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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Saturday Evening Memphis


In Memphis in the mid-1940s, ’Lonzo Locke was the most popular waiter at the Peabody, businessman Ike Myers was bringing Heifetz, Horowitz, and other classical music luminaries to the city, and the Commercial Appeal was pushing its Plant to Prosper and Live at Home program, whose goal was to demote cotton to secondary importance by encouraging farmers in the Mid-South to diversify, diversify, diversify.

We learn those details from a profile of Memphis published in the November 16, 1946, issue of the venerable weekly the Saturday Evening Post. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Post ran a series of articles on “America’s most colorful cities.” I have to wonder what counted as “colorful” in the eyes of the editor. Not unreasonably, Brooklyn was profiled, as was Los Angeles; but so were Minot, North Dakota; Burns, Oregon; and the standard by which all American cities are judged, Peoria, Illinois. Will it play in Peoria?

The twenty-third installment in the series (which ran to over one hundred installments) was devoted to Memphis. The article is every bit as “colorful” as its subject: “The old hot river-town, cotton-town, lumber-town blood begins to beat in her veins and she lifts her skirts up high and does a wild fandango down the Chickasaw Bluffs the way she used to do when Davy Crockett gathered her citizenry to the river bank for scandalous moonlight merrymaking around a keg of bourbon,” the author, one Harold H. Martin, writes about the annual Cotton Carnival. Mr. Martin wrote dozens of articles for the magazine over a twenty-year period, including one in 1949 about the Ku Klux Klan, which, the author hoped, was on its way out.

Mr. Martin presents the Memphis of 1946 as a well-behaved, hygienic city, thanks in no small part to the lordship of Edward H. Crump. A good deal of the article is about Mr. Crump and the purportedly salubrious effect he had on his adopted hometown, transforming it from a frontier saloon writ large to a tidy, quiet, and prim metropolis—tidy, quiet, and prim, that is, unless it happened to be the week of the annual Cotton Carnival, during which, as the quotation above makes plain, Memphis let down her hair and kicked up her heels. Martin begins his article with a description of the weeklong, all-hell-breaks-loose shindig, during which “the dark citizens perform a mad gyration they term the Jubilee Jump” and (gasp!) “somebody rides a horse into the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.”

Turning to the first page of the article, what immediately caught my eye was the lone photograph in the bottom left-hand corner. The photograph shows a black family sitting on Adirondack-style chairs along a covered passageway that runs in front of what appears at first glance to be a well-maintained apartment building but is actually one of the city’s five housing projects. A surprising photograph, really: one wonders how many other photographs of ordinary black folk appeared in the magazine that year. “Negro life in Memphis is not all Beale Street,” the caption reads. But even Beale Street is not all Beale Street anymore: Beale, according to Mr. Martin, “has lost its once-enchanting aura of murder, music, and mirth, and now resembles any other shabby street in the Negro section of a Southern town.”

Mr. Crump is certainly the central figure in the article, but Mr. Martin allows Crump’s adversary, Ed Meeman, the editor of the Press-Scimitar, a few words. Meeman worries that Memphis has forgotten that democracy, not bossism, is the law of the land.

The article devotes three full paragraphs to the city’s age-old cotton trade—“a peculiar business [that] is run solely on honor,” where deals are made over nothing but a cup of coffee at Doug Stamper’s Cotton Exchange Café. A large photograph shows cotton merchant Caffee Robertson examining a sample of cotton in the office of another trader, D. B. Fargason of South Front Street.

Mr. Martin presents a city and a city boss who were always on the lookout for corrupting influences from the eastern fifteen-sixteenths of the state. Crump is a sentry, a “watcher from the tower,” and “when he sees a gathering of poltroonery” in the state capital, he sounds the alarm, “and Memphis and Shelby County as one man rush to disperse the varlets with a fusillade of some sixty-odd thousand votes.” (Did I mention that the article was as colorful as its subject?)

Lately I’ve come under the spell of the mid-century American cultural critic Dwight Macdonald, who disparagingly classified the Saturday Evening Post as an example of what he called “Masscult.” Masscult is the enemy of High Culture, as its only standard is popularity. In that context, it is interesting to note that the articles in the Saturday Evening Post in the mid-1940s were often long, with long paragraphs and small type. Mr. Martin’s article on Memphis, for example, easily exceeds five thousand words. And I quite enjoyed the author’s purple prose. With my apologies to Mr. Macdonald, if this is Masscult, give me more of it.

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