Southern Journal: The Quill and the Mule

How do you know you've arrived as a Great Southern Writer? The answer is a little asinine.
Rick Bragg

In one of my most delicious daydreams, I stand at the gates of the Southern Writers' Hereafter, wondering if my name is on the list. Suddenly the gates swing open to reveal a sanctum of velvet drapes, leather chairs, and a bar lined with bottles of brown whiskey. William Faulkner is here, spats propped on his Nobel Prize. Truman Capote drops names at the bar. Flannery O'Connor tells a bawdy joke.

The ghost of Erskine Caldwell takes my arm. "How did you get in?" he asks.

"I rode in," I say, "on a dead mule." We laugh. Zora Neale Hurston slaps my back.

"Son," she says, "didn't we all?"

Scholars have long debated the defining element of great Southern literature. Is it a sense of place? Fealty to lost causes? A struggle to transcend the boundries of class and race? No. According to the experts, it's all about a mule. And not just any old mule--only the dead ones count. Ask the experts.

"My survey of around thirty prominent twentieth-century Southern authors has led me to conclude, without fear of refutation, that there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of Southerness in literature...whose answer may be taken as difinitive, delimiting, and final," wrote professor Jerry Leath Mills, formerly of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than a decade ago. After some four decades of cataloging, he concluded that the true test is: "Is there a dead mule in it?...Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus) consitutes the truly catalytic element..."

I have written two dead mules in two books. That's how I know I am bona fide.Southern writers were killing mules even before Faulkner drownded a perfectly good team in the Yoknapatawpha River in As I Lay Dying in 1930. The carnage has been written about in The Southern Literary Journal and debated at academic conferences. Mules have perished in books, plays, and stories.

"A dead mule was such a big thing my mind couldn't really gather it in," wrote Barry Hannah in Geronimo Rex. "I had to think about him in pieces..."

They have been worked to death, bludgeoned, asphyxiated (by accident and on purpose), run over, shot (by accident and on purpose), bitten by rabid dogs, stabbed, starved, frozen, herded into the barren plain to perish of thirst, driven mad by erroneously administered castor oil (the less said about this the better), led out to be murdered on the blind curve of a train track, and, in Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, hung from a chandelier.

They have been killed by Larry McMurtry, Richard Wright, Reynolds Price, Larry Brown, Robert Morgan, Jack Farris, Kaye Gibbons, Clyde Edgerton... everybody who is anybody. The most inventive is Cormac McCarthy, who had one beheaded by an unbalanced opera singer.

In modern-day literature, whippersnappers who wouldn't know a mule from a hole in the ground are killing mules by the caravan. Faulkner, at least, knew mules. A mule, he wrote famously, "will labor 10 years willingly and patiently, for the privilege of kicking you once." A painting of one still sits on the mantel of his study at Rowan Oak, overlooking his portable Underwood, like an angel.

I grew up on stories of noble mules. The mule meant survival for my grandparents in the 1930s. I hate to see the hardworking beasts herded off cliffs and broiled in wildfires. Then again, I can cast no stones. In my first mule story, my Uncle Jimbo won a bet by eating a sandwich while sitting on one.

But that mule was dead when we found him.