In the late 1960s the bestselling daily Atlanta Journal bragged that it covered Dixie “like the dew,” and columnist Paul Hemphill was its front-page star.
At a time when newspaper circulation was peaking, Hemphill captured Journal readers’ imagination with his portraits of Georgians who lived outside the headlines, many of them blue-collar people struggling with the cultural and political changes of the late sixties. For slightly more than four years with the Journal Hemphill wrote six 1,000-word columns a week focusing on people who would never otherwise appear in a newspaper.
In 1969 he left daily newspaper work to write freelance, and except for a brief time as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, he spent most of the next forty years as a freelancer, living for a while in St. Simons Island but mostly in Atlanta. In those years Hemphill earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination and wrote or co-wrote seventeen books, all of which display his particular brilliance at finding the humanity in rough, and sometimes ugly, characters, men and women who were used to being widely ignored and routinely misunderstood.
A native of Birmingham, Hemphill came to Atlanta in 1958 as a sportswriting intern for the Atlanta Constitution. After graduating from Alabama Polytechnic University (later Auburn University) in 1959, holding down writing jobs with the Birmingham News and Florida State University, and service in the Air National Guard, Hemphill returned to Georgia in 1963 to be the sports editor for the Augusta Chronicle.
After six months with the Chronicle and a short stretch with the Tampa (Fla.) Times, he joined the newly founded Atlanta Times as a daily columnist. There he attracted the attention of the Atlanta Journal’s editors, and they hired him as a featured “human interest” columnist in April 1965.
Hemphill's Journal column was so successful that the paper sent him on a two-month tour of Viet Nam in 1966, to cover the American war there. The Journal also underwrote an 8,000-mile expedition by Hemphill across thirteen Southern states in 1969, a trip that he wrote began “as a sentimental journey through my country” but which led him to the conclusion, “The South is no more.”
Hemphill continued to search for the heart of his South in the lengthier magazine pieces and books that came after the Atlanta Journal. A prestigious Nieman fellowship at Harvard enabled him to write his first book, The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, which chronicled the rise of country and western music and won the Georgia Writers Association award for best nonfiction book in 1970.
Next, he collaborated with Ivan Allen, Jr., on a book about that politician’s two terms as Atlanta’s mayor during the turbulent 1960s, He also compiled a collection of his newspaper columns and magazine articles from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which he described in its preface as “an epitaph to the good old boys.”
Over the next thirty-five years, Hemphill wrote fourteen more books. They included four novels, two more collections of magazine and newspaper work, another collaborative memoir, two memoirs of his own, and five works of nonfiction journalism. Two of these – Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams and Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son have been named to Georgia Center for the Book’s lists of “25 Books All Georgians Should Read.” The latter -- in part a wrenching family memoir and in part a biography of his native city’s emergence from its violent, racist past -- was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Paul Hemphill died of lung cancer on July 11, 2009, in Atlanta. In 2010 author Steve Oney, one of the many Georgia journalists who knew and were influenced by Hemphill’s writing, remembered him in the Columbia Journalism Review: “More than any other writer of his era,” Oney wrote, Hemphill “captured the hopes and fears of the overlooked people of his native land, and he did it in deceptively simple, unvarnished prose.”
Photo of Paul Hemphill courtesy of Susan Percy.
The following titles by Paul Hemphill are held by the Hargrett Library:
The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.
The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music. New York: Pocket Books, 1971.
Mayor: Notes on the Sixties. [With Ivan Allen, Jr.] New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
The Good Old Boys. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.
The Good Old Boys. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975.
Long Gone: A Novel. New York: Viking Press, 1979.
Too Old To Cry. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
The Sixkiller Chronicles. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Me and the Boy: Father and Son on the Appalachian Trail. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
King of the Road. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son. New York: Viking, 1993.
The Heart of the Game: The Education of a Minor-League Ballplayer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural South. New York: Free Press, 2000.
Nobody’s Hero: A Novel. Montgomery: River City, 2002.
Climbing Jacob's Ladder: A Trial Lawyer's Journey. [With Jock M. Smith] Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2002
Lost in the Lights: Sports, Dreams, and Life. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.
Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams. New York: Viking, 2005.
A Tiger Walk through History: The Complete Story of Auburn Football from 1892 to the Tuberville Era. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.
The Special Collections & Archives Department of the Auburn University Libraries holds the papers of Paul Hemphill, including correspondence, manuscripts, clippings, and research files.