The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 272 pages.
Biography affords the reader a rare chance to walk in another’s shoes, to explore unknown places ranging from the Amazon rainforest to the great uncharted territories of the human heart, to see through the eyes of a stranger, and perhaps, if the reader is lucky and the biographer up to the task, to gain some insight into one’s own triumphs and failures. We read these stories of other human beings not only to look through a window into their hearts and minds, but to look into the mirror of their lives while seeking our own reflection.
Rick Bragg’s The Prince of Frogtown (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4000-4040-7, $24) speaks to us as both biography and autobiography. In this marvelous memoir, a conclusion to the stories told by Bragg about his family in All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man, Bragg digs deep into his father’s past while at the same time narrating his relationship with “the boy”, his 10-year-old stepson.
Bragg’s father, Charles, grew up hard in rural Alabama, a son and brother in a violent, hard-drinking family.
“He talked country but dressed for town, as all the boys from the mill village did back then, a hybrid hillbilly with silver dimes flashing in his black penny loafer shoes. He chain-smoked Pall Malls and toted a thin, yellow-handled knife in his left hip pocket, so he could get at it, quick .... He raised fighting dogs, bet on chickens and loved vanilla ice cream, and I guess he was a scoundrel before he knew what a scoundrel was.”
Bragg leads us back into his own father’s past, into a hardscrabble world of mill workers, unlettered preachers, and moonshiners. In his effort to understand Charles Bragg’s failures as a father — the drinking, the indifference, the abandonment — Bragg closely examines his father’s boyhood, his service in Korea where he supposedly killed a man barehanded, an adult life seemingly wasted in irresponsible acts and brushes with the law.
At stake for Rick Bragg in this investigation is his own relationship as a stepfather to the son of a woman he loves. In order to find his place with this boy, Bragg realizes that he must come to terms with his own past, his own anguished boyhood:
“I didn’t care if he rode bulls or danced ballet, and that’s the truth. But what made me crazy was the idea that he was the kind of boy I used to despise, the kind who looked down his nose on the boy I was .... That was what needled me. My mother cleaned their houses, cooked for them, diapered them. I would not have a boy like that.”
Through his narration in The Prince of Frogtown, Bragg slowly becomes aware — and makes us aware in the process — of his love both for his father and for the boy. In his odyssey toward understanding both his past and his present, Bragg comes to understand himself as well. He sees how ill-equipped his own father has left him in terms of fatherhood, and grows past that hard-won knowledge to love and care for the boy who has come into his life.
In The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War (New York: Random House, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4000-6634-6), David Lebedoff introduces us to two writers who seem at first glance as completely different as possible from each other.
Both men were products of the English public school system, and both struggled in their own ways with the English class system, but there the similarities seem to end. Waugh attended Oxford, unsuccessfully taught school, began writing, and became the chronicler in the 1920s of “The Bright Young Things.” Through his writing and through his second marriage, Waugh sought to leave his middle-class roots.
Before becoming George Orwell, Eric Blair, the son of a civil servant, attended Eton, entered the Indian Imperial Police, served in Burma, and spent a number of years in poverty, studying the lives of the poor and eventually serving in the Spanish conflict, where he became forever a foe of totalitarianism.
Yet the two men shared passions which did indeed make them comrades of a sort. Although they only met once — Orwell was dying then, and there is no record of what was said in this extraordinary meeting of two of the finest writers of the 20th century — both men by then despised the corruption of the English language and the horrible consequences of that corruption.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell pointed out that words misused can smother thought and intention; our reaction to a reported “pacification” is quite different than to “killing the people in the village.” In both Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell went to great pains to show how the state and its supporting class will go to great lengths to control language and history, erasing what they wish from historical texts and feeding the citizenry slogans designed to choke off thinking.
Waugh, too, reacted to the cant of our time through his writing. His novels are less polemical than Orwell’s work, but are, as Lebedoff so insightfully points out, more acerbic in their mordent wit. “Every joke is a small revolution,” Orwell once wrote, and Waugh wrote his black comedies as revolts against the modern age, an age which he, like Orwell, detested.
Lebedoff’s conclusion to his “Prologue” in The Same Man may serve as our conclusion here, a shot across the bow of our own wallowing ship of state in these trying times. Of Orwell and Waugh he writes that:
“They saw in modern life a terrible enemy. It was not only totalitarianism that they loathed but virtually everything that would come even if totalitarianism was defeated. They saw an end to common sense and common purpose. They saw the futility of life without roots or faith. They saw the emptiness of an existence whose only point was material consumption. And in the great work of their lives, which was to warn us of what was to come, they came to be, improbably enough, in many ways the same man.”