As William Faulkner conjured from his imagination the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha, Georgia author Raymond Andrews breathed life into a cast of unforgettable characters from his imaginary Georgia county of Muskhogean. In four novels and a book-length memoir, Andrews captured the essential force and beauty of the Morgan County community where he grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. Andrews drew upon the life he knew faithfully, and he raised his stories into literature with his exuberant voices and an artist's discerning eye. Thus the small-town characters and rural folk of his tales bear witness to many overlooked and hidden truths about life in 20th century Georgia at the same time that they outlive the people who inspired them.
Raymond Andrews was the fourth of ten children born to George and Viola Perryman Andrews in Plainview, a mostly black rural community a few miles outside of Madison in north central Georgia. As Andrews recounted in his memoir, The Last Radio Baby, when he was nine his parents became sharecroppers, and with his siblings - among them his older brother Benny, who would become an internationally acclaimed artist (and would illustrate all of his brother's books) - he worked in the Morgan County cotton fields and peach orchards and attended segregated school. At fifteen Andrews followed his oldest brother to Atlanta, where he lived at the Butler Street YMCA and worked as a hospital orderly while he earned a diploma from Booker T. Washington High School.
Andrews often recalled that he became a writer comparatively late in his life. After military service in the Air Force during the Korean War, he attended Michigan State University briefly then moved to New York City, where he began working as an airline reservation agent. It was not until November 1966 that Andrews' first published writing appeared in Sports Illustrated, a story entitled "A Football Rebellion in Backwoods Georgia." On his thirty-second birthday Andrews had walked off his airline job and the next morning he had begun writing, which would be his primary occupation for the rest of his life.
In 1978 his first novel, Appalachee Red, winner of the James Baldwin Prize for fiction, was published by Dial Press, which also published the second and third installments in Andrews' Muskhogean County trilogy - Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee (1980) and Baby Sweet's (1983). All three novels were subsequently reissued in 1987-1988 in the University of Georgia Press's special "Brown Thrasher" series, which honors classic Georgia literature.
In 1990 Peachtree Publishers of Atlanta published The Last Radio Baby, Andrews' book-length memoir about growing up in a large Morgan County family descended from blacks, whites and Native Americans. The next year Peachtree published what would be Andrews' last work of fiction, Jesus and Jessie and Cousin Claire (1991), a pair of complementary novellas published together that appeared shortly before the author, in poor health, committed suicide at his home near Athens, Georgia. Andrews' manuscript "Once Upon A Time in Atlanta," a sequel to The Last Radio Baby that recalled Andrews' time in Atlanta in the late 1940s was published posthumously by The Chattahoochee Review in 1998.
Although Andrews' career amounted to a mere five books, critics and scholars and his fellow writers agree that his was a special mixture of insight and talent, in that he neither had to search for a subject nor spend time learning how to express perfectly what he chose to portray. In the standard modern anthology of Georgia fiction, Georgia Voices, Hugh Ruppersburg includes an excerpt from Appalachee Red, noting how, "no longer does the state's regional character seem such a mark of separateness," as Andrews and some of his contemporaries "turn to the past in various ways to recover and redefine their origins, to place themselves more securely in the modern landscape."
Reviewing Baby Sweet's in The Washington Post Book World, David Guy wrote "Andrews has a deep and intricate understanding of the small Southern town, and displays this understanding not only in passages of exposition but also in the hearts of his narratives." In a foreword to Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee, fellow Georgia writer Mary Hood wrote, "It is part of Andrews' genius, and greatly to his credit, that he can serve us this serious book with the sauce of humor... [humor] based on his determined and vivid appreciation of his characters and their lives."
In an age when fictional characters are all too often alone and without any past, "Andrews' people are always part of a community," wrote author Richard Bausch in the afterword to the UGA Press's edition of Appalachee Red . "Indeed, his subject is community..." Raymond Andrews, "maintained a steadfast grip on his art, his craft, and his destiny," wrote Philip Lee Williams, yet another friend and Georgia author. "In the context of his times, his courage in telling the stories of the Black South is matchless."
Photo by Alexa Kozak.
The following titles are held by the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library:
Appalachee Red. New York: Dial Press, 1978.
Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee. New York: Dial Press, 1980.
Baby Sweet's. New York: Dial Press, 1983.
Appalachee Red. Afterword by Richard Bausch. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Baby Sweet's. Afterword by Philip Lee Williams. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee. Foreword by Mary Hood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
The Last Radio Baby: A Memoir. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1990.
Jessie and Jesus; and, Cousin Claire: Two Novellas. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1991.
The Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library of Emory University (Atlanta) holds Raymond Andrews' literary manuscripts and personal papers.