In a previous post I wrote about the 2013 MacArthur Fellows and the lack of representatives on the list living and working in the South.
My goal was to suggest that it’s somewhere between possible and probable that the MacArthur Foundation’s nomination and selection process bakes a regional and cultural bias into their $625,000 per Fellow cake.
It is both predictable and yet somehow still disappointing that some of the commenters responded with shots at the region, all but asserting that the true reason is because the South genuinely lacks geniuses. While I acknowledge the historical and cultural factors that likely make some parts of the region seem less hospitable to the creative and social science classes, the notion that there are no geniuses to be found in the South is ridiculous.
To put it another way, the fact that year after year, sometimes zero, and no more than two people living and working the South are identified as worthy of a “Genius” grant is almost certainly a result of the granting mechanism, rather than a southern “Genius Gap.”
As others pointed out in the comments, southern states are well-represented in the list of top public universities, with 10 out of the top 25.
The South is also home to Vanderbilt, Rice, Duke, and Wake Forest. I’m pretty sure there’s some interesting things going on there.
It is common to cite the South’s worst sins as proof of concept that it remains backwards, unreconstructed. One commenter on the original post invokes the batshit ignoramuses who insist on confusing their Bibles with science textbooks, as though this is proof positive of a collective hostility to reason. Never mind the fact that a young man named Zack Kopplin of Baton Rouge, LA (last I checked, that’s in the South), and all of 20 years old, has become one of the leading advocates in the country for science education, launching a campaign against his state’s Louisiana Science Education Act when he was a senior in high school. That's his byline on the linked article about the Texas school board controversy by the way.
Kopplin may be a bit early in his career for a genius grant, but I encourage the MacArthur Foundation to keep an eye on him.
Or take another recent incident, when the Randolph County, NC school board decided to ban Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from school libraries. Another example of the South’s hostility to art and expression, right? Except, thanks to a both swift and fierce community-based rally, the board’s decision was reversed fewer than 10 days later.
Which part of that story is more indicative of the true attitudes of the South?
The truth is, there are plenty of geniuses living and working in the South. Here’s just two of them:
If you catch me in the right mood, I’ll declare that Southern literature is American literature. Our country’s two GOAT literary geniuses IMHO are William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
In the spirit of these great artists we have a writer and filmmaker named Scott McClanahan, who would make a great MacArthur Fellow. Born, raised, and living in West Virginia, over the last five or six years McClanahan has been releasing books of uncommon power, steeped in his region’s idioms, and unlike anything else you’ll read today. IHE’s Oronte Churm reviewed McClanahan’s second book, Stories II, in these very pages, providing a better description than I ever could.
McClanahan is likely not on the MacArthur radar because unlike this year’s literary fellows – Karen Russell (Knopf) and Donald Antrim (FSG) - all of his work has been published by small, independent publishers like Two Dollar Radio, and Lazy Fascist Press, rather than the big time New York imprints.
He also isn’t connected to the Columbia MFA program where Antrim is a professor and from which Russell is a graduate.
His novel, Hill William, is one of my personally most-anticipated books of the year, right up there with Thomas Pynchon and Jhumpa Lahiri.
I predict that soon, Churm and I won’t be the only ones talking about McClanahan’s particular kind of “genius.”
Until three years ago, I wasn’t aware that rice had flavor. For me, it existed as a sauce-delivery vehicle.
And then I tasted a variety of rice called Carolina Gold and I learned different.
Glenn’s career epiphany came on a hot summer afternoon in the kitchen of an historic Charleston property. An elaborate rice dinner was just hours away, and the solitary source on earth for Carolina Gold rice at that time—a grower in Savannah—had delivered his product earlier in the day. When the chef opened the bag to cook the rice, the grains were writhing with weevils. Picking through the rice was laborious and time was of the essence. At 7 o’clock in the evening, Glenn found himself at a prep table with two dishwashers, sweating in his suit and tie, and rousting weevils from Carolina Gold, the dinner swirling by without him. He thought of his mother’s cooking when he was a boy. He looked at the lousy rice. He vowed to put Carolina Gold into serious production so this would never happen again.
And Roberts succeeded. Since that 1995 epiphany, Roberts has made it his mission to locate and cultivate heirloom varieties local to the South Carolina Lowcountry. Today, Anson Mills provides corn, wheat, peas, beans, farro and benne that would otherwise have disappeared from our kitchens and tables forever. Anyone who has eaten a restaurant meal in Charleston knows that Glenn Roberts helped save the cuisine.
Tastes like genius to me.
It’d be nice if other people took time to share their “Genius Grant” nominees in the comments.
We could Tweet our geniuses too, unless their names are more than 140 characters.