from the book Bylines: Writings from the American South, 1963 to 1997, by Joseph B. Cumming, Jr., 2010.
Joe Cumming was a most unusual sort of journalist. For twenty-two years he covered the American South for Newsweek magazine, the very years when the civil rights struggle (an epic clash in constitutional law, then in soul-force protest) made that territory a beat with as much excitement and consequence as one finds anywhere in the history of journalism. Yet he came to this job with zero training, no college courses in journalism, nor a single day of work at a newspaper or wire service. His preparation was writing poetry and radio dramas, selling building supplies and making commercial films for a few years. His education, from childhood through the University of the South at Sewanee, was a deep liberal-arts immersion in literature and history. An unusual journalist, yes, but then, he is a most unusual sort of person.
Joseph Bryan Cumming, Jr., grew up on genteel, easygoing Cumming Road, a world that looked down a little, in physical elevation as well as social class, on the rest of the historic river city of Augusta, Georgia. This world was at once vanishing to the tiny phosphorescence of a firefly, and looming large as the harbor view from a tall ship’s topmast. It was a micro-world filled with historic time. Family stories harked back to when President Buchanan made Uncle Alfred governor of the Utah Territory or the night President Taft dropped in on the Cumming house for dinner.
Born on February 26, 1926, Joe was the only son of two strong leaders of local civic life, his father being a prominent lawyer and scion of what some encyclopedias refer to as “one of the most distinguished families in Georgia.” Joe Jr. was a skinny lad with a Roman nose, soft mouth, ears that stuck out, and aster-blue eyes. He had permission and a capacity to dream away the time on a pony or at the piano. His great inheritance was such stuff as dreams are made on, not privilege or wealth. In a spiritual sense, he joined American life, just missing World War II action but not the jazzy action that followed. He got his ears pinned back, got married, settled in Augusta, sired four children, then set out for Atlanta, like so many other small-town Southerners, to find his destiny.
That destiny turned out to be magazine journalism. William A. Emerson Jr., a friend who had worked on the Harvard Advocate and at Colliers, had set himself up as a one-person regional bureau in Atlanta for Newsweek in the early fifties. By 1957, after the year-long Montgomery bus boycott had grabbed the world’s attention and before the Little Rock crisis erupted, Emerson realized he needed help. Riots were breaking out. Instead of getting an experienced news hand—someone like wire-service trouper Claude Sitton, who was about to open a New York Times bureau in Atlanta—he hired Joe Cumming, a sweet-natured gentleman with a poet’s love of words. It was a risky, intuitive gamble.
Within four years, Emerson had moved on to higher realms at Newsweek in New York, leaving his younger colleague as bureau chief. Cumming was ambitious and scared, so he learned fast what New York expected. Throughout the sixties, the teletype clattered in the bureau offices. The old rotary phones ran up enormous long-distance tolls. Sunday papers from every major Southern city grew in columns against a wall like giant termite colonies. He hired and groomed reporters who would go on to run other Newsweek bureaus around the world or become legendary as reporters and writers: Gerald Lubenow, Karl Fleming, Andrew Jaffe, Hank Leiferman, William Cook, Marshall Frady, Eleanor Clift. He selected talented stringers in newsrooms throughout the South to keep watch on the action. The files he sent to New York, in which he rendered exhaustive reporting into sparkling prose, would end up as fragments—a quote or an anecdote here and there in someone else’s sparkling prose. There were few by-lines at Newsweek in those days. The reporting was always re-written.
But the dreamer had his writing dreams, and like Joseph in Egypt, this Joe could interpret dreams. He had a feeling that he could bear witness to what was happening in the South in some higher form than his Newsweek files. Something told him there was a place for his literary imagination—the peculiar Southern music and the metaphoric flight pattern of his private writing. Now it just so happened that a new kind of journalism was gestating in the precincts of New York in the early sixties. At the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday magazine and at Esquire, editors Clay Felker and Harold Hayes (both of them dapper Southern boys) were taking literary leaps with non-fiction writing, going a little wild and crazy to capture the maelstrom energy of this new thing, the sixties. Their magazine experiments would soon be called the New Journalism. Cumming was visiting New York, a guest of Newsweek, when he gained entry into Hayes’s office to pitch a story idea, something like “So What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” Hayes liked the idea, and told him to send it over. So he did. And that story, the first of the published freelance articles printed in this collection, appeared in the November 1963 issue of Esquire under the title “The Art of Not Being 37.”
Two things about that article are worth noting here. One is that it is not about what this Newsweek bureau chief was covering in the South, but is about his own subjective experience as a 37-year-old American at this particular time and place in the history of civilization. The New Journalism opened up the space of subjective personal experience like a Moog synthesizer or an acid trip. It was perfect for Joe Cumming. And the second thing is this: His article appeared in the same issue with the very first “New Journalism” article by a new talent named Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s article was titled “There Goes [Varoom! Varoom!] That Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”
If some “news muse,” as he puts it (or dumb luck) launched his freelance writing career, I feel blessed with a similar luck or muse for having grown up with Joe Cumming as a father. Falling asleep upstairs in the Cumming house was a cozy way to go. We children could drift off to the sounds of Daddy on the grand piano downstairs, stroking the rich chords and tripping down arpeggios of “Stardust” or “Moonglow.” Or your last dot of consciousness might be the sound of loud storytelling and crowd laughter. Or when only Daddy was still up, under the last light on, I could faintly hear the sweet pattering of his big manual typewriter. He was working on another freelance piece.
But the best part for me came after leaving home for college. That’s when he and I began writing letters back and forth, typewritten riffs of mutual encouragement, show-off literary allusions, and preposterous verbal experimentation. It was a private thing we had going, and I thought I would never find a legitimate description of it until I read this in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, about his White Russian father: “Our relationship was marked by that habitual exchange of homespun nonsense, comically garbled words, proposed imitations of supposed intonations, and all those private jokes which is the secret code of happy families.” Within my first week as a college freshman, under the spell of courses in history and poetry, I was pecking out trippy letters home. He wrote back, “Your communiqués zip silver about the emptying space, enlivening the growing of light into September.” Once, after he saw a performance of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milkwood,” he let the fireworks fly in a letter to me. He got rolling on pure sounds of “flush and rush out all old dried up dreams and schemes and new hatched sky-stretched visions from seed to pumpkin, from acorn to solemn oak from molecule to the great globe itself and carefully from the atom to be strewn across the galaxy.” (He still says blessings at family meals like this, too.) Not that anybody can say what it means but let me quote a paragraph from that letter of December 2, 1972:
And last night dreaming of being with mountain people, old Foxfire sorts, in stone crumbling chimneys, good dry-straw-smelling people as I knew were dwelling in my [mind] when hearing and breathing Under Milkwood. For I seem more and more to be drawn toward people I cover [like] Pentecostal preachers (see Newsweek, lead anecdote was mine, Nov. 27th, page 93), country music fans (page 62) in Wheeling, W.Va. . . And just now walking past Union Mission realizing my life’s chance would be to listen with those derelicts and harvest their tales, each representing in human terms the malfunctioning of society. And this is somehow opposite of what I sense is the Political Radical glorification of The People. I feel very out with that impulse, for it is all external to heart and deals with people externally. Liberals and radicals are too often bright pastless people who are bored with human relating and who have no ear for music. It’s cold and insect-like.
Perhaps it was as odd as Joe Cumming becoming a journalist, but in June of 1974 I drove from my graduation at a liberal arts college in Vermont, with no training or education in journalism, straight to my first real job as a summer intern in the newsroom of the Raleigh Times. I learned fast, and kept working for newspapers for the next twenty-six years, with a couple of interludes editing regional magazines and a couple of reverse sabbaticals on Ivy League campuses. We continued writing our glimmering letters, my father and I, and sharing poems we wrote. But my earnest career plan was to make it in the ink-stained profession on my own, not as Joe Cumming’s son.
I think I did pretty well on my own feet, though in truth those last two decades of the Golden Age of American newspapers (a century from about 1890 to 1990) offered a gush of advertising dollars that made it fairly easy for a young reporter to flourish if he or she made half an effort. In Raleigh, I concluded that the excitement of writing up the civil rights movement was just about played out. (In the summer of 1975, the murder trial of a poor black woman named Joan Little, who had ice-picked her white jailor after he forced his porky self on her, drew some of the smart reporters who would go on endlessly seeking a dénouement to the great Homeric saga.) I was lucky to work next at the Providence Journal-Bulletin over a thirteen year period when it was admired as “a writer’s paper.” I thought my connection with my father then was private and precious, like his letters. But here and there, I would run into journalists who wondered if I might be related to. . .[in tones of awe] . . .Joe Cumming. I was not at all embarrassed to acknowledge it. Then they would offer some hushed confession or animated story, the gist of which was that Joe Cumming had changed their life. He had either hired them as a stringer, or taken the time to encourage their writing, or shown them how a journalist could have a sensitive or dreamy side, or made them snap out of their dreamy side, or he simply passed through their consciousness as that piano-playing, poetry-spouting Newsweek bureau chief in Atlanta. I had this experience at surprisingly remote spots, far off on a press junket to see the turbines of Hydro Quebec on the tundra of James Bay, on another junket to the oil patch around Monroe, Louisiana, and even when I dropped into a wire-service bureau in South Africa. Apparently, I was not the only one he had taught and inspired.
In fact, he had been a sort of ring-leader of literary journalism in Atlanta. He had organized various floating downtown lunches for the journalists who worked in the Atlanta bureaus of national news organizations, a weekly salon that for awhile he named “Tuesday Tables.” Dinner parties at the Cumming house, or weekend house parties at our place in the mountains in North Georgia (see the exquisite essay on “Tate” on page xx) would often draw writer friends like Frady, Pat Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons, and after his return to Atlanta, big Bill Emerson. Later, I would find Daddy’s name exalted in the acknowledgements of their books or disguised in their novels as a character or an anecdote. Occasionally, a well-known writer visiting Atlanta for an article would wind up at our house over drinks or dinner, luminaries like Mary McCarthy and Garry Wills. My parents once took Washington Post publisher Kay Graham to a play.
The end of the seventies swerved, and flung Cumming into a new calling—higher education. He spent a year as a visiting instructor at the University of Georgia, and then earned a master’s degree in liberal arts at Emory University. His master’s thesis was a case study of civil rights journalism, based on the most independent knowledgeable reporter in Mississippi, Bill Minor. During the eighties, he taught in the department of mass communications and theater at what was then called West Georgia College in Carrollton. All the while, he continued to freelance, writing regular columns on the book page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about writers and readings. Then he cranked out opinion pieces in other venues, mostly about his well-lathed mental map he called “the new learning.” These ideas are the refinements of a lifetime of wondering, thinking and writing, a lovely cat’s cradle of connections between teaching and learning, news and history. Listen folks, he just wants to pass it on. Take it and use it, somebody, please.
But there was always a bigger project he had in mind. Even in his first letter to me when I went off to college, he referred to beginning work on his movie, tomorrow. “I have a deadline upcoming,” he said, “when the director will be in town.” A few years later, the idea had grown to be a book, a novel. “I take off next week for three weeks to begin the novel,” he wrote me in April of ’72. Later, it grew to be The Project, a little self-mockingly, even acquiring a secret code number. Something was always getting in the way. One more “utterly last statement about the South. . .for a crummy magazine. . .and it is damn good.” Or reading the clips of another young kid fresh out of college who wanted to write for magazines. Or a family vacation, or family crisis. Or Tuesday Tables or another great house party. Or writing an anniversary poem, or another letter to me. Or directing a musical comedy, or writing one. Always something, distractions that piled on other distractions to make up, over the years, the whole of who he really was and is. Like “The Other Wise Man” in that Henry Van Dyke story, he was forever being pulled off his task of reaching Bethlehem by the needs of people on the way, and by his own delight in meeting those needs. Only after a lifetime of frustration in the pattern is it revealed that meeting such needs was, in truth, reaching Bethlehem. Still, he longed to see it in a book, something we can all pull down from the shelf and enjoy, and pass along.
So this, finally, is that book.
Doug Cumming, Ph.D.
Washington & Lee University