Matthew Guinn on Atlanta as the Epitome of the New South
The Scribe is a mystery that explores 1880s Atlanta, industrialization, race relations and the city as a symbol of the New South.
Mississippi author Matthew Guinn follows up his Edgar Award-nominated novel The Resurrectionist with an exploration of post-Reconstruction Atlanta. In The Scribe, Guinn depicts a city that is both yearning to move on from the destruction of Sherman and the Civil War, while simultaneously struggling with race relations, as a string of murders seeks to disrupt the celebratory atmosphere of the 1881 International Cotton Exposition. The novel follows detective Thomas Canby and his new partner, Cyrus Underwood, the first African-American on the police force. The pair seek to uncover the mystery behind the murders of prominent black entrepreneurs and figure out why each victim has a letter of the alphabet inscribed on their body. In the process, the detectives will uncover some of the demons and secrets of Atlanta — along with many of their own.
Matthew Guinn spoke to me by phone after a trip to the Decatur Book Festival about Atlanta as the epitome of the New South, religion, what he learned from author James Lee Burke and the danger of certain kinds of nostalgia for the region.
EBB: I know that you live in Jackson, Mississippi now, and have lived in Oxford and Columbia while earning graduate degrees at the University of Mississippi and University of South Carolina. But you are originally from Atlanta, Georgia. How much did that play into your decision to set your second novel, The Scribe, in Atlanta?
MG: It was pretty huge. I had this two-volume set that the University of Georgia Press originally published in 1954 called Atlanta and Environs. And my challenge was that I found so many things fascinating. It’s a strange history book. It was put together by an amateur historian and has reprinted newspaper clippings. I found a lot of cool things in there, and the challenge was finding something big enough that it would resonate with a wide variety of readers rather than just being some local color.
I think Atlanta is so interesting as a Southern city because of the ways that it is very Southern and the ways it’s not very Southern at all, how it’s vastly different than a city like Savannah, Georgia, or Milledgeville, Georgia. I would say Atlanta is the epitome of the New South and has been for many years. It was interesting to explore it in that way, so it was not just local color but an exploration of the New South.
EBB: Your first novel, The Resurrectionist, was partially set in the 19th century and partially set in the late 20th century. Why did you make the decision to set The Scribe entirely in the 19th century?
MG: Partly because this one was originally conceived in that New South context as a detective novel, a serial killer novel. In that sense it didn’t have too much bearing on the contemporary, except that I hope contemporary readers can see how the South today was in its infancy during the 1880s period of The Scribe. But in The Scribe I was interested in ramping up plot a bit more, and pace. I will get back to that split narrative one of these days, because I like it. But for this one I wanted more of a straightforward, chronological story.
EBB: The Scribe is set around the 1881 International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta. Can you talk a bit about why you chose to focus on the industrialization of Atlanta and its perceived status as the symbol of the New South?
MG: I think that’s just the essence of Atlanta. It’s quicker, faster, bigger than the rest of the South. But I say that almost in quotation marks, because there is a lot of braggadocio with that. It’s kind of the Atlanta ethos. We move fast, we get more done and we build a building taller than elsewhere.
The International Cotton Exposition was conceived as a World’s Fair, of sorts, before there was one. It was celebrating, ironically, not cotton, but mechanization of cotton processing and keeping a lot of mechanical and manufacturing elements of the cotton industry here in the South, rather than just sending bales of cotton North to be processed. I think it was the moment that Atlanta’s identity gelled with, of course, the help of Henry Grady and other boosters. It was almost like when Atlanta decided, ‘All right, Sherman wrecked us, and now we’re coming back. What are we going to do now?’
EBB: I know that you studied religion alongside English for your undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia. The novel seems to explore the tension between superstition and reason, especially within the relationship between Thomas Canby and Cyrus Underwood. Can you elaborate on how religion may or may not play into this?
MG: The whole book is structured on Dante’s Inferno. And I’m no Dante scholar, but I’ve loved reading The Inferno over and over. It’s one of the classics I’ve read the most. Canby kind of stands out as a latter-day Dante on a pilgrimage through hell that becomes Atlanta. But as far as Canby and Underwood, I was really interested in Canby being a precursor to the Rationalist thinking of the 20th century, kind of a Unitarian thinker with a paternalistic white attitude. His thinking contrasts Underwood’s, who has a more protestant-grounded religious faith. Canby seems to believe that Underwood is his little brother intellectually that he can help along. It turns out, however, that Canby is not so much in the driver’s seat as he thought he was.
So, it’s about evil, which intellectuals in our era seem to be getting, ironically, timid about — pronouncing a thing good or evil. Of course, you don’t want to demonize people, but there’s still a lot of evil in the world.
EBB: This book also seems to explore the tension between chaos and order, fueled by a dangerous reprehensible nostalgia for the Antebellum-era and slavery. Do you think this is true?
MG: Yeah, I do think that’s true. I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but I think especially in Mississippi, as much as I love Mississippi and as gracious as I’ve found the people of the state to be, there is a dangerous kind of nostalgia. I think it still privileges positions that leave white people at the top of the food chain. I feel like the South in my lifetime, and certainly beforehand, has really been getting its house in order, as far as race relations goes.
That nostalgia for the Antebellum Confederate South is really a simplification of history. As Thomas Canby says to Sherman at one point, ‘Nobody fought more nobly for an ignoble cause than the Confederates, but nobody fought more ignobly for a just cause than you did.’ In my lifelong study of the Civil War, that is my take on the Confederacy.
EBB: Many of the characters in the book seem to assert that Atlanta’s industrialization is a way for the city to collectively forget the grief and destruction of the Civil War — and even their grim history of slavery. Do you think there is any truth to this? And, if so, does it speak to memory and to the balance between completely forgetting history and being nostalgic for an era that was brutal, violent and reprehensible?
MG: I think what I saw in Atlanta, that I haven’t seen in other parts of the Deep South as far as industrialization goes, is a more equitable distribution of income. In Atlanta, if you graduated high school you could go to work at the chemical plants and make a really good living wage. You could go to work on the railroad or work in an aircraft factory and have an assembly line job that would put your children through college. What I see studying the Antebellum South is a very wide, more like a monolith rather than a pyramid, as far as opportunities for people, with the planter and the planter family at the apex, with not much opportunity for anyone else. So as much as I love the notion of an agrarian South, what I saw in Atlanta, with it being much more of an industrial city, there was a lot more opportunity for a middle class existence for a lot more people than I’ve seen anywhere else in the South.
EBB: What do you think accounts for your interest in both literature and history?
MG: I was a dunce in history all the way through college. I had no particular interest in it. But when I started researching the bones in the basement for The Resurrectionist, I got into Shelby Foote. I think his three-volume history of the Civil War is the greatest thing Southern literature has produced. I came to be converted to what Shelby Foote says, ‘If you want to understand contemporary America, you have to understand the Civil War.’
As a Southerner, I didn’t realize what a huge proportion of that war was fought in the Southern states. It’s like we are walking over that war almost everywhere we go, at least in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. And it really fascinates me. I don’t want to give myself a pass on thinking I know who I am without exploring the past. It seemed that in high school we were talking about Napoleon, Waterloo, and I couldn’t make any connections there. So I was pretty slow at making connections between the Civil War and the present.
One thing I would hate for anyone to take away from my books is that I see myself as some sort of crusader who has figured out the mysteries of Southern culture. It’s not like that at all. I love this part of the country. I will never leave it. I live in Mississippi because it’s the most Southern place I’ve found. But it’s worth considering how much of this is worth keeping alive and reinvigorating with each generation and how much of it is, as you put it, dangerous nostalgia?’ How do we get this house in order? Because it’s a grand house with room for everybody in it.
EBB: I know that you have written extensively about contemporary Southern literature, especially in your book, After Southern Modernism. Can you tell us a few Southern writers that you are especially fond of?
MG: Other than the giants, if we can count Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Ron Rash, Steve Yarbrough, who are becoming the statesmen of this generation — I eagerly anticipate every new book by them — I think Jesmyn Ward is doing some really interesting things and is going to have a long and great career. Michael Farris Smith up in Columbus, Mississippi, wrote Rivers. Jamie Kornegay in Greenwood, Mississippi. There are so many right here in Mississippi. I guess I know them and am partial to them. But I think it’s going to be interesting looking at the body of work of Steve Yarbrough and Ron Rash in particular.
EBB: Did you ever see yourself writing mysteries?
MG: I never saw myself writing mysteries. But I turned in my dissertation and was waiting for the committee to get back to me and I said to my advisor, ‘I’m dying here. I don’t want to read any more McCarthy for a while or Barry Hannah. I don’t want to read James Patterson, but I’m dying here. What do I read?’ He said, ‘You need to read James Lee Burke. He’s out of Louisiana, and he writes detective novels. But he can really write.’ And, oh my gosh, he is really like a Raymond Chandler or a Dashiell Hammett.
EBB: Do you think his work influenced The Scribe in some way?
MG: One hundred percent. When he wrote in with a blurb for The Scribe, it felt like a full circle. This one was conceived of as a detective story from the get-go, so I owe it to him that I am writing in the mystery genre as much as I am.
EBB: Can you say anything about your next novel? Is it also a detective novel?
MG: It is. It follows a handful of the characters from The Scribe. The action moves west, to Birmingham, and picks up within two or three years after the end of The Scribe. I have about 50 pages of it done and hope to have it out in the fall of 2017. I don’t want to say it’s more of the same, but if you like The Scribe, you’ll like Red Mountain.