Born: June 14, 1935, Atlanta, Georgia
Died: November 21, 2013, Nashville, Tennessee
Journalist John Egerton spent his career trying to understand the South by writing about its history, culture, and food. Egerton’s writing defied regional clichés and stereotypes and championed things close to his heart, such as racial understanding, social justice, and good country ham.
John Egerton was one of five children born to traveling salesman William G. Egerton and Rebecca White Egerton. Within a month or two of his birth, the family moved from Atlanta to Cadiz, Kentucky, where she had family. Egerton graduated from Trigg County High School in 1953, attended Western Kentucky University (1953-1954), and served in the U.S. Army (1954-1956). He earned a B.A. degree (1958) and an M.A. degree (1960) from the University of Kentucky.
Egerton worked in public relations for the University of Kentucky (1958-1960) and the University of South Florida (1960-1965). He was a Nashville-based staff writer (1965-1971) for the magazine Southern Education Report and its successor, Race Relations Reporter, before launching a freelance career. He contributed articles to several magazines, newspapers and the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council.
His 1987 book, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, explored the history and culture of the region’s cuisine, with an emphasis on unsung contributions of Black cooks. Following the book’s success, Egerton wrote a syndicated food column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other Southern newspapers (1989-1990). Egerton was one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in 1999. The alliance established the annual John Egerton Prize in 2009 for art, writing and scholarship that “addresses issues of race, class, gender, and social and environmental justice, through the lens of food.”
His other masterpiece was Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994), an ambitious memoir and history book that explored how progressive Blacks and whites laid groundwork in the 1930s and 1940s for dismantling segregation in the South.
Egerton wrote seven other non-fiction books, including the award-winning Generations: An American Family, and a satirical “contemporary fable” about President George W. Bush.
Egerton was a journalist-in-residence at Virginia Tech (1977-1978) and a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Texas in 1997. He was a friend and mentor to many writers, cherished for his wise counsel and humble good humor.
Egerton died of an apparent heart attack at his home at age 78. He and his wife, Ann Bleidt Egerton, had two sons, Brooks and March. Egerton’s papers are archived at Vanderbilt University.
A Mind to Stay Here, New York: Macmillan, 1970
The Americanization of Dixie, New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974
Visions of Utopia: Nashoba, Rugby, Ruskin, and the “New Communities” in Tennessee’s Past, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977
Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries, 1780-1980, Nashville: Plus Media, 1979
Generations: An American Family, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983, 2003
Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, (With Ann Egerton and photographer Al Clayton) New York: Knopf, Distributed by Random House, 1987. Reprinted with a new introduction by the University of North Carolina Press, 1993.)
Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture, Atlanta: Peachtree Publishing, 1990
Shades of Gray: Dispatches from the Modern South, Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1991
Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, New York: Knopf, 1994
Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves, Montgomery, AL: New South Books, 2006
1983, Weatherford Award, for Generations.
1984, Lillian Smith Book Award, for Generations
1987, Best writing on food, International Association of Cooking (now Culinary) Professionals, for Southern Food.
1995, Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Speak Now Against the Day.
2004, Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
2010, Hall of Distinguished Alumni, University of Kentucky.
2013, Award for Intellectual Achievement, University of Kentucky Libraries.