Celebrating Our Culture  

Essayist and Journalist

Philip Martin

 by

 Robert L. Hall

 

       

 

  “I am thrilled by language, I love knocking words together, kicking out sparks and occasionally starting brush fires. . .I often feel like a pyromaniac, an illicit-feeling.  Glee rises in me.  It’s a good feeling.” 

This is how Philip Martin, critic and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Arkansas and author describes his work.         

I know journalists, having worked myself at the Memphis Commercial Appeal for eight years.  There are those on newspaper staffs that know, and then there are those who “think” they know.  The prose of many snot-nosed kids -journalists that are fresh out of college - reeks.  Journalism degree and upper-middle class liberalism may win them a badge of honor with their cohorts in the pressroom, but it doesn’t guarantee success on the printed page.  Experience and hard knocks, however, usually make the words of a journalist shine forth.  Such is the case with Philip Martin. 

Martin attained a B.A. from Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and went to the Paul M. Hebert Law School for two years as well. He held a steady stream of writing jobs: a sports editor, columnist, magazine editor and criminal investigations reporter in Louisiana, managing editor for a newspaper in Texas, contributing and executive editor in Arkansas, followed by staff writer in Arizona and now columnist and chief film critic in Little Rock.  Muscle-bound from all the writing assignments that he had to do, he finally tried his hand at writing what he wished to do. 

In 1990, he helped produce a book called A Spectrum Reader, which was a compilation of the best criticism and journalism that friends and he had published in an alternative newspaper in Little Rock.  He helped write a biography of Hillary Clinton a few years back.  (Yeah, like who wouldn’t want to read that, you say?) Like… everyone in Arkansas wrote one.  Not so fast!  The co-author and Martin actually knew the Clintons.  Then, his most recent book, The Shortstop’s Son, a collection of essays published by the University of Arkansas Press.  He is gathering material now for his next collection, which will be called The Artificial Southerner.  It might be out as early as next year (2001).  

His contributions to books, speaking engagements and journalistic awards are too many for me to dwell upon here. 

So, why should anyone care? 

Examine, if you will, this from Martin’s forthcoming book, The Artificial Southerner:

     “There is white trash in my blood, no doubt some of my ancestors were bigots. Surely there were horse thieves and bad debtors and busthead imbibers. Some of them were ignorant and mean and hard; were I of their time I might have turned out to be just like them.
     I was not the first in my family to go to college, though I was the first to go directly there and stay until they gave me a degree. I have played in blues bands, I have picked tobacco. I have taken offense when I’ve heard people say ignorant things about the people who live where I live.
     I have been gainfully employed in the journalism trade for more than twenty years, and a columnist at the Democrat-Gazette since 1993. The ascension of Bill Clinton raised all boats around here; I maintain a kind of low-grade cable-network level of renown. I sometimes appear on television, usually as a representative of the Southern (or more particularly Arkansan ) point of view. The producers seem to think I do sound Southern, or at least Southern enough for their purposes.
     Still I am not an unreconstructed Southerner; I am not preoccupied by the old grievances. I do not brandish a rebel flag. Lincoln might not have been fully compliant with the Constitution but he was right. I am the first to concede that there is something willed about my Southerness, that it is, to one degree or another, something decided upon.”

Here, we are presented with the basic ironies and incongruities of a man who is geographically truly Southern, but seems to constantly be in pursuit of his Southerness (whatever that implies.)

First, there is the man who comes from a poor or common background, but has a college degree himself.  Next, he experiences the deprivation of the South (i.e., the picking tobacco episode mentioned) only he takes offense when people say things about where he has lived. 

Next, the writer is proud of his accomplishments as a journalist and knowledgeable man, but hints himself of producers that “seem to think I do sound Southern, or at least Southern enough for their purposes.”  And what are these purposes?  In the main, the media expounds the liberal philosophy.  Unsaid here is the implication that a learned man is more left of center in his viewpoint, hence – not a true Southerner?  Would the media exploit such a person?  Hmmm, I wonder?

Martin finishes with an attempt at reconciliation, between his allegiance to the old South (unreconstructed South) and the new, (Lincoln. . .was right.)

Dichotomy is the rule in Martin’s writing.  And this is as it should be.  For behind every Southerner is a contemporary man who feels, as expressed by Martin as if his Southerness must be “something decided upon.”

It is the soul of the region that Martin reaches for.  He continues. . .

 “To defend a civilization would seem to us as impertinent as to defend time.  Certainly the South needs defenders as little as it needs apologists…We are, I think, less interested in any social order past or present than we are in that unknown quality which we once called the soul…”

And there is this, a beautiful summation:

"Elsewhere in America it might be possible to believe in our own innocence, in Manifest Destiny or Mickey Mouse; the pragmatic South has always known and understood guilt.  Where elsewhere was plenty, this land knew privation.  The South is more real than the rest of the country, at least it has lived through more.”

I had the opportunity to contact Philip about his work recently and ask him about his essays and current projects.

Philip, tell us about the book you have out now-The Shortstop’s Son.

Basically The Shortstop’s Son is a kind of greatest hits collection of columns, essays and occasional reported pieces that I’ve written for newspapers and other publications over the years. I’m lucky to have a job that allows me a great deal of freedom to roam over the cultural and social landscape of the South, and of America and the pieces in the book reflect this.  There are bits on the blues and Elvis Presley, ruminations on the weight of handguns and more than a few personal pieces, like the title essay, about my father.
I’m interested in a lot of different things: in music, in sports, in what Richard Ford once described to me as “the ways human beings strive for affection.”  There are recurrent themes in the book but I think they relate to each other in much the same way that songs on a record album might relate to one another.

Describe life in Little Rock, where you live and some of the interesting things you are witnessing there as a newspaper columnist.

Well, I live fairly quietly here, most of the time. My wife Karen and I live in a hilly part of Little Rock called Hillcrest, on the very crest of a hill.  It’s actually very close to where our president’s mother-in-law. Mrs. Rodham, lives. We talk to the Secret Service every time he comes home to visit. My dogs are used to serious young men with earpieces tramping through our yard.

I’m an Arkansan by choice.  I came back to Little Rock after living in Phoenix for a while, and I can say I truly feel at home here. It’s a very cosmopolitan little city, and the rest of Arkansas surrounds it, which is alternately fascinating and heartbreaking. But it’s a great place for a writer, for people actually read here. Regardless of what the alleged comedians say, the people here are alert to things that in other parts of the country don’t seem to matter at all. That may be why our newspaper can support having someone like me on staff.  I’m really more a writer who happens to work for a newspaper than anything else.  I do film reviews, write (less and less actually) about politics, and think about stuff. It’s not a bad way to make a living.

Urbanization is killing the South. What other trends do you think are fragmenting its social fabric?

Well, the same things that are troubling the rest of the country and probably the world. I do think that we are rather quickly losing our distinctive character, that everywhere is becoming more and more like everywhere else with the malls and the McDonalds and the MTV and the Internet and catchphrase of the day.
The paradox is that at the same time we’ve become more and more Balkanized as a people, we’ve all become our own special interest group. There are plenty of people who will tell us what we want to hear, that our desires are legitimate.  But self-interest is the only real motive. I think it’s sad that we’re less reflective, that our time is so short, that compassion and equivocalness are so often seen as weakness while certitude (as the certitude of preachers and politicians) is seen as strength. I think the great strength of the Southern character has always been a certain kind of doubt, the knowledge that we might, after all, be wrong.

I regret that we seem to be losing that quality that its being bred out of us, hammered out of us.

How are we intrinsically distinct in Arkansas, say. . .from residents of Indiana or Oklahoma?

Funny, I think Arkansas is less Southern than Midwestern or Western but it retains its own kind of hardscrabble character. It’s not patrician.  Anyone with a $1,000 to give to a charity can become society round here. Philip Roth once said Arkansas reminded him of Israel; we pride ourselves on being self-sufficient, but we’re also long for the approval (and fear the disdain) of the great alien Other that surrounds us. That translates into an inferiority complex - a real deep hurting one. But we’re good people too, friendly, smarter than we think.


What is the best part of being born a Southerner?

I guess being born, being alive. I like to go to New York and talk to folks. I get more and more Southern the longer I’m there.


You are working on a fiction novel now. What is it about?

Well, the novel, The Eavesdropper, is kind of on the back burner now though a lot of it is showing up in my short fiction. The title was the original title for Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and I guess if I had to say what it was about I’d say it is about an ordinary guy who may or may not have committed an extraordinarily horrible crime. He doesn’t know himself whether he did this thing, or rather he knows he couldn’t have done it though he knows he was capable. It’s about the crimes we’re all capable of (Goethe’s old theory - how there’s no crime of which we are not capable.)  It’s also about newspapering, about the relationship between the reporter and the events he covers, and about loss and longing.
I know that sounds pretentious, but hey, you asked. I guess I am trying to write a novel kind of like Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. Until a couple of years ago I thought my standards were too high for me to ever put up with my own fiction.

There’s a woman in Paris who thinks I write like Raymond Carver. I don’t see that at all and I don’t think she means it as a compliment.

So before I get back to the novel, I have a bunch of short stories I want to write - themes to work out. As well as movies to see. Columns to write.

What are your goals or things you are trying to show through your essays?

That we’re not so different as we pretend. That race, or the myth of race, is the great American problem. That there’s more to life than scrambling for money. That beauty exists. That cynicism is a trap. That Freud and Mencken were wrong , but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read them. That we have a tendency to talk past one another and elect intellectual mascots to do our thinking for us. That politics is too important to be left to the partisans. That (to quote Jackson Browne) I don’t know about anyone but me.

I guess I’m being flip. I don’t mean to.  It’s a good question.  I’m just trying not to waste the time of the reader and to get those who aren’t inclined to think to give it a whirl. I’m trying to write as well as I can.

Name some of your other current projects.

Well, I expect my next collection of essays to be published next year. It’s called The Artificial Southerner. and I may have a story coming out in a big deal national magazine.  I can’t say which one but you could guess. And I think the Oxford American is someday going to run another story of mine.  I’ve got this piece on Ricky (not Rick) Nelson coming out this weekend. That's enough. For now.


You can find Philip Martin’s webpage at: www.philipmartin.net

Bibliography: 

Books:
The Artificial Southerner, by Philip Martin; University of Arkansas Press,
2001.

The Shortstop’s Son: Essays and Journalism, by Philip Martin; University of
Arkansas Press, 1997.

Somewhere Apart: My Favorite Place in Arkansas, by Arkansas Residents Past and Present; University of Arkansas Press, 1997. (Contributed essay.)

Bill Clinton: As They Know Him, by David Gallen; Andrews & McNeel, 1996.
(Wrote new foreword for paperback edition.)

Bill Clinton: As They Know Him, by David Gallen; The Gallen Group, 1994.
(Edited, wrote introductory essay “Notes on A Boy President.”)

The Hillary Factor, by Rex Nelson with Philip Martin; The Gallen Group,
1993.

A Spectrum Reader, Edited by Bill Jones, Stephen Buel, and Philip Martin;
August House, 1991. (Edited, contributed 23 pieces.)
 
Essay “The Blues is Not Black or White” anthologized in Music Explorations:
A Textbook, Custom Academic Publishing Co., 1998.


This article is by Robert L. Hall - raised in and currently living outside Memphis, TN., writes crime mysteries and tales of a youth with adventures in horsemanship. His books are Mid-South based. Mr. Hall also is a contributing writer for the on-line journal, When Falls the Coliseum , a self-described “Journal of American Culture(or the lack thereof)”at www.wfthecoliseum.com.

He also does interviews with authors and cultural articles, as well as book reviews for www.southernscribe.com.  A trained musician with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Memphis and Master of Music degree from Florida State University, he is staff pianist at Trinity Baptist Church in West Memphis and has taught music courses at three institutions of higher learning.

© 2000 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved