Charlatans, Demagogues and History Repeating

For the past several months I have been submerged in the world of 1930s rural Georgia. My brain is currently residing somewhere between the blue tinged mountains of North Georgia and the shaded, gothic slope of Milledgeville. I have loved every minute of this research, and I am in such a screaming hurry to start on my novel that I can barely stand it.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, immersing myself in the writers of the day – Flannery O’Connor, Erskine Caldwell, and writers like Alice Walker and Olive Ann Burns, who did not grow up during that time period but still capture it so well. I have to say, though, that after you’ve read a good deal about the time period, about the plight of rural farmers during the Great Depression and the various issues that plagued them (exploitative sharecropping/tenancies, pellagra, strained race relations, extreme poverty, mental illness, to name a few) it can start to wear on you. The bleakness of the literature from this time period is so heavy, so starkly realistic, that it is an ache in your gut. There are no heroes here. No redemption. No hope.

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Five Forks (Colbert) GA, 1922. Photo courtesy Ancestry.com/Rootsweb

The brilliant satire and dark parody of Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell work so well because of the utter depravity and hopelessness of the time. It seems grotesque to laugh at a scene in which a starving family fights over a stolen bag of turnips, and the chuckle that escapes your mouth does so behind your hand, because you’re ashamed. Both authors, Caldwell especially, were ripped to shreds by the public and often had their works banned, because of the light it shined on the shameful truth that so many wanted buried and forgotten.

One of those shameful truths that we’ve seen whitewashed, spit-shined clean and presented as something else entirely is the legacy of one Eugene Talmadge, the former Governor of Georgia (1932-1946). Most people, even native Georgians, barely know who he was, other than the fact that a road or two was named after him. The history books attempt to paint him as a charismatic and noble figure, or at the very least, a neutral one.

It isn’t the case. Talmadge was at best, a charming demagogue who played on racial and economic tensions of the time to rise into power. At worst, he was a dangerous white supremacist who actively tried to keep his foot on the neck of the African Americans (and poor whites) whom he governed.

During his tenure as Governor, Talmadge stoked fires of racial tension by jailing those who dared to assemble in protest, actively courted the KKK (they sent flowers to his funeral), prevented the University of Georgia from integrating and admitting black students, favored low wages and cheap labor, and went out of his way to denounce anything “socialist”. He was an outspoken opponent of FDR and was adamant against Government programs like Social Security. He spoke often of how poor people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, and was in favor of tenant farming and sharecropping. He also meddled in the affairs of Central State Hospital, one of the locales of my novel, to the detriment of the patients who were already forgotten and abused members of society.

In addition to being racist, he was also ableist, often mocking President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his wheelchair and suggesting that a President with a disability could not competently lead.

“[People cannot] respect a man who can’t walk a two by four.” – Eugene Talmadge, on FDR.

Talmadge was well known for his sweeping, genteel manner of speaking, for his bluntness (“he tells it like it is”), and for his ability to charm even those who he was actively campaigning against. Known as “the Wild Man of Sugar Creek”, he took great pride in his popularity and used it to his full advantage. He Governed for well over a decade with an iron fist.

In reading about the time period and this man in particular (and finding out that members of my own family were avid supporters of his), it isn’t particularly shocking that he would rise so quickly to success. The Great Depression was a time of desperation and madness, with whole families so deep into poverty, literally starving and succumbing to disease, that they eventually became apathetic about their own futures. The future was an abstract concept, a dire possibility if possible at all. Talmadge was wily and smart enough to play on this desperation, to understand that hope wasn’t enough – he had to play on fear, also. Fear of being “licked”. Fear of being the lowest common denominator. He used the deeply-buried hopes of people that their lives still meant something, and convinced them that the only way to get back to “glory” would be by stepping on the backs of blacks and poor whites and taking back what had been stolen from them. It worked.

I see this same sort of thing playing out today, and I shake my head. Watching history repeat itself when we’ve learned these lessons so many times before (after all, Eugene Talmadge is just one small pebble in a bucket full of them) and yet still fall for the same old thing. We let our heads be turned, we fall for the lies, the propaganda, the bunk. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, said the Great Wizard of Oz.

I didn’t set out to write this new novel as allegory, but I guess I’ll go where the tobacco road takes me.

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