August 7, 2012 Native Nashvillian Madison Smartt Bell, a prolific writer and finalist for awards such as the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, among others, is no stranger to the troubled nature of the human heart. While his subjects range widely—from wartime Deep South to 9/11 New York City to Haiti in the midst of revolution—his philosophical focus on darker characters lying on the fringe of society has become a well-known and highly lauded trademark in his writing.
Bell’s style has its roots in the Southern literary tradition, especially among the famous Fugitive writers of Vanderbilt University, who have influenced his work. Bell pays homage to one such writer, the late Madison Jones, in a recent reflection in Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean.
Madison Jones was, in Bell’s words, “for a time the most prominent member of the second wave of Southern Renascence writing.” Over the course of his extended writing career, Jones consistently reflected on the most pressing issues of the human condition. Bell’s essay in The Tennessean expresses his admiration:
All Jones’ fiction reflects a deep interest in moral conflict in its purest forms: the nature of good and the nature of evil; the human problem of original sin. Bringing these attitudes to bear on white Southern society in the mid-1960s proved revelatory in many ways. “A Cry of Absence” is a classic tragedy, whose heroes and heroines are undone by their own hidden flaws, and especially by an ingrained practice of lying to each other and themselves about those flaws. Racist violence and the attitudes behind it are unmasked in the novel as the same sort of primordial evil which Jones studies in other contexts in his other works. A white book about Southern racial conflict, “A Cry of Absence” is as powerful, as wrenching, as disturbing as works like Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” Jones’ confrontation with the complicity of his own social class in the whole evolution of racial injustice since the Civil War is the most unflinching any white Southerner has ever turned in. It’s all the more remarkable that he managed to do it at a time when, for many upper-class Southerners, the arts of evasion had been so long practiced as to efface reality. On a larger scale, the novel discovers how our best ideals may warp into delusions and, to the extent that they deceive us, destroy us altogether.
To read the rest of the essay, click here.
To read an excerpt from Bell’s recent work, The Color of the Night, click here. To read Chapter 16’s recent interview with Madison Smartt Bell, click here. And to read Bell’s recent interview with Knoxville debut novelist Christopher Hebert, click here.