Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has written several memoirs and family histories, some of which have become bestsellers. Such is what happened with All Over but the Shoutin’, Bragg’s account of growing up poor and white in the South of the sixties and seventies, and how those events shaped his adult life afterward.
Overall, I like Bragg’s word choice and his insights into others and himself. He has some creative word choices that work well, and can convey humor and horror equally well. I particularly like a passage in which he discusses how he felt about his mostly absent father, and how learning about what his father had endured during the Korean War shifted his view of the man; he talks about being “trapped somewhere between [his] long-standing, comfortable hatred and what might have been forgiveness.”
I also can see how he uses the people in his life as symbols of something larger. He uses his mother’s father as an example of a truly honorable man — the epitome of the best of what the South can be. On another occasion, he shows us the Braggs, his father’s family: they kick against one another, they brawl. But isn’t that what the working poor do, is struggle against what they are in order to attempt to either accept or reject a larger society that has already made up its mind about them?
Bragg’s writing style, does, however, leave a bit to be desired on occasion. It sometimes strikes me as overly sentimental and cloying; it feels as if he is trying to force me into feeling. At times he uses colloquialisms within the exposition, and not just during dialogue, which strikes me as a play-up of the Southern stereotype that he claims to have struggled against all his life. Not only does this seem disingenuous, but it also weakens his work. He’s a talented and gifted man when writing in an unflavored and unforced manner.
I truthfully enjoyed Bragg’s exploration of his adult life. It appears to me that part of his tale is that his life is an adaptation to his upbringing, that he is who he is, and cannot change. We see this echoed in his discussions of his mother, his father, his brothers, Sam and Mark. These people are who they are, and do not alter their behavior. His father drinks and abandons them. His mother works and worries. Sam is a hard-working handy man. Mark drinks and gets in trouble with the law. They do not change.
Can Bragg change? He can certainly, through his talent and hard work, move up in the eyes of larger society — he can move up tax brackets, have a fellowship at Harvard, win awards, work at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. But the inside is still angry and bitter about how his life was.
It is amazing, the amount of compassion and feeling he can bring for the people of Haiti, for poor Southern churchgoing people who are struck down in an accident, for the homeless. He cannot bring that same compassion and understanding for people who are middle class or upper class. He cannot consider any of their problems to be real problems, and therein lies my issue with his book. Bragg has accepted goals and values that all of American society considers admirable ones — to pursue a successful career, to provide for his mother, to be good to his family — but doesn’t make the connection that, by accepting those values and goals, he must also embrace the people who have helped form them. We are all worth a second look, a sympathetic ear, until we prove ourselves unworthy of it.
Until Rick Bragg fully realizes this, he’s still going to have that chip on his shoulder, and he’s going to miss out on a lot because of it.