Saturday, February 25, 2012

Get Well

In April of 1945, the man who would become my mentor, Marcus W. Orr, was shot in the back in Germany in World War II. The bullet came from a German plane that strafed a company of American GIs as they were approaching an obscure town about thirty miles northwest of Munich known as Dachau. The bullet cut Dr. Orr’s spinal cord somewhere around the middle of his back. He retained the use of his arms, neck, and shoulders, but he would never walk again. He was treated for his wounds in Europe and, once his condition had been stabilized, was sent back to the States to a new hospital in Memphis, to further recuperate and to learn to live life as a paraplegic.

The new hospital where Dr. Orr was sent was Kennedy General Hospital, whose wartime history is documented in a fine 2007 dissertation by Paul W. White. Kennedy, which was named for James M. Kennedy (1853-1930), a lifetime Army medical man who once headed the Walter Reed General Hospital and who had no connection to Memphis whatsoever, opened in January of 1943; in two years it grew to be the largest Army hospital in the country, with a census that reached six thousand patients by the war’s end. It was built on a large parcel of land at the intersection of Park Avenue and Getwell, which, when construction on the hospital began, had been Shotwell. The name was changed in 1942 when a Mrs. M. E. Brown of Morvell, Arkansas, pointed out to the Memphis Press-Scimitar that Shotwell was a terrible name for a street bordering what was to be a hospital for injured soldiers; Mrs. Brown suggested Getwell instead, and so it became.

That Memphis was chosen as the site for the new military hospital was due in no small part to the efforts of Senator Kenneth McKellar, a Tennessee Democrat and Memphis resident who served in the U.S. Senate for over thirty-five years (1917-1953). But aside from McKellar’s influence, Memphis itself had much to offer the war department, with its transportation infrastructure consisting of roadways, railroad lines, the Mississippi River, and a municipal airport. In addition, Memphis was already a center of military activity: it was the site of a new quartermaster depot and two ordnance plants, as well as the site of the Second Army Headquarters and the Fourth Service Command.

As Dr. White tells us, the first wounded soldiers from overseas, veterans of fighting in the South Pacific, arrived at Kennedy in February of 1943—paraplegics and quadriplegics. They arrived by train, under cover of night, for fear of spies, according to a volunteer at the hospital. In July of that same year, the first prisoners of war, German and Italian, began being treated at Kennedy.

Kennedy was originally intended to be a regional hospital that treated all manner of wounds, injuries, and illnesses; the operative word was regional: Marcus Orr was shipped to Kennedy because his home state was neighboring Arkansas. But by war’s end, the hospital had evolved into a “center for research, evaluation, and specialization for psychiatric and penicillin medical care, as well as surgical procedures for neurological, thoracic, and orthopedic cases.”

Several themes emerge from Dr. White’s study; they are too numerous to list here, but a few are the acute local housing shortage for military personnel, especially nurses; the impact of segregation generally and the hurdles faced by the city’s black women in their effort to be useful to the war effort in particular; the close cooperation between the hospital, city officials, and the local population, made evident, for example, in the beautification of the hospital grounds; and Kennedy Hospital as much like a city in its own right. In Dr. White’s estimation, Kennedy was a success, as it fulfilled the medical purposes, and then some, for which it was intended.

In the course of describing the founding and operation of the hospital, Dr. White offers us perhaps accidental glimpses into the workaday world of Memphis in the 1940s. We hear from James French, for instance, who was a construction worker at Kennedy. French, who worked for Fisher Aircraft in Memphis, describes how he took the Normal streetcar, which ended near Highland, at which point a company truck picked him up and took him to the construction site. Highland was a gravel road south of Park in those days, and no bus or utility service went to the site. We hear too about the complaints of one Hugo Dixon—he who, with his wife, would give Memphis what is today the Dixon Gallery and Gardens—about the monkeys he found one day cavorting in his trees and yard. The hospital kept monkeys for research; a few of them escaped and decided to help themselves to the delightful grounds of the Dixons’ home, which sat just a half mile or so east of the hospital.

We also hear about James Jones, a patient at Kennedy who is remembered today as the author of From Here to Eternity. Jones’s last novel, Whistle, is an account of his experiences at the Memphis hospital.

Dr. White draws on archival sources such as the papers of Kenneth McKellar and Walter Chandler, who was the mayor of Memphis in the 1940s, as well as the correspondence files and annual reports of Kennedy General Hospital. Also in his bibliography are two articles by Michele Fagan on Kennedy General Hospital; the articles were published in 1992 and 1994 in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

Kennedy General Hospital became Kennedy VA Hospital in 1946. In 1967, a new VA hospital was built in that section of Memphis known today as the Medical Center, near the campus of the University of Tennessee Medical School. The land and the buildings that used to be Kennedy were transferred to Memphis State University for its South campus; most of the old hospital buildings were soon razed.

Dr. White ends his dissertation with a quotation from a Martha Walker Bunn, who worked at Kennedy in 1945. “I never drive past the University of Memphis South campus that I don’t see those paraplegics under the old oak trees facing Park Avenue.” I imagine that one of those paraplegics was Marcus W. Orr.

Dr. White’s dissertation, which is titled “Kennedy General Hospital: Its Impact on Memphis in War and Peace,” was completed in 2007 at the University of Memphis under the direction of Dr. Charles W. Crawford. For a post on another dissertation supervised by Dr. Crawford, see my entry on Communism in Memphis.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Manassas in the Spotlight

In Memphis I attended Kingsbury High School, which, during my four years there, had a losing football team. One year I was the team statistician. I stood on the sidelines on consecutive Friday nights and recorded by hand, on a scrap piece of paper that I had attached to a clip board, our team's statistics for each game. After each contest was over, I went home and phoned them in to the Commercial Appeal.

I don't remember if we ever played Manassas, whose football team is the subject of a 2011 documentary titled Undefeated that has been getting a lot of attention ever since it was nominated for an Oscar. The latest issue of Sports Illustrated, for instance, contains a brief write-up about Undefeated. Manassas is in the northern part of Memphis, between Chelsea and Firestone--"an area ranked among the country's most dangerous places to live," in the words of the SI columnist. The football team has historically been a losing one, and the documentary tracks nine months in the life of the team and especially one of its players, O. C. Brown, and its volunteer head coach, Bill Courtney.

The documentary is also the subject of a brief--and uncharitable--review that appears in the February 15th edition of the Village Voice.

NPR's Talk of the Nation has also recently featured a story about the film.

Downtown Memphis, October 2011

The blogger (left) and his oldest best friend, who doesn't think much of Peter Taylor.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lift That Bale

In Memphis, cotton is king. Or so I heard growing up in the city in the 1970s and 1980s. But by the time I reached the age of maturity, cotton culture in Memphis was scarcely visible. Or I should say the buying and selling of cotton—the great commercial enterprise upon which Memphis was built in the decades after the Yellow Fever scourge of 1878 had nearly wiped out the town—were scarcely visible. To be sure, cotton—or at least the idea of cotton—was present in other ways. Downtown there was the old King Cotton hotel; in the grocery stores one could find King Cotton brand lunch meats; and, above all, there was the annual Cotton Carnival, Memphis’s much less grand, and much less debauched, version of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. But long gone were the days when farmers from the Mississippi Delta and western Tennessee would bring their crop of white gold into town to sell it on the spot to merchants on Front Street. And the lint-covered merchants who had once conducted their business so publicly, stationed elbow to elbow on the four or five blocks of Front Street that became known as Cotton Row, milling about in the Cotton Exchange Building and the downtown diners, were now hidden away in air-conditioned office buildings in the suburbs.

Cotton merchants in Memphis, 1939. Photo by Marion Post Walcott.
Still, I felt proud of Memphis’ connection to cotton, and still do, so I was gratified to see in D. Clayton Brown’s King Cotton in Modern America: A Cultural, Political, and Economic History since 1945 (University Press of Mississippi, 2011) an entire chapter devoted to cotton culture in Memphis. The chapter, which is titled “Memphis: The Epicenter of the Cotton Belt,” surveys the history of cotton in Memphis as it looks at cotton culture in the city from several illuminating angles, including the media (the offices of Cotton Farming magazine are in Memphis), Beale Street, and the Peabody Hotel, where the founding meeting of the National Cotton Council took place in 1938. (The National Cotton Council has been headquartered in Memphis since the beginning. For decades it was in a colonial-style building at 1918 North Parkway but in 2008 it moved to suburban Cordova.). There is an extended discussion of the Cotton Carnival, which was first held in 1931, and its black equivalent, the Cotton Makers Jubilee, of which, I must confess, I had been unaware before reading Brown’s book. The original Cotton Carnival was, aside from the blacks whose job it was to pull the floats, an all-white affair. In 1936, several of Memphis’ black citizens organized their own version of the carnival, the Cotton Makers Jubilee. (The name was later changed to the Memphis Kemet Jubilee in honor of black Egyptian culture.) Today, the Cotton Carnival exists as Carnival Memphis; that the name no longer retains the word cotton attests to the displacement of cotton from the center of the city’s economy; it also attests, I would imagine, to the powerful and often painful associations the word carries.

In his chapter, Brown gives us a glimpse of the colorful mule markets that used to be numerous in the city, a part of the city’s history that had been unknown to me. Before tractors became the norm on the cotton farms surrounding Memphis—and they did not until well after World War II—mules were used to pull the plows that would break the land and prepare the soil for planting. As recently as 1946 twenty-two mule yards were in the city; in that year alone Owens Brothers, which was the largest of the mule-trading operations, auctioned forty-five thousand of the plow-pulling animals. 

Brown ends his chapter with a look at cotton in today’s Memphis. Memphis has always been a center of cotton marketing, and there are still merchants in the city today. There are a lot fewer, and most of them are located far away from the old Cotton Row (two notable exceptions are the Turley Cotton Company and Lyons Cotton, Inc., which have their offices in the Cotton Exchange Building itself; they were recently joined by Jabbour Cotton, so now there are three), but no doubt a respectable number of cotton bales are still sold through Memphis merchants: Allenberg Cotton and Cargill Cotton, both located in Memphis, are two of the largest cotton merchandisers in the world. Cotton trading has also gone high-tech. In 2000, the Seam, an online cotton-trading site, was launched; formed by an organization of cotton merchants, including three from Memphis, its headquarters is in the Bluff City.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Memphis Rock City

In the early to mid-1980s I played guitar in several bands in Memphis. I was a pretty good guitarist—as soon as one of my teachers at the old Pickin’ Post on White Station heard me play, he got so excited that he called for one of the other teachers to come to the little room in which I took lessons to hear me play too, and they soon found themselves agreeing that I sounded like some famous blues musician whose name I had never heard of and cannot now recall—but I was never that serious about it (especially once I started taking classes at Memphis State), and I was certainly more straight-laced than the other musicians with whom I found myself playing. Whenever we went out to the North End or the P & H Café or the Antenna Club, I was always the one who went home early, which was to say before one or two in the morning. Yet one or two of the musicians I played with were very good friends of mine, and through them I found myself moving in circles that occasionally brought me into contact with the hippest bands and musicians in the city. I once, for example, spent an entire afternoon talking about music in the midtown apartment of the drummer of the most popular group in Memphis at the time, the Crime. I even once found myself at a nighttime party hosted by Tav Falco, who sometimes collaborated with the late Alex Chilton, in his loft apartment on Front Street. (Back then, having a loft apartment on Front Street was the ultimate in hip, something only what we called “bohemians” did.) It seems that anybody who was anybody in the local music scene at the time was at that party, including at least two people who appear in It Came from Memphis, the remarkable book by Robert Gordon under review here (Tav himself and Lorette Velvette).

When I reflect on all that and think about the curious and intellectually inclined person that I was (and still am), I realize that I should have entered my twenties knowing all about the history of Memphis music. But I did not. For some reason, I didn’t bother at the time to educate myself about the subject. But that is precisely the point. For anyone who came of age in Memphis as I did between 1975 and 1985, one had to educate oneself, to deliberately seek out information, about any history of Memphis music that extended beyond Sun Studio—and by that I mean merely the existence of the studio, not the long roster of musicians who recorded there and the songs that they recorded—and Elvis Presley. Such an education would not have come naturally, in the normal course of one’s knocking about the city, or listening to the radio, or hearing one’s elders talk. Back then, all your typical Memphian—at least your typical white Memphian—would have known about Memphis music was Sun Studios and the fact that Elvis Presley had recorded his first records there. Your typical (again, white) Memphian would have heard of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Rufus Thomas, B. B. King, and Isaac Hayes—those seven exactly—but the precise connection of those musicians to Memphis music would have been vaguely known at best. Your slightly less typical white Memphian would have heard of Stax but would have been hard-pressed to name any song that had been recorded there. I, for instance, had heard of Stax, but I could not have told you where it was, and its razing in 1989 passed without my notice. Even less typical was the white Memphian who was aware of Ardent Studios, and less typical still, who had heard of Big Star or Alex Chilton, who recorded at Ardent. The point is that Memphis neglected and often disparaged and even ridiculed its musical history. When Elvis died in 1977, my friends and I (we were about twelve at the time) regarded him as a fat old man who was always going to the hospital for one thing or another; to us eve-of-pubescent boys, the King was just this side of being a laughingstock. I still remember sitting on the sofa in the carport watching reruns of Leave It to Beaver and Hogan’s Heroes that warm Tuesday afternoon with my friend Harold Dewein when news flashed across the bottom of the screen that Elvis had been taken to the hospital. What else was new?, we said to each other. We probably even laughed. That evening, after news of his death had sunk in and hearing one Elvis song after another coming from the television in the wood-paneled den, I lay on my little twin bed in the dark and cried for what must have been hours.

For anybody who wants to educate himself about Memphis music, there are now a few good books, and Robert Gordon’s is my favorite of them. As soon as I opened It Came from Memphis, which was first published in 1995 by Faber and Faber and was republished in a slightly updated version by Pocket Books in 2001, I knew I had to purchase a copy for myself, if only for the annotated bibliography, discography, and videography, which runs to seventeen pages and where we learn, for example, about Charles Raiteri’s Red, Hot & Blue, a CD that contains on-air recordings of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, the first disc jockey to play an Elvis record on the radio. On the recordings we can hear Dewey doing his thing--and what a rip-roaring thing it was. Boisterous, loud, rowdy, Phillips was to broadcast booths what Jerry Lee Lewis was to pianos. We learn too about Old Hat Records, which issues recordings of the jug band music that used to be a staple of Beale Street, and about Calvin Newborn’s self-published book about his musical family. In short, Gordon knows where the goods are, and his knowledge is amply displayed in his book.

Gordon is a music writer’s writer; his book sidesteps the obvious and well-documented subjects of Memphis’s considerable musical past and instead takes readers on a tour of the musicians who didn’t hit the big time—at least not in the way that Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash hit the big time—but who figured into the national music scene nonetheless, a scruffy, tough, and colorful band of men and women (although there are only a few of the latter in Gordon’s book) who, despite their hard-living, rebellious ways, were serious in their conception of themselves as heirs to the musical traditions that had arisen in the cotton fields surrounding their metropolis on the river. Any city would be fortunate to claim the musical history documented in Gordon’s book; to claim that history and, on top of it, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Isaac Hayes, et al., borders on the unimaginable.

Following an introductory chapter, Gordon’s book begins with the hyperactive Dewey Phillips (no relation, by the way, to Sam Phillips, of Sun Studio fame), whose style was so unconventional and out-of-control that, as Gordon writes, it took “forty years of corporate rock and roll to rebuild the walls Dewey Phillips broke down.” Gordon then turns his attention to the late Jim Dickinson, who, Gordon writes, “learned the ropes as the ropes were being strung.” Dickinson was one of those musicians--and there are many of them--whose influence and involvement are all out of proportion to their obscurity. He played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans”; he produced the Replacements 1986 album Pleased to Meet Me; he was close to Bob Dylan, who called him a “brother.” Next we learn about the Mar-Keys, the white band whose lineup included Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, who both would later form one-half of the legendary Stax house band Booker T. and the MGs, the half-black, half-white band that wrote and recorded what has to be the most-played instrumental in history, “Green Onions.” And at that point we are not even a quarter into Gordon’s book. Still to come—and what follows is a partial list—are Ardent Studios, where the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements, ZZ Top, and Travis Tritt have recorded; Furry Lewis, the country blues guitarist who opened twice for the Rolling Stones; the Box Tops, who had a number-one hit in 1967 with “The Letter”; Chips Moman, at whose American Sound Studio “The Letter” was recorded (and at which Elvis recorded “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “Kentucky Rain”); and the late Alex Chilton and his band, Big Star. (I could go on and on about Big Star; on my last day on earth, I want to ride around the streets of Memphis with my old friend Rusty in his mother’s Catalina convertible, listening to Big Star. Readers who do not know Big Star may know one of their songs, “On the Street,” as the theme song of the hit television show That 70s Show.) We even encounter the famous photographer and Memphis native William Eggleston, who was a good friend of Alex Chilton and who took the photograph of the red ceiling and its shade-less light bulb that is on the cover of Radio City, the band’s second album.

Most of those musicians and places appear again and again throughout Gordon’s book, which deals mainly with the Memphis scene in the 1960s and 1970s. It Came from Memphis is loaded with stories told in the words of the many musicians, producers, sound engineers, and others who were there—in the studio, at the concert, in the club—as the events unfolded.

The strength and value of Gordon’s rollicking book lie in two things. One his linking what was happening musically in Memphis with the social context out of which the music came. Gordon is not an outsider to the musicians and events he describes in his book: he grew up in Memphis and, at least as of 2001, still lived there; he ran around with the people who figure into his story, and he understands Memphis like few other writers I’ve encountered. “A town of donut shops and churches,” he says aptly of the Bluff City during the era he writes about. (A lamentable update: today, the churches are still there, but the donut shops are far fewer in number, many of them replaced by Checks Cashed operations.) In his introduction he gets right to the conflict between the races that defines the city to this day--and that is responsible for the music that came from Memphis. “The evil behind that word [nigger] lives and breathes in Memphis. The city was built on that word. Rock and roll is a response to that word. . . . On the streets today, the populations mix, but it’s a surface politeness, a charming civic trait. Oppression is not unique to Memphis, though it is neatly encapsulated there. It’s the sort of environment where great art develops in obscurity.” Or as Jim Dickinson explained in reference to a failed attempt by the city in the 1980s to engineer a music renaissance in Memphis, “The diametric opposition, the racial collision, the redneck versus the ghetto black is what it is all about, and it can’t be brought together. If it could, there wouldn’t be any music.”

The second reason Gordon’s book is so valuable has already been alluded to: it brings together in a single volume a vast number of recollections and stories, eyewitness accounts of the music and its making. For example, in the chapter that deals with the recording of Big Star 3rd in 1974, we of course hear from Alex Chilton, but also from John Fry, who engineered the recording; Jim Dickinson, who produced the album; and Danny Graflund, who was, of all things, Alex Chilton’s bodyguard. (I was surprised to learn that Chilton had hired a bodyguard. Apparently, he did so simply because it was the thing to do, not because he feared for his safety.) The impression one gets is that Gordon has, for four decades now, been recording and compiling the accounts and recollections of the many people who have been or are still making music in Memphis. I say “the impression one gets,” because Gordon is unclear about his sources. But that is as it should be: It Came from Memphis is not a scholarly treatise. It is an energetic, sensitive, and yet at times critical account by someone who cares deeply about the musicians, the music, and the city from which they came.

I began this post by saying that as soon as I opened It Came from Memphis, I knew I had to buy a copy for myself. I really should have said that I knew I had to buy again a copy for myself. I owned one when it first came out, in 1995, but a few years later I loaned it to a young woman who has begun to make for herself a successful career as a writer. I don’t blame her; It Came from Memphis, once one gets his or her hands on the book, is, despite personal evidence to the contrary, hard to part with.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In Brief . . .

Muddy's Bake Shop is included among the bakeries making the South's best cookies in the January 2012 issue of Southern Living. The reviewer's recommendation? The double chocolate sea salt cookies. Don't miss Muddy's website, which includes a blog and fun biographies and photographs of Muddy's staff, as well as links to all the wonderful press Muddy's has received.

Memphis has made its way into Southern Living more than once in the past few months. In the October 2011 issue, the Orpheum Theater was listed as having one of the best ghost tours in the region. In the May 2011 issue, Memphis native and actress Virginia Williams revealed her favorite places to eat and things to do her hometown. And cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee listed their five favorite places for barbecue in Memphis.

Monday, February 13, 2012

In Brief . . .

Catherine Austin, chief of nutrition and food services for the Memphis VA hospital, is featured as the Food Service Director of the Month in the December 2011 issue of FoodService Director. An accompanying article, which was written by Becky Schilling, focuses on the training and educational programs Ms. Austin has put in place for her employees. One of the programs, School at Work, provides instruction in basic math and reading. Ms. Austin has also set up an employee computer lab in the kitchen. A third program, the result of six years of planning, offers internships in dietetics.

The Memphis VA Medical Center, which first opened in 1922, is located at 1030 Jefferson Avenue.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

La Vers Memphis

When I came across Amorak Huey's engaging poem "Memphis" in the spring 2011 issue of the Southern Review, I immediately needed to know if the poet was from Memphis. That, of course, says more about me than it does about the poet or the poem. As it turns out, Mr. Huey, as I learned from his website, was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. He spent fifteen years as a journalist and is now an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan.

In "Memphis," there are references to many of the people, places, and things one associates with Memphis: ribs, the river, Elvis, B. B. King, Beale Street, Graceland. The poem also nods to the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, for which the modern city in Tennessee was named and connections to which the modern city (incongruously, in my view, but I love it just the same) insists on making. The poem, which contains stylistic traces of Whitman and Ginsberg ("Tennessee--state of forgiveness, of makeup sex, of uneaten ribs. O Memphis!"), consists of sixteen long lines, all end-stopped and arranged in closed couplets, a form to which I am particularly drawn. Each couplet ends with Memphis.

In the poem, Memphis is not a place in which one lives, nor is it a place that one is from; Memphis is a place one goes to and a place where exciting things might, or might not, happen. Roll the dice; take a chance; maybe you'll get lucky. This is a poem for the tourist or the wanderer. Events beyond your control may land you in Memphis, but probably not for very long, and, at any rate, whatever you hope to find by staying put in Memphis proves elusive. The poem ends on a note of pessimism, of never being able to outrun whatever it is that hounds you, of never being able to last. The flood and water imagery with which the poem concludes reveals that Memphis offers no protection at all.

When I began this blog, I knew that Memphis was and is the subject of many books and articles. I had not considered that the city may be the subject of poems. I am glad to discover that it is, and I can only wonder how many other poems about Memphis have found their way into print.

Perhaps Mr. Huey and I have a lot in common. "None of us ever falls where we belong," he says in "Memphis." As someone living in a small, riverless town six hundred miles from Graceland and the Mighty Mississippi, I can only say, "Indeed."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Into the Woods

In the early 1990s--I don't recall the precise year--I drove six hundred miles, from Madison, Wisconsin, to my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, to hear the novelist and short story writer Peter Taylor read. He read from the opening pages of what would be his last novel, In the Tennessee Country (1994). In the front row of the room in the old student center at the University of Memphis in which the reading occurred sat several ladies who were contemporaries of Mr. Taylor; at several points during the reading it seemed clear to me that Mr. Taylor had written his manuscript explicitly for them, and the ladies exchanged smiles and knowing glances with nearly every sentence he read.

Unlike the ladies at the reading, the significant people in my life who have an opinion on the matter do not care much for Peter Taylor. My oldest best friend, who still lives in Memphis, loathes the well-born people who are at the center of so many of Taylor’s stories, and he thinks little of Taylor for bestowing so much attention on them. My dear departed mentor, Marcus W. Orr, who was a professor of history at the University of Memphis, did not quite loathe well-born people—after all, if he was not well born himself (and for all I know he might have been), he certainly lived a life similar to the one the Ramseys and Braxleys of “The Old Forest” lived—but he did find them “boring” as the subject of serious fiction and, much as my oldest best friend does, felt a keen exasperation over Taylor’s persistent interest in them. 

George Kessler's plan for Overton Park, ca. 1901
In “The Old Forest,” which takes place in Memphis in December 1937, Nat Ramsey, a young man in high society, is driving through a snowy Overton Park the week before his wedding when an oncoming truck collides with his car. Neither the driver nor Nat is seriously injured—and nor is the young woman who was riding with Nat and who, immediately after the collision, throws open her car door and disappears into the thick stand of virgin timber that covers the east side of the park—the old forest. The story follows Nat as he and several concerned personages—Nat’s father, the editor of one of the city newspapers, and the mayor, along with Nat’s fiancée and members of the police department—try to determine the whereabouts of the missing woman.

Along the way we catch glimpses of the Memphis that existed all those years ago—or at least the Memphis that existed in Taylor’s considerable imagination. We are told that beer gardens were popular in the city at that time; that professors at Southwestern (now Rhodes College) left their classrooms unlocked on weekends so students could use them as study halls; that one could feel safe walking at two in the morning from East Parkway to two miles away on Central Avenue. It is implied that the city would have possibly cleared snow from the roads that wander through Overton Park, and there is an incidental reference to Boss Crump, who, evidently, was too aloof from even high-society folk to be dragged into their business. There are references to the “old Memphis Irish,” to the “mercenary, filthy-mouthed whores on Pontotoc Street,” to the “certain unsavory characters” who loitered near the zoo. The Memphis skyline is distinguished by "two or three high-rise office buildings."

The old forest itself haunts the story. It is the last remnant of the wilderness that once crowded the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff upon which Memphis was built, the last link to the rough-and-tumble age of the city’s founders, Jackson and Winchester and Overton. The men who live in the Memphis of Peter Taylor’s story share with the generations of men who lived before them one unbroken existence and one unbroken memory of the old Memphis and of the old forest; the old forest troubles and discomfits the imagination of those men; it was in the old forest that many a man, and, even more horrible, many a woman, met their death at the hands of a fierce Chickasaw warrior; it is in the old forest that the innocent Lee Ann Deehart may have come to a grisly and premature end. The men are discomfited too by the thought that the old forest was the place where wives in the days of the frontier fled for sanctuary from the husbands who brutalized them back home; the old forest threatens the tyranny that men have long exerted over women, and as long as the forest remains, the Carolyn Braxleys and Lee Ann Deeharts of the world can hold on to whatever fragile and slender independence they may have. 

In “The Old Forest,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1979, we see a Memphis that does not exist anymore. Sure, Memphis still has its prominent families, families who play leading roles in the civic and cultural life of the city—the Belzes, the Turleys, and the Smiths are just some who come to mind—but I doubt very much if the mayor and the editor of the city newspaper would mobilize themselves if the scion of one of those families was involved in an embarrassing incident on the eve of his wedding.

Then again, “The Old Forest” is a work of fiction, so perhaps the concern demonstrated by the many adults in Nat’s life was just that—a fiction. Nevertheless, reading “The Old Forest,” I can believe—I want to believe—that, back then, seemingly the entire city would busy itself guiding the bewildered Nat Ramsey through the difficult days that followed and protecting the reputation and tranquility of the young women who were affected by the accident.  Making readers believe that the events described in a work of fiction really happened is the genius of any great writer. And Peter Taylor was a great writer.