Knoxville's History of Provocateurs

The McCarthy-Tarantino-Knoxville Syndrome, and Mme. Carrie Nation's nationality

At a party at Union Avenue Books a few weeks ago my friend Dan Feller, ranking scholar of Andrew Jackson and director of the University of Tennessee's Jackson Center, brought up an interesting pattern.

The conversation started when someone mentioned that Quentin Tarantino had recently been knocking around town, the city of his birth, reportedly scouting locations for an upcoming movie. "What is it about Knoxville?" asked Dan, who's originally from Maryland by way of New Mexico and other parts. "Cormac McCarthy, Quentin Tarantino, Johnny Knoxville—"

I'd never heard those names mentioned in the same breath: the Pulitzer winning novelist, the cultish motion-picture director-provocateur, and the lovably zany stunt man. They're all household names, now.

They're all three associated with bizarre, extreme, profane, often comical violence. They're masters of violence so far beyond the pale that it sometimes becomes funny.

All three are former Knoxvillians. The coincidence might be worth remarking on if they were all three from, say, Philadelphia or Detroit—but the fact that these three all have intimate associations with a city that once, at least, liked to think of itself as a slow, quiet, conservative place does seem an interesting puzzle.

Maybe it's evidence of a Syndrome. Does it raise questions about the moral safety of raising your innocent children in Knoxville?

Cast the historical net wider, and you'll find further evidence. Clarence Brown's most shocking movie is maybe his best, Intruder In the Dust, about a killer and an incipient lynch mob. The first novel ever published in Knoxville, Woodville (1832), is a story of incest and murder, written by a local guy who was—one of those funny coincidences—later a fugitive from a murder charge, himself. One of the first nonfiction books ever published in Knoxville, Life As It Is, was in part about the sadistic serial-killing sprees of the Harpe Brothers, who lurked in and around Knoxville soon after the city was founded. Leola Manning's 1930 blues song, "Satan Is Busy in Knoxville," is a graphic account of a string of senseless murders. The most famous song with our name in the title is the classic murder ballad, "Knoxville Girl," a grisly story told from the point of view of a girlfriend killer.

Antebellum author George Washington Harris, the Knoxvillian nationally famous for his black humor, had a reputation for irreverence and sometimes violent absurdity. One of Harris's last Knoxville stories concerns a particularly reckless loon named Sut Lovingood, having crazy fun riding a steer-drawn sled composed of his own father's stiffened corpse. Has Tarantino ever gone quite that far? "Well! Dad's Dead" was published in the Knoxville Daily Press & Herald, a family newspaper, in 1868.

Maybe Harris, onetime Knoxville postmaster and a longtime elder at First Presbyterian, has a lot to answer for. McCarthy—who was the subject of a crowded birthday fete at Union Avenue Books last week, a 140-minute series of readings, refreshed with PBR, grilled cheese, and watermelon—tipped his hat to Harris's best-known creation, Sut, with the name of the title character in his most Knoxville-oriented novel, Suttree.

A recent rumor has Tarantino, appearing in an upcoming gangster movie as an actor, a character named Cormack.

I don't know what to do with this information.


Mr. Ken Burns, documentarian and proponent of the "Ken Burns Effect," is planning what promises to be an interesting documentary about the Prohibition era in October. On a half-hour teaser for the series that's been aired several times, Burns discusses the dilemma of what sort of accent actress Patrician Clarkson should give Carrie Nation, given that the famous saloon smasher was "from Kansas" but "of course, she grew up in Tennessee."

That statement startled me; a few years ago I wrote about a rare visit by Nation. She came here in 1906, rather late in her career, and was greeted as a curiosity, an exotic from Elsewhere. There was no mention that she had ever lived in Tennessee, and she didn't seem familiar with Knoxville. She said she'd been here only once before, and briefly. After a tour of town's dens of iniquity—Knoxville then supported about 100 saloons downtown alone—Nation remarked that "I've seen worse things in Knoxville than I ever saw in any town." She added that Knoxville was overdue for a "hatchetation." She smashed no saloons while she was here. Less than a year later Knoxville voted to ban saloons, without resorting to the hatchet.

Puzzled about Burns' reference to Tennessee as the state where Nation grew up, I went to the library and looked her up. As it turns out, she didn't grow up in Tennessee. She was born in Kentucky, and grew up in Missouri. She also spent much of her young adulthood in Texas. She did move to Kansas, but in middle age. She never lived in Tennessee at all.

Nation was probably America's most famous Prohibitionist, and is the subject of several biographies. It's surprising that in promoting the expensive series about Prohibition, the director shows himself making an error even non-historians could spot. It did make a good sound bite.

Burns' brush sometimes gets very broad when he deals with the middle part of the country, as we noted during the National Parks series, which offered an endearing but historically sketchy alternate theory about the beginning of the Smokies park movement.

Knoxville got some national press after going dry in 1907; America watched to see what would happen as a city known for drinking closed its 106 saloons. Knoxville's underground networks got an 11-year head start, and were well in place by the time the nation went dry. As Ernie Pyle and others noted, Knoxville became a conduit for national-level bootlegging. Burns, who prefers to avoid the word Knoxville if he can help it, won't get into that.

Regardless, Prohibition is a pretty fascinating and generally misunderstood subject, and I hope the series will shine a light on it. As much as Burns and his omissions have frustrated me over the years, I don't intend to miss it.