Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Dead Mule Rides Again

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Dead Mule Rides Again

Article excerpt

Among many interesting things in Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin' (1998) is the revelation that Bragg's Uncle Jimbo "once won a twenty-dollar bet by eating a bologna sandwich while sitting on a dead mule" (xviii).(1) I believe I understand -- at least in a literary sort of way -- how Uncle Jimbo must have felt.

My affiliation with dead mules in southern literature started close to forty years ago, when I was in graduate school up north in Massachusetts, working in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British literature and coming vaguely to realize that the culture I was studying was no less distant from me, in terms of much that I felt instinctively or by prior cultural absorption, than the one in which I was currently paying rent. To counter these feelings of nervousness and disorientation (I don't think people used the word "alienation" as loosely then as they do now), I took the more or less obvious solution of reading about what I'd left behind me, for a while, in the South. Not in any systematic or disciplined way -- I never took a course in the subject -- but in whatever spare time I could find, I read the fiction of southern authors I'd always known about but had never really looked into much during the years I was growing up and going to college in North Carolina. Did I find comfort, warmth, solace, and the confidence of knowing that I was part of something very richly textured? Some of each, of course; but mostly what I found was dead mules, an image that recurred with noticeable frequency in the novels and short stories I was reading. After the fourth or fifth one I started keeping a list -- mainly just authors and dries, page numbers if I remembered to; sometimes a hand-transcription of the relevant passage, if it was short. I lost these materials several times, but was able to recall most of them when I started a new list. After I returned to North Carolina to teach courses in the English Renaissance, I kept up my collection, which over the years took the form of jottings on scraps of paper stuffed into a manila folder.

Sometime in the late 1980s I mentioned all this to Southern Cultures editor John Shelton Reed in one of the conversations we used to have about North/South cultural contrasts, and he began to encourage me to write my observations into an essay. I thought he was pulling my leg, but as years went by, other people lent support. The results finally reached print as an essay titled "Equine Gothic: The Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature of the Twentieth Century," in The Southern Literary Journal, 29 (Fall 1996): 2-17.

As it turned out, more people wanted to know about dead mules than I had imagined. Jane Stancil described the essay in a Raleigh newspaper, and then Peter Applebome did a story in the New York Times, and Harper's magazine printed an excerpt last November. And now John Reed has invited me to provide an augmented and updated version, which I dutifully offer herewith, through the gracious permission of Fred Hobson and Kimball King, editors of The Southern Literary Journal. I have added to my original text such examples of the subject as have turned up since the first version was written--some I missed before, others referred to me by friends, still others simply stumbled upon as I continued to read southern fiction. My commentary is also expanded, especially in the endnotes.

I like to think that my study is more or less innocent of theory, but nobody believes me. I often get some version or other of three questions: Are these passages real? Is the essay serious? Is it a satire?

The first is easy to answer: yes, the passages are real, and you can locate them (barring typos in my references) just where I say they are in the books I cite. The second question is a little more difficult and requires a more subjective response, one that suggests how a dead mule may be more or less serious according to where it's found. A good illustration of this principle is in a story told by the late Beaufort County, North Carolina, humorist Edmund H. …

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