Review of Eddie Stimpson, Jr.’s My Remembers
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/13/06
One of my goals in doing Cosmoetica is to help rescue good writers and works from oblivion. In the past I have championed many Neglected Poets, as well as prose writers like naturalist Loren Eiseley, poets James Emanuel, Weldon Kees, and John G. Neihardt, as well as little known works like Dick Proenneke’s Alaska journals, One Man’s Wilderness, and Elliot Rais’s memoir Stealing The Borders. In that same vein I want to review another memoir that, like Rais’s book, was written by a non-professional writer, yet has much merit, far more merit than many of the self-consciously sensationalized memoirs by such dregs as Elizabeth Wurtzel and Dave Eggers. The book is My Remembers, A Black Sharecroper’s Recollections Of The Depression, published in 1996 by the University Of North Texas Press, and written by Eddie Stimpson, Jr., who preferred to go by the handle ‘Sarge’, as he spent 21 years in the Army, and is a Korean War veteran.
Like Rais’s book, but even more so, this book represents what may be
termed American Primitivist writing, as the editors of the book, Frances Wells
and folklorist James Byrd, somehow decided that it would be wise to include many
of Stimpson’s misspellings and colloquial accentual phonetic writing style.
This was a huge mistake on their part, for it clashes with the formalized
spelling of proper names and there are numerous instances of inconsistencies,
and flatout poor editing- not to mention that such plays in to the worst racist
stereotypes about black intelligence and such political hot potatoes as Ebonics.
Wells and Byrd’s editing is appalling, and does a great disservice to an
otherwise intriguing account of a life. Instead of seeming the truly unique
record it is, the book’s editorial policy actually genericizes Stimpson’s
naturally unaffected authorial voice into that of an almost Sambo-like
caricature. Presumably the editors found charm in such lines as, ‘My spelling
is bad, my hand writing is bad, and my language is bad, but my remembers is
still in tack.’ Byrd tries to defend his terrible edit in the book’s Introduction
by claiming that editing would have been ‘tampering
with the spontaneity and character of the work.’ In a word- BULLSHIT!
What comes through in the text, and what makes it unique and colloquial is not
the black colloquial speech, phonetic spellings, and misspells, but the
laser-like focus on the ordinary that Stimpson brings to the tale, as well as
his epigrammatic style and natural speech-like unfolding of the scenes he lays
out, such as this paean for mules:
I suppose one of the most remarkable animal this country ever seen, had,
or use is the mule. It is sad to no that the very thing God put on this earth
for man to make a living and build this country with were brutely used up and
throwed away and made dog food, while in some country it is call a delicacy
food. Whin modern equipment began to roll onto the farm field, those team of
mule would began to disappear until finally there were no mule to be seen in
this part of the state. I would be willing to bet that kids from thirty to
thirty-five years old down, to this day and time have never seen a mule unless
maby at a movie or maby a horse show or fair.
This is what gives the work rhythm and grace, not pandering to the worst sort of stereotyped and dumbed down racial language. The few published reviews of the book have all utterly whiffed on pointing this fact out. That said, however, the actual tale spun by Stimpson is most delightful, and as with Rais’s tale of escaping the Nazis and Soviets, Stimpson tale of growing up poor in northern Texas during the Great Depression, is a good one, with many scenes that beg for a screen adaptation. Whereas Rais’s memoir goes fairly chronologically through his life, Stimpson’s cascades back and forth through the decades, as he prefers dealing with sections of his life from start to finish, then returning to the earliest memories he has of another aspect of his life.
The way Stimpson will describe something, then stop, as if the profundity he’s about to state is hitting him and the reader at the exact same time, also puts me in mind of the autobiographical bildungsroman that poet Bruce Ario wrote, Cityboy. What separates this book, however, from Proenneke’s, Rais’s, and Ario’s books is that Stimpson actually illustrates the book with black and white drawings of scenes from his life, done by artist Burnice Breckenridge, often with well-chosen illustrations- perhaps the only good thing Stimpson’s editors did with what really is a treasure trove of vintage Americana.
Since the book is not linear, to review it as such would be pointless. Each of the scenes plays out like a black out sketch, often ending with a Stimpsonian canard. As for his actual life, we learn that Eddie was born in 1929, near Plano, Texas, and weighed fifteen and a half pounds at birth. He was named George at birth, but had his name changed for baptism to Eddie. It was never legally changed, which curiously mirrors the exact same sequence of events in my own dad’s life. He must have had good genes to retain his size, for the back cover photo shows an old Eddie with massive girth. In one of the most unintentionally funny moments in the book Stimpson writes:
Thing did not go well with Mom and Dad. he was a man that like women. And I think it was from the Stimpson genes. It has been said that the Stimpsons were highly sexually attractive. Only those who are knows.
Given that Stimpson is incredibly obese, and his father’s published photograph reveals an ugly little man, the claims only ring funnier. His father, Eddie Sr., was a nineteen tear old Lothario and his mother Millie was only fifteen. Along with his two sisters (a full family genealogy is provided in an appendix) the Stimpson’s sharecropped along old Preston Road, where it meets Spring Creek Parkway, a route used by many freedmen trying to escape Texas after the Civil War. There is actually quite a good deal of non-Stimpson social history provided in parts of the book, which only increase its value, beyond mere memoir to that of historical artifact.
As for his actual life there are the usual scenes of cooking, farming, gambling, visiting, playing, doctoring, hunting, bootlegging, picking cotton, and school and church life, as well as special occasions like funerals, weddings, and Juneteenth galas. The most cinematically intriguing claim is that Eddie says he recalls his parents becoming minor local celebrities in the early 1930s after they claimed to have given a night’s respite to the fugitive gangsters Bonnie and Clyde. Despite his poor grammar and spelling, Eddie claims to have been well educated at Shepton School, Allen Colored School, and Plano Colored School. That this is manifestly shown false by his own basic grammar is just one of the many endearing points in the text, as well as Stimpson’s utter positivism- a trait he learned from his mother, who once fed a broken down bus filled with white people. Stimpson recalls times, good and bad, with black and white people, but remarkably always sees everyone as his neighbor, lamenting only the lack of personal contact in the modern world, which is why he wrote the book for his three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. As he writes:
I grow up a dirt farmer and retired a dirt farmer. Never got rich and didn’t want to be. My childhood stomping ground is now concrete, stores and houses. I remember the good times and bad. It was not the money we made but how to stretch that last dime. It was not the wind, rain or snow. It was about the love that flow. It was not the hot sunshine nor the clouds that hung low. It was the grace of God that help us swang that hoe. I want my grandchildren to understand. My grands, you grands and their grands.
The book is rife with incidents that will connect with readers of all levels- from Eddie’s winter excursions to the local railyards to get coal ‘accidentally’ tossed by the good ‘train people’ so that colored folks could heat their homes in winter, to using discarded automobile tire casings as a toy by climbing inside and rolling down a hill, to his days of fishing with the only local boy his age- a white boy and pal named Frank Pannell, whom Stimpson claims is still a friend to the time of the book’s writing. Stimpson is so guileless that on page 64 of the book he publishes his address and then-current phone number in the hopes that old friends and acquaintances will contact him.
This only heightens the editorial disservice done to this fine group of recollections by the butchering Byrd. If the book is ever reissued one can only hope that another editor is brought in to make the book’s words shine as brightly as the author’s life.
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