Sunday, February 5, 2006
When Taylor Branch wrote the last sentence, he called his wife, Christy Macy, as he had promised to do.
The book he was finishing was "At Canaan's Edge," the final volume of his three-part history of the civil rights movement, "America in the King Years." It ended, as he knew it must -- save for a brief epilogue to be added later -- with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. standing on a Memphis motel balcony on April 4, 1968.
"King stood still for once," Branch wrote, "and his sojourn on earth went blank."
He read Macy the sentence over the phone.
Branch cried, too. Why not? After all, he'd just written the death of a transcendent historical figure -- and he was concluding what he knew, beyond question, to be his own life's work.
He is 59 now. In 1982, when he began what he thought would be a three-year project, his marriage was just a few years old. His 25-year-old daughter was a toddler. His 22-year-old son had not yet been born.
How does a man come to spend the best part of a working lifetime telling a single story? The answer -- like the story itself -- is complex and rooted in the past. But Branch has no doubts about the rightness of the choice he made.
"He calls it his life's blessing," Macy says.
To call the nonviolent civil rights revolution led by King between 1954 and 1968 a single story, of course, is to oversimplify. The tale Branch set out to relate nearly a quarter-century ago is what he calls a "defining chapter" in American history, and his telling of it is nothing if not ambitious. Words like "massive" and "magisterial" show up regularly in reviews of "Parting the Waters," "Pillar of Fire" and "At Canaan's Edge." Taken together, Branch's three volumes run to more than 2,800 pages.
When his books are criticized, they're sometimes said to be excessively dense and detail-packed, like fat Russian novels whose readers sometimes have trouble keeping the characters straight. Yet it is precisely Branch's ambition to get the whole story down that gives his books their widely praised richness and depth. As a not untypical New York Times review once put it, they "weave a staggering array of people, actions, events and trends into a dense and opulent narrative strand."
Civil rights veteran Julian Bond, who covers the same territory in a class he's teaching at the University of Virginia, recently told his students that they had an alternative: