Monday, 25 February 2013

Second Acts

I recently discovered that there is a curious link between several quite disparate things.  This may not be news to readers in the USA, but it was news to me.

The first thing:
A while ago, I saw a picture of an art installation, "Five Car Stud" by Edward Kienholz, first shown in 1972.  It's night-time in the rural American South.  A circle of five vehicles have turned their headlights inward to create an illuminated tableau, where six white men are subduing a single black man on the ground.  According to the caption, they are about to castrate him.  It's really very disturbing, even though the models are quite crude.  It mirrors an actual incident from 1957, carried out in Alabama by a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, the "Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy", founded by a prominent and murderously militant white supremacist, Asa Earl Carter.

The second thing:
Back in the 60s and 70s, with a string of minimalist, brutal, and ironically self-aware westerns, Clint Eastwood established himself as the contemporary film incarnation of the Wild West. One of the best of these movies is The Outlaw Josie Wells, portraying the outlaw career of an ex-Confederate bushwhacker, a veteran of the bloody guerilla campaign in Missouri, who, like many bitter young men on the losing side of the Civil War, headed west to continue the war by other means.  It's based on a 1972 novel known variously as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales or Gone To Texas (men who had upped and left for the west would paint "GTT" -- gone to Texas -- on the door of their homestead).  The film is sometimes characterised as "revisionist", as it attempts to counter the simple-minded Hollywood stereotyping of "Good Union vs. Wicked Confederacy".

The third thing:
In 1976, the author of Josey Wales, Forrest Carter, published another book, The Education of Little Tree, which became a much-loved word-of-mouth classic, particularly among hippyish liberals.  It describes the author's early life in the Depression era, orphaned and then raised by his Cherokee indian grandparents in the mountains of Appalachia.  It struck a chord with the mood of the times, with its themes of closeness to nature, the wisdom of indian ways, and the interference of the "guv'mint" and racist "Christians" with the simple desire to live an authentic, self-sufficient life on the land, making a little cash on the side from an illegal still.

Here's the [fourth] thing:
Last year I came across a 1991 article from the New York Times, "The Transformation of a Klansman", by yet another Carter, Dan T. Carter.  It describes how the violent white supremacist from Thing One, Asa Carter (a distant cousin of Dan T.'s), wrote racist speeches for George Wallace, later opposed Wallace politically as a sell-out, failed, self-destructed, vanished, and -- amazingly -- re-invented himself as folksy, half-Cherokee popular author Forrest Carter of Things Two and Three.  You can read the article here and there's more here.  It's a very curious story,  and a demonstration of the idiocy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that "there are no second acts in American lives".

I have now read both Josey Wales and The Education of Little Tree -- how could I not? -- and can report that they're both quite engaging but minor reads, in their different ways.  There is no hint of the violently racist bigot to be found in them, to be sure -- quite the opposite, really -- unless perhaps you like to trace a continuity between that extreme mind-set and the Tea Party-ish America that demands gun ownership and freedom from "Big Government".  I'm not sure I'd buy that.

Oprah Winfrey did remove the much-loved Little Tree from her list of recommended reads in 2007, having discovered the truth about its author's murky past, but a decent book with a wholesome message written by a thoroughly bad man is still a decent book, surely?  (Ever looked into Henry Williamson's politics?) This seems to me more properly viewed as an instance of D.H. Lawrence's dictum:  "Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it."

In this case, however, the tale seems to have done a pretty good job of saving itself.  The Education of Little Tree has been published by the University of New Mexico Press since 1985, has sold millions of copies, and appears to have achieved the hallowed status of a set text in American schools.  However, the University Press is taking no chances.  Even today, the book's preface makes no mention whatsoever of Carter's previous life, and continues to describe it as "Carter's autobiographical remembrances of life with his Eastern Cherokee hill country grandparents".

It probably goes without saying that Carter had no known Cherokee ancestors.  He was working on a sequel to Little Tree when he died in 1979, suffering heart failure after a fist-fight with his own son.  No family members attended his funeral.  Which is reasonable, as Little Tree would say.


Zouk Delors said...

"Here's the thing:"
Is that the fourth thing, then? Or is this a different order of thing? I'm confused.

Mike C. said...


It's a feeble joke. I do hate explaining jokes, even feeble ones, as it means they're not funny. It only works if you've heard lots of people say, "But here's the thing...".

Yes, originally, it did say "The fourth thing". But then I thought that "Here's the thing" was both amusing and apposite, as this "thing" was not so much a "thing" as the "thing" that explained all the other "things", the "meta thing", if you will.

Heh... Never mind.


Zouk Delors said...

Don't worry - I'm probably just a bit dense.