The Richardson Review

Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life

Story Tom & Emma Richardson

That Mississippi writer Larry Brown ever came to write and be published is an amazing confluence of a remarkable talent, gritty determination and the stars lining up right. In contrast with the stellar voices (Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons, Lewis Nordan) who emerged on the Southern literary scene during the last two decades of the 20th century, Larry Brown of Lafayette County was not an academic or the product of an MFA program; he never attended college and barely finished high school, graduating only after repeating senior English in summer school. Brown acknowledged that as a writer he got “a late start.”

When his first collection of short fiction was published in 1988, Brown had been a fireman in the Oxford Fire Department for 14 years and had attained the rank of captain. By the time of his death in November 2004, he had published at least nine volumes of short stories, novels and non-fiction, as well as numerous magazine stories and essays, and he left behind a significant body of unpublished material. He had also received the Mississippi Institute for Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Southern Book Award for Fiction (twice) and The Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award, and his novel Joe had been long-listed for the National Book Award.

Jean Cash’s biography of Larry Brown is the first book-length study of the author’s life and work. In it she explores the influence of Brown’s working-class origins and young boyhood in Potlockney and the troubled 10 years of his youth in Memphis when his father’s alcoholism and potential for violence hung over the household like a hammer. (Brown once wrote Clyde Edgerton: “I’ll never be scared of anything in my life as I was of my daddy.”) Cash also examines the influence of Brown’s two years in the Marines, of the two strong and remarkable women in his life — his mother, Leona Barlow Brown, and his wife, Mary Annie Coleman Brown — and of the warm and valuable friendships Brown enjoyed with other writers. She notes the importance of Brown’s family life in Tula and Yocona,  counterpointed and complemented by the influence of Oxford and the University of Mississippi, both of which experienced “rebirths” in the early 1980s. Importantly, Cash takes an unflinching look at Brown’s drinking binges—prolonged periods when, as he himself acknowledged, he “didn’t write shit.”

EMMA: Tom and I count ourselves lucky that we moved to Mississippi the same year that Larry Brown’s first book, Facing the Music, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Before we left North Carolina, Clyde Edgerton — another Algonquin writer who was Tom’s colleague and my former professor — told us to be on the lookout for Larry Brown, whose book would soon be published. After I arrived at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science and was assigned to teach a Mississippi writers course, the school sent me to the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at Ole Miss. Larry read at the conference, and I had a chance to meet him. Beginning that fall he and I started a correspondence that resulted in his coming to MSMS to speak to my creative-writing students and to read to the entire student body. Tom and I entertained Larry and Mary Annie in our home, where we served a cake decorated as the cover of Facing the Music, which — gratifying to read — Larry described in a letter to his editor Shannon Ravenel “as about the nicest thing anybody’d done for me.” The Browns spent the night with our MSMS director (unfortunately identified by Cash as the president of “the Mississippi University for Women”), and then the next day Larry read his story “Old Frank and Jesus,” which he described to Ravenel “as a good reading. They beat their hands silly.” In a photograph in Cash’s biography Larry is shown gripping a “huggie” with the MSMS logo clearly visible.

TOM: Jean Cash suggests that Brown’s writing has never received much “scholarly attention,” though it is plain that he was — and is — revered by other writers. Cash’s biography should offer a solid foundation for the additional study that his work merits; indeed, her book also effectively weaves analysis of his fiction through the biographical details. Emma and I are proud that his fiction has been taught at MSMS every year since 1988 and most years at MUW. We would argue that Larry Brown is the most significant voice to emerge from the South in the late 20th century; Cash goes far to make our case. We still grieve his loss.

Tom and Emma Richardson have been reading and discussing books together — especially Scottish and Southern American literature — for almost 40 years. Tom is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Mississippi University for Women. Emma teaches English, Creative Writing and Southern Writers courses at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. Emma’s email address is emmarichardson@cableone.net; Tom’s is trichardson@as.muw.edu.