‘A Minor Regional Prophet’

Paul Hemphill wrote the stories he was meant to write

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.

The mid-seventies found me out of school and trying to sell freelance articles to national magazines as I made my way from one small, southern newspaper to another. I needed a champion, and in Paul I had the best. “Go ahead and send the piece to Sport,” he would write, volunteering to put in a word with Dick Schaap, the editor. When I got a lengthy interview with the white supremacist J. B. Stoner, Paul advised: “Go right down the line: Esquire, Playboy, The New York Times, et al. with a title like, ‘The Last Gothic Racist.’ ” This was heady stuff for an inexperienced twenty-two-year-old toiling for The Anderson (S.C.) Independent. “Quit the paper, first chance,” Paul consistently urged. He concluded every letter with a terse bit of literary wisdom: “Take notes on everything” or the ultimate validation: “Send me some clips.”

The question, of course, was what was in this for Paul. The answer is that he needed someone to believe in him as much as I needed someone to believe in me. He was in his late thirties and getting divorced (“Kids okay, wife angry, lawyer incompetent,” he wrote). The Good Old Boys, a collection of his magazine articles, had been published to superb reviews, but he was teaching at a small college in Florida, and his work was going slowly if at all. He was bogged down in a novel about life in the lowest rungs of minor-league baseball. He was falling behind on a biography of George Wallace for which he was under contract. Then there was the drinking. Too many of his letters began like this: “It is 11 a.m. and I am on my fourth Bloody Mary while Hemphill’s Famous Homemade Vegetable Soup boils on the late WW-II stove. I swear I am going to write on Wallace before I have to be somewhere at 3 p.m.”

By the late seventies, following an aborted gig as a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, Paul was back in Atlanta, where I had landed a job on the Journal & Constitution Sunday Magazine. We convened regularly at Manuel’s Tavern, the city’s Democratic Party watering hole. Delighted as I was to see Paul, I no longer idolized him. I had grown weary of his tendency to talk about the same subjects—his father, the bigotry of Birmingham, Johnny Cash, and the still-unfinished baseball novel—and I chafed at his lack of curiosity about life outside the South. Where I was looking to the future, he seemed stuck in the past. When I tried to steer him to broader topics, he would grumble, “I’m a minor regional prophet.” The comment, both humble and grandiose, was also something else—a declaration of principles: all the literary material anyone could ever want was right at home.

“A sense of place” was another of Paul’s big phrases, and he invoked it like a credo. Ever since William Faulkner, most southern writers had, of course, been defiantly provincial, but for Paul’s generation—which included Willie Morris and Marshall Frady—the civil-rights movement demanded an openness to change. Paul bore witness to the change both in his magazine pieces and in Mayor: Notes on the Sixties, which he co-wrote in 1971 with Ivan Allen Jr., the enlightened politician who charted Atlanta’s safe passage through the tumult. The book would become a vital reference for historians of the New South. For all of this, Paul was ambivalent about the region’s broader cultural upheavals. Much as he supported the battle for racial equality, he worried that the South’s colorful eccentricities were giving way to bland homogeneities. He felt that at least in part his job was to write the epitaph for the vanishing world in which he had been raised.

In 1981, I left the South for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, an honor Paul had enjoyed in 1969 and helped me to secure by writing a letter of recommendation. From Cambridge, I moved to Los Angeles, where at California magazine I embarked on the career I had envisioned at the University of Georgia. I was writing about politics and architecture, crime and Hollywood. Paul, who had settled for good in Atlanta, was never long out of touch. He was unstinting in his praise of my work. As for his life, the reports were mixed. He had abandoned the Wallace book, but shortly before I moved away, he had completed the baseball novel, Long Gone. In the mid-1980s, he sold it to HBO, which turned the bawdy tale of a player-manager named Stud Cantrell and a groupie named Dixie Lee Boxx into a splendid movie.

Twenty-three years ago, Paul finally stopped drinking. His new wife, Susan Percy, a fine journalist in her own right, gave him the love and stability he had always needed. I was at this point nearly as old as Paul had been when we met. Tempered by my grown-up failures and struggling with a book of my own, I took pleasure in watching him proceed to write a string of first-rate, nonfiction works, all set in the South. In Leaving Birmingham, he made peace with that city’s nasty legacy. Wheels, his 1997 account of a season on the NASCAR circuit, appeared before stock-car races became a mandatory stop for presidential candidates. The Ballad of Little River tells the story of a listless band of white teenagers who burn down a black church in south Alabama less out of prejudice than out of ugly boredom. In 2005 came Lovesick Blues, a biography of Hank Williams—like Paul, a gangly, jug-eared Alabama boy who sang of loneliness and simple pleasures. In the end, there were sixteen books, the last, published in 2008, a history of football at Auburn University, Paul’s alma mater. The South was his beloved country—and his prison. He was a regional prophet. But only in certain blinkered publishing circles would that make him minor. More than any other writer of his era, he captured the hopes and fears of the overlooked people of his native land, and he did it in deceptively simple, unvarnished prose. “It’s so well-written it reads like it’s not even written,” I wrote him after finishing Lovesick Blues.

The e-mail that Paul was dying came in late June. He was in a hospice and rarely conscious. There would be no goodbyes. I thought back to our first meeting—the stark efficiency apartment, the Royal typewriter. It was a tableau not just of Paul’s life but of the writer’s life. You write the stories you are meant to write. You tell them as well as you can tell them. For Paul, they were about the misunderstood and often ridiculed South. Although I also ended up writing a book about the region, I ultimately had to leave to discover my path. Either way, you must take notes on everything.

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Steve Oney is the author of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.