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On Death and Beauty

Joe and his wife Barbara circa 2009
Joe and his wife Barbara circa 2009

One of my favorite writers, Joe Bageant died two years ago. Before his death, Bob and I eagerly devoured Deer Hunting With Jesus and all of his extraordinary essays. We reserved a copy of Rainbow Pie which arrived shortly after his death. I wrote about his impact on my life in All Dreamers Die.

I stumbled upon his stirring essays years ago via another blog I was reading at the time and Bob and I became devoted fans, so much so that we made a special visit one summer to Joe’s home town of Winchester, Virginia. We wandered around with our cameras, soaking in the red-necked ambiance, stopped for a beer at a haunted bar, listened to the trains whistle through and left feeling even more connected to Joe Bageant.

Joe’s essays sang to us because he was liberal like we are and yet grounded, as we strive to be, in the old low-tech farming ways of existing.

He was a few years older than we are, born in 1946, and grew up on a farm where most everything the family needed was either grown or made by hand. He bore witness to the death of the small family farm lifestyle and watched it disappear beneath the mammoth combines of Big Ag farms, replaced by the car culture, hyper-consumerism and family debt as a way of life. He often referred to the American Dream as the American Hologram which was exactly how we saw it, too.

Bageant moved away from Winchester, got educated and launched into a writing career. It hurt him, as it does us, to see his country turning into a commercialized facsimile of real life and like us, he ran away to Belize to get some respite and perspective. But he always considered the Scots-Irish people of Virginia “his people” and wrote eloquently about the plight of America’s working class and many other things that have been on our minds.

Joe death on March 26, 2011 left a hole in our reading habits. No one else’s writing quite scratched the same itch his essays had. They were funny, angry, pointed, poignant and always hit their mark. So much so that it was a joy to re-read them which we sometimes did.

This morning I went looking for something stirring and real to read and found myself at JoeBageant.com. That’s when I discovered that his editor Ken Smith had begun posting some of Joe’s unpublished stories under the “Writing on Things Southern and Past” category.

I read Blood and Poppies and nearly wept for the beauty of it. It’s about his great grandfather’s death and how he was the last family member they laid out and embalmed in the old family home. The connection between the undertaker’s visit and his mother’s poppy garden is, well – you’ll just have to read it for yourself: Blood and Poppies.

Good writing never dies.

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

2 replies on “On Death and Beauty”

You turned me on to Bageant and ‘Under the Blue Mango’ because of my love of Belize. I just finished reading it again after a year or so. Beside the fact that blue mango trees are my absolute favorite, I could really relate to his story of helping a family in Hopkins (where I have also been). Everything he said in there really resonated with me and inspired me to leave that life of American greed and ‘what I own’ mentality. Thanks for posting this new story…it was a very visual read for me…like I was there. I need to read more of his stuff. And to end on my favorite quote from Henry Rollins: ‘You are not what you own’!!

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