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Blount Language 

He's written about sports, rednecks and his mama. Now, Southern humorist Roy Blount Jr. finds out what's so funny about Robert E. Lee.

The fact that Roy Blount Jr. gives such merit to this quip speaks volumes. Recognized as a "Renaissance man of letters," the Georgia-born, Harvard-educated writer has owned countless titles: journalist, sportswriter, poet, novelist, stage performer, screenwriter and lyricist. Yet, one label, one job description, remains permanently attached to Blount: Southern humorist, the role he'll play as a featured speaker at the annual Words & Music Festival.

Ironically, the 59-year-old's reputation as a Southern humorist was built by spending more than half his life above the Mason-Dixon line. (He currently splits his time between New York City and the comfort of his more rural digs in western Massachusetts.) He began his intellectual love affair with New York when a 10th grade English teacher at Decatur (Ga.) High School turned him on to The New Yorker, where he lost himself in the wit of James Thurber and E.B. White. In 1968, the young Atlanta sportswriter moved to New York to work for Sports Illustrated. Over the years, his travails as a Southern expatriate supplied plenty of writing fodder for his many books as well as "Gone Off Up North," his column for Oxford American, subtitled "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing."

"I always thought when I read The New Yorker as a kid that people up there must know everything that was in The New Yorker," Blount says. "Turns out, they didn't know everything that was in The New Yorker, and they didn't know anything that was in the Decatur-DeKalb News. I even found people that weren't quite sure where Memphis was."

Ensconced in New York now that he has "made some friends and put some roots down," Blount still laughs at the cultural differences, often ill-perceived, that he continually faces. "I had somebody once that introduced me as 'the most sophisticated redneck.' I'm a pretty poor excuse for a redneck. If I'm the closest to a redneck you ever saw, then you've never lived."

While Blount's work in Oxford American (which he plans to anthologize in what would be his 15th book) is an ideal fit within the magazine's Dixie-themed parameters, much of his other efforts remain distinctly, well, Southern. For instance, he wrote an article about eating dirt for Atlantic Monthly, the universally highbrow publication for which Blount is a contributing editor. But, clearly "Southern" is not a label or style he is overly conscious of. "Well, I guess I got books about dogs, and books about mamas, so maybe I've drifted further into the Southern thing than I thought," Blount muses.

However, the scrutiny that the Southern label brings does bother Blount at times. He admits taking offense to a New York Times review of 1982's Crackers, which described him as "a professional Southerner."

"People up here often say rude things about you and the South," Blount says. "I guess people just assume I walk down the street all the time trying to be Southern. Like I eat a Southern meal, then go down the street and pick up a Southern rock and throw it at a Southern tree in a Southern kind of way." But for the most part, he remains indifferent to the label. "I like it if it gets me into something, but I don't like it if it keeps me out of something."

One thing the ubiquitous "it" got Blount into is a biography of Robert E. Lee for the Penguin Lives series, biographies of America's most noted figures in a non-academic, less-burdensome fashion. Completed and in the final stages of editing with release slated for fall 2002, the work is a slight departure in a career full of diversions. Blount relishes the chance to shed new light, his light, on a man of mythical proportions in the South.

"I've been avoiding the Civil War all my life," Blount admits. "It sorta weighed on me. It became way overdone, especially in Atlanta when I was growing up. I wanted to come at Lee from a different angle, and then I found out how many angles he had been come at from already. That was the challenge."

And within this challenge, Blount's style shines. Part intense psychological evaluation, part whimsical storytelling, this work promises to distinguish itself from countless other, more battlefield-centric, Lee biographies.

"The first thing I did was to throw out writing about how much of a great general he was," Blount says. "I don't think anybody can figure out anything true from that war. War is not a general's medium, it's a military historian's medium, and I'm not a military historian. This work is not full of effusions about the glory of the war."

However, it is full of an examination of the great general's feet. "He was 5 feet 11 inches and only had a size 4 1/2 shoe. Now that's interesting. He loved to have his feet tickled. He would read to his children every night on the condition that they would tickle his feet. When they stopped tickling, he would stop reading. That interests me more than Gettysburg. Gettysburg, that's been done, but the feet. The feet! There is something about those feet."

In the biography, Blount reveals a complexity not easily found in his humorist role, saying "the kernel" of his work comes from "a fresh theory on Lee's childhood influences. I analyzed him in comparison to a fairly recent theory on childhood." This analysis harks back to his 1998 memoir, Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story, which dwells on what in one passage Blount describes as "my Oedipus complex." His research, certainly a new twist for a biographer on the South's most beloved son, reveals Lee as a boy without a father, who left Virginia for the Bahamas a "disgraced, beaten up, broken and bankrupt man," and with an overbearing mother who once wrote that her son "has been both daughter and son to me."

"The combination of those influences, the lack of a father and too much of a mother, is what I'm writing about," Blount says. "He had a large female side. He liked to go to parties and gossip with girls. He wrote strange, flirting letters. He really didn't get off on war; he didn't really get off on anything except for flirting with girls."

Coming off such a project -- a daunting one for any Southern writer -- Blount heads full steam into New Orleans as the featured speaker of the "Variations on a Theme of Southern Humor" lunch for Words & Music. A regular visitor to New Orleans, Blount embraces the opportunity to return here: "I love New Orleans. I don't stay up late enough anymore to do it justice, but I'm excited. I don't know if I could live there, though. I would die from all the pleasure."

Blount will be in good company on the panel, which includes Steve Stern, whose novel The Pinch explores the impact of Jewish culture in Memphis. Blount once again takes the stage as Southern humorist, charged to explain the very concept and the myriad influences that created it.

"I can talk at some length about what Southern humor is like," Blount says. "The South has an element of wildness, clannishness and willingness to fight, that makes for a wild brew. With our humor, it's the vitality, it's the willingness to take on something wild that makes it. New Yorker humor tends to dwell on a messy desk, and other little neurotic matters. But Southern humor tends to take on all kinds of horrible things: death, religion, slavery and murder. It's wild and wooly."

But riding a career that spans four decades, Blount feigns slight indifference toward his role as Southern humorist authority. "I don't know, I guess I'm supposed to talk about Southern humor. I have no idea what I'll talk about. Maybe I'll talk about Robert E. Lee. He's funny."

click to enlarge 'Gettysburg, that's been done, but the feet. The feet! There is something about those feet.' -- Roy Blount Jr., on what fascinated him most about his Robert E. Lee biography.
  • 'Gettysburg, that's been done, but the feet. The feet! There is something about those feet.' -- Roy Blount Jr., on what fascinated him most about his Robert E. Lee biography.
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