Paul Hemphill, the first published writer I ever knew, died in Atlanta last summer of lung cancer at the age of seventy-three. The news was not unexpected. Paul had smoked a pack of Camels every day for most of his years, and he had been in failing health for several months. Still, his death brought me to my knees.
In the fall of 1973, Paul arrived at the University of Georgia as the writer-in-residence. I was a junior journalism major. Paul’s stock could not have been higher. The Nashville Sound, his 1970 book on country music, had been an acclaimed best-seller. His articles were appearing in Life and The Atlantic Monthly. His musings in Sport magazine ran under the standing headline, “Paul Hemphill’s America.” Unlike the mere mortals who made up most of the faculty, he was a star. More than that, he was a southern star. The son of a Birmingham, Alabama, truck driver, he had hit his stride in the sixties as the featured columnist for The Atlanta Journal. Six afternoons a week, he wrote about the hardships and joys of working-class people, fashioning himself as the Jimmy Breslin of Dixie. Then one day, burned out and pissed off, he quit. He would write books. For reporters—even fledgling ones—the move made him a legend.
My first encounter with Paul set the pattern of our relationship for years to come. Along with several staffers from The Red and Black, the student newspaper, I dropped by his efficiency apartment one night for drinks. The living room was dominated by a card table, atop which stood a manual Royal typewriter and a stack of yellow copy paper. The shelves held only two books: Ernest Hemingway’s By-line and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. This was a place dedicated to the bare-bones task of grappling with words. No sooner had Paul poured Scotch into Styrofoam coffee cups (the house crystal) than he denounced an essay on the poet James Dickey in that morning’s Red and Black. I had written it. When I volunteered the fact, Paul responded: “I still think it’s a piece of crap.” There was no meanness in the verdict. It was just the blunt assessment of a pro to a kid. The Scotch kept flowing. Paul regaled us with stories about Michael Korda, his editor at Simon & Schuster, and Sterling Lord, his agent. He was evoking New York, the Mecca to which we all aspired. But mostly he talked about the subjects of his journalism—hillbilly crooners, stock-car drivers, jackdaw preachers, and, most memorably, his race-baiting father, of whom he had written in The New York Times Magazine:
My old man raved on about Communists and niggers and Catholics and Jews. A trip to visit the folks in Birmingham invariably developed into an incredible one-way conversation: ‘This old boy out in Texas was telling me all about Jackie and those Secret Service agents … . That’s all right, I know old Rastus McGill won’t let y’all say anything when you get out of Atlanta, but everybody knows he’s getting paid by Moscow … . You talkin’ ’bout Martin Luther Coon? … . Now Strom Thurmond, that’s a man for you … . ’ Ralph McGill [editor of The Atlanta Constitution] paid from Moscow? Jackie Kennedy pleasuring the Secret Service? I mean, there are times when it doesn’t take an expert to sort out the truth. I became a liberal, through the back door.
Paul’s work was drawn from the South in which we all lived. He was celebrating its plain folk while confronting its demons. By evening’s end, I had a new hero.