Theodore Rosengarten was a young Harvard graduate student, a native of Brooklyn, New York, when he traveled to Alabama in 1969 to conduct research on Southern sharecroppers' unions of the 1930s. There he came across an eighty-four-year-old African-American man, Ned Cobb, who had been a member of a communist-originated union. As he probed Cobb with questions about his union involvement, he realized that this illiterate man had a remarkable capacity to recount the details and events of his life.
In 1971, Rosengarten returned to his subject with equipment to begin recording Cobb's life story. The transcription, edited down from fifteen hundred pages of material, became a six-hundred-page book entitled All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, published by Alfred Knopf in 1974. (Rosengarten changed Cobb's name in the book as a safety precaution.)
All God's Dangers earned immediate praise. The New York Times said that " . . . Rosengarten, the student, had found a black Homer, bursting with his black Odyssey and able to tell it with awesome intellectual power, with passion, with the almost frightening power of memory in a man who could neither read nor write but who sensed that the substance of his own life, and a million other black lives like his, were the very fiber of the nation's history."
Paul Gray, in Time, called the book "astonishing," and noted that "Miraculously, this man's wrenching tale sings of life's pleasures: honest work, the rhythm of the seasons, the love of relatives and friends, the stubborn persistence of hope when it should have vanished. All God's Dangers is most valuable for its picture of pure courage."
Several reviews noted the "Faulknerian" quality of the narrative of Shaw--who was born twelve years before Faulkner and died ten years after him--and the Baltimore Sun commented that "Nate Shaw spans our history from slavery to Selma, and he can evoke each age with an accuracy and poignancy so pure that we stand amazed." In 1975 All God's Dangers earned the National Book Award.
The book has remained in print over the past thirty years, long a Vintage paperback and presently available from the University of Chicago Press. During that time, roughly the same as my own as a bookseller, I have been asked countless times to answer the same question, which always more or less comes in the form of "What one book would you say best explains the South?"
I have always answered it-usually standing right amidst the canon of Faulkner, O'Connor, Welty, and Wolfe, all in their beauteous Library of America editions, and in paperback aplenty, and To Kill a Mockingbird, All the King's Men, Black Boy, or Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, not to mention the book of a personal hero, Walker Percy, author of the first great postmodern novel by a Southerner, need I say it, The Moviegoer, or the work of several notable writers who are also friends, Larry Brown, Ellen Douglas, and Barry Hannah among them, and even a few newcomer gems such as Serena by Ron Rash or The Missing by Tim Gautreaux- I have always answered the question with the title whose mere utterance never fails to give a little thrill: All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.
This question--What one book best explains the South?--usually begs the next: Why? Lots of reasons, many of which I have suggested, but in case not: the strength of the narrative and its epic story, the sheer beauty and honesty in the language, the uncanny detail about agriculture and animal husbandry, about mules, for heaven's sakes, about the economy of farming and of Shaw's time, including the Depression, about labor, class, and race--about race in a way that takes the reader to the heart of America's great, vexing issue--about family, power, and truth, and, perhaps most of all, about human dignity.
Though I do it all the time, I am sometimes annoyed to see "Southern literature" subcategorized, when doing so somehow seems to minimize its importance. All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw--let there be no misunderstanding--is a great American work of deep universal relevance and, for its readers, invariably, a source of astonishment and, indeed, reassurance that literature-even from an illiterate-is a thing of unsurpassing satisfaction.
Richard Howorth is the owner of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, the bookstore he began in 1979. He served two terms as mayor of Oxford and is a former president of the American Booksellers Association. In 2008 he received the Authors Guild Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community.