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Vol. 6, No. 4: Winter 2000

The Dead Mule Rides Again

by Jerry Leath Mills

“Uncle Jimbo ‘once won a twenty-dollar bet by eating a bologna sandwich while sitting on a dead mule.'”

Among many interesting things in Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’ (1998) is the revelation that Bragg’s Uncle Jimbo “once won a twenty-dollar bet by eating a bologna sandwich while sitting on a dead mule” (xviii). I believe I understand—at least in a literary sort of way—how Uncle Jimbo must have felt.

My affiliation with dead mules in southern literature started close to forty years ago, when I was in graduate school up north in Massachusetts, working in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British literature and coming vaguely to realize that the culture I was studying was no less distant from me, in terms of much that I felt instinctively or by prior cultural absorption, than the one in which I was currently paying rent. To counter these feelings of nervousness and disorientation (I don’t think people used the word “alienation” as loosely then as they do now), I took the more or less obvious solution of reading about what I’d left behind me, for a while, in the South. Not in any systematic or disciplined way—I never took a course in the subject–but in whatever spare time I could find, I read the fiction of southern authors I’d always known about but had never really looked into much during the years I was growing up and going to college in North Carolina. Did I find comfort, warmth, solace, and the confidence of knowing that I was part of something very richly textured? Some of each, of course; but mostly what I found was dead mules, an image that recurred with noticeable frequency in the novels and short stories I was reading. After the fourth or fifth one I started keeping a list–mainly just authors and titles, page numbers if I remembered to; sometimes a hand-transcription of the relevant passage, if it was short. I lost these materials several times, but was able to recall most of them when I started a new list. After I returned to North Carolina to teach courses in the English Renaissance, I kept up my collection, which over the years took the form of jottings on scraps of paper stuffed into a manila folder.

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