Southerners have a well-deserved reputation as good storytellers, but I’ve never known a better one than Rick Bragg, who writes the Southern Journal column on the back page of this magazine every month. Apparently, a lot of you feel the same way, because Rick gets more letters and e-mails than anyone, including the Editor in Chief. I would feel sheepish about this, except that I am often moved to write him a fan letter myself. Somehow it always seems that it’s not just his hilarious, sad, or poignant story you’re reading but your own.
“I especially liked his article “My Affair with Tupperware,” wrote Linda Estes Dillard from South Carolina, “as my two children and five grandchildren all wore the green lettuce keeper as a helmet.” Other comments we get sound like promotional blurbs on the back of one of his many books. “Bragg is that rare writer who can tug at your heart and hit your funny bone at the same time,” said Judy Adams from West Virginia. “He doesn’t need a paintbrush to paint a picture…he does it with words,” said Arlene Townsend from Virginia. And many of them start the same way: “The first thing I do is turn to the last page…”
In person, Rick is soft-spoken, generous with his time, and every bit the storyteller he is in print. Our occasional lunches are not short affairs, mostly because I keep pressing him for more. He is also quite tall, and his deep-set, blue eyes betray a life that hasn’t always been easy. His 1997 memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’, about growing up in poverty near Jacksonville, Alabama, is about a peripatetic childhood with a brutal, hard-drinking father and an extraordinary mother who refused to give up on her son. Rick has also seen a lot of unpleasantness as a journalist, from his coverage of murders in Haiti to the Oklahoma City bombing to the tornadoes that ravaged his home state in 2011. (He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 as a reporter for The New York Times.)
Maybe that’s why his Southern Journal column always seems to have a ring of truth to it. He may be writing about nice things like bass fishing, football, or running around with a Tupperware container on his head, but he has a way of capturing the meaning of it all. It’s never sentimental, just spot-on.
His column this month is no exception. But if you’re wondering about all the great ones you may have missed, you’re not alone. A while back, we heard from Janet Hoyle, formerly of Anniston, Alabama, who asked, “Does he have any plan to gather these essays into a collection? I would love to have them all in a neat book rather than tearing out pages and sticking them in the back of All Over but the Shoutin’.”
Well, Janet, you’re in luck. This month, we’re proud to publish My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South, a collection of Rick’s best essays about our region, with a whole bunch of new ones written just for this book. See below for a small taste…
Excerpt from Rick Bragg’s My Southern Journey
It suits me, here. My people tell their stories of vast red fields and bitter turnip greens and harsh white whiskey like they are rocking in some invisible chair, smooth and easy even in the terrible parts, because the past has already done its worst. The joys of this Southern life, we polish like old silver. We are good at stories. We hoard them, like an old woman in a room full of boxes, but now and then we pull out our best, and spread them out like dinner on the ground. We talk of the bad year the cotton didn’t open, and the day my cousin Wanda was Washed in the Blood. We cherish the past. We buff our beloved ancestors till they are smooth of sin, and give our scoundrels a hard shake, though sometimes we cannot remember exactly which is who.
I wonder if, north of here, they might even run out of stories someday. It may seem silly, but it is cold up there, too cold to mosey, to piddle, to loafer, and summer only lasts a week and a half. The people spit the words out so fast when they talk, like they are trying to discard them somehow, banish them, rather than relish the sound and the story. We will not run out of them here. We talk like we are tasting something.
I do it for a living, which is stealing, really. Li’l Abner, another not-too-bright Southern boy, had a job once, testing mattresses.
This is much like that, this book.
My Southern Journey is available wherever books and e-books are sold.