EDWIN YODER fans, and admirers of good writing everywhere, will welcome the publication of The Night of the Old South Ball. An altogether engaging book, it offers a deftly chosen selection of columns, essays, and book reviews published over the last 20 years by Edwin M. Yoder Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editorial page editor of The Washington Star who is now syndicated by The Washington Post Company.
Anyone who reads his column knows that Yoder is, to the marrow of his bones, a native of North Carolina. His affection for the state forms a recurring theme in his work. In fact, if journalism had not claimed him, one suspects that he could make a living as a short-story writer of the local-color variety. Several of the most delightful pieces reprinted in this book are scenes from everyday life, handled uncommonly well. Whether pondering his boyhood Presbyterian church as a social microcosm, sharing the hilariously painful experience of walking 12 consecutive batters in his short-lived, if memorable, career as a Little League pitcher, or describing family vacations on the Carolina shore, Yoder writes with a marvelously understated sense of humor, an eye for the telling detail, and enough knowledge of human nature to amaze a philosopher and embarrass a preacher.
For all but the gifted few, it takes a lot of hard work to write this well. Good writing is an acquired skill, one which Yoder has spent a good deal of his life mastering. He began his journalism career in the 1950s at the University of North Carolina, where he served as the editor of The Daily Tar Heel. His love for the "Unquiet Olympus" of Chapel Hill was forged from a thousand memorable experiences of student life, coupled with the sheer exhilaration that comes from learning. At Chapel Hill, he feasted on banquets of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner (spaced with copious portions of Mencken), served up by noble professors whose pedagogical skill and intellectual vigor left him hopelessly smitten for life by good writing. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the best pieces in The Night of the Old South Ball are highly discriminating essays on the relationship between literature and culture. And somewhere along the line (perhaps during his academic sojourn as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford), Yoder became a fierce defender of the English language against cultural barbarians of whatever stripe. Especially noteworthy in this regard is his essay "Plain English," a ringing affirmation of firm standards in the written and spoken word.
Yet whatever hold literature has on Yoder, his heart belongs to history. With typical modesty, he admits to suffering from a "magpie's relish for facts," a statement that belies both the depth and the richness of his knowledge of the past. Yoder is extremely well versed in American history, but like so many southern intellectuals, he is preoccupied with his native South. And as befits a scholar-turned-journalist, he is absolutely steeped in the best scholarship on the region. His essays and book reviews on the works of giants such as W.J. Cash, George B. Tindall, and C. Vann Woodward (his hero and mine) are exceptionally fine pieces, revealing a keen analytic mind, a critical mastery of the literature, and a delicate appreciation for the ironies, subtleties, and ambiguities of the past.
IN addition to valuing history for its own sake, Yoder uses the past to illuminate the present. His essays on contemporary politics are punctuated with historical references and analogies that add a special luster to his writing and richness to his analysis. Equally important, he is a self-appointed watchdog on the misuse of history in a society that is becoming depressingly ignorant of its past. The Night of the Old South Ball abounds with examples of Yoder's spirited defense of the historical record against politicians (and fellow journalists, as Tom Wicker can attest) who misread the past or attempt to bend it to partisan advantage.
Just in case any readers have acquired the impression that Yoder is a priggish don, let me hasten to add that he wears his learning lightly. His erudition is more than balanced by his gentle sense of humor, not to mention his zest for life. It is hard not to take a shine to a man who admits to going "On a Gilbert and Sullivan Toot" every now and then, or who can make us understand why we find ourselves captives of "Scarlet With Toothpaste" every single time Gone With the Wind appears on the late-night show.