John Egerton, Southern Historian Is Dead at 78
John Egerton, an independent journalist and author who roamed his native South chronicling its traditions, history and hungers in a series of well-regarded books on Southern life, died Nov. 21 at his home in Nashville. He was 78.
He had an apparent heart attack, his son Brooks Egerton said.
Egerton gained wide respect as a historian and cultural analyst for his books The Americanization of Dixie (1974) and Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). But he captured the hearts — and appetites — of a generation of readers with his 1987 tour de force, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History.
For that book, Egerton rambled across the South, sampling hush puppies, grits, black-eyed peas, fried chicken and barbecue in all its savory permutations. Southern Food was not a cookbook, not a history and not quite a travelogue. It was an utterly original cultural study that made Egerton nothing less than a folk hero to people who loved the varied cuisines of the South.
“It’s the closest thing to a definitive book on Southern cooking,” John Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, told the Nashville Tennessean newspaper in 2007. “He sketched this expansive view of the South that accommodated everybody.”
Egerton admitted that he was not a trained cook or an expert on food, beyond the fond memories he had of the meals served by his mother and grandmother when he was growing up in Kentucky. In his book, he used food as a prism through which to view the distinctive qualities of Southern life, including race, poverty and family history.
“Within the South itself,” he wrote, “no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctively characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character.”
Egerton brought a renewed focus to fading culinary traditions and evoked a sense of how food could be a unifying force among people of different backgrounds.
“He had this way of taking these simple, basic foods and looking deeply into them,” Susan Puckett, an Atlanta-based author and expert on Southern food, said in an interview. “He saw the dinner table as a symbol of this comfortable place where these important conversations between diverse groups of people could just evolve.”
In 1999, Egerton helped found the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute studying food and culture at the University of Mississippi, and he often spoke at conferences on food throughout the South.
“When the chemistry is right,” Egerton wrote in Southern Food, “a meal in the South can still be an esthetic wonder, a sensory delight, even a mystical experience.”
John Walden Egerton born June 14, 1935, in Atlanta and grew up in the small town of Cadiz, Ky. His father was a traveling salesman.
Egerton served in the Army before graduating in 1958 from the University of Kentucky, where he received a master’s degree in political science in 1960.
He worked in public relations at the University Kentucky and the University of South Florida before moving to Nashville in 1965 to write for a publication that tracked compliance with civil rights laws. He became a freelance writer in 1971.
In his first major book, The Americanization of Dixie, Egerton presciently described how the South was becoming more like the rest of America and, paradoxically, other parts of America were adopting certain qualities of the South.
“The South and the nation are not exchanging strengths as much as they are exchanging sins,” he wrote. “The dominant trends are unmistakable: deep division along racial and class lines, an obsession with growth and acquisition and consumption, a headlong rush to the cities and the suburbs ... and a steady erosion of the sense of place, of community, of belonging.”
After several other books, including Generations (1983), an award-winning oral history of the long-lived Ledford clan of Kentucky, Egerton published Speak Now Against the Day. Taking his title from a line by William Faulkner, Egerton portrayed the lives of Southern advocates of racial understanding in the decades before the civil rights movement gained prominence.
“His book is a stunning achievement,” historian Charles B. Dew wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “a sprawling, engrossing, deeply moving account of those Southerners, black and white, who raised their voices to challenge the South’s racial mores during the years from 1932 to 1954 when the brackish currents of Jim Crow were running at flood tide.”
Egerton showed how the slow progress toward racial reconciliation was beaten back by the “Dixiecrat” revolt of 1948, when South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond made an unsuccessful but noisily influential bid for president as an avowed segregationist.
“From the smouldering ashes of the Dixiecrat defeat in 1948,” Egerton wrote, “a handful of reactionaries had fanned the sparks into a flaming new rebellion, one more lost cause to die for — the same cause of racial and regional chauvinism that had rallied their ancestors.”
Scholars have ranked Speak Now Against the Day alongside such classic studies of Southern history as W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. The book won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for its treatment of the struggles of the poor and underprivileged.
Egerton’s survivors include his wife of 56 years, Ann Bleidt Egerton of Nashville; two sons, Brooks Egerton of Dallas and March Egerton of Nashville; a brother; a sister; and four grandchildren.
Although Egerton’s books on civil rights and Southern food would seem to have little in common, he considered them deeply intertwined. For him, terror, the fight for justice and slow-cooked meals were all part of the tangled legacy of the world into which he was born.
“Writing about it is just my way of trying to understand it,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1994. “I’ve been searching all these years for what it means to be a Southerner in the 20th century.”