Friday, June 5, 2009

LOUISIANA CHRONICLER – HARNETT T. KANE


Last Sunday when we breakfasted at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, following 8 a.m. services, Fr. David Kearley, who had celebrated at the Eucharist, sat down next to me, and we began to trade stories about our backgrounds. Fr. Kearley is retired, like most clergy here on The Mt., and is the quintessential southern gentleman. He began to tell me about growing up in Mobile, AL and working in a bookstore as a teen-ager. At a book-signing during that time, he met Harnett T. Kane, the author of approximately 32 books about my native state. However, David confessed that he couldn’t remember the names of the books that had been displayed at the signing. I told him about a copy of THE BAYOUS OF LOUISIANA I happen to have with me, one of the few volumes from my Louisiana collection in New Iberia that I brought along for my sojourn on The Mt. I promised to loan it to him because I always like to promote bayou country.

Harnett T. Kane is one of those “undersung” authors of Louisiana topics who knew his state well and chronicled the landscape, the people, and the culture better than any Louisiana author I’ve read. I’ve used his books when researching information to create background for several of the YA books of fiction I’ve written about Louisiana. His writing has often been criticized as it does not resemble the spare journalistic prose of contemporary newswriters, but I think that he is unsurpassed for description, concrete detail, and for conveying the voices of people who live in “a place apart…bounded on one side by the Gulf, on the other three sides by men as different from him as are their territories from his…” (taken from THE BAYOUS OF LOUISIANA).

Perhaps Kane’s most famous book was LOUISIANA HAYRIDE: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship, 1928-1940, an unsympathetic account of Huey Long’s rise to power in Louisiana and an expose of corruption in the state. One of my favorite Kane books is DEEP DELTA COUNTRY, advertised for $88 on Amazon.com… a volume too rich for my pocketbook! Kane died in 1984 at the age of 73 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s for seventeen years, but he had been prolific since the beginning of his career when he worked for “The New Orleans Item” while attending Tulane. He worked as a reporter for this newspaper for several years and also wrote for “The New York Times,” “The Reader’s Digest,” “National Geographic,” and “The Saturday Review of Literature.”

My mother once met Kane at a women’s gathering, I think it was a social involving the women parishioners of St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and she described him as “arrogant and rude” because he snapped at one of the women oozing flattery about his books. However, her description didn’t daunt me in later years when I began to consult his works to “beef up” the background I used in books of fiction about the state.

Every time I read THE BAYOUS OF LOUISIANA, I experience an attack of rampant nostalgia, particularly when I read the chapter in “Part III. Garden of Eden,” entitled “The Opulent Teche” and turn to a photograph with the caption: “The Teche is the most handsomely endowed of the bayous.” Here is one of the sentences describing the place where I live part of the year, an example of that so-called overdone prose Kane penned: “The Teche country gives the impression that it has labored and fought and conquered, with great reward, during a crowded morning; now, in the deepening light of the day, it remains among its trees, and remembers, and reminisces of other times…”

Photo of a Louisiana bayou by Dr. Victoria I. Sullivan
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