". . . writing is the way the poet finds out what it is he found."
Paul Engle


By Doc Lawrence


Six years ago I interviewed Rick Bragg for several publications. He worked then out of The New York Times’ Atlanta bureau, soon to leave for Miami and New Orleans. Our conversation centered on his heralded features and his sensational autobiography, “All Over But The Shoutin’” which was a hot item in bookstores, with fans ranging from former Atlanta Falcons’ front office executive Frank Spence to U.S. Senator Zell Miller. Bragg was refreshingly genuine and spoke with candor and easygoing humor, pretty much like his writing. My notes are part of my personal treasure. During the conversation, Bragg exclaimed, “Hell. This is fun!”

Because of what seems a minor malfeasance, Bragg, one of the most gifted feature writers in the country and arguably the best in the South, resigned from the Times. The venerable newspaper’s national editor, Howell Raines, (whose own fate was to be sealed by resignation) another son of the south with a career that somewhat mirrors Bragg’s, accepted his resignation. Both are from Alabama, both had significant stints here in Atlanta and both have Pulitzer Prizes on their resumes.

After my interview with Rick Bragg, we crossed paths a few more times. He spoke at an Emory University School of Journalism forum with the late columnist Celestine Sibley. They were enthralling as they described the art of storytelling. The emphasis was on being who you, the writer, really are and using language that allows you to tell what you see and feel. My notes reveal that both Sibley and Bragg said we should fall back on our own experience and express ourselves while somehow avoiding the undue influence of contemporary culture. Both said it was critical that if you wrote about the South and were Southern, you wrote as a native, always employing our distinctive accents. (The year before, a non-credit evening program at a local campus offered a course called “How to lose that Southern Accent.”)

I had the good fortune to participate in some subsequent journalism and writers’ conferences where Rick Bragg was the headliner. There was no change whatever in his philosophy or style. Language, accents, local culture are, he observed, critical elements in any story. Pain ranks right up there with laughter. Despair, loneliness and poverty are just a step away from glory, popularity and adulation. After all, Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen said that yes, everything is going away, but maybe nothing really dies. I hold tight to Bragg’s advice and proudly use his lessons in my own work. I am indebted to Rick Bragg for showing me how essential it is to just be me. Because of him, I started listening to my own voice and found some passion. I sleep better now.

“Ava’s Man,” the successful best-seller follow-up to “All Over But The Shoutin,” took me back to my ancestors in Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama. Some I remember, others only survive because of oral family history. Bragg would likely call that an example of the art of storytelling. That’s something we do that is as natural to us as the blues, gospel, country, bluegrass and rock and roll music. I wonder how soon it will be when we lose this glorious ability to recall and interpret. I accept that it will happen and feel sorrow for those future generations who will be denied the wonders of new tales, poems and songs.

This is no obituary for Rick Bragg. He says he has a million dollar contract with a publisher for two books about the South. His impressive track record as an author suggests he will do well. But, this is still a grievous loss. I can’t think of any journalist today covering events or profiling people who has his gift for humor or can see, as Bragg does, beneath the surface and reveal things truly spellbinding. Hip has gradually replaced authentic. For years, Bragg stood almost alone as the exception. His words were straightforward, colorful and seemed to fit the subject. Others, often in the name of cuteness, use language with the staying power of a campaign promise or a day-old doughnut.

Recently, I traveled through some of the same territory Bragg wrote about for The Times. In Miami, I detoured through Little Havana and laughed when I recalled that Bragg, who covered the Élian Gonzalez psychodrama, compared the experience to sleeping on a bed of nails. In Mississippi, I remembered his masterful piece about how the descendants of the great blues man Robert Johnson finally, after seven decades, got their money from his estate through a court victory. Walking down Canal Street in New Orleans, I could almost see the gentleman in Bragg’s opening paragraph who, right before the gun sounded to start a Big Easy 5K race, “took one last drag from his Camel.”

Long ago, when they were “newspapering,” Paul Hemphill, Roy Blount, Jr. and Lewis Gizzard could do our people and land proud. Two of them, like Bragg, went on to books, while Grizzard checked out while he was in his prime. I fear we won’t see their likes again soon.

I remain positively influenced by Rick Bragg and his mighty body of works. He showed me the South I had overlooked. I bet he wouldn’t be surprised if I sometimes borrow a line or two from him.

AVA’S MAN, TOLD BY A GRANDSON
A Doc Lawrence Review

Charlie Bundrum died before his grandson and loving biographer was born. After listening to stories about his hard- drinking, whiskey making ancestor for most of his childhood, Rick Bragg decided to write a book about him and now that it’s made the New York Times Best Seller list, many readers obviously are finding the stories about a very poor man and how he and his family survived intriguing.

For those who don’t know, Rick Bragg is a former high-profile Atlantan who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing as a journalist for the New York Times, As a “reward” for his writing prowess, his employer sent him to the Times’ Miami bureau where he covered the Élian Gonzalez affray, a time which he declared must compare to “a year in hell sleeping on a bed of nails.” Life for him has been better recently with his subsequent assignment for the Times in New Orleans, a town where he fits comfortably.

“Ava’s Man” is a sequel to his hit book, “All Over But the Shoutin’”, an acclaimed tribute to his mother and a recollection of his own childhood complete with ample descriptions of tumult and turmoil. Zell Miller told Bragg it was one of the most honest books he ever read. I echo the junior Senator from Georgia adding that it is superseded in excellence by the majesty of “Ava’s Man.”

Our society’s most prevalent images of the rural South, particularly during the Depression, are of Ma and Pa Kettle, Jed Clampett and Daisy Mae characters. Many Southern authors reinforced this stereotype of ignorant, mean-spirited, snake-handling drunks that made an innocent and defenseless group America’s outcasts. Hollywood had a ball, and a Southern accent – which is equated with gentleness and good manners in England - became an albatross for Southerners. Bragg’s book, by relating his grandfather’s escapades, puts most of this to rest. Charlie, for all his poverty and lack of education (indeed, in spite of it), is heroic. Ever defiant, Bragg tells us that Charlie was the ultimate survivor because he overcame conditions found today in only Third-World countries.

Bragg’s family, like my own and thousands of others in this region, were just getting beyond the corruption and regression of post-Civil War Reconstruction when the Depression hit. Denied even a crumb of benefit from the Industrial Revolution, and shackled with national and state governments that were both oppressive at best and more often punitive, Charlie made “likker” as Bragg accurately describes it, selling most and drinking about one sixth of his production. Charlie’s “pure white liquid” was as clear as mountain spring water and never blinded anyone. But, it kept him and his family constantly running from Georgia and Alabama authorities on both side of the Coosa River near Rome, Georgia.

Rick Bragg tells us about Charlie pretty much like he writes about everything for the New York Times. There’s an abundance of honesty in his storytelling and the tales are in the rich language of one of this country’s best writers, often brutal, consistently romantic and brimming with humor. It’s a revelation of love for land and place and affection for the understandable flaws that relate us to one another. Old songs - blues and gospel - are invoked, and there’s a reminder that Charlie and his author/grandson are distant kin to the King, Elvis.

All Southerners are somehow, someway at least spiritually related to Elvis or damn sure believe this when they drink too much.

Truth is always a better bedtime read than fiction. Something like an archetype emerges from Rick Bragg’s storytelling. On a personal note, I never knew my great-grandfather who, after Appomattox, walked barefoot back to Rockmart, Georgia and became the patriarch of a family that also survived things a defeated people should never have to endure. My ancestor loved “likker”, too. And I only know him through Rick Bragg’s magnificent remembrance.

 


Read some of Doc's other reviews:

"Ignatius Rising" - a biography of John Kennedy Toole who wrote the classic
"A Confederacy of Dunces"

Andrea Immer - "Great Wine Made Simple"

"An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confedate Government" -
William C. Davis

Willie Morris' final novel "Taps"

 

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