Traveling in the South, I had the vaguest idea of what a redneck was. Someone intolerant and uneducated—that was what the word suggested. And it fitted in with what I had been told in New York: that some motoring organizations gave their members maps of safe routes through the South, to steer them away from areas infested with rednecks. Then I also became aware that the word had been turned by some middle-class people into a romantic word; and that in this extension it stood for the unintellectual, physical, virile man, someone who (for instance) wouldn’t mind saying “shit” in company.
It wasn’t until I met Campbell in Jackson, Mississippi, that I was given a full and beautiful and lyrical account, an account that ran it all together, by a man who half looked down on, and half loved, the redneck, and who, when he began to speak of redneck pleasures, was moved to confess that he was half a redneck himself.
It wasn’t for his redneck side, strictly speaking, that I had been introduced to Campbell. I had been told that he was the new kind of young conservative, with strong views on race and welfare. It was of family and values and authority that we spoke, all quite predictably, until it occurred to me to ask: “Campbell, what do you understand by the word ‘redneck’?”
And—as though it had been prepared—a great Theophrastan “character,” something almost in the style of the seventeenth-century character-writers, poured out of Campbell. It might have been an updated version of something from Elizabethan lowlife writing or John Earle’s Microcosmography, or something from Sir Thomas Overbury. (Sir Thomas Overbury, on the English country gentleman, 1616: “His travel is seldom farther than the next market town, and his inquistion is about the price of corn. When he travelleth, he will go 10 mile out of the way to a cousin’s house of his to save charges; and rewards the servants by taking them by the hand when he departs.”)
Campbell said: “A redneck is a lower blue-collar construction worker who definitely doesn’t like blacks. He likes to drink beer. He’s going to wear cowboy boots.”
That was the concrete, lyrical way Campbell spoke. But it would be better at this point to go back and hear a little of what he said about himself.
“My father was born in Alabama, and his family picked themselves up, left the farm they owned, 360 acres, left it and came to Mississippi to get an education. His father, my father’s father, and his mother said, ‘We got to get you guys over there to get you a good education.’ They obviously had some money saved to do that, pick up and leave. They kept the farm. Daddy sold it all five or six years ago. And when they came to Mississippi all the brothers got jobs when they weren’t in school. My father left Alabama in …
Copyright © 1989 V.S. Naipaul
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