Why Dickens Should Have Been a Southerner
An interview with Alabama writer and humorist Rick Bragg.
by Cerith Mathias
Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer, whose memoirs about his family in the rural South have received much critical acclaim. A native of Calhoun County, Alabama, Bragg teaches writing at the University of Alabama and pens a monthly column for Southern Living magazine. His latest book, My Southern Journey: True Stories From the Heart of the South, was published last fall.
During the 2016 Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival last weekend, Bragg met his match in fellow storyteller Mary Badham, taught a master class on sense of place and discussed airing your “Dirty Laundry” on a panel with Dorothy Allison and bounce star Big Freedia.
Cerith Mathias caught up with him to talk about capturing the South on the page, vanishing traditions and literary influences — and why Dickens should have been a Southerner.
CM: You say that Southerners are “good at stories” and that “we will not run out of them here.” What is it about the South that creates such great storytelling?
RB: The truth is, this part of the world has gone through about as much pathos as just about any in the world. Southerners, depending on which Southerners you talk about, we have lost one bloody war, fought over a doomed ideal. So we fought a war for all the wrong reasons; and white Southerners were of course on the wrong side of the civil rights conflict, not all white Southerners certainly, but many. There’s a lot of blood soaked into the ground here, there’s just an awful lot of living and dying that’s gone on. But mostly, I believe this: I think it is just the cultures here. Whether it be black folks telling stories on the stoop in New Orleans or my people — the people of the mountains, the hillbilly people — we grew-up with an oral tradition of storytelling.
My people tell stories about funerals and knife-fights and the best meal they ever had, the best pan of biscuits they ever had, the best Gospel singing they ever went to, the best guitar-picker in town. They tell stories about the day the best guitar-picker who ever played lost his arm in a cotton mill; they tell stories about bloody feuds between families. Those are not just a cliché. Even in my lifetime, I’ve seen families go to war with each other. So, there is this wonderful richness. And sometimes that richness is bloody and violent, but it is rich. It has manifested itself, certainly in Tennessee Williams. Read Tennessee Williams’ short story “One Arm,” which is just redolent with this pain and violence and loss and grief. Listen to Hank Williams sing you a real country song. Listen to Pat Conroy read from his works. Read some Faulkner out loud, you’ll be out of breath because he didn’t know how to use a comma! I think all that richness has been distilled down into our storytellers.
CM: You talk of the South’s past, of the blood in the soil. Have you ever found it difficult to write about the South, warts and all? I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s famous assertion: “The truth does not alter according to our ability to stomach it.”
RB: I think it does not make it difficult, once you get beyond the fact that you cannot buff and shine history. There are those of us, not me of course, but there are those who are still trying to rewrite the Civil War to make it a noble endeavor. They’re still trying to recast the Civil Rights Movement to make it a conflict of a tiny minority in opposition to civil rights. My books deal not very much with race, although it certainly comes up, but my books are about the peoples of the foothills of the Appalachians who had to deal with the Great Depression and the utter disregard by demagogue politicians in the twenties, thirties and forties for the wellbeing of the lowest common denominator in the South: the working class people of all colors. They were pretty much disregarded by many Southern politicians of the time. I write pretty harshly about those people.
So, I don’t think we pull punches when we write about our history. The great Mississippi writer Willie Morris wrote with a sweetness about his people, but not with a blind eye to their warts. If we do anything right as Southern writers, I think that we know who we are. We look in that mirror and we can describe to the reader what we see, but I also think that we’re cognizant of what is wrong with us and I just wanted to get through my writing life without anybody saying ‘you sugar coated your people.’ If you’re writing about blue-collar people, poor people in particular, if you’re writing about these industrial victims, people eaten alive by the machines, people who drove a starving mule up and down these red dirt fields, if you’re writing about them it is very easy to slip into the nostalgia and romance. But you also have to write about the warts, and I think Southerners have been very good about that. Let’s face it: All that conflict, all that pathos makes for a grand story.
CM: You’ve worked all over the world. How influential has the South been on your writing?
RB: I think it has always been with me. You carry it around like a silver dime your grandmother gave you when you were four. You carry that history and that knowledge around with you everywhere you go. I wrote about Haiti, and the class struggle there was very familiar to me. I wrote about militant Islamic Fundamentalism in Pakistan; the Pakistanis don’t exactly have a lock on fundamentalism.
The South is a good place to look at meanness and closed-mindedness but also some of the richer things, the better things. Our people have their warts, but they also have their kindness and a decency and a strength that comes out mostly in times of crisis. We have a finer nature that is gleaming almost, but sometimes we forget it. I have written about working class Southerners, cotton mill workers who lose their fingers, hands and arms to the machines and cotton mills, people who dragged cotton sacks from dawn to dusk. It was a very good foundation for me growing up in the Deep South. It also teaches you more than anything, more than any of that, more than those deeper thoughts, it just teaches you how to, by God, tell a damn story. How to write with color and imagery and detail. How to make people see and feel and sense and taste a place. My uncles could tell you a story and make you taste the blood in your own mouth from a punch in a fistfight on a dirt road; they could make you hear the chains of a Deputy as he chased you down an alley in some small town. They had the ability to infuse a story with that color, that imagery, that detail and kind of hang it on the air.
CM: Do you think it was this strong oral tradition that influenced the imagery and the sense of place in your writing?
RB: I think so. What the written language allows you is an elasticity so that you can develop these stories, and I think Southerners like to take their time, as they talk and they write. I’ve always said that Dickens should have been a Southerner. Look at A Christmas Carol. If you read it and look at his explanation of why you should be kind to the poor and to the street urchins — their names are Want and Ignorance — and you can deal with them now or deal with them later. And that’s a very Southern kind of Gothic way of looking at the world.
CM: Your latest book My Southern Journey is a collection of essays that set to seek out the true South. What are the key ingredients that make up the South and what it means to be Southern?
RB: Well, I wish this book were that noble, but it’s really not. It’s very much the softer side of who we are. The year before, I did 500 pages on rock and roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis and that book had a lot of grit in it, because Jerry had a lot of grit in him. He was a man on fire, certainly. It was very strange to go from that book, with its violence and its drunkenness and its pharmaceutical abuse, to this collection, which is very soft. It is mostly about our food and our music and our language. I wrote a long story about cotton, I grew up surrounded by cotton, and what staring at a cotton field means to us. What it means to say, my Mom. There’s a lot in it about the Southern matriarch; there’s a lot in it about riding houseboats down the Coosa River on the Alabama-Georgia line; there’s a lot in it about fishing. I am the worst fisherman in my family. There’s a lot in it about chasing hunting dogs across a mountain, listening to them bark. It’s very much the soft side of who we are; it’s the coconut cakes and the dinner on the ground, and congregational holiness sermons that I listened to as a boy and all night singings and old men who tell stories and try not to lie too much. It’s mostly about that softer, gentler side.
It was also a chance to write a book purely for my mother and aunts. Even though I wrote a book about my mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, this was something that she could read cover to cover without any briars, without any barbs or thorns. I say in the foreword that I know that my part of the world has those thorns; and I’ve written a big part of my life about killing and dying and poverty and the worst that people can do to each other, and this book was kind of just a gentler side.
CM: Was it also a way of documenting the traditions of the South that perhaps won’t be around for that much longer?
RB: Absolutely. I’m only 56, but I kind of feel old. I catch myself sitting around thinking every day about something we lost. In the South, it is a tradition that when you see a funeral caravan coming toward you, you don’t slow down or edge slightly to the side of the road, you pull over and stop out of respect. That had all but vanished, and I was in a small town in Tennessee the other day and saw people pull over at the side of the road for a mile or more and it made me smile. Much of our food has changed, just try to get a decent plate of coleslaw in the Deep South, it’s almost impossible. There are foods that are vanishing, there are traditions that are vanishing. I write a lot about my boyhood; I write a lot about my people; I write a lot about those vanishing things that I fear have begun to tremble a little bit and I’m proud to do it. I’m proud to say those things the best I can.
CM: You’re teaching a masterclass at the Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival on writing a sense of place. What advice will you be giving to budding writers in attendance?
RB: The thing that writers often forget, especially young writers, is that they’ve been hammered by writing teachers about being spare. Be spare, be clear, be clean, be thoughtful, but do not be too rich. I think that the clarity advice is wonderful, of course the foundation needs clarity, but when was the last time you heard someone say ‘You know, I really like that writer, he’s so plain, he’s so dull, he’s so terse’? I read the first page of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which was lean but so rich. When you are describing a place that has all the redolence of say, New Orleans, or a country road or a pine thicket, then I think you need to be rich and you need to be redolent and you need to find all the color and imagery and detail that is true to that place. You don’t want to be folksy, you don’t want it to be cornpone. I keep it to a bare minimum. I don’t mind using a saying, but I try not to use a cliché.
One thing is to just simply look and listen and soak up the surroundings. Listen to the music of a place on the radio, find the local station with the church news, playing country music from 1954; you pay attention to the marquee signs, which on the churches are mostly about burning in hell. You write about the food … I wrote about, like I said, red dirt. I’ve always wanted to write a story just about our dirt, but how do you make someone see it? Well, I describe my poor momma in tears, looking at us after we walked in from playing in a mud hole for hours, looking at us with absolute bewilderment ‘who is this child? Is this my child?’ And how the clothes never come clean.
When I want to write about my people, I usually go back to the story that someone else put into words for me. A story that I heard, a story that my people told and let them begin that story for me with a little story of their own. A taste of color. Now when I sit down to write about my people, whether it’s going to be 350 pages or 500 words, I’ve lived enough life and thought about my people long enough to where I generally reach back to a ghost. It’s like the recipes we have for our great food — ghosts are involved because the recipes are old, and it’s like that with stories, you have to go back to a ghost … It’s the details. It’s coming to realize that the tiniest detail can be everything.
CM: Finally, who are the Southern writers who have influenced and inspired you?
RB: Like most things in the Deep South, you can tell it with a story. Now, let me preface this by saying Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove taught me volumes, Pat Conroy, reading his work taught me volumes. And there are a dozen or more that I can point to in every page of my work and say there are bones there of theirs. But Willie Morris — the great Mississippi writer is the one. One night, he got pretty drunk in a catfish restaurant outside Jackson, Mississippi. We went back to his house and we went to his study and he picked up my first book; it had just come out. He picked it up and he just started reading out loud in this beautiful Mississippi Delta accent. He read and read and read, and after a while I began to wonder if he even knew that I was in the room. After what must have been an hour, he snapped the book closed and he looked at me and he said ‘See, son, you say it’s the story that people love. I say it’s the language.’ And that stuck with me. It doesn’t have to be a grand story if the language is grand, if the language is truly heartfelt, then small stories and small people can be just as powerful.
Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read her blog here.