William Pender, the newest pastor at First Presbyterian, Knoxville’s oldest church, recently got a surprising call from Georgia, a query about whether the First Presbyterian Church had any records about a former elder. They didn’t have anything very handy, considering the guy died almost 140 years ago.
George Washington Harris is one of the two or three most famous people who lived in 19th-century Knoxville. In the years before the Civil War, the often-ribald humorist created the deathless character Sut Lovingood, kind of a reckless psycho-hillbilly who respected no form of authority. Sut was, psychologically, more or less pure Id. Harris’s wild stories were nationally popular. Scholars believe he influenced Mark Twain, who as a young journalist reviewed the older author’s work favorably, and whose Huckleberry Finn might be seen as a more civilized version of Sut. We know he had a big influence on William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, because the authors owned up to it. Harris’ 1867 collection, Sut Lovingood’s Yarns, has reportedly never been out of print, though it can be tough reading for moderns; I think it’s mainly American-studies scholars who keep it flying off the shelves.
Harris lived most of his life, from early childhood through the first years of the Sut success, in Knoxville. He was a prominent citizen here, a sometime steamboater, jeweler, industrialist, Democratic politician, and postmaster who may have chosen the site for the Custom House, now the History Center. There’s hardly any other trace of him here except for the graves of two of his children, at First Presbyterian. A fierce secessionist, he left dangerously divided Knoxville for Nashville and ultimately points farther south, in Georgia and later Alabama.
By a bizarre coincidence, he died here. Shopping around his second book manuscript among the publishing houses on the east coast in 1869, he was on his way back to Alabama on the train when the 55-year-old writer passed out. The conductor put the man out at the next good-sized station, which he couldn’t have known was the sick man’s hometown.
One of the first people to identify him was a doctor summoned to tend to an anonymous, unconscious man off the train—and who turned out to be his brother-in-law. Harris was muttering, something that sounded like “poisoned.” He never said anything else. In the railroad hotel on Depot Street, he died that night, officially of “unknown causes.” The manuscript he was believed to have with him at the time of his death, remembered as “High Times and Hard Times,” was missing. Eventually, so was his body. Some sources state firmly that he’s buried in Nashville, where there is indeed a George Washington Harris buried. The problem is that Nashville’s G.W. Harris was buried 20 years before the humorist collapsed on the train. In the Knoxville press, Harris’ widow indicated that he’d be buried in Chattanooga. Other theories had him buried somewhere in Decatur, Ala., his last home, or maybe even back home in Knoxville.
John Bayne is a mathematician for AT&T in Atlanta. His unusual hobby is cataloguing and photographing the graves of Southern writers. He has a list of about 300 of them, and says he’s visited maybe half of those. Bayne grew up in Lenoir City, and East Tennessee’s biggest literary celebrity of the 19th century particularly intrigued him. What makes Harris particularly interesting, beyond his mysterious death, is that no one has ever been able to prove where he was buried.
Bayne began speaking with other scholars, including engineer/genealogist Phil Wirey and Randy Cross, who teaches at Calhoun Community College, near Harris’s last home of Decatur, Ala.
Wirey, whom Bayne describes as a “shrewd genealogist and cemeterian” in Decatur had noticed something in his researches, that men of Harris’ era are often buried next to their first wives, even with the second wife’s consent. He directed Bayne to the grave of Harris’s first wife, in Trenton, Ga. If there’s a long depression next to it, and any sort of stone marker, chances are it’s Harris’.
Harris’ former home, the once fiercely secessionist town of Trenton, where Harris lived around the time of the war and just afterward, is hardly 20 miles southwest of Chattanooga, and might also explain his Alabama wife’s otherwise puzzling remark that she was taking his body by rail to Chattanooga. There, in a fenced and well-kept family plot known as the Brock family cemetery, is one Mary E. Harris, 1816-1867, George Washington Harris’ Knoxville-born first wife. Sure enough, next to it, where you’d expect a husband to be, is an unmarked depression, with a pointy fieldstone marker, unmarred by any inscription.
Bayne thinks Harris’ unexpectedly widowed second wife had no money for a proper marker. Bayne admits the reckoning of the location is an educated guess, but the mathematician is confident that his hypothesis is correct.
With the help of the academic honor society Sigma Kappa Delta, which footed the considerable bill, Bayne led an effort to erect an era-appropriate marker, a four-and-a-half-foot tall granite obelisk.
The unveiling of the Harris monument will be at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 20, at the Brock Cemetery, which is at the foot of Lookout Mountain, just outside of Trenton. On hand will be some of Harris’ descendants, coming in from as far away as New Mexico; area historians; and author M. Thomas Inge, the well-known scholar and author of many books about Americana over the last half-century, including the Handbook of American Popular Culture.
It’s inscribed with a quote that might seem inappropriate on anyone else’s grave. It’s Parson Bullen’s eulogy for Sut, from an unfinished story, and offers a whiff of Harris’ phonetic style and general irreverence. It seems, for Harris if for no one else, fitting:
Let us try an’ ricollect his virtues \ —ef he had any— \ an’ forgit his vices— \ ef we can. \ For such air the Kingdom of Heaven.