Rick Bragg is one of the great Southern voices of our time, or any time. That much seems a statement of unassailable truth, in a moment when such things are a rare find, or so some may believe. The name Rick Bragg is a kind of fixture of this region, likely familiar even to those who’ve never read a word of his prose. If that’s the case for you, a new collection of Bragg’s short works, Where I Come From, is as good a place to start as any.
A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1996, Rick Bragg burst onto the national scene shortly afterward as a chronicler of the working-class South with All Over but the Shoutin’, a memoir of his northeast Alabama family. Six more books have followed, including, most recently, The Best Cook in the World. I stand by my description of that book in a 2018 review as “no less than a virtuoso performance, a combination of voice and true affection and the occasional whang … of wise-assery.” There, his family’s foodways were the juicy focus of Bragg’s storytelling, rich with memory and the music of his language. In the new book, his subjects range far and wide within the region he has always called home.
The numerous short pieces assembled here originally appeared, for the most part, in Southern Living, with a few hailing from the pages of Garden & Gun. They could be filed under flash creative nonfiction, though I doubt Bragg himself thinks of them that way. They sometimes find him paying tribute to great individuals of the South, reporting from a visit with Jerry Lee Lewis or remembering Pat Conroy and Billy Graham. In others, he muses on small but significant life moments: marooned in a Florida pancake house over Thanksgiving, for instance, or standing at a window in New Orleans, buzzed on brown liquor, staring into the branches of a tree where hangs a strand of white Mardi Gras beads.
Each of these essays is a quick read, rarely lasting more than two pages, which could make them a fine substitute for the habitual doomscrolling that may currently splinter your day. Why not take a snort of Bragg, instead, and linger briefly on his language? His sentences, after all, are things to savor, slowly unfurling delights. “If I were a sandwich, I think, I would be a po’boy, overstuffed, a little sloppy, relatively cheap, and bad for you — and, as often as in reality, wearing gravy someplace on me,” he writes. Or here he is on Southern heat: “This was the creature that came in the worst of summer, the boiling eye of it. It was the stunted field, the cracked earth. It was the cloud in a white-hot sky that gave up no rain. Aristotle knew it, and the Romans, and then us, in the American South.”
There’s also Bragg’s drawling wit, displayed in virtually every piece in the collection. Writing of the prevalence of ghosts in Southern lore, he notes that ghosts seem to shack up only in the lives of wealthy Southerners. With perfect timing, he asks: “Who ever heard of a haunted carport?” Such lines, deployed with genius comic pacing, bloom like wildflowers across these pages.
Whether he’s writing with understated rapture about New Orleans, or good dogs, or his mama, or Harper Lee, or meat-and-threes, or ghosts, or “snapping turtles as big as Volkswagens and … catfish that swallowed whole cows,” or any other remotely or entirely Southern thing, what you get is 100% Rick. Even when he is not writing about himself or his family, he is indelible on the page, his essays as a whole constituting a master class in voice.
And it’s a voice that signals an earlier time, both in its slow, loping cadence and in its tendency to look back, often to childhood, where the characters of his elders loomed large. Such as his late Aunt Jo, to whom this book is dedicated, and whom he introduces us to in the prologue: “She was not the veranda South, the cotillion South, only the South I write about most, the one a person can love without qualification or reservation, without having to explain your damn self. She was not the South of meanness and small-mindedness, not the political South that yearns to turn back time.” In that prologue, he also writes, “The stories in this collection are of the South’s gentler, easier nature. … It is the best of us, I believe.”
It can be puzzling, indeed, to imagine a Rick Bragg of the future South, though we can hope that a gentle and easy nature — or the best of us, however you define it—can still be tracked in the region’s stories of today and yet to come. Other voices, of course, are joining his to tell those stories in new chorus. And Bragg’s influence, the notes and melodies of life as he has known it, will shimmer, prismatically, in new and brilliant ways.
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of the novel This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record and numerous journal and magazine articles.
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