Knoxville History, Various Authors

This is not a book review; just notes about other, smarter people writing stories relevant to this column

I’ve made it a practice not to pretend to be a book critic. I have friends who, for reasons of their own, write books. I’ve written some books myself. Getting into the habit of criticizing books could put me into a world of hurt. But the last few months have seen a number of unusual local books about subjects I’ve written about in this space before. And with Father’s Day coming up, I thought I might mention a few standouts, all by authors I don’t know well.

Remembering Judge Robert Taylor

A couple of years ago, in my article about the weird influence of poet Ezra Pound on segregationist violence here, I described the federal judge whose 1956 decision made Clinton High one of the South’s first schools to desegregate. Attorneys of a certain age remember Judge Robert Taylor (1899-1987) as well as you remember a good spanking. He was a character in several respects. (Younger folks may recognize him quickest as the father of NPR reporter Ann Taylor.) One of the most powerful local judges of the 20th century, he ruled on everything from moonshining cases to the Butcher banking scandal, and sometimes left as vivid an impression on the attorneys in his courtroom as he did on the perps he sent to prison.

One of Taylor’s colleagues, Judge Charles Susano, has put together a hardback book, Remembering United States District Judge Robert L. Taylor, compiling memories of almost 100 authors, mostly attorneys and judges who worked with, or sometimes against, Taylor, during his long tenure.

Not a biography, exactly, it reads like a good-natured roast. You can almost hear the throaty laughter of elderly men, and ice clinking in glasses. I never knew Judge Taylor personally, but have long heard he was an especially interesting fellow, whose memory reached all the way back to his namesake Uncle “Our Bob” Taylor, the governor, senator, and fiddler who was probably the most beloved Tennessean before Elvis. As it happens, the judge’s father, Alf Taylor, was also governor. Judge Taylor had a lot to live up to, and did his best. I have it on good authority that he was unpredictable, peckish, imperious, and preoccupied with baseball.

The prose may frustrate some readers outside of the profession. (Who would have guessed that attorneys might have difficulty with clarity and brevity?) But it’s a handy resource for people who like to tell Taylor stories but can’t remember them all, and a rare no-holds-barred eulogy.

John Mitchel: A peculiar story

John Mitchel was one of the strangest people who has ever lived in Knoxville. The Irish-Unitarian revolutionary and penal-colony convict came to America and instantly became a prominent Southern secessionist, editor of a national journal founded here; this outspoken pro-slaver, father of two sons killed fighting for the Confederacy, died just after he was elected to the British Parliament. You need a full book to tell his peculiar story, and John Mitchel: Irish Nationalist, Southern Secessionist, by Bryan McGovern, is the latest to try.

It’s a readable narrative, and generally makes Mitchel’s life more accessible than anything else I’ve seen. Naturally, I wish he’d brought out more of the weird complexity of antebellum Knoxville. Among Mitchel’s neighbors here were George Washington Harris, the nationally known humorist and secessionist, and Horace Maynard, the Massachusetts-born intellectual congressman who became a Lincoln ally. Neither is mentioned in the book. Though Parson Brownlow gets an obligatory greeting, and Mitchel’s longtime partner William Swan gets a mention, Mitchel’s Knoxville years seem disproportionately brief. During Mitchel’s four years in Knoxville, the city gained a passenger railroad service, gas lighting, heavy industry, a market square, and its first credibility as a city; it was a fascinating time to live here, but you won’t get that impression from this book. Still, it’s a good overview of a political oddity whose career makes a mess of all sorts of theories about the Civil War.

Some recent books about Civil War-era Knoxville, like the otherwise excellent Lincolnites and Rebels, ignore Mitchel, as you might avoid a peculiar accumulation of incongruous matter on the sidewalk; maybe it’s only fair that a book about Mitchel should slight Knoxville. But I’m grateful it’s out, because when I talk about Mitchel, I always have the impression people don’t believe me. I’m going to keep this book on my shelf, for handy proof.

An illustrated history

On that shelf I’ve got several useful histories of Knoxville churches. Our older churches have outlasted businesses, schools, urban plans, and some political parties, and their stories provide some rare continuity to Knoxville’s chaos. They offer perspective. Most church histories are pretty prosaic, as if they were committee assignments, as they probably were. But it’s fun to find a book by a writer who’s really interested in the subject. That’s John Shearer’s In This Place, an illustrated history of Church Street United Methodist Church, whose permanent address on Henley has perplexed newcomers for 80 years. He traces the history of the church to when it was actually on Church Street, and beyond, even to its pre-Church-Street origins on the east side of town in 1816.

It says something about Shearer’s open approach that he includes an account of an event most church chroniclers might paper over, the love-triangle murder of the church’s contractor, on the site, a story I’d hardly heard before I wrote a story about it a couple of years ago. He also offers a satisfying discussion of the still-unresolved mystery (and sometimes, passionate dispute) of who was chiefly responsible for the design of the church. One suspect is local architect Charles Barber, who was, in the 1920s, one of East Tennessee’s most successful architects; the other, nationally renowned architect John Russell Pope, designer of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. All we know for certain is that they both worked on the project.

Shearer also devotes more than a page to the question of whether FDR called that church the most beautiful church he’d ever seen. It’s rare for a Knoxville building even to spawn that sort of a rumor.

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