“Oh, so many startlements…”: History, Race, and Myth in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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“Oh, so many startlements…”: History, Race, and Myth in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

by Hugh Ruppersburg
Southern Cultures, Vol. 9, No. 4: Winter 2003

"It's a southern tall tale, the story of a confidence man, of a treasure hunt, of a man trying to prove himself to his children and estranged wife, of a political campaign, of three buddies on the road, of the quest for home."

I was born in 1950 and so did not live through and have no memory of the Depression. Still, I feel in ways as if it is part of my experience, for I heard many stories of it from my parents and grandparents. My father’s father owned a farm supply store that failed with the stock market collapse in 1929. He never held another job, though he was only in middle age. Apparently the experience ruined his spirit. He moved his family from the Grant Park area of Atlanta to a small town about ten miles south called College Park. This was an important step in the events that made my coming on the scene possible.

My mother’s father began his career in Orange, Texas, in the early 1920s as a race car driver, mechanic, and stunt pilot. With the onset of the Depression in the South, he began to dust crops and moved with his family back and forth through the Gulf states—Louisiana and Mississippi especially—dusting against the inexorable progress of the boll weevil. My mother remembers moving sixteen times in four years and attending thirteen different schools. She recalls spending one Easter morning waking up in the family car, parked on the side of a Florida road. Finally, tired of dusting, my grandfather moved into commercial flying. He settled with his family in College Park and became a pilot for Delta Air Lines. Thus another necessary moment. My father and mother met, married, and here I am.