"The Most They Ever Had" by Rick Bragg

Nov 9, 2009

Many of these stories are sad stories. The reader is more likely to weep than smile, but they will affect you.

The people of Appalachia, Alabama's Calhoun County in particular, are lucky to have among them one who will not let their stories die even though the way of life there is changing, inexorably, all the time, and few outsiders are going to care. As unlikely as it may seem at first, Rick Bragg is doing for his culture what I. B. Singer and Shalom Aleichem did for theirs. If not for stories like "Gimpel the Fool" and "The Fiddler on the Roof," the Jewish shtetl life of Eastern Europe, now gone, would also be forgotten. Closer to home, Bragg is a kind of Alan Lomax, who captured the folk songs of Appalachia.

In the course of growing up there, listening to his elders tell stories and then, more specifically, as Bragg went around interviewing family and neighbors for his three family-centered books that now constitute the Calhoun County Trilogy, "All Over But the Shoutin'," his mother's story, "Ava's Man," the life of the grandfather he never met, and "The Prince of Frogtown," the story of the father he didn't know very well at all, Bragg heard a lot of stories. Whenever the stories fit, he used them in his family saga. But some stories were not about his family; they didn't fit, but they still needed to be told.

"The Most They Ever Had" is a collection of these tales and reminiscences, tales of the people of the Jacksonville mill village, mostly old now, and many dying.

Maybe my favorite story is the legend, a true one, of Floria Fortenberry and her friend Jewel. These two women, in one day, picked more than 600 pounds of cotton, three times their combined weight. They had picked to the end of one of the longest rows, I guess, in the world, and back again. They got two dollars per hundredweight and an extra one dollar for picking the whole row and back. They earned this princely sum not in 1905, but in 1965.
Later, Floria went to work in the mill. She, like so many others, contracted lung disease, but she and Jewel are legends.

Many of these stories are of byssinosis, the lung disease, known as brown lung. In the unventilated mill, cotton dust accumulates in the lungs. The bacteria in the dust trigger an allergic reaction in the respiratory system. The lungs are damaged by scar tissue. Doctors for decades claimed it was a phantom disease, caused primarily by hangovers and laziness. In 1981 the Reagan administration recalled an OSHA pamphlet warning of the dangers because it was too one-sided. I guess the pamphlet failed to enunciate the advantages and pleasures of brown lung.

Many of these stories are sad stories. The reader is more likely to weep than smile, but they will affect you.

Men and women, and children too, "get on" at the mill, because there is nowhere else to work, and the wages, though terrible, are "The Most They Ever Had." The workers, proud, capable people, are treated with little respect, underpaid, work in conditions dangerous both immediately?loss of fingers, hands and arms?and in the long run. Sometimes paid in scrip, they are forced to shop at the company store, never get ahead, and fear being fired on any pretext. The bosses discourage unions, to say the least, but these Scots-Irish yeomen are an organizer's nightmare. Clannish, family-centered, ruggedly independent to an absurd, suicidal degree, they are the perfect wage slaves. They won't leave the home place where their folks are buried, even when work in Akron or Detroit beckons. At least, Bragg tells us, when they died "no one had to ship their bodies home on a train."

It is a wonder to me they didn't light their torches and grab their pitchforks and storm the big house, especially after I read the chapter on the feudal, arrogant, cheating, heartless mill manager, William Greenleaf, a true-life villain in the mode of the fictional Simon Legree. Greenleaf paid seven dollars a week even after the federal government mandated a minimum wage of twelve dollars a week. There was a strike, but it failed.

Was Greenleaf better or worse than other bosses? Asking that, Bragg's respondents say, is "like sticking your arm inside a box of copperheads, and feeling around for the best one."