Journalist and novelist Paul Hemphill (1936-2009) wrote both fiction and nonfiction. His wide-ranging subjects included the South, sports, country music, church burnings, evangelists, and his own life. Hemphill was blunt in his observations about his subjects, and often alienated himself from the community about which he was writing, including his own family. He is best remembered for his acclaimed memoir, Leaving Birmingham (1993).
Hemphill was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on February 18, 1936. He was the son of Paul Hemphill Sr., a long-haul truck driver, and Velma Rebecca Nelson Hemphill, a federal worker. He had one sister. He graduated from Woodlawn High School in Birmingham in 1954. Although he never played organized baseball in high school, Hemphill had long dreamed of playing professional baseball. He tried out for a semi-pro baseball team after graduation but was cut after five days from the Graceville Oilers, a Class D club in Florida. He played second baseman briefly on a semi-pro team in Kansas.
Hemphill then enrolled at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API—present-day Auburn University). While there, he interned with the Birmingham News, where he started out covering youth baseball games and bowling tournaments but soon worked his way up to covering high school sports. He graduate from API with a bachelor's degree in 1959.
Hemphill married Susan Milliage Olive on September 23, 1961, with whom he had three children. He was a sportswriter for newspapers in Birmingham; Augusta, Georgia; and Tampa, Florida from 1958 to 1964. To avoid being drafted during the Korean War, Hemphill joined the Alabama Air National Guard, serving in France on active duty in 1961 and 1962. Upon his return, he wrote briefly for the Atlanta Times before it went out of business. His writing caught the attention of editors at the Atlanta Journal, and he was hired as a columnist in 1964, writing six columns a week. His writing style emulated that of Jimmy Breslin, who was writing a new, more literary kind of column for the New York Herald-Tribune.
Hemphill wrote about subjects ranging from often overlooked characters in the blue-collar world of the South to the Vietnam War. In recognition of his work, Harvard University named him a Nieman Fellow, which allowed him to spend 1968-1968 studying at the university and developing his craft. The result of his time at Harvard was his first book, The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music (1970), which chronicles the rise of country and western music, the obstacles it faced, and the colorful characters involved in its history. This book was received with praise that many of his later books failed to stir and won a literary achievement award from the Georgia Writers Association in 1970.
Hemphill and his first wife divorced in 1975. He began working for the San Francisco Examiner as a columnist in 1976, and in November of that year married Atlanta native Susan Farran Percy, a writer and former editor of Atlanta magazine. They had one daughter.
Many of his earlier nonfiction columns were collected in Too Old to Cry in 1981. Four years later, he published the novel The Sixkiller Chronicles, which portrays three generations of the southern Clay family as they migrate away from their mountain home and then return to it. Although this work was criticized as lacking a sense of place and of stereotyping southern culture, it drew praise for the portrayal of the central theme of a man trying not only to keep his way of life intact but to transfer this way of life to the next generation.
His next book, Me and the Boy: Journey of Discovery—Father and Son on the Appalachian Trail (1986), is the autobiographical story of Hemphill's battle with a drinking problem and his attempt to mend his relationship with his 19-year-old son with whom he had lost contact 10 years earlier. The father and son set out to walk the entire 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a seemingly disastrous effort that nevertheless leads to an acceptance of each other and of themselves as less than perfect.
In his 1993 memoir, Leaving Birmingham, Hemphill dealt with his father's racism; the book set him at odds with his father and with his home town, although he returned over and over again to this region for his material. Leaving Birmingham is his most critically acclaimed work and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1996, Hemphill produced another nonfiction book, The Heart of the Game: The Education of a Minor-League Ballplayer. In it, he follows the minor-league career of Marty Malloy, an innocent living away from his family for the first time who attempts to navigate baseball's dangerous route to the top of the sport. Hemphill's 1997 book, Wheels: A Season on NASCAR's Winston Cup Circuit, contrasts the wealthy owners with the sport's fans.
The Ballad of Little River (2000) is a nonfiction account of a group of white youths from Alabama who set fire to a black church. His view that the society around these disillusioned and directionless young men had changed little since the 1940s drew the community's ire, which was communicated one day through four punctured tires on his car.
In 2005, the world of country music again captured his attention in his well-received book about fellow Alabamian Hank Williams, Lovesick Blues. His last work was A Tiger Walk Through History: The Complete Story of Auburn Football from 1892 to the Tuberville Era, which was published in 2008.
Paul Hemphill died on July 11, 2009, in Atlanta. His papers, the Hemphill Collection, are housed at Auburn University Libraries.
Works by Paul Hemphill
The Nashville Sound (1970)
Mayor, with Allen Ivan Jr. (1971)
The Good Old Boys (1974)
Long Gone (1979)
Too Old to Cry (1981)
The Sixkiller Chronicles (1985)
Me and the Boy (1986)
King of the Road (1989)
Leaving Birmingham (1993)
The Heart of the Game (1996)
The Ballad of Little River (2000)
Nobody's Hero (2002)
Lost in the Lights (2003)
Lovesick Blues (2005)
A Tiger Walk Through History (2008)
Grimes, William. "Paul Hemphill, Chronicler of the South, Dies at 73." New York Times July 12, 2009; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/nyregion/12hemphill.html [See Related Links]
Schudel, Matt. "Journalist, Novelist Rooted in the South" Washington Post July 13, 2009; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/12/AR2009071202242.html [See Related Links]
Carole Ottaway Beasley
East Mississippi Community College
Published November 12, 2009
Last updated February 1, 2013