The Cheap Seats

Joe Bageant told uncomfortable truths about class in America

In the last decade of his life, Joe Bageant came full circle. He and his third wife, Barbara, were renting a small, wooden house in Winchester, Virginia, the town where he grew up and from which he had fled repeatedly over the years—always returning, though never long enough to stay. In the late 1970s, he’d come back from Idaho for a while, after his father developed a bad heart, and moved into a mobile home in a poor part of town. During those years, Bageant worked as a reporter at the conservative local paper, the Winchester Star. He and a few friends had tried, and failed, to organize the reporters to join The Newspaper Guild; he quit soon after and moved West again.

Now, as he contemplated the onset of old age, Bageant was back in Winchester once more, gray-bearded, overweight, wearing determinedly unfashionable fishermen’s outfits, and hanging out with friends from a half-century earlier. He’d talk about everything from making raccoon stew to the state of the union. Underneath it all he was, almost obsessively, writing about and analyzing his poverty-stricken childhood, and contemplating the displacement of the rural poor by the rise of agribusiness and the post-World War II service economy.

Over many years—in articles, online essays, and, later, books—Bageant (pronounced “Bay-gent”) had been something of a lone voice, trying to convince his readers that America’s class divisions are as significant to the American story as its race divide; that the myth of American exceptionalism when it came to the absence of class is just that, a myth.

The sixty-four-year-old was a sort of Michael Moore character without the self-promotional gimmickry, remembering—perhaps romanticizing—a vanished world of hard, honest labor and damning the rise of an increasingly vulnerable underclass, numbering many tens of millions, among white, rural Americans and their displaced urban descendants. For these men and women, undereducated and underinformed, the community ecosystem upon which they had previously relied for sustenance no longer existed. The small-town and rural manufacturing and farming jobs they had once been able to count on had vanished; and the work that replaced those jobs, more often than not, paid abysmally and came with no benefits.

What Bageant wrote was, in many instances, offensive—but always brutally insightful. In America, attempts to describe working class culture frequently devolve into “blue collar” humor that celebrates parochialism and an ignorance of the larger world. Bageant saw the humor in his subject matter, but the laughter was always laced with tragedy. For him, blue collar ignorance was a product of, and a gateway to, exploitation. It was a symbol and a symptom of injustice. And he explored the political conditions of that injustice with an incandescent fury:

They are purposefully held in bondage by a local network of money families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and businesspeople in whose interests it is to have a cheap, unquestioning, and compliant labor force paying high rents and big medical bills. They invest in developing such a labor force by not investing in the education and quality of life for anyone but their own.

Working class Americans, Bageant wrote sardonically in his second and final book, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, were “clubbed into submission long ago, and now require only enough medication for our high levels of cholesterol, enough alcohol to keep the sludge moving through our arteries, and a 24/7 mind-numbing spectacle of titties, tabloid TV, and terrorist dramas. Throw in a couple of new flavors of XXL edible thongs, and you’ve got a nation of drowsing hippos who will never notice that our country has been looted.”

Like Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Bageant was preoccupied with the question of why millions of working class Americans have routinely voted against their economic self-interest over the past several decades. “Sometimes I think the gop emits a special pheromone that attracts fools and money,” he wrote in his first book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, published in 2007. How else to explain, he asked, the rise of an anti-tax, anti-government, hyper-conservatism among America’s white poor?

Unlike Frank, however, Bageant came to the problem as an insider, as a man who grew up as part of the white, working poor of the South, as someone who understood their prejudices and their fears, their heartache at vanishing ways of life, and the methods by which they measured the good life. He understood working class cynicism, a lack of faith in either political party’s ability, or even desire, to make their lives genuinely better. And he understood their resulting fatalism.

As a child Bageant had lived in the insular, subsistence-farming community of Unger, West Virginia; and later just over the state line in the town of Winchester, years before I-81 was built and the town became a bedroom community for DC commuters. Nestled deep in the Shenandoah Valley, it was a poor, conservative, deeply religious, and suffocatingly class-bound society, dominated by a largely cashless system of favors and exchanges.

Bageant was, in many ways, the misfit of his family. While his ancestors were only marginally educated, Bageant himself was from a young age drawn to books, to art, to music. Later, he would say how he had always felt Winchester offered few opportunities for a poor kid from the ramshackle wooden homes far from the mansions and brick houses of the town’s gentry. Hadley High School routinely lumped the country kids into the “dumbbell room,” and made sure to inform them that they were allowed to leave school at the age of sixteen and could join the Army a year after that.

His teachers told him that because of his background he wasn’t cut out for college, and his parents pressured him to work manual jobs from an early age. So Bageant quit school, joined the Navy, and got married. He was discharged in the heart of the 1960s; making up for lost time, he bought an old school bus and headed for San Francisco. En route, the bus broke down in Boulder, Colorado. Bageant and his young family lived there, sometimes on the bus, for several years, before moving to an Indian reservation in Idaho. During that time, Bageant worked a variety of sweaty, laborious jobs until, in the mid-1970s, he broke his back and had to lie flat for months while he recuperated. It was then, his family recalled, that he started honing his writing skills, using his enforced leisure time to perfect an in-your-face technique that would, over the decades, acquire a cult following. He learned to describe people and scenes intimately, to document his subjects’ idiosyncrasies—a technique that would serve him well in his books on redneck culture. He learned how to make his readers laugh and cry.

But as that voice developed, it left Bageant lacking a natural home in the American class system. He was, says his longtime friend Nick Smart, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, made too worldly by education and travel to rejoin the working class from which he had come, yet too shaped by that world to ever feel comfortable as an American burgher. He simply couldn’t, wouldn’t, aver that class didn’t exist and shape lives; nor could he buy into the American fiction that everyone had an equal opportunity in life. “Joe was fearless,” says Smart. “Truth came out of him almost as if he couldn’t stop. But he was also funny as shit. He could see the comic irony of this crazy country we’re living in.”

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Bageant churned out long essays, most of them published online, detailing his thoughts and observations about modern-day America. He was interested in how religion and cultural conservatism were being used by political movements with deeply conservative economic agendas. Like many other contemporary political writers, he was fascinated and depressed by a politics that convinced poor, rural Americans that they should vote not on bread-and-butter issues but for the candidate who most enthusiastically referenced the Bible, talked about guns, and attacked gay rights.

After the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Bageant’s writing became increasingly urgent. He thought the Bush presidency was unleashing something akin to class warfare in the country, and yet many of his contemporaries, the poor men and women with whom he drank beers and smoked cigarettes, seemed all too happy to connive in their own demise. It was out of this paradox that Deer Hunting with Jesus was born.

The book became something of a cult sensation among the (admittedly small) group of readers interested in class politics in America. It introduced an extraordinary array of characters—including the author’s brother, a demon-expunging preacher who tried to convert Bageant to fundamentalist Christianity during a hunting trip. And the book treated those characters with no sense of condescension or remove. Unlike commentators who use the poor as set decorations in some larger piece of political agitprop, Bageant was simply describing his daily life in Winchester, without intellectual disdain or anthropological distance. Indeed, his mockery of white, working class Americans only succeeded because, like Woody Allen telling Jewish jokes, he was so evidently one of those he mocked. “He liked redneck food. He was a redneck,” says one drinking friend. “But he’d read Sartre and Camus.”

While Deer Hunting with Jesus did all right in the US, it became a best-seller in Australia, and also sold well in Europe. These were, Bageant believed, parts of the world with a more finely tuned sense of class and its ramifications than exists in contemporary America. In the US, by contrast, the class politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was subsumed by post-World War II consumerism, by the idea that everyone identified upward, aspiring to a social status that by default promoted them to a higher class than that of their parents. “It is most politically incorrect in America to suggest that we are not born equally endowed,” he wrote in Rainbow Pie. “Yet I cannot help but contemplate what effect, if any, the flight of several generations of the brightest kids from heartland laboring America has had on the working class gene pool. . . . As any dog breeder can tell you, slow wit can be bred in as easily as bred out.” Pause. Deadpan stare. Deliver the kicker. “This may help explain the popularity of such things among my class as snowmobiles, Garth Brooks, hot chicken wings, and deep-fried pickles.”

And then, on a dime, he turns to the serious business. “Acknowledged or not, it is also our national shame, this denial of the existence of a massive, permanent underclass in America. In doing so, we deny the one truth held in common by every enlightened civilization: we are our brother’s keepers.”

When he wrote Rainbow Pie, Bageant, who had taken to spending much of each year in Belize and, later, in the American expat town of Ajijic, in central Mexico, was in his mid-sixties. He was eating unhealthfully; not exercising; smoking and drinking too much in a variety of bars and greasy-spoon cafes around Winchester. “By the time my people hit sixty,” he wrote in Deer Hunting with Jesus, “we look like a bunch of hypertensive red-faced toads in a phlegm-coughing contest. Fact is, we are even unhealthier than we look.”

He was, according to his wife, Barbara, and friends, increasingly enraged at the state of America and, more particularly, at the working class itself. There was, says Barbara, a sense of “hopelessness” that came to pervade her husband. After his fourth martini he’d become morose, sometimes aggressive. He was known to throw drinks in people’s faces. Perhaps, in some way, Bageant might even have had a death wish.

“Toward the end his bitterness was overwhelming,” says his friend Nick Smart. “He became a recluse; he was tortured by the role that was thrust upon him by fate. There aren’t many Bageants out there: Studs Terkel, Hunter Thompson. He saw working-class Winchester as in a morass, a continuous cycle of life getting worse, not better. They didn’t have aspirations. It was almost like the caste system in India. The rednecks were so ignorant, lacking in aspirations to change, and the system was conspiring to exploit them.”

And yet Rainbow Pie is not a bitter book. If anything, it is more reflective than his first book. Unwell, thinking both of his own mortality and of the increasingly dysfunctional politics of the country, he retreated into nostalgia, looking to explore the America of his youth, the personalities and beliefs of a vanished world. Perhaps he knew that he hadn’t long to live. His memoir was, in some way, a grand farewell note.

In late 2010, Bageant was diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite receiving treatment at the local Veterans Administration hospital in Winchester, he understood that his prospects were bleak. Unsentimental, he wanted no funeral; he even tried to argue his family out of having obituaries published. When news of his death was announced, his website was inundated with messages of condolence from his fans across the globe, and from friends and acquaintances in the region that he was never able to leave.

Bageant was raised in America’s cheap seats, watching the drama of postwar prosperity from afar. Despite his copious writerly talents, as he got older he returned to those cheap seats. It was, he believed, where America’s most interesting characters sat. From those seats, Bageant sketched an American tragedy, a bleak postscript to Norman Rockwell’s version of a wholesome mid-century America. Tom Cave, a childhood friend, never quite agreed with Bageant’s political credo, or with his analysis that working Americans were being subjected to one snow job after another, but the more he read of Bageant’s work the more he came to realize that his friend represented something good, something valuable. “I’ve always been more or less conservative,” he says in a soft voice, fighting back tears. “I love the flag, love America and all that stuff. Joe did, too. That’s why he tried to change things.” 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment (Beacon Press, 2006). His most recent book is a profile of President Obama titled Inside Obama’s Brain (Penguin Portfolio, December 2009).