Joe Bageant died Sunday, four months after he was diagnosed with cancer.
He was 64.
As the author of Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War and Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, he captured the working class struggles of the white under-class better than any author I’ve encountered. As a boy who grew up poor in the Shenandoah Mountains near Winchester, Va., Bageant always wrote with great affection, but also with brutal honesty, of his people.
Even though I never got to meet him, I feel as if I have lost a friend today. After reading Deer Hunting, I was moved to e-mail Bageant. As I now realize he did with many of his readers, Bageant wrote back a thoughtful note and we struck up a correspondence. We spoke on the phone a couple times and I had always dreamed of someday visiting him at his home in Winchester — “Come on down!” he said — to spend an afternoon on his front porch listening to him tell stories, while he strummed on his mandolin. It never happened. For the past couple years, Bageant, who believed the US has descended into oligarchy, had been living in southern Mexico. He had returned to Winchester for treatment after his diagnosis.
Bageant’s strength as a writer was that he could write both with great affection for his ancestry, but with a remarkable clear-eyed honesty of the weaknesses and flaws in those from whom he descends. His works were no Greatest Generation mythos. Consequently, he provides valuable insight into why so many of us who share his roots have turned against our own self-interests. More so than any writer I know, he shines a light on those reasons, illuminating the myriad complex ways that the wealthy ruling class have rigged the game against us and then tricked us (so often with religion) into believing it’s for our own good. While no small excerpt can adequately capture his complete work (I encourage everyone to buy his books) the following piece from Rainbow Pie better sums up his writing better than I ever could:
Economic, political, and social culture in America is staggering under the sheer weight of its white underclass, which now numbers some sixty million. Generally unable to read at a functional level, they are easily manipulated by corporate-political interests to vote against advances in health and education, and even more easily mustered in support of any proposed military conflict, aggressive or otherwise. One-third of their children are born out of wedlock, and are unemployable by any contemporary industrialized-world standard. Even if we were to bring back their jobs from China and elsewhere — a damned unlikely scenario — they would be competing at a wage scale that would not meet even their basic needs. Low skilled, and with little understanding of the world beyond either what is presented to them by kitschy and simplistic television, movie, and other media entertainments, or their experience as armed grunts in foreign combat, the future of the white underclass not only looks grim, but permanent.
Meanwhile, the underclass, ‘America’s flexible labor force’ (one must be pretty flexible to get screwed in some of the positions we are asked to), or whatever you choose to call the unwashed throngs mucking around down here at the bottom of the national labor tier, are , nevertheless politically potent, if sufficiently taunted and fed enough bullshit. Just look at the way we showed up in force during the 2000 elections, hyped up on inchoate anger and ready to be deployed as liberal-ripping pit bulls by America’s ultra-conservative political machinery.
I have spent much of my morning rereading Rainbow Pie. For me, some of the most powerful moments in his writing came from his descriptions of the inherent conflicts in his people’s faith and his unflinching look at the hard-edged doctrine of his evangelical upbringing.
“In any case, Guilford County, North Carolina, didn’t hand out money to people, no matter how miserably poor, if it could be avoided. And it could indeed be avoided through court orders to force folks to work, as the Good Lord intended poor folks to do. Single men were sometimes ordered to work twelve hours a day for nothing more than food and a place to sleep in some tobacco farmer’s barn. In Little Mama’s case, it happened to be mighty convenient that the ‘cotton factory’ to which she was sent was rounding up scab labor to break a union.
Then as now in the U.S., courts, churches, and capitalism work together through the hands of God and Adam Smith, both of which are said to be invisible. We may assume that God’s invisible hand is catching the fallen sparrow, but Smith’s has been more debatable. One thing I do know is that Smith’s invisible hand put Little Mama in the workhouse and sent Ola back into the slavery of her ancestors.”
Also, I love his description of being punished in Bible school as a 5-year-old boy, unable to understand his transgression, and the lifelong conflict his religious upbringing instilled in him. (My Bible school failing was my inability to memorize the 23rd Psalm.) Bageant is a kindred spirit for those of us who have turned from our religious upbringing, but still, for reasons he articulates so sweetly, are forever being drawn back to it on some level.
After an appropriate period of trembling, which seemed like forever but was probably about five minutes, I emerged cautiously from the cloakroom. Mrs Roach let me stand there while the rest of the Bible Schoolers finished up the next tune, the standard off-key rendition of ‘Yes,
Jesus Loves Me.’ She turned in my direction. ‘Out already?’ she said. ‘I could hold a bear in a bathtub that long. What have you learned?’
‘That Jesus don’t like whittling?’ I speculated.
‘Not in His church, He don’t. Now sit back down with
the rest of the children.’
Embarrassed to death, I rejoined the other, more earnest God-seekers, who had set about rendering Calvary’s holy emblem in the preferred three dimensional medium of children of that day: popsicle sticks.
I dived with a new-found fervency into the project at hand, in the full knowledge that ‘God is everywhere and He is always watching.’ Then, after finishing up on a fine, multi-dimensional, four-layered cross, complete with pedestal, I blew it again. Apparently, somewhere in that leather-bound Good Book there exists a passage regarding such things as the popsicle-stick rendition of Our Savior’s sorrow and the proper use of construction paste in Jesus’ name. I’d attempted to liven up my cross with the tempera paints from the craft-materials shelf. Whereupon I was informed by Mrs Roach that we were not allowed to do this.
Me, timidly: ‘Why not?’
Mrs Roach: ‘Because only Catholics worship gaudy crosses.’
Bible School is sort of the gateway drug to getting saved, which ultimately everyone in my family did at some point. Getting saved was permanent in most people; temporary, in others. But getting saved was a rite of spiritual and moral passage for all. Inoculation with the goodness of Christ, however, didn’t have any effect with some folks. When I consider my moralistic take on life, I can’t say it didn’t work at least somewhat in my case. But I’m still a sucker for the cross of gaud. Given that Mrs Roach has long ago departed with the angel band, I can confess to having stood around in any number of European cathedrals gawking at some particularly ostentatious representation of the ‘nailin’ boards’.
In addition to his two books, Bageant has written numerous poignant essays, which can be read here.
Oh, Joe, you will be missed.