I learned in March that a featured speaker at the Alabama Writers Symposium in Monroeville in April would be the writer who calls himself “Sean of the South.”
This annual gathering is to celebrate Southern, especially Alabama literature, about which it is thought I know something.
I had never heard of Sean Dietrich and here he was, a headliner.
Sean is a blogger, an online literary form that’s been around for a while, but not something I’d normally review.
I investigated. First, I asked people of different ages if they had heard of him. Older people had not; some younger people had.
What does he do in those blogs?
Sometimes he waxes nostalgic: chocolate chip cookies aren’t what they used to be. Mayberry is the place to be. He writes of contemporary television, “I’d like to know where television went wrong. When did bare nipples become more entertaining than Barney Fife? “
But usually, he writes about the world around him. He is fully aware that the world is a mess. “I watched the news last night, and I’m sorry I did. …Violent crimes, shootings, complete with video footage. .. Hell is a remote-control away, you can see it any time you want.” Life isn’t fair. Maybe humans are meaner than they used to be.
Dietrich’s answer to this is to look, consciously, daily, for examples of kindness and generosity, happy endings large and small. These he finds at the local diner, the Walmart, the grocery store, by the side of the road. In a Target in Mobile, “a woman’s purse falls from her cart, she didn’t know it. Without skipping a beat, a scruffy boy in a hoodie came behind her. He gathered the contents, then chased after her. ‘Ma’am!’ He said. ‘Your purse!’ ”
A lost dog is found. A 50th anniversary is celebrated. Six orphans are adopted. A tumor goes into remission. A stranger stops to fix your flat. The manager at the store gives a struggling young couple a buggy full of groceries.
Apparently late each evening, around 10:30 Central time, Dietrich posts a new blog. Some have told me they read this blog last thing before going to sleep. Others read it first thing in the morning. It cheers them up. It seems there are now about 125,000 people viewing this blog each day. I had trouble absorbing this number but am assured it is true.
Novelists writhe in envy.
The pieces are about 500 words long and, when Dietrich has about 100 of these, he self-publishes the volume with Amazon.
Dietrich writes, as is obvious, of Southern life, and Southerners are his audience.
By the way, he does not mean Maryland, even if it is below the Mason-Dixon Line. “It doesn’t seem right that our part of the nation gets lumped in with Godless cities like Baltimore.”
He dedicates “Whistling Dixie” to his Southern readers, but adds: “My Northern readers also mean the world to me. All six of them.”
Catering to these Southern readers, he says things like: “Easter Sunday is grander in our part of the world than in other places.”
Dietrich is a lot more like Rheta Grimsley Johnson or Kathryn Tucker Windham than the sarcastic Lewis Grizzard. In fact, his attempts at sarcasm fall flat. It is not his style. At his best, he has the cadence and homey wit of Rick Bragg, but does not, he says, read Bragg — ever — because he fears falling into imitation Rick Bragg, the way other Southern writers used to avoid reading Faulkner.
Dietrich has a real gift for titles: “Caution: This Vehicle Makes Frequent Stops for Boiled Peanuts.”
Or “Small Towns, Labradors, Barbecue, Biscuits, Beer and Bibles.”
Like the perfect country song, that covers a lot of the territory.
Dietrich’s work has been described as “quirky tales filled with a hefty dose of heart.” To get the right effect, it is best to read him as he is meant to be read — one a day. Any more gets cloying.
These pieces are a lot like the last four minutes of network news in the evening. After 26 minutes of cruelty, train wrecks, famine and war, there is a little piece on something uplifting. That’s Sean, every time.
Sean of the South is meeting a need. If it is your need, go for it.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.