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A kinder, gentler Hal Crowther

Well, sort of ...

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This paper has published Hal Crowther's essays and news features since 1989. In the days when he wrote weekly, Crowther was a virtual letters-to-the-editor machine, inspiring readers' highest adulation as well as some of the most malicious letters we've ever received. He has since cut back his syndicated column to now-and-then status, but that doesn't mean he's backed down. If anything, he casts a colder eye than ever on the political shenanigans and crimes of the day; Crowther stories we've run in the past year on the Bush administration were the very definition of "tearing them a new one," albeit in an erudite way -- and, yes, those stories garnered fevered denunciations from dissenters.

The past few years have seen a change in Crowther's writing, however, with his focus shifting more frequently to the arts, specifically music and painting, and the culture of the South, particularly in "Dealer's Choice," a regular column for Oxford American magazine.

Recently, Louisiana State University Press published the third collection of Crowther's essays, Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millenial South, a mix of pieces previously published in Creative Loafing, Oxford American and other publications, as well as some new ones.

Crowther's range of interests and knowledge is broader here than in past collections. A good example is "A Prophet from Savannah," a long profile of Kirk Varnedoe, a former Crowther college buddy who also happened to be a renowned curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and had a big impact on the development of modern art itself. Crowther tells Varnedoe's story while also meditating on memory and the expectations of youth and their denouement, weaving in and out of both "storylines" until they're inseparable. The essay is a longer version of a cover story which ran in all CL papers, and is one of Crowther's finest, most subtle works.

He was born in Nova Scotia to American parents and spent his first 12 years at various naval bases (his father was a naval officer). He graduated from Williams College and earned a masters in journalism from Columbia University. Crowther is a veteran of The Buffalo News, Time magazine, and Newsweek. He moved permanently to North Carolina in 1977 and jumped to the alternative press, helping found The Spectator in Raleigh, then moving to The Independent in Durham in 1989.

In 1992, Crowther became the first member of the alternative press to receive the H.L. Mencken Award from The Baltimore Sun, an honor imparted annually to the country's finest columnist. In 1998, he shared the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' first place award for commentary with Nat Hentoff from the Village Voice. His second collection of essays, Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South won the Lillian Smith Book Award for Commentary and the 1999-2001 Fellowship Prize for Non-Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern. He lives in Hillsborough with his wife, novelist Lee Smith. We spoke to Crowther last week.

Creative Loafing: Is there a reason this particular collection came out now?

Hal Crowther: Well, one of the things I wanted to get across is that this is a critical time in the South, a time to take stock, and what I was trying to do was to look at some of the things that are passing, things that should be noted with pride and due attention, and also things that have always been a problem that may or may not be improving fast enough.

You've become known as a chronicler of the South whether it's the arts, politics, or what have you, but a lot of people think you're just a transplanted Yankee. How long have you been in the South?

Most of my life, I guess. I was here till I was 11, then I came back in 1977 and have lived here ever since. My father's family came from North Carolina. I've only gone for about 10 years, when I was in college or living with my parents, that I wasn't living in the South, so I regard myself as pretty much full-fledged, even if my mother's from Boston.

Why does the image of Southerners as dumb, backward hicks with Klan suits in their closets refuse to die out? I thought after eight years of Bill Clinton -- no matter what you thought of his politics much less his sex life, there's no denying the guy is bright as hell -- that might have changed.

It just seems to be something that won't go away no matter what. I thought the way Clinton was scrutinized early on was very interesting, as if they expected him to spit tobacco juice during his State of the Union speech (laughs). The Republicans hated him more than anything else because they feared him -- he was so obviously an efficient politician with charisma and they tried to counter that with this image of the slick hick salesman who wanted to get into every woman's shorts (laughs). It was kind of a stereotype just waiting for him to fall into and they utilized it to the max.

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