“Midnight” at 20; John Berendt’s book continues to resonate

Before I launch into a few thoughts of my own, I want to plug SavannahNow’s really interesting multimedia package about the 20th anniversary of the publication of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Kim Wade’s feature piece touches upon many aspects of the legacy of “The Book”, as it has been called by locals.

How much longer will it just be called “The Book”? Hard to say. It’s clear that many younger Savannahians have no direct connection to it all. Only a handful of my dozens of students at Armstrong have read it; many haven’t heard of it.

But Sunday’s coverage is a good reminder that the stories in Midnight are still rich in many ways. I especially like a portion of Kim’s piece that touches upon the experiences of Lady Chablis:

“It was the first time Savannah was thrown into the spotlight. Along with ‘Midnight,’ which a lot of Savannahians didn’t care for, here comes this black, loud-mouthed, and as far as they are concerned, drag queen who was a big character in the book and was getting more popular.

“Savannah didn’t know how to deal with it, but they had to, so they had to learn.” […]

Chablis says she left Savannah after the book became popular. She feared for her safety and never moved back.

“Like for two years I became a recluse. If I had to fly somewhere, I would fly as ‘incog-negro’ (Chablis’ catch phrase) as possible so no one would recognize me. Finally I just had to own it.”

And this snippet about the late Jack Leigh, photographer of Midnight‘s iconic cover:

[Susan] Laney says Leigh was given the keys to the cemetery gate and permission to stay there for two days. On the second day, he wandered around until almost all the light was gone and happened upon the statue. […]

“He went into a dark room with the negative and enlarged it and worked with it for three days, working with different filters,” Laney says. “He used a method he was known for called burn and dodge technique.

“He did about a hundred passes of light. … Now you wouldn’t have to work so hard but at the end of 1993, it was not that way. He really created something that wasn’t in reality.”

And this from bookseller Esther Shaver:

“Nothing evokes Savannah like that book. I mean you feel it,” she says. “If you have never been here, you read it, and you feel it.”

There is a whole lot more in Wade’s piece and in that multimedia package — it’s all definitely worth a look, no matter what your interest in or appreciation of Berendt’s book.

I was working at the Borders bookstore in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia when Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came out.

The power of that cover was palpable. Shoppers wanted to hold it — and so did the employees. I’ll confess, though, that it took me a long time finally to decide to read it. For all the buzz about the book, I never heard that much talk about the story itself — the discussion was all about the mood, the atmosphere.

I finally read Midnight over the course of a couple of afternoons sitting in the sun in the backyard of my sprawling attic apartment in an old home in Fort Washington. I was struck by the guardedness of Berendt’s narrative voice, which reminded me so much of Nick in The Great Gatsby. He’s a witness to the passionate moments of others, but does he share them? People open up to him in a heartbeat, but does he open up to them? Do they even want him to?

I was struck, too, by the way the entire story is driven by the short life of Danny Hansford, who was shot to death at age 21 by Jim Williams. There’s a real tragedy at the heart of Midnight, and it’s worth noting that Hansford’s story remains largely untold. Had Hansford’s family gone public and talked to Berendt, we’d have a different text. Had he lived, Danny Hansford would be 54 this year.

My first reading of Midnight also confirmed for me that Savannah was as fascinating as I thought it was after a very brief visit in the late 1980s. I had been teaching fulltime before working at Borders for a while and doing some traveling; when I saw a job listing at Savannah Country Day School in 1995, it was a no-brainer to apply for the position even though I didn’t know anyone in Savannah. I applied for other positions up and down the East Coast at the same time, but I had a job offer from SCDS before I even interviewed anywhere else. I took it.

In his public remarks in 2008 at the Savannah Book Festival, Berendt referred to the “spiral effect of eccentricity” in Savannah. It’s a place of just the right size, with enough overlapping social connections, that oddness becomes prized. Without even really gossiping, those of us with rich public lives learn about other residents through so many avenues that we feel a part of their lives.

I hear a lot of Savannahians say that the world of Midnight is dead — that there’s too much money, too much technology, not enough dive bars, not enough space for artists, and on and on.

Sure, the city has changed radically since 1994, but I’m often struck by how much has remained the same. Many of those complaining about the changes in the city don’t seem to be reckoning with the simple fact that they themselves are 20 years older too. They haven’t been willing — or able — to be carried in new directions as the urban landscape has shifted. Just today, for example, my friend Allison Hersh has a fascinating column in the Savannah Morning News about another friend, theyoung photographer Emily Earl, a Savannah native whose latest body of work is “Late Night Polaroids”. From Allison’s piece:

Like Savannah itself, Earl’s photographs are mysterious, inviting, sensual and seductive. For this talented photographer, the camera serves as an ideal tool to document the city’s offbeat nightlife scene.

“There’s so much great stuff going on here that doesn’t get enough attention,” she says. “It’s important we embrace the different things happening in Savannah’s arts and music scene.”