Thursday, August 5, 2010

Temperature and Tragedy: 90 Degrees in the Shade

90 Degrees in the Shade by Clarence Cason,
published in 1935 by the University of North Carolina Press

Cason's important book of essays on Southern culture is a compelling snapshot of aspects of life in Alabama during that period. In light of the ongoing heatwave, 90 degrees in the shade sounds like a welcome relief.

On the page between the half title and title page, there is a photograph of a group of men in their shirtsleeves, sitting at a table under an old tree on a few metal chairs and an old barrel. There's a dog on the ground, looking into the distance, panting. They are probably playing cards. Under the photograph, the caption states, "Air-conditioning cannot be a grand success in the South for the reason that the honest natives of the region recognize the natural summer heat as a welcome ally in that it makes the inside of houses and offices agreeably uninviting, if not actually prohibited territory."

Our weather and our constitutions have changed remarkably since then. Air conditioning is not only welcomed, it's outright required.

Cason, a native of Ragland Alabama, was a 1917 University of Alabama graduate, where he was the managing editor of the Crimson-White, UA's newspaper. After graduation, Cason enlisted in the United States Army, serving France during World War I. Upon his return from Europe, he worked as a reporter for several newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Times. He taught high school briefly, and also attended a theological seminary before returning to school to earn a Master's Degree from the University of Wisconsin.

Clarence Cason, in his 1917 Corolla (UA yearbook) portrait.

He taught at the University of Minnesota, then in 1928 he was hired by The University of Alabama to develop a journalism school. He published, mentored, and in the early 1930s, he began to compile his essays on the south. This was to become his book, 90 Degrees in the Shade. Tragically, and despite the love and encouragement of his colleagues and friends, Cason took his own life just days before the book's release. It is said that it was his overwhelming fear of how his book was to be received by his fellow Southerners became too much for him to bear.

Cason's legacy lives on at The University of Alabama, with the Clarence Cason Award, established in 1997 to honor exemplary non-fiction over a long career.

The Hoole Library holds several editions of the book, including the first edition shown above. To take a look at portions of the book in Google Books' version of 90 Degrees in the Shade, it is online here:

And to read a fascinating article by literary scholar, Phil Beidler about Cason and his contemporary, Carl Carmer (author of Stars Fell on Alabama, published in 1934), entitled, Yankee Interloper and Native Son: Carl Carmer and Clarence Cason: Unlikely Twins of Alabama Expose click here. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to get a sense of aspects of life in Alabama in the 1930s.

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