This essay was originally published in the August 1995 issue of Chronicles magazine.
Some folks have been kind enough to notice my absence from these pages, and a few have been even kinder and expressed regret at it. The fact is that my wife Dale and I are working on a book. It will be called 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South, and we hope to have it out before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The idea is to remind visitors that they’ve come to a place with a complex and fascinating history and culture. Of course, if we can sell it to even a fraction of the two million visitors that are expected, it will do good things for our bank account, too. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing instead of writing for Chronicles, and I thought I’d give you a couple of samples, since I don’t have anything else to offer these days.
First, some items about individual Southerners. It turns out that a great many of our 1001 “things” are people—not surprising, because what’s most distinctive about the South (at least these days) is Southerners, who tend to be colorful, cantankerous, idiosyncratic, engaging folks.
Here are a baker’s dozen, in more or less chronological order. All the major areas of Southern accomplishment—agriculture, sports, food, literature, journalism, the decorative arts, music, war, politics, religion, law—are represented here, one way or another, although these are not (Lord knows) “representative” Southerners. Some of these folks are well-known, others were once, a few never were but we think they should be. It turns out the examples are multicultural and “gender-balanced,” but that’s an accident.
Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney was the daughter of a British officer who served in the West Indies. Born in 1722, probably in Antigua, and educated in England, she was left at age 16 by her father to manage three South Carolina plantations in which he had interests. Experimenting with indigo, she found a strain suitable to local conditions and learned the technique of producing dye from it. Her success set off a boom in the crop: by 1775 indigo made up a third of South Carolina’s exports. In 1744 she married into the remarkable Pinckney family of South Carolina: her sons Charles Cotesworth and Thomas carried on the family tradition as prominent soldiers and politicians.
William R. Johnson was a famous horse-race promoter from North Carolina, who specialized in intersectional races. In one of his races the backers of the Southern horse reportedly won $2 million. But Johnson’s best-known promotion came in 1823, when his syndicate challenged the great northern champion, American Eclipse, to a three-heat race at Union Course, Long Island. Recognizing that their horse, Sir Henry, was outclassed, the Southerners ran him all-out in the first heat and won it, while the northern jockey prudently saved his horse for the last two heats, which he won from the exhausted Sir Henry. The Southerners lost the $10,000 stake, but won far more from heavy side-bets on the first heat. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
Thomas Day (ca. 1801-1861), a free black cabinetmaker in Milton, North Carolina, was the owner of North Carolina’s largest antebellum cabinet shop. By 1850, he employed 12 people, including a number of slaves, and had a capital investment of $15,800. He built custom interiors and furniture for public buildings (including the Presbyterian church in Milton, of which he was a deacon, and the University of North Carolina), for the governor, and for many private houses. He must have been a talented diplomat—he was a trustee of the town bank and was so well respected that the North Carolina General Assembly passed a special bill to let him bring his wife from Virginia (blacks were not allowed to move across state lines).
Louis Moreau Gottschalk was America’s first piano virtuoso and the first composer to exploit American ethnic musical styles. Born in New Orleans in 1829, by the age of 19 he had overcome considerable prejudice (one critic wrote, “An American composer, good God!”) to conquer Europe with his playing, his romantic looks, and his compositions based on Afro-American and Creole music. Berlioz and Chopin were among his admirers. He had equal success in the United States and South America (P.T. Barnum offered him a lucrative contract), but his technique deteriorated; by the time of his death (at age 40) he was struggling to make a living. His sentimental popular pieces were widely played: the Library of Congress has “Last Hope” in 28 editions, including the 1907 Presbyterian hymnal. His compositions based on ethnic styles, are much more sophisticated and rhythmically complex, and can be delightful evocations of another era.
Louis Trezevant Wigfall grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina, and became active in his state’s dangerous politics, killing one man and wounding another in duels. He went bankrupt and moved to Texas, but his fellow Texans sent him back east to Washington as a senator, where he worked to reopen the slave trade and to derail any compromises that might prevent secession (which he ardently desired). He became a Confederate hero by rowing to the besieged Fort Sumter and, without authorization, personally demanding its surrender. He served the Confederacy first as an undistinguished general, then as an obstreperous senator, toward the end declaring that he would prefer to see the Confederacy defeated rather than arm slaves for its service.
Archibald Grimke was the nephew of the South Carolina abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the son of their brother Henry, a Charleston lawyer, and his slave Nancy Weston (by whom he had two other children). According to Archibald, his father left Nancy and her sons to his legitimate son Montague, saying they should be “treated as members of the family.” Montague turned Nancy out to support herself (not easy, as she was crippled in one arm), but when he married, he took back her children (his half-brothers, in case you’ve lost track) to be his servants, and had their mother jailed when she protested. After the war patrons sent the boys to Lincoln University. In 1868 Aunt Angelina, living in Boston, saw a mention of Archibald in an antislavery paper and got in touch, establishing a close family relationship. Archibald became a Boston lawyer, editor of the Hub, a Negro journal, and a prolific author. In 1894 he became U.S. Consul General to Santo Domingo. He was vice-president of the NAACP and longtime president of the American Negro Academy.
Carry Nation was converted at age ten at a Kentucky camp meeting. Mysticism and bad luck (and possibly a touch of insanity inherited from her mother’s family) governed her decisions thenceforth. She married an alcoholic Mason, so she hated both alcohol and fraternal orders. She left him, and when he died six months later, she taught school to support herself, her insane child, and her mother-in-law. In 1877 she contracted another unhappy marriage, to David Nation, and they ended up in Kansas, where Carry became a WCTU activist. She decided (helped by visions) that saloons, being illegal, could simply be destroyed, so she took her trusty hatchet and went to work. After more than 30 arrests, she hired a manager, went on lecture tours (biting the hand that fed her, she denounced Harvard and Yale as “hellholes”), and sold souvenir hatchets (anticipating Lester Maddox). Her husband divorced her for desertion.
Richard Halliburton grew up in Memphis and went to Lawrenceville and Princeton. Crushed that World War I ended before he could get into it, he sailed on a freighter and wandered around Europe before returning to college, where he settled in and edited the Daily Princetonian. After that lull he was off again, climbing mountains (the Matterhorn, and Fujiyama in winter—a first), having risky encounters with the law in Gibraltar and Chinese pirates in the East—ideal material for his first book, The Royal Road to Romance, a best-seller translated into nine languages. He became the highest paid lecturer of his day and wrote many articles and travel books, perhaps the most important being his two books for children, Marvels of the Orient and Marvels of the Occident. He disappeared sailing a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Criticized for his superficial approach to other cultures, he said, “When I stop bubbling it begins to creak.”
Dorothy Dix (Elizabeth Gilmer, 1861-1951) was the world’s highest paid woman writer in the 1920’s. She wrote the first ad-vice-to-women column in America (“Dorothy Dix Speaks”) for the New Orleans Daily Picayune beginning in 1895. In syndication she offered as many as 60 million readers her ideas about women: “From time immemorial it has been the custom of woman to sacrifice herself whenever she got a chance. . . . On the platform of pure and unadulterated unselfishness she has taken a stand, and defied competition, and now when she wishes to climb down and off, and give other people a chance to practice the virtue they admire so much, she is cruelly misjudged and assailed.”
Ralph Peer sold phonographs as a boy in his father’s Kansas City store before taking a job with Columbia Records, the first of several recording companies he would work for. His work on Mamie Smith’s 1920 “Crazy Blues,” an enormous hit with black audiences, persuaded him that he could appeal to other specialized markets by recording “on location.” In 1923 in Atlanta he recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” Even Peer thought Carson’s singing was “pluperfect awful,” but the record’s great success set off a recording boom in “hill-billy” music, which Variety characterized as the “sing-song nasal-twanging vocalizing” of Southern mountaineers with “the intelligence of morons.” But there was gold in them there hills, and Peer struck it again in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee. A call for singers of “prewar melodies and old mountaineer songs” produced a recording session that included both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Peer went on to become a major music publisher, as well as a renowned expert on camellias.
Ephraim E. Lisitzky was a major figure in the revival of modern Hebrew. Born in 1885 in Minsk, he came to the United States as a teenager and eventually settled in New Orleans in 1918, where he became principal of the city’s excellent Hebrew School. He was a prolific poet, whose best work includes Medurot Do’akhot (“Dying Campfires,” 1937), an epic in the style and meter of “Hiawatha” based on American Indian legends, and Be-Oholei Kush (“In the Tents of Cush,” 1953), based on Negro folktales, spirituals, and sermons. Lisitzky’s autobiography (originally in Hebrew), was published in English as In the Grip of Cross-Currents.
David Marshall Williams of Cumberland County, North Carolina, was in solitary confinement one day (for fighting with his warden while in prison for shooting a sheriff’s deputy who was trying to close down one of several whiskey stills he operated) when, naturally, his thoughts turned to the question of how to make a rifle with a short-stroke gas piston. Later, at the start of World War II, the United States government asked the same question, and he was ready with the idea for what became the Ml carbine. No less an authority than Douglas MacArthur credited American victory in the Pacific to “Carbine” Williams’ invention.
Duncan Hines was a slow starter (he worked in the printing business until he was 58), but when he found his metier, he built an empire. His 1935 Christmas card was a list of 160 “superior eating places” he had found in his business travels. Word of mouth popularity encouraged him to publish it as Adventures in Good Eating in 1936. Lodging for a Night followed, then others. By 1948 he was selling 250,000 books a year and his name was a household word signifying quality and integrity. Onward and upward from there, he formed a food company licensing the Duncan Hines label and an institute to publish his books. In 1957 Proctor and Gamble bought the whole shebang. When he died, “Recommended by Duncan Hines” signs (leased from his company) adorned 10,000 businesses.
Don’t worry: we’ll include the South’s great writers and musicians, its notorious politicians and gallant soldiers, the famous civil rights leaders and Sunbelt tycoons. But these folks will be in there, too. And anyway it’s a thousand-and-one things, not the thousand-and-one. Make your own list if you don’t like ours.
Another set of “things” we’re going to include is a list of great movies about the South—or, more precisely, movies about the South that are cinematic achievements, cultural phenomena, and/or good entertainment. Few, if any, have been all three, but we have to say something about Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). While we’re at it, Paul Minn in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) established the Southern prison brutality movie as a genre, Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) is highly regarded by cineastes, and Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946) made us all whistle “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” Broderick Crawford and Gregory Peck won Oscars for All the King’s Men (1949) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), respectively. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) gave us the memorable image of Burl Ives as Big Daddy. And so forth.
We’re having fun trying to guess which of the recent bigbudget “Southerns” will stand the test of time. (Driving Miss Daisy maybe; Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, no way.) And we re also compiling a list of underappreciated Southern films that I may share with you all some other time.
But the most fun has turned out to be picking a selection of really bad movies about the South, movies so awful that they deserve to be immortalized for that. We’re not talking here about flicks that are just banal and pointless, like many of the later works of Elvis. No, we mean movies that are actively offensive, movies that make you say “I can’t believe I’m seeing this!” The South has inspired a great many such films. And they are bad in so many different ways: some are pretentious, some blatantly exploitative, some silly to the point of imbecility, some—well, you’ll see. Harry Medved steered us to a few of these with his book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, but some of them we found for ourselves, alas.
Here are our nominees for the worst movies yet about the South. Check ’em out. I think you’ll agree that they belong on the short list for the worst about any subject. We’ll do this David Letterman-style:
10. Swamp Women (1955) deserves a place on the list, if only for its title. The story of four female convicts who escape from prison and go looking for stolen diamonds hidden in the gator-infested swamps, this is a far cry from Paul Muni. Director Roger Corman got the first Lifetime Achievement Award given by Joe Bob Brigs, former drive-in movie critic of the Dallas Times-Herald.
9. Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967) tells a story about ghosts and espionage that critic Leonard Maltin accurately describes as “moronic.” It stars Ferlin Husky, Merle Haggard, and some other country singers who should have known better. This was also Basil Rathbone’s last movie, and it may have killed him. Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966), to which this is a sequel, had Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren instead of Rathbone, but it’s not appreciably better.
8. Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers (1968) is about two guys who rob a Florida chicken farm and are chased at length through the swamps by colorful crackers. In his last movie appearance, Sonny Tufts plays the old swamp drunk. Believe it or not, this is a musical. One of the more memorable songs is “Dirty Ole Egg Suckin’ Dog,” later recorded by Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.
7. The Last Rebel (1971) stars Joe Namath as a former Confederate soldier. What else do you need to know?
6. Gator Bait (1976) is the story of a swamp-vixen named Desiree, who plays rough. The fatal attraction of the low-down, down-home temptress is a classic theme, but here it’s taken to extremes that result in some really gross scenes.
5. Southern Comfort (1981) shows what happens when some clean-cut National Guardsmen get crossways with Desiree’s chinless cousins. Let’s just say it makes Deliverance look like a day in the park, and speaks eloquently to the need for a Cajun Anti-Defamation League.
4. Easy Rider (1969) is a period piece, from an unfortunate period, and National Lampoon suggested what the Southern take on it should be: two degenerate, dope-peddling, motorcycle-riding hippies (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) and a drunken lawyer (Jack Nicholson) threaten the Southern Way of Life, until they are finally dispatched by armed patriots.
3. Mandingo (197 5) is a trashy sado-historical epic based on Kyle Onstott’s trashy novel, starring James Mason as the evil owner of a Louisiana slave-breeding plantation, Susan George as his slutty daughter, Ken North as a hunky black fighter—all stereotypes present and accounted for. This movie and its sequel Drum (1976) make the slavery episodes of TV’s Roots look like an artistic and historical tour de force. It’s even worse than Slaves (1969), which gets at least a little credit for good intentions.
2. Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) looks in loving detail at the gruesome deaths and dismemberment of several Northern tourists who innocently stumble on the town of Pleasant Valley, which was wiped out by Union troops but reappears every 100 years looking for revenge. This film, by the director of the infamous Blood Feast (1963), is the reductio ad absurdum of the genre (represented by several of our other nominees) based on Yankee fears of the rural South and the creepy folk who live there. Ten years later, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the antics of Leatherface and his housemates insured that viewers would never see Texas barbecue quite the same way, but that movie has some redeeming features, believe it or not. This one doesn’t.
Finally (fanfare, please), our candidate for the single worst picture ever made about the American South:
1. Hurry Sundown (1967) had an ad campaign that asked the question, “Will the South Overcome the Bigotry of the Hate-Laden White Aristocrats?” Set in the 1940’s and based on K.B. Gilden’s best-selling novel, Otto Preminger’s film is about a voracious real estate speculator (Michael Caine, with possibly the worst Southern accent ever recorded) who tries to take the land of two families, one of simple spiritual-singing black folks, the other common white folks of uncommon nobility. A bigoted judge and a lynch mob complete the picture. The kindest word applied to this turkey by the critics was “ludicrous” (Judith Crist), and we suspect it was Walker Percy’s model for the ridiculous movie being filmed in Lancelot. It makes Storm Warning (1951), with Ronald Reagan as an anti-klan D.A., look profound.
It was a tough choice.