It may be all over, but the shoutin’ is as eloquent and as outraged as ever. In The Most They Ever Had (MacAdam Cage, $25, pp. 172), Rick Bragg, who championed the working poor of Jacksonville, Alabama in his first three books, now returns to his hometown to speak for three generations of “lintheads”—textile workers who lived and died working for the Profile cotton mill.
Bragg alternates stories about those men and women with a history of the industry that gave with one hand and took with the other. In 1905 the mill’s doors opened to sharecroppers who gladly traded their shacks and mules for an American dream: steady jobs, new homes, electricity, heat, shops, churches and schools. Stability came with a price: Employees worked in unventilated rooms where the air was clogged with lint, the microscopic particles eventually damaging their lungs. Dangerous machines mangled their fingers, hands, and arms. Low wages barely covered food and rent for the mill houses.
Years passed, and conditions improved; in time, Profile workers earned “one of the best blue collar paychecks in their foothills.” But the clock was ticking and NAFTA loomed; by 1991, they “were already relics, leftover pieces of a rummage sale that was shipping their industry across borders, across oceans.” In 2001, without warning, the mill shut down. There were no pensions for those with mortgages to pay, no health insurance for those with crippling lung disease. Their way of life moved elsewhere, leaving them behind.
“A people once valued for what they could make, how fine it was, and how fast they could make it,” writes Bragg, “do not deserve to vanish.” They deserve a voice, and he’s given them one that will just about break your heart.
Bragg tells about Charles Hardy, “one of the best front-porch guitar pickers” for miles around, so good a big-time record producer said he belonged in Nashville. Hardy was afraid to quit the mill, so he kept on working until the day he slipped up on one of the machines and lost his arm. “It was my pickin’ hand,” he explains. It was years before he would even sing again; now, when he does, “you can hear the hurt in it.”
When Theresa Parker sings about heaven, Bragg writes, it “makes you wonder if she has already seen it.” Theresa used to sing “high sweet” gospel until, in her forties, she got so sick she couldn’t hit the high notes. When doctors told her she couldn’t go back to the mill, the managers there told her there was no compensation they could give her. “They said they was sorry,” she says. “I killed myself for twenty-one years.”
Leon Spears was 17 when he started work at the mill. Now 65, he keeps his oxygen tank close at hand. When he first had trouble breathing, it never occurred to him the cotton was to blame, or that his condition would eventually be known as “brown lung.” It’s an old disease, Bragg notes, dating back to the 1700s, but the cotton bosses scoffed, blaming it on hangovers and laziness, and the government turned its back. “It put bread in your mouth, that mill did,” Spears remembers. “But it cost. You paid, and you paid, for every scrap.”
Rick Bragg has always written about heroes. We’ve just never heard of them until we read his books.
(A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jan. 31 2010.)