makes his point simply by watching her kneading dough and rhapsodizing about the process. He quotes an unaware Emily directly: “This – this unselfconscious hum of humor and poetry that flows from her when we are private – is part of the stuff that wholly glamours my heart. It comes out irrepressibly – the other day listening to music she began to laugh at the cellos that sounded like ‘old men at their club, smoking their cigars, deep in their dewlap (here she acts the part), harrumphing profundities’; or hearing a soprano so awful she said it was ‘like someone at an audition where even her mother is squirming.’ She has a gift that only I receive; it brings from the day’s doings, the supermarket and city sidewalk, Chaucerian tales of characters so vivid they remain in my head for years.”
To have a man, a husband even, appreciate your patter about a routine day is, well, a lot like a song: Percy Sledge crooning “When a Man Loves a Woman,” or Kris lamenting losing Bobby McGhee somewhere near Selena.
Joe is enthusiastic about all kinds of things, not only his wife, and that passion is palpable. Until you’ve been awakened on New Year’s Day with Joe on your porch blowing “Auld Lang Syne” on saxophone, you haven’t felt loved.
I rarely break my rule about writing about writing, but, in this case, the pure poetry of a kind and exceptional man demands I do.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.