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Larry Brown/His South and Mine

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Should America become adult enough to read Southern
literature, become wise enough to call out Southern mythology for the honeycomb
of prevarication that it is, and become intelligent enough to take the blood
pressure of the real thing in a Southern story —– should that improbability
occur, America will value Larry Brown more than it currently does. It will
value the exercise of dealing with his South, my South, and our South.
Larry Brown is a natural part of my Mississippi mindscape,
that perplexing geography which has more talent per square inch than most of
the United States has per square mile. 
Exaggeration has a purpose.

I discovered Larry Brown in the 1980s and became very
impressed with his writing in the stories collected as Facing the Music (1988) and in his novel Dirty Work (1989). I had never seen his photograph before I
telephoned him to announce that he’d won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and
Letters 1989 award for fiction.  I liked
the modesty I heard in his voice as he thanked me for conveying the news and
assured me he would attend the award ceremony in Jackson, Mississippi.  When he appeared for the ceremony, washed and
dressed as appropriately as a good ole Mississippi boy who does not qualify as
gentry can be, I had a not unpleasant shock of recognition.  Brown (July 9, 1951-November 24, 2004) looked
like the incarnation of a Confederate soldier fresh out of a sepia
daguerreotype. The man, the fireman, with whom I was speaking could accept fate
for whatever it is.  Here was an ordinary
man who discovered he had an extraordinary talent for writing sturdy sentences
and intriguing stories.  What did it
matter that he was not a person of color? 
He could write. He could tell me a great deal that I needed and wanted
to know about a South that lived behind thick rhetorical veils.
His ability to write did not protect him from the bitchy
criticism of one Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters board member who
objected to his receiving the award.  She
passionately complained that Brown is not one of us. “He does not represent
us.”  But that was typical.  The same woman was upset when Robert Townsend
Jones won the MIAL award for photography. This woman of no-color, famous for
broadcasting that Eudora Welty was one of her “closest” friends, was beneath
the dignity of a response.  I ignored her
and praised Brown for his noteworthy grasp of what drives humanity.  Perhaps I should have said to her “Of course,
he is not like you. He is not a woman who just might have a grandmother in her
bloodline who has to be hidden behind the kitchen stove.” Brown was not a
pretentious barbaric Southern aristocrat. He was an uncensored truth-teller.
Larry Brown was a Mississippi male writer who was clearly
influenced by William Faulkner, but he was better than Faulkner in writing
about Southerners who were just plain, fractured, unprivileged people; his
characters in the novels Big Bad Love
(1990), Joe (1991), Father and Son (1996), Fay (2000), The Rabbit Factory ( 2003  ),
the unfinished  Miracle of Catfish (2007) did not represent the full range of
Southern humanity. Nor, as far as I know, did Brown ever claim he was trying to
write about the whole God-damned and fantasy-enthralled violent and
occasionally non-violent South. They represented with uncanny accuracy in
speech and behavior the people Brown knew most intimately.  It is a mistake to say he wrote grit lit. in the tradition of Erskine
Caldwell or Southern gothic literature in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor.
He wrote literature as Willie Morris, Richard Wright, Ellen Douglas, and Barry
Hannah did, as Charlie R. Braxton,  Alice Walker, Richard Ford, Minrose Gwin, C.
Liegh McInnis, Frank X. Walker and John Grisham still write fiction and
poetry.  He followed his moral compass.  His two non-fiction books On Fire (1995) and Billy Ray’s Farm (2001) tell us much about his forte: the plain
sentence.
Larry Brown was a Southern writer who wrote for Americans
who do not volunteer to be blind, who choose not to be suspended in the innocence
of their infancy.  When we truly grow up,
we may be able to use Brown’s legacy as part of the equipment we need for
living.