“The whole problem of the South seems
to be the result of its long history
of good manners and bad judgment.”
During halftime in a recent football game that Mari and I were watching on television, I happened to pick up the latest (Fall 2013) issue of The Southern Register, the newsletter of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
As I was reading the introduction to that issue of the Register written by Ted Ownby, the Center director, I noticed this statement by him: “The burdened South was the guilty South, troubled and suffering from failed politics and the bad decisions of the region’s leaders.”
Of course, I immediately recognized the phrase “bad decisions of the region’s leaders,” since it echoed my own self-quote above about the South’s “good manners and bad judgment” that I had composed decades ago.
That “coincidence” reminded me of another of my endless self-quotes: “I must be smart because sooner or later somebody I know is smart says just what I’ve been saying.”
Thinking about that incredible coincidence, I was reminded of a couple of blog posts I had been planning to publish on the subject of “A Few of My Favorite Things.”
Immediately my mind began to put together those two posts based on two concepts: First, a brief explanation of how the French words in italics in the romantic Southern novels that I read as a young man influenced me to want to learn French, which in turn eventually affected my entire career and life; and, second, a brief presentation of a collection of “Top-Five Lists” of some of my favorite subjects, many of which reflect that same inherent romantic nature and lifestyle.
It is these two areas that I would like to present to you now in this post —my one hundredth post on this blog—and in the post to follow titled “Some ‘Top-Five Lists’ of My Favorite Things.”
How the Words in Italics Changed My Whole Life
“There is a simple reason
I often describe myself as a ‘hopeless romantic’
and a ‘helpless neurotic.’ It’s because it’s true!”
As noted in the opening section to this post above, as a young man I was possessed of (or perhaps better stated, possessed by) a strong interest in romantic subjects, especially those relating to the Old South.
When I use the term “romantic,” I am of course not necessarily referring to the subject of romance or love, but rather to what Merriam-Webster defines as “. . . responsive to the appeal of the imaginative or emotional qualities of human experience.” (emphasis mine)
Perhaps the best example of this term is that offered by Merriam-Webster in a quote from Rose Feld that describes me so perfectly (as should be obvious from the preceding ninety-nine posts on this blog): “reminiscing about his childhood, he almost invariably is drawn into a nostalgic mood where events and characters assume romantic [i.e., factual but nonrealistic] proportions.”
In an earlier post titled “About Copyeditors: God’s Noble Bereans” I explained how I, a “hopeless romantic,” somehow and seemingly incongruously became a professional copyeditor, defined in From Manuscript to Book as: “the guardian of precision, the protector of the facts, a professional perfectionist dedicated to the idea that you can believe what you read.”
Perhaps it has something to do with “genetic (ancestral) memory” and/or an inherent pursuit of Truth. (See my earlier post titled “Life Is Reg’lar/My Mother’s Bible.”)
My Inexplicable Lifelong
Fascination with French
“Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français.”
(“What is not clear is not French.”)
—Antoine de Rivarol,
L’universalité de la langue française
(The Universality of the French Language)
My romantic nature became evident in my earliest childhood in my rural birthplace of Selma, Arkansas. It was perhaps first revealed by a fascination with the French language, with which I seemingly had no connection whatsoever despite my later belief in “genetic (ancestral) memory.”
On the subject of “genetic memory,” it seems that my Irish ancestors, named Emery, were French Huguenots (that is, protestants), who took refuge in Ireland during the European religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There they became “more Irish than the Irish” before my great-grandfather James Allen Emery immigrated to the United States in about the late 1800s.
What is interesting is that just recently Mari and I watched the French musical movie Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) which I had last seen in 1964 at one of two institutes for American high school French teachers. The name of one of the main characters in that all-French film with English subtitles was . . . Madame Emery.
To hear this lovely title song of this film sung in French with English subtitles, click here.
In any case, as a child I recall going up to my young second-or-third-grade teacher in that two-room country school in Selma and whispering in her ear a French word that I had only heard somewhere and had no idea of its meaning: “Yur mah fee-AUNHT-say!”—my mangled Arkie pronunciation of the French term fiancée. Of course, she burst out in laughter, which embarrassed me no end. I returned to my desk with a red face but seemingly without any loss of my unexplained and illogical affinity for French.
Later in childhood I saw a painting someplace based on the poem by John Keats of the Romantic Period (what else?) with the French title “La belle dame sans merci” (“The Beautiful Lady without Mercy”). That title I also mangled with my rural Southeast Arkansas accent. But it shows how my fascination with the French language began very early in life, a fascination that continued until my sophomore year at Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, when I first decided to do something about it.
By that time I had begun reading all kinds of romantic books, both novels and nonfiction, on a variety of subjects and in a variety of styles. In fact, throughout my school years I took a new book home to read almost every night. My mother used to say about me, “I never have any trouble with Jimmy. He’s always off in the corner somewhere with his nose in a book.”
That “lust for reading,” especially exciting, imaginative, yet often fact-based literature, continued all the time I was studying business administration at Ouachita, a major I decided upon in a grievously misguided attempt to be “practical” since my father had died young leaving my mother a widow, and my two older brothers were both strongly business-oriented.
I remember vividly taking frequent “breaks” from my business studies at the Ouachita library to go back into the “stacks” (shelves) and lose myself in books that were of much more interest to me, especially history, geography, and Southern culture. Many of these books were about two of my favorite subjects: the Civil War and the Old South, especially Louisiana and New Orleans and Cajun Country. (For an amusing account of our disastrous honeymoon to those areas in December 1962, read my earlier post titled “Our Honeymoon Was No Honeymoon for Mari.”)
Naturally, given my inexplicable but compelling love for French, the Civil War, and the Old South I became so engrossed in those areas that I did two things that forever changed my life.
First, I began to read the books of Frank Yerby, an African-American author who wrote novels about French Louisiana that combined all three of my burning passions. The first and foremost Yerby novel I read was titled The Foxes of Harrow which opened (in my false memory) with the leading character Stephen Fox (in French Etienne Renard) being set aground from a riverboat on a sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi River for cheating at gambling. (To view a brief video from The Foxes of Harrow with Stephen Fox being set out on the sandbar, click here.)
I was hooked forever!
Later I learned that book had been made into a movie with Rex Harrison as Monsieur Fox/Renard and the luscious Maureen O’Hara as his Creole love interest. A few weeks ago Mari and watched that old 1947 movie on television, the first time I had seen it since its original release. That incident provided the inspiration to compose this introductory post about that time of my early life and interest.
Over the next few years while I was at Ouachita (1956-60) and later in graduate school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (1960-62) I read every one of Yerby’s books I could find, as well as many similar books by other authors. One of my favorites was The Iron Mistress, a historical novel about the life of James Bowie of South Louisiana and his famous/infamous knife and his many knife fights and his sacrificial death at the Alamo in Texas in 1836, the year that Arkansas became a state. It too was later made into a Hollywood movie with one of my favorite actors Alan Ladd (born in Hot Springs, Arkansas) playing the title role.
Again I was hooked forever!
The second thing I did that changed my life was deciding to study French in my sophomore year at Ouachita in 1958. That decision was the direct result of reading all those French Louisiana novels. I wanted to know what those words in italics meant! I also wanted to be the person who could understand, speak, translate, and interpret those mysterious, romantic words that had fascinated me since my rustic childhood in Selma!
I had no idea or intention of ever using French in my career, which I still foresaw as being in advertising, the least “business-like” aspect of my studies in business and economics. But while I was earning my MBA at the University of Arkansas, I continued to read the type of “frivolous, romantic nonsense” that I loved. There it became evident not only to me but also to my professors that I was NOT at all business-minded; instead, I was totally liberal-arts minded, specifically, in history, English, foreign languages, literature, etc. In short, we all became aware that mine was NOT the “world of business” but “the world of books”!
“The Rest of the Story,”
But Not the End of it!
“No man can walk out on his own story.”
—Clint Eastwood-type character
in the kids’ movie Rango
As a result of my discovery of my true nature and interests, when I graduated from the University of Arkansas with my MBA in the spring of 1962, I did two things that set the pattern for my future life.
First, turning my back on a career in business, that summer I returned to Ouachita for an intensive workshop in teaching foreign languages. Then in the fall, I took a position as a high school teacher of French and Social Studies in the little cotton town of Holly Grove in East Arkansas. Second, during Christmas vacation I married Marion Elliot Williams from my hometown of McGehee. (To read about that precarious romance and eventual marriage, see my earlier post titled “The Peacock Love Story/The Passing of a Friend.”)
While Mari and I were both teaching at Holly Grove I attended two of the NDEA (U.S. government-sponsored) French-language institutes mentioned above, and then went back to the university five years later to earn the Master of Arts degree in French in 1969. That followed with a position as instructor in French at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, and a similar position in two Southern Baptist colleges in South Carolina.
When those positions ended, I spent a long time in McGehee and Monticello trying to get back into teaching French in college. However, in 1977 (“the year that King Elvis died,” see Isaiah 6:1) I was offered a much-needed job as a French-English translator at an international Christian evangelistic organization in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In that capacity I not only assisted in the translation into French of dozens of books, many issues of Faith Digest magazine, and hundreds of religious tracts, I also interpreted French as a tour guide for visiting French evangelists. Later, for six years I served as American representative for one particular French evangelist named Jean-Louis Jayet. I also translated and interpreted for him as he traveled around the country speaking to American churches.
Finally, after studying, teaching, translating, and interpreting French for twenty-five years, I was invited to a two-week orientation visit to Brother Jayet’s headquarters in Vichy, France—the first time I had ever set foot in any French-speaking country!
I was even interviewed on the ministry’s radio station in Vichy and still retain a cassette copy of that all-French interview—in which I told the story of my conversion in the Southern Baptist Church in my hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, when I was eleven years old. (To read that story, see my earlier post titled “My Religious Conversion.”)
After that French translation work was completed I was transferred to the editorial department of that international ministry in Tulsa where I began to learn religious copyediting on the job. The rest of that story, the beginning and continuation of my thirty-six years of “Oklahomian Exile,” is described in an earlier post titled “Life Is Reg’lar/My Mother’s Bible.”
Based on that “on-the-job” training and experience as a religious copyeditor I was able to “branch out” and also do freelance copyediting for secular publishers. One of them, located in South Louisiana, used my freelance editorial services for more than eighteen years in which time I edited dozens of books on a variety of subjects such as the South and Southern culture, the Civil War and World War II, Louisiana history and politics, biography and autobiography, fiction, travel guides, religion, etc., all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, despite the publisher’s location and target market, and my love for French and experience with it, I was never assigned any books in French or any specifically about French Louisiana. As our Yankee friends say, “Go figure.”
It was during that three-decade exile and labor in Oklahoma that I began to compose what eventually became a group of writings that I have lately gathered together and titled “My Oklahomian Exile Literature by an Exiled Arkie of the Covenant.”
That literature is the basis of this blog, which has now reached one hundred posts and is approaching fifty thousand visitors.
And that fifty-year career, and the thirty-six-year exile from my beloved homeland, and the hundred-post chronicle of both the career and the exile, came about because as a child and young man I was fascinated by “the words in italics.”
Although I have not used the French language in my career for decades, and am for all intents and purposes actually “retired” from freelance copyediting, I still maintain my lifelong fascination for the French language by doing my daily Bible reading in the same French Bible I used to translate French more than thirty-three years ago!
And so now you know . . . the rest of the story!
Note on Posts to Follow
“I don’t know a more effective way to work through something
than by writing about it.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love,
“She is ‘Committed,’” Tulsa World, February 13, 2010
To close this post I would like to encourage you to read my next post to be titled “Some ‘Top-Five Lists’ of a Few of My Favorite Things.”
I hope you will read it when it is published in a couple of weeks since it will serve as a summary of many of the subjects I have been writing about in my life journey for more than thirty years!