I’m old enough to have practiced as a state prosecutor for a while, but I still laugh at fart jokes. Regardless of the flatulent punch line, Larry the Cable Guy’s trademark quip, “I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there,” always applies. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lawrence Wright must have known this when he wrote the following lead in Rolling Stone in 1990:
“I had meant to time the closing of the door with a subtle emission of a fart,” my guru said as he pulled shut the door to his room at the Holiday Inn in Oxford, Mississippi. “Evidently my timing was off.”
I don’t care who you are, you’re going to keep reading right there. And I did — for the remaining 7,000 words.
Unfortunately, I discovered Wright’s subject, the Rev. Will Campbell, only after Campbell died recently. Campbell was a Mississippi native who left the South for Yale Divinity School only to return to his home state in the 1950s to help usher in a new era of civil rights against hot fields of resistance. Devouring countless tributes and remembrances of times spent with the “bootleg preacher” ultimately led me to Wright’s consummate profile. Since his early days as a reporter in Nashville, during the 1970s, Wright had “idolized Campbell for having been right at a time when being right was dangerous.” A few decades later, the journalist finally received the chance to tell his hero’s story, and I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I saw the headline, “The First Church Of Rednecks, White Socks And Blue Ribbon Beer.”
Wright was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone after his stint at Texas Monthly, and he had yet to publish his acclaimed The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which hit shelves in 2006. Two years after the Campbell profile, Wright joined the staff of The New Yorker, an unsurprising move given his quickly rising status owing to pieces like this one. Wright chooses subjects who live in a world “most readers don’t know about,” and he has said he writes to make the reader care about these particular figures. His profile on Campbell is so good, in part, because both Wright and the reader aren’t left with a choice not to care about the preacher from Mississippi.
From the wind-breaking observation in the introduction, we know Wright approaches this story with a “New Journalism” style by inserting himself into the narrative. Wright mimics his potential reader in the introduction by asking himself the very question she wants him to answer:
As a matter of fact, I was a little suspicious of him as well. Who was this fellow Will Campbell anyway? Some called him the conscience of the South, a kind of white Martin Luther King Jr., and yet he was one of the most profane and wickedly funny men I’d ever known.
To tie up his beginning, Wright immediately presents the rest of Campbell’s defining paradoxes so that we’re aren’t left with the choice to turn away:
A poor son of the Mississippi soil who studied theology at Yale, Campbell returned home to become a legend in the civil-rights movement, then alienated many of his fervent admirers by turning his ministry toward the Ku Klux Klan. He ministers to the poor, the dispossessed and the unknown, but he is idolized by the rich, the powerful and the famous.
These techniques to draw us into a piece aren’t new, but Wright’s next move is one not often encountered. To win our trust, he admits he may not be the most knowledgeable person to write about his subject by introducing Campbell’s biographer into the story:
He knocked on the door next to his and handed it to the man who answered—Campbell’s biographer, Tom Connelly, a distinguished Civil War historian from the University of South Carolina.
But Wright is quick to reassure he still has standing to report on Campbell by noting, “for twenty years he had been an unresolved enigma in my life—since the day he had wandered into my office at the Race Relations Reporter, in Nashville, Tennessee.”
Wright then gets into the meat of telling Campbell’s story with personal observations, passages from the preacher’s writings, interviews with other reporters, and explanations of the many myths surrounding the “Sage of the South.” Wright knew before the producers of Discovery Channel’s MythBusters did that uncovering the truths and falsities of extraordinary stories fascinates people. And he wastes no time delving into one of the most famous tales involving Campbell:
“And then, by God, we were having a reception for new students, not here on the back gallery,” Campbell said as he walked outside the antebellum building that had once housed his office. “The dean was present. One of the assistant chaplains pulled me aside and said ‘Will, I think somebody put something in the punch.’ I went over and looked in the punch bowl, and sure enough, there were two human turds covered with what appeared to be powdered sugar. I said to the dean that I find it rather difficult to ‘adjust’ to fecal punch.”
Find me a person who can resist a story that combines religion, poop, and humor, and I’ll show you a person who isn’t breathing.
Admittedly, Campbell doesn’t make it difficult for Wright to relay seemingly contradictory tales about ministering to bigots and their victims, drinking whiskey and counseling others, and putting on the façade of an irreverent and clueless redneck only to get people to pay attention to the divine and cultured values underneath his character. But reaching this position of opportunity to communicate Campbell’s narrative is rare, notes Wright:
Campbell never keeps correspondence or papers of the sort that biographers and university collections hunger for. His former secretary Andy Lipscomb once discovered a pile of Campbell’s sermons moldering in the compost heap. When he reproved his boss for destroying such valuable records, Campbell observed that “bullshit make the cabbage grow.”
It’s human nature to want what we can’t have, or what we rarely can obtain, so the subtle passage makes a reader feel special that she’s on the inside: Because Campbell never saves anything, Wright’s profile is a rare look into this intriguing creature.
And at the moment when we clamor for more of Campbell’s unworldly ministering to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Klan, reconciling the hurt with the hurters and attempting to penetrate the soul of “antipreacher” Waylon Jennings, Wright brings us back to earth by humbly acknowledging, “I realized I had gone as far as I could go with my guru.”
Wright lets us know he tries his best to tell us who Will Campbell is, and along the journey of recounting how Campbell has changed lives, the writer himself changes:
I had tried as much as possible to pry off his mask of authority and see the person inside — the flawed, insecure, fallible, often foolish person who was no better than I…. He seemed to me like a deer I had once come upon in the woods, who had given me a brief, direct look, passing some piece of obscure intelligence between us, and then had fled into the cover. But I had seen him, nonetheless. And somewhere in the process of seeing him, I had come to love him.
Win Bassett (@winbassett) is a writer and lawyer from North Carolina who begins Yale Divinity School next month. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Books & Culture, Religion & Politics, The Rumpus, Publishers Weekly, and INDY Week. For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” go here.