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Southern Cultures 4.4 (2003) 5-26

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"Oh, so many startlements . . ."
History, Race, and Myth in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Hugh Ruppersburg


I was born in 1950 and so did not live through and have no memory of the Depression. Still, I feel in ways as if it is part of my experience, for I heard many stories of it from my parents and grandparents. My father's father owned a farm supply store that failed with the stock market collapse in 1929. He never held an-

other job, though he was only in middle age. Apparently the experience ruined his spirit. He moved his family from the Grant Park area of Atlanta to a small town about ten miles south called College Park. This was an important step in the events that made my coming on the scene possible.

My mother's father began his career in Orange, Texas, in the early 1920s as a race car driver, mechanic, and stunt pilot. With the onset of the Depression in the South, he began to dust crops and moved with his family back and forth through the Gulf states—Louisiana and Mississippi especially—dusting against the inexorable progress of the boll weevil. My mother remembers moving sixteen times in four years and attending thirteen different schools. She recalls spending one Easter morning waking up in the family car, parked on the side of a Florida road. Finally, tired of dusting, my grandfather moved into commercial flying. He settled with his family in College Park and became a pilot for Delta Air Lines. Thus another necessary moment. My father and mother met, married, and here I am.

For many people of my era the Depression, which we didn't live through, was a real and palpable experience. We knew about it, heard family tales about it, shared in its history and folklore. It was part of our heritage. Thus for me at least, and I suspect for many people of my post-World War II generation in the American South, O Brother, Where Art Thou? speaks in a particular way, as if some of its scenes linger on the verge of memory, as if it is family history, or might have been, as if Ulysses Everett McGill is the paterfamilias of us all.

Reviews of O Brother, Where Art Thou? tend to praise the film but often describe it as a work of fluff, with much comedy and great music but no substance. For example, Robert Horton of wrote that "this particular excursion into screwball madness is often heavenly, and frankly leaves critical explication somewhat unnecessary." Joel and Ethan Coen, the film's directors and screen writers, described O Brother as a "Ma and Pa Kettle movie but with really big production values" and as the "Lawrence of Arabia of hayseed movies." Parallels to Homer's The Odyssey were seen as superficial, and both the Coens claimed they had never read the poem. 1

This is doubtful. The Coen brothers make films replete with literary references, and it is difficult to believe they escaped reading Homer. Besides, this film really does draw a number of witty and clever parallels with the Greek epic. On the other hand, the plot of The Odyssey, with its tall-tale-telling hero and his fantastic exploits, is so ingrained in the cultural consciousness that even if one didn't [End Page 6] [Begin Page 8] actually read The Odyssey exposure would still come through movies, cartoons, and comic books.

Many reviews also note a connection to the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan's Travels, which chronicles the efforts of a film director famous for his comedies to learn about the life of the downtrodden so he can make a "serious" film about suffering called O Brother, Where Art Thou?

One might imagine that the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the movie that Sturges's director really ought to have made. The Coens' film does use a number of conventions from the Sturges comedy—a quest...


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