The major theme of V. S. Naipaul's work was initially developed in "An Area of Darkness" (1964), the first of his two nonfictional accounts of India. The theme is that of the past, the dangers of a retreat into a romantic past; a withdrawal not so much inspired by a desire to inhabit the past as prompted by a wish to close one's eyes on the present. The panacea for this escapism, which Naipaul has identified in many corners of the world, is to place a great importance upon man's cultivation of self-knowledge, in the hope that this self-knowledge will lead to rational thought and action, and ultimately hold at bay the yawning abyss of what Naipaul in the foreword to "A Turn in the South" terms "the unmentionable past."
To many Southerners, both black and white, the past is indeed "unmentionable." It is riddled with the guilt of loss: lynchings, war, slavery, the indignities of plantation life, segregation, invasion and occupation. Such a past serves only to add to the plight of the Southerners by ensuring that they will continue to be misunderstood and patronized by their fellow countrymen to the north and west. But such a past is also fertile ground for self-delusion, myth-making and irrational fears, the very stuff upon which Naipaul's travel writing feeds.
Once south, Naipaul travels from Atlanta to Charleston, Tallahassee to Tuskegee, Jackson to Nashville. He converses with everybody; politicians, waitresses, preachers, judges, and he faithfully relates what they have to say about themselves and the South. And then he leaves. A troubling question remains: Has one's knowledge of the South, or indeed of the human predicament, been enlarged by accompanying the author on this journey? Or have we merely witnessed Naipaul recording reactions, but reaching conclusions already formed by a quarter of a century of travel?
"Among the Believers" (1981), his study of Islam as a metaphor for the wider bewilderment that young people face in what Naipaul views as an ahistorical world, marked the apotheosis of his achievement in the travel-writing genre. It was stamped with the two hallmarks of Naipaul's best nonfictional work. It introduced us to an unfamiliar, difficult world, and it showed the author trying to define himself by using this unfamiliar world as a backdrop.
The two books that followed, "Finding the Center" (1985) and "The Enigma of Arrival" (1987), were so autobiographical as to suggest that Naipaul felt himself sufficiently defined and imbued with self-knowledge that he now had the confidence to glance across his life. He still spoke of himself as a prisoner of the past, but the assumption was that his quest for self-knowledge had given him the key to a form of freedom that others, who were also prisoners of their past, were unable to achieve. And so we arrive at "A Turn in the South."
Immediately one detects a new tone. Before going South, Naipaul visits the Schomburg Center in New York and finds it "a splendid new building devoted to black studies, with an extraordinary collection of books and documents, and with enthusiastic staff, black and white." There is no hint of cynicism as Naipaul skirts by one of his favorite bete noires, racially centric (generally black) scholarship. Once in the South, the author finds Tuskegee impressive and Booker T. Washington a remarkable man. He is patient with time wasters and bumpkins, and he tolerates the most self-aggrandizing politicians. When one comes to his description of an encounter with Hosea L. Williams, a black Atlanta activist, Naipaul presents us with the irrefutable evidence of his new voice.
He first sees Williams outside a courtroom, toothbrush in pocket, ready to be arrested. Then he reads the self-serving pamphlet, "Who is Hosea L. Williams?," this veteran of 105 jailings. Naipaul visits the loquacious and bombastic Williams, and he comes away with a deep warmth for the man, despite the farce of there being no taxi to take him back to his hotel. Hosea, man of the people, offers to stop somebody he knows and "make" them take Naipaul back downtown. "But no one he knew came along." A younger Naipaul, perhaps a more concerned Naipaul, would certainly have castigated the unfortunate Mr. Williams.
Naipaul describes an all-too-brief encounter with Eudora Welty, goes to Graceland but cannot be bothered to either queue or return the following day, decides not to visit Oxford, Miss., the home of Faulkner and the site of James Meredith's historic battle with Ole Miss, and he spends a boring evening at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. There is an aimless fatigue to this journey, the author tolerating not confronting, leaving not waiting, happy to be led rather than seeking. And all conversations lead back to the central theme that the Southern past imprisons, and only by cultivating the rational can one deal with the world.