The third and weakest section in Rymer's book concerns Eatonville, the oldest American town incorporated by blacks, birthplace of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, and talisman of independent black settlements across the country. In 1987, the year of Eatonville's centennial, a proposed county highway threatened its destruction. N.Y. Nathiri, a rather humorless convert to Sunni Islam, led a successful campaign to halt the freeway. Here Rymer's language becomes turgid with borderline academic jargon as he draws a tenuous comparison between the historic black town and the Disney Corp. development, Celebration, in nearby Orlando. Too many subjects -- black literature, minstrelsy, pop culture, the need for myths, and the pronouncements of Disney CEO Michael Eisner -- crowd Rymer's argument that our "authentic history" is represented in "unglamorous" towns like Eatonville, rather than corporate-designed and -controlled towns like Celebration. No matter how much money Disney developers spent on "traditional" architecture and shrubbery, they couldn't imagineer a civic culture.
FORTUNATELY, AMERICAN BEACH BEGINS AND ENDS with the extravagant presence of Betsch, sister of former Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole, and great-granddaughter of A.L. Lewis. Betsch reigns over the long middle story of the book, its pinnacle. Her wealth and privilege vanished after she gave away her fortune to environmental causes. Today she stalks Amelia Island wearing odd raiment; the fingernails on her left hand are several feet long; stiff gray hair falls below her waist like topiary; black lace with a political button on the front is tied around her forehead. She lives homeless on the beach, claiming only a chaise longue as residence. In her pained, aphoristic wisdom, in her indigence, in her past glory as an acclaimed soprano in Europe's opera halls, in her flamboyant crusades, especially to save her family legacy from the encroachment of tourist conglomerates -- Betsch, like the book textured around her, magnificently twines together her love of nature, awe of history and the lucid consciousness of humanity. Her wild appearance and extreme behavior seem, in the final analysis, the product of a rare sanity.
The corruption of a Lewis heir combined with unremitting corporate development of prime beach land to gut Betsch's family monuments. Integration, too, loosed the pent-up desires of a black population that was eager for full identification with the America it had helped define. Black establishments lost many patrons to the mainstream and were unable to fill the vacuum with white customers; integration was a one-way street. But, Rymer astutely argues, it was the collapse in America of "the culture of memory" that encouraged the dissolution of A.L. Lewis' patrimony: his business, his resorts, his mansion and -- most important -- his ethic of service. American Beach shows that Betsch's loss is ours as well, along with too many other casualties from our rich, turbulent, inspiring past.
AMERICAN BEACH: A Saga of Race, Wealth and Memory By RUSS RYMER | HarperCollins | 337 pages | $25 hardcover