The South became journalist John Egerton’s beat in the mid–1960s, when he began working as a staff writer for two Nashville-based magazines, and he has been writing about the South ever since, exploring and probing in an effort to define the nature of this changing region. His widely respected articles have appeared in American Heritage, the New York Times Magazine, Southern Exposure, and many other publications. For Shades of Gray, Egerton has collected thirteen of his most provocative, insightful pieces of the past quarter century.
A common thread unites these essays. All are about Southern people, places, events, or issues that hide beneath their surface a deceptive complexity. What appear at first to be clear and straightforward tales sharply etched in black and white gradually reveal themselves to have deeper dimensions, subtle shades of gray. Somewhat like detective stories, Egerton’s articles resemble unfolding mysteries, and whether they lead to a “solution” or to a new set of unanswered questions, they utilize the elements of enigma and intrigue that are the hallmark of every good mystery story.
Egerton’s sympathetic and fair-handed presentation of complex issues is evident in “West Virginia’s Battle of the Books,” in which he systematically lays bare the class divisions that underpin an emotional and sometimes violent struggle over the content of public school textbooks. In “A Gentlemen’s Fight in Prince Edward County, Virginia,” he seeks to define winners and losers a quarter century after Brown v. Board of Education.
“The King Coal Good Times Blues” begins and ends on Tom Fletcher’s front porch in the mountains of Appalachia, where Lyndon Johnson was photographed at the onset of the War on Poverty—a war long forgotten now, buried in the rubble of government bureaucracy, trickle-down economics, and high-tech strip-mining.
The personalities Egerton illuminates are as varied and fascinating as the South itself. “Heritage of a Heavyweight: The Ancestry of Muhammad Ali” traces the forebears—white and black—of this charismatic boxer. In “Alex Haley’s Tennessee Roots,” Egerton covers the return of the author of Rootsto his hometown of Henning, Tennessee, in 1977, as well as the attitudes of Henning’s citizens toward Haley’s achievement. “The Enduring Mystery of James Earl Ray” is just that—a mystery. Was Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination a conspiracy? What did the FBI have to gain by accepting Ray as the lone assassin?
Egerton’s final essay, “The Enigma of the South,” is a thoughtful meditation on regionalism and a rich way of life now imperiled by the relentless encroachment of an increasingly homogenous culture.
Shades of Gray will make compelling reading for anyone wishing to trace where the South has been and where it is heading. There is no better guide to the territory than John Egerton.
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