October 26, 2016
MarkBernstein.org
 

Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil

I was in Savannah recently. Linda was giving a conference lecture for the Textile Society of America, which meant I could have a trip without much cost and see a city I’d never visited. Tourist Savannah is dominated by this book in a way you don’t often see these days; even the rural New Zealand focus on The Lord Of The Rings is really about the movies, not the books. It was time to revisit the book.

Time has been kind to this 1993 nonfiction account of Savannah society and its tribulations. Berendt was ahead of the curve in his (fairly) sympathetic account of the transexual performer, Lady Chablis, and more broadly in his treatment of gay sex as simply another colorful thing. In technique, this book broke new ground, but that ground is now shadowed by Erik Larson’s more ambitious Devil In The White City.

Berendt’s attention to race is split between the radically-transgressive Chablis and a radically-retro voodoo practitioner; there’s no voice like that of the (superb) guide at Savannah’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, who was careful to place the city’s famous black boycott as a generous gift from the black community to the nation. “We didn’t need those downtown department stores,” she reminded us, and the old ladies in the tour group with me – all black – nodded in agreement and said “No, ma’am.” “We had a thriving black business community right here: shops, lunch counters, banks. We had it going. But there was the principle of the thing.”

During the trip, we took out one day and worked the Hillary Clinton booth at Savannah’s Gay Pride. Things change. Still, it’s a good book.