“Any time you start writing about the South in absolutes, you are going to fail.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg has a lot to say about where we live.
He is an American journalist and writer known for non-fiction books, especially those about his family in Alabama. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 in recognition of his work at The New York Times.
Imagine that! An Alabama boy with a Harvard education working for the Times!
Bragg was born in the small city of Piedmont in northeastern Alabama and grew up in the small community of Possum Trot near Jacksonville.
He credited his ability to write to listening to his family tell stories.
He was raised primarily by his mother, as his father was an alcoholic and was almost never home. His relatives were also very involved in his young life and greatly influenced his personal and emotional development.
Bragg has taught writing in colleges and in newspaper newsrooms. He now works as a writing professor at the University of Alabama’s journalism program in its College of Communication and Information Sciences and writes a column for Southern Living.
His 2008 book, “The Prince of Frogtown,” explores his father’s life in Bragg’s hometown of Jacksonville, Alabama.
The quote above is typical of the Braggonian view that there are no absolutes when thinking and writing about the South. A friend of mine told me not too long ago to be careful.
“For all those would-be journalists out there that seem to pop up every few hours on TV or other media forums,” he said, “please stop painting the South as a singular portrait of statues and bigotry. Southern culture is way too complicated to be written about in generalities; you just can’t wrap it in a blanket.”
And I agree.
There are lots of us who write about our motherland, and one thing is shared by all — it is so unique as to be culturally inconsistent.
There is no one peghole into which all of it will fit, so do not try.
Consider the myriad of themes from writers and observers who have wrestled with trying to define us — Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, John Grisham, John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Truman Capote, born and raised in the deep south, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Wolfe, Allen Tate, H.L. Mencken, Jon Meachum (another New York Times bestseller), and oh, yes, Alan Clark. The list is a long one.
Today, in the early 21st century, the American South is undergoing a number of cultural and social changes, including rapid industrialization/deindustrialization and an influx of immigrants.
As a result, the exact definition of what constitutes southern literature is changing.
While some critics specify that the previous definitions of southern literature still hold, with some of them suggesting, only somewhat in jest, that all southern literature must still contain a dead mule within its pages, most scholars of the 21st century South highlight the proliferation of depictions of “Souths,” (particularly Latinos, Native American, and African American).
These critics argue that the very fabric of the South has changed so much that the old assumptions about southern literature no longer hold.
What does stand up is the tendency of good southern writers to tell stories — stories from their past about growing up, habits learned, lessons taught at the hand of elders and memories from rural living projected onto an urban theme.
Writing ain’t easy folks, and writing about the south in absolutes is darn near impossible, but we do it not because we were trained for it but because we love it, and that’s the way it oughtta be.
Award-winning editorialist Alan Clark lives and writes about the South in Estill Springs, and his podcasts may be found on Apple Music. His first year of columns appeared in Volume One of “You Oughtta Know 2017-2018,” published by Lakeway Publishers, Inc.