A Memoir of a Texas Childhood

By Horton Foote

Scribner. 287 pp. $24

Horton Foote was born in the small town of Wharton, Tex., in 1916. He left, 16 years later--very improbably, considering who he was and where he was from--to pursue a career in theater at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. He left one world and entered another, but that first world would stay with him his whole life. He would return to Wharton as an old man and live in his childhood home, "a sturdy, simple, six-room cottage," but the milieu, the ambiance, the "civilization" in which he had grown up would have vanished. His past, as he remembered it, had been destroyed. He says farewell to it here.

This is far from a sentimental memoir. The town itself, from before Foote was born, was pestilential, plagued by a "particularly virulent form of malaria known as Black Jaundice, as well as typhoid and yellow fever." Some might say--although Foote does an elegant, delicate job of refraining from easy judgment--that the real plague that had afflicted Wharton and the rest of the South was the institution of slavery, an appalling moral wrong that was part and parcel of the financial and psychological devastation that came down on the South after the Civil War.

Horton Foote was born in a time of historical disintegration. He recalls that his mother married "beneath" her; his father had been on his own since he was 12 and was almost penniless. His maternal great-grandfather had once been a prosperous slave owner; his grandfather still owned plenty of property and ostensibly had more than enough money, but the whole society was on a downward slide. Foote's three uncles on his mother's side would all, determinedly, live "wasted, tragic lives," destroying the family fortune, even as--all over the South--black folks suffered and endured "freedom" just as they had slavery, and white folks tried to find (or am I reading too much into this?) a moral and rational explanation for everything dreadful that had happened, and was happening, to all of them.

Although the South has given America an extraordinary literature, that work is often drenched in nostalgic lyricism (Faulkner, for instance) or Gothic grotesquerie (Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams). Foote appears to attempt much less here but achieves a great deal. He remembers how "ordinary" people really talked, what they talked about, how they spent time, how they treated each other. His mother and father eloped, for instance, but eloped only five blocks across the town of Wharton to a furnished room. When his grandfather got used to the idea of the match, he built the couple a cottage adjacent to his own house and the families visited constantly.

The conversational coin of the realm was family, tales that lasted for hours, about who was related to whom, who had died of what and when, and how many people grieved, for how long. There were tales of floods and epidemics and the epic horrors of childbirth. Foote never records a quarrel here, or any set of harsh words, or any dramatic confrontation. His immediate family, as he records their doings, was happy and stable, although his father lived a hard, penurious, limited life running the town haberdashery. But over on his mother's side, his three uncles, Speed, Billy and Brother, had begun their trips to perdition in earnest.

"Wasted, tragic lives, I had by 12 observed, seemed nearly always to occur to at least one male member of the families we knew, but to have the only three males of a family turn out so was most unusual."

Foote is careful in making generalizations about why and how this happened. But the town of Wharton as he remembers it is like a large, warm-blooded animal that has received a mortal wound but doesn't quite know it yet. It breathes and feels, but it's running down. As the author enters his teens, it's only 60 or so years after the end of the Civil War. Cotton is still "king" in the South, but the Depression has dealt another crushing blow to the economy. There simply isn't any money. And there's no work, ironically, for a white man to do. They can be doctors, lawyers or merchants, but the town has more than enough doctors, lawyers and merchants already. Behind the formalities, the niceties, the careful attention to politeness and considerations of every kind, the town is gripped by what looks a lot like death.

The author once meets an old black man who remarks by way of small talk that he was born a slave on Foote's great-grandfather's plantation. There it is: no longer an abstraction. His great-grandfather, whom everybody loved and respected, actually owned . . . people. How do "loving" and "owning" exist in the same matrix? How can a civilization that exists precisely because of a deeply evil practice produce deeply feeling and decent people? Again, Foote is so delicate! He only very obliquely suggests his uncles may have been acting out of deferred ethical angst: They have been acting out expiation for the South's moral transgressions.

But against all this moral anguish and ethical decay, if you want to live a life, the only way is to get out. The trip to the Pasadena Playhouse out in California wasn't as wacky as it might have seemed. Life in the rural South, even before the war, and even for whites, was hard indeed. Some family letters included here catalogue suffering almost beyond belief. Women would have 10 children, only to lose five or more of them in childbirth or childhood to disease. Then they would die in childbirth themselves. Fever, disaster, violence made their life something beyond our modern imagination, something almost unbearable. People were known to kill each other for fun. For lack of anything else to do with such material, it also was turned into family story.

Horton Foote left Texas for Los Angeles during the same decade, I believe, as existential novelist Horace McCoy and my own father, who would become a journalist. More than anything I've read, this memoir made my father's past alive and real for me: those doomed grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins I never met, dead before I was born, of suicide, drink, gunshot, typhoid and TB. There's no sentiment here, just a steady, even, kind look at a civilization doomed from the start to destroy itself from within.

Upcoming in Book World

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UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG, by Elizabeth Berg. In this novel a thirtysomething woman yearns for a husband and a child. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

THE MESSENGER, by Mayra Montero. A novel based on the love affair between Enrico Caruso and his Cuban mistress. Reviewed by James Polk.

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