by Roy Hoffman; University of Alabama Press, 2011; 257 pages, $29.95
Some remarkable people have called Alabama home, many of them for all their lives. Others, only temporarily while at school or university. Still others born and raised in Alabama moved on with their lives and careers in other places. However, all remain rooted in their “sweet home Alabama.”
Roy Hoffman, a staff writer for the Mobile Press-Register, an award-winning novelist and writer of nonfiction books, has profiled more than 35 of Alabama’s exceptional native sons and daughters in his new book, Alabama Afternoons. This fascinating collection of profiles and conversations is another worthy publication from The University of Alabama Press.
The Alabama subjects of Hoffman’s essays range from very famous, nationally known figures to very local folks whom Hoffman introduces to the general public, perhaps for the first time through his excellent interviews.
Among the most famous Alabamians profiled are celebrities such as legendary sports broadcaster Mel Allen, the “voice of the Yankees” from 1939 to 1964. A native of West Blocton, Allen, a graduate of The University of Alabama law school, practiced law there before moving to New York to interview for a staff announcer’s job with CBS radio in 1937. Along the way, he changed his name from Mel Israel to Mel Allen, because Jewish on-air personalities had to Anglicize their names to get work in the broadcasting industry of that era. Hoffman’s anecdotal style and eye for interesting and entertaining details and personal histories shines throughout the book.
Renowned New York writer and Ocean City, N.J., native Gay Talese graduated from The University of Alabama in 1953. “That train ride to Tuscaloosa changed my life,” Talese told Hoffman. It was at The University of Alabama that Talese learned the craft of writing.
Other recognizable names include Forrest Gump creator Winston Groom, George Wallace Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter of Birmingham and legendary newspaper man Howell Raines.
But perhaps the most satisfying experience of the book is being introduced to special people who have lived and worked in relative obscurity, while contributing much to the fabric of the life around them. People like photographer William Christenberry, “a visual artist in search of the essence of rural byways ...,” or Kathryn Tucker Windham, teller of ghost stories, or Charlie Lucas an “outsider artist” who makes art from found pieces of metal. There are Vivian Malone and James Hood, the first black students to attend The University of Alabama. The list of native sons includes William Bolton and Herbert Henson, who maintain a hunting dog cemetery in Cherokee, and Alex Alvarez, a Creek language teacher who deepens his Native American culture in south Alabama.
Alabama Afternoons “displays the wealth of compelling lives,” in Hoffman’s words. It is time well-spent studying this book of Alabama character portraits.
Art Gould is a former newspaper reporter and book publisher. He lives in Anniston.