Book Review

No Lonesome Road:
Selected Prose and Poems
By Don West,
edited by Jeff Biggers and George Brosi
University of Illinois Press, 2004
Softcover, 280 pp., $25

I’m just tickled pink, as my South Carolina grandmother used to say, to read “Don West: No Lonesome Road, Selected Prose and Poems.” This wonderful volume, edited by Jeff Biggers and George Brosi, is a rich selection of West’s writings, musings and poetry.

For those who don’t know Don West, now’s a good time to get acquainted. This book will do a nice job of making the introductions. It’s also a fine way to get a small taste of Southern working-class and people’s history.

Biggers and Brosi assembled a nice collection and they give us interesting impressions based on their friendships with West with the introduction and afterword and in the editorial notes throughout.

Biggers, in his introduction, describes West as “a preacher, labor and political organizer, farmer, teacher and professor, editor and writer.” He goes on to point out that West, at the end of his life, described himself simply as a poet. In all his many roles, West was a bright thread that ran through most of the important civil rights, labor, political, social and cultural movements in the South from the early 1930s until his death in 1992. For those of us who knew, or knew of, Don West, this book will be like an old friend come to visit.

I don’t know what the editors or publishers had in mind with the timing of this book (publication date: March 29), but it sure is on time in this crucial election year. It is a powerful reminder of why the South should not be written off or ceded to George W. Bush without a fight.

The Bushies’ ultra-right appeals to stereotyped Southern backwardness cannot go uncontested. That’s the kind of challenge that West took up all his life. He gloried in the basic decency and warmth of working-class Southerners, Black and white.

He was enormously proud of his own heritage, which included ancestors who had fought in the Union Army from a part of Georgia that flew the Union flag. He didn’t back away from a fight no matter how lopsided the odds.

West would have scoffed at the idea of George W. Bush as a Southerner. He knew the miners and mill workers, the civil rights and peace activists, the women and farmers, fighting for their rights, and they had nothing in common with George Bush.

West fought tirelessly against backward and racist ways and customs in the South, and against those like Bush and the Republican right who play to those ills.

You might have detected a personal element in this review. Born and raised in the South, I can remember the eye-opener it was for me to learn some of the progressive history implied in this book. We sure weren’t taught it in Alabama or Virginia public schools.

I can only remember being in the same room with Don West a couple of times in my life. I was very young and just coming around the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. I thought he was a real nice guy, but had no idea of his history in struggle.

That came later after I had joined the Communist Party and was living in Birmingham. One day at a party club meeting an older comrade, Rev. Claude Williams, gave me a copy of West’s “O Mountaineers!” I still have it among my most prized possessions. Williams was a great friend and teacher.

People like Don West and Claude Williams have inspired hundreds – not just Southerners but everyone who fights to make things right. “No Lonesome Road” can help inspire a whole new generation of fighters. I’ll end with a poem entitled “For Claude Williams,” from “O Mountaineers!” but not included in this collection.

Oh, he who clambers through the stars
And plants his toes on highland peak
Shall not again be satisfied
To tramp the level waters seek.

For he who tastes life deep and hard
Shall not trip lightly on its rim,
But surging strong against its barbs
There’ll be no quiet peace for him.

Mountain Heritage — Don West

You mountain kid
Old woman or man,
I would call you back
To your heritage …!

Must we, too, be lost
As America is lost
In a thicket of violent greed?
Are we too lost to recognize
Our own broken image?

I would point you back
To an uncertain time in history
When the values Appalachia gave
to the South
And America
were rooted deep
In independence and freedom!

At an uncertain time in history
When civil war clouds darkened
the land
Appalachia held a blazing torch
On the freedom road …!