Author: Roy Hoffman
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Price: $29.95 (Cloth)
05/09/2011 In his introduction to "Alabama Afternoons," Roy Hoffman, a staff writer for the "Mobile Press-Register," declares his aims. These 32 pieces, almost all of which appeared as features in the Sunday "Press Register," are profiles and conversations with individual Alabamians Hoffman was interested in and wanted to talk to.
He says "While I am aware of course, of the colorful traditions of Alabama in areas like sports and politics, I have bent my talents to venues not as much explored by contemporary nonfiction writers…." His subjects tend to be persons in the arts, writers of all sorts, photographers, folk artists—or unusual individuals with a story to tell. He has interviewed old folks, veterans of the civil rights movement, a number of well-known Alabama personalities and several who would likely be completely unknown to the reader, but who have stories to tell.
Hoffman is an old professional, so these profiles are all deft, crafty. Each has some color, some memorable dialogue, some striking descriptive passages.
So, which ones will appeal to any given reader depends, I think, largely on what the reader already knows.
The profiles of storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham and her friend and neighbor in Selma, Charlie Lucas, aka the Tin Man, are personal and touching. There are pieces on the civil rights photographer Charles Moore, many of whose shots are seared into the twentieth-century American consciousness, and the artist/photographer William Christenberry, who continues to capture Hale County with the most artistic eye ever applied to the viewfinder of a Brownie.
There are pieces on the writers Winston Groom, Sena Jeter Naslund, Mary Ward Brown, Howell Raines, Diane McWhorter, Eugene Sledge—author of the WWII memoir "With The Old Breed," Gay Talese and Frye Gaillard. The state has indeed been rich in writers.
These are the Alabama personalities I know the most about, which is why, perhaps, I was most taken by some of the other, more idiosyncratic portraits.
Hoffman spent some time with Miss America, 1951, Yolanda "Bebe" Betbeze, of Mobile, and what a character she is. Now in her '80s and a grande dame in Georgetown, Washington, Bebe was a social activist, civil rights protester and friends with Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor. She was linked romantically and "imaginatively," she insists, with Joe DiMaggio.
Bebe was progressive but with a traditional streak: she was opposed to Miss Americas having ever been married or pregnant. Divorced moms are not the model, she thinks, for Miss America.
In his nonfiction and in his novel, "Chicken Dreaming Corn," Hoffman has for years been emphasizing that Alabama is not a study in black and white Protestants.
In this volume he includes a piece on Bessie Papa, a Greek resident of Malbis Plantation, once a large, thriving Greek community in Baldwin County. Founded by Jason Malbis, an ex-Greek Orthodox monk, the successful community operated the plantation and Malbis Bakery in Mobile where they produced "100,000 pounds of bread… 20,000 pounds of cake and 85,000 pounds of crackers and cookies per day." The plantation still owns 3,000 acres in Baldwin County.
More endangered is the Jewish community in Eufala, where Sara Hamm practically single-handedly tries to maintain and restore the Jewish cemetery.
The nearest Hebrew school for her son is in Columbus, Georgia, an hour away. "Her home is the only one in town where Menorah lights burn during Hanukkah," Hoffman tells us.
The stories in this volume are as diverse as Alabama actually is.
As author, Hoffman exercises his right to end the volume with an admiring and tender portrait of his father, who was, until his recent death at 97, the oldest practicing attorney in Alabama. Not only was Charles Hoffman a fine lawyer and an active, concerned citizen, he also read every word Roy Hoffman wrote and wanted to talk with him about it. No writer son could want more from any father.