By Sam Burnham
I was recently in the local corporate bookstore. You laugh but I came out of there with ideas for at least three articles. This is one of them.
Scanning the shelves I came across a recent volume by Rick Bragg. Let's stop here for a minute to clarify a few things. What follows is in no way a critique or knock on Rick Bragg. Rick and I both attended Jacksonville State (Go Gamecocks, Fear the Beak), we're both Southerners, and, my delusions of grandeur aside, Rick is the elder and more successful writer. Dude's paying the rent doing what we both love so let's not get him entangled here.
I picked up the shiny hardbound volume and started exploring the dust jacket looking for details that would let me into the secrets of the book and help me decide if I was willing to part with $27, a feat I admittedly do not attempt often.
Here's what I found on the back of the book:
The New York Times. People. The San Francisco Chronicle. The Chicago Tribune. The front cover lauded the volume as a "New York Times Bestseller". Does this strike anyone else as odd? If I'm going tout to find a truly Southern work of literature do I really care that it impresses the New York Times? Am I swayed that People Magazine finds it "as toothsome as a catfish supper"? I mean really, if I want to find out what's toothsome, I'm headed to People Magazine and right there between the results of the latest pregnancy test of a randomly selected Kardashian and an article debating whether Justin Beiber should have gone with the blue or black skinny jeans I'm sure to find a reliable list of the most toothsome items of the week.
Declarations of Southern goodness from San Fran, Chitown, The Big Apple, and more Big Apple. Was Southern Living unavailable for comment? Did anyone check with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution? I suppose if Garden & Gun changed their name to Garden & Universal Background Checks then their opinion on a book might instantly become relevant.
I'm reminded of a speech by Henry Grady given to The Bay State Club of Boston in 1889:
I attended a funeral once in Pickens county in my State. . . . This funeral was peculiarly sad. It was a poor “one gallus” fellow, whose breeches struck him under the armpits and hit him at the other end about the knee—he didn’t believe in decollete clothes. They buried him in the midst of a marble quarry: they cut through solid marble to make his grave; and yet a little tombstone they put above him was from Vermont. They buried him in the heart of a pine forest, and yet the pine coffin was imported from Cincinnati. They buried him within touch of an iron mine, and yet the nails in his coffin and the iron in the shovel that dug his grave were imported from Pittsburg. They buried him by the side of the best sheep-grazing country on the earth, and yet the wool in the coffin bands and the coffin bands themselves were brought from the North. The South didn’t furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground. There they put him away and the clods rattled down on his coffin, and they buried him in a New York coat and a Boston pair of shoes and a pair of breeches from Chicago and a shirt from Cincinnati, leaving him nothing to carry into the next world with him to remind him of the country in which he lived, and for which he fought for four years, but the chill of blood in his veins and the marrow in his bones.
The only things The South provided for these accolades of Southern-ness were the book's author and content. The rest came from people who could very well attest to the authentic BBQ flavor that has been crafted into the McRib. Seriously, you mean to tell me that a man that grew up in the Possum Trot community between Piedmont and Jacksonville, Alabama, a man who has no doubt tasted the deliciousness of The Rocket BBQ, a man who has possibly sat upon an upright log and drank a beer at Brother's Bar, a man who has likely looked upon the world from the perspective offered atop Mt. Cheaha, a man whose mother made ends meet by picking cotton by hand is going to be recommended via the San Francisco Chronicle by folks who couldn't tell the difference between a cotton field and a coal mine?
But let's make this about us, because that's what it's really about. We teach the world how to treat us. We don't demand that our way of life be validated by people who understand it because they have lived it. We accept the New York Times as the authority on the subject rather than placing more of that trust closer to home. We allow modern culture to teach us that the people who know things are in big northern cities. We don't think in our mind that Southern media outlets are credible because they aren't "the big time". But they aren't the big time because we aren't making them the big time. We keep going back to those outlets we are told are authorities on every subject. It doesn't have to be this way.
I want to live to see the day that I turn a bestseller around and see a blurb of recommendation from The Anniston Star, Georgia Connector Magazine, The Ocala Star-Banner, or, in the interest of transparency (and the aforementioned delusions of grandeur) All the Biscuits in Georgia.
Let's let the South tell the world what is and isn't Southern. (And don't hate on Rick Bragg. He's just trying to pay the rent.)
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire