Don't Call Him Redneck
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
About a year ago, before he was running for the Senate, James Webb took a colleague to the mountains of southwest Virginia to do some research for a movie they were working on.
Rob Reiner , meet my cousin Jewel and her husband, Buck. Jewel made a home-cooked meal for Webb and his producer-director friend. She pointed across the way to a nearby hollow and said:
"Ah wuz bawn rat ovah theyah." That's Reiner on the phone from Los Angeles, doing a mountain accent.
At night, Webb took Reiner to a rustic auditorium. There was bluegrass and flatfoot dancing.
"Incredible experience," Reiner says.
There may be few places in the country more foreign to Hollywood than Gate City, Va., and much of Webb's livelihood has been to translate one culture for another. His dad's family came out of these hollows, though Webb grew up on military bases all over the country. Over the course of his career, in books and more recently in screenplays, Webb, 60, has been writing about the dignity of his people -- the gun-loving, country-music-singing, working-class whites of Scotch-Irish descent who fight in wars, staff the nation's factories and shop its Wal-Marts.
"This people gave our country great things, including its most definitive culture," Webb writes in his most recent book.
He knows that some folks might call his people rednecks. We pity those folks if Jim Webb is around when they say that.
* * *
Webb has moved in and out of public life, but the near-constant over the years has been writing, ever since he read a short story by Hemingway at Georgetown Law School and thought to himself, "That looks easy."
It wasn't, of course.
He is best known for the novel he started shortly after that, "Fields of Fire," a book he sweated over and struggled with, writing and rewriting it "seven times, cover to cover," as he likes to say. Drawing on his experience as a Marine company commander in Vietnam, it was published to much acclaim in 1978, when Webb was already serving as counsel to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.