John Egerton, 1935-2013

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John Egerton, one of Nashville's most esteemed literary figures and a conscience to the city and the nation, died this morning of a heart attack, family members confirmed to Chapter16.org. He was 78.

Words fail us.

Mr. Egerton — something I could never help but call him, though with mild consternation he would always correct me with "John" — was a man of great passion, despite his soft-spoken demeanor. On issues where the South was lagging in progress, from civil rights to poverty, he was dauntless and unwavering, whether he was tackling the problem of "food deserts" in impoverished communities or charting the early fight against segregation in his landmark 1994 book Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

But he was just as adamant about preserving and protecting the region's timeless legacies — its food and folklore — from the strip-mall predations of the New South. His hugely influential 1984 book Southern Food urged Southerners to take pride in their family diners, small-town eateries, soul-food joints and handed-down recipes. Not only was it a cornerstone of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which he co-founded in 1999, it led directly to the prominence and esteem Southern chefs (and cuisine) have claimed nationally in recent decades.

Just this past June, he delivered a eulogy for his great friend, Rev. Will D. Campbell, that ranked with the most eloquent and evocative writing he'd ever done. In it, Egerton might well have written his own epitaph:

What set him apart was this: he had an uncanny knack for reaching into people’s hearts, for making them feel they were important to him, they mattered. The poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the untouchables felt that he cared about them. He earned the trust and respect of African American leaders in the South and nation at a time when trust was at a premium for anyone, anywhere. He was an ally of the working class—farmers, laborers, the service industry on whose shoulders all of us now rest. … The word-and-picture people, we of the ink-and-paper trades, considered him a fellow addict. He belonged to us all, and we to him.

So we have come to this place, this time — and the last words are his.

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