By John Egerton
Vol. 9, No. 3, 1987, p. 23
Forty Acres and A Goat. By Will D. Campbell. (Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., 1986. 336 pp. $14.95.)
An unusual combination of life experiences has shaped Will Campbell’s career as a preacher, farmer, social activist, and writer.
He was born and raised in a hardscrabble farm family in south Mississippi during the lean years between the two world wars. He was ordained in a country Baptist church when he was 17 years old. He was a medic in the Pacific in World War II. He graduated from Wake Forest University and the divinity school of Yale University. For six years in the 1950s, he was a race relations troubleshooter in the South for the National Council of Churches. And for the past 25 years, he has headed a Nashville-based “rag-tag bunch of bootleg preachers and drop-out parishioners” known as the Committee of Southern Churchmen.
Nine years ago, in a book called Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell told the story of two boys become men–he and his brother Joe–in those years of poverty and turmoil that marked the South in the middle decades of this century. It was a remarkable book, lavishly praised by such literary giants as Walker Percy and Robert Penn Warren, and it was a finalist in the National Book Awards competition and a winner of several other non-fiction honors.
Before and after Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell wrote a half-dozen other volumes on religion, race, and the human tragedy, including a novel, The Glad River, that linked 16th-century Anabaptists in the Netherlands and 20th-century Southern Baptists in Louisiana.
He is an unconventional man, an uncommon preacher and writer with a common touch that is incisive, inclusive, and often eloquent. His new book, Forty Acres and a Goat, is more in the style of Brother to a Dragonfly than his other works, and it is, like the man himself, hard to classify. His publisher calls it a memoir, but it is more nearly a parable or an allegory. Its characters include historical figures, ordinary people, multiple souls in singular bodies, animals that behave like humans (and vice versa), and several members of the Campbell clan.
The forty acres in question make up a rocky patch of hillsides and creeksides where Will and Brenda Campbell have lived for more than twenty years. The goat was a family pet named–like so many people and things in middle Tennessee–for Andrew Jackson, who once lived in the neighborhood. The story, in its most basic dimension, is about the little farm and its menagerie of animals and the people who have come and gone there.
But there is much more to it than that. It is about land and time, ancestry and kinship, civil rights and human wrongs, manifest destiny and original sin. The two protagonists, Will Campbell and a more symbolic but no less real character named T. J. Eaves, grapple throughout with the crucible of race, a white man and a black man striving to understand the single most complex and enduring test ever to face this country of immigrants and captives.
“Say good-bye to Jackson,” Eaves tells Campbell as the two men part company near the end of the story, and when his friend and brother is out of sight, Campbell hears his own voice saying, “Well, we almost made it.”
In real life–and in good books–things are never quite finished, never wrapped up in pretty little bundles that won’t come undone. So it is in Will Campbell’s parable. And so it is with Campbell himself, and with the people about whom he writes so compellingly, and with us all.
John Egerton’s most recent book is Southern Food. He lives and works in Nashville.