. . writing is the way the poet finds out what it is he found."
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 newspapers
national editor, Howell Raines, (whose own fate was to be sealed by
resignation) another son of the south with a career that somewhat mirrors
Braggs, accepted his resignation. Both are from Alabama, both
had significant stints here in Atlanta and both have Pulitzer Prizes
on their resumes.
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.)
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 Braggs 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
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. Thats 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.
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 cant 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
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 Braggs
opening paragraph who, right before the gun sounded to start a Big
Easy 5K race, took one last drag from his Camel.
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 wont see their likes again soon.
remain positively influenced by Rick Bragg and his mighty body of works.
He showed me the South I had overlooked. I bet he wouldnt be
surprised if I sometimes borrow a line or two from him.
MAN, TOLD BY A GRANDSON
A Doc Lawrence
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 its 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
dont 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.
Avas 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 Avas
Our societys 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 Americas outcasts. Hollywood had a ball,
and a Southern accent which is equated with gentleness and good
manners in England - became an albatross for Southerners. Braggs
book, by relating his grandfathers 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.
Braggs 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. Charlies
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. Theres an abundance of honesty
in his storytelling and the tales are in the rich language of one of
this countrys best writers, often brutal, consistently romantic
and brimming with humor. Its 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 theres
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 Braggs 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 Braggs magnificent remembrance.