gamut (2007-08)

It's all so easy now, for people around the country and around the world to find out about other places, even cities of modest size in Tennessee. They no longer need a current World Almanac, or atlas or gazetteer, or last year's encyclopedia, or a well-traveled friend. When folks in Alabama or Albania or Al-Qaeda have some cause to find out something about Knoxville, the first thing they do is Google it. And, typically the first recognizable resource that comes up is Wikipedia.

The encyclopedic resource that's compiled and edited democratically, by you, the consumer, has become the global standard for quick answers about every subject. Some have called it the desk reference for the 21st century.

At the somewhat urgent suggestion of a reader who found parts of it troubling, I had a look at the Wikipedia entry for Knoxville, Tenn.

Of course, the first thing you might notice when you Google "Knoxville" is that the first entry on the subject of Knoxville, at the top of the list, is often about one Johnny Knoxville. Depending on his most recent movie releases, or which starlet he was spotted with, Knoxville, Tenn., sometimes has to content itself with being the second most-famous Knoxville in the world. We might be able to top our favorite son more consistently if we were to date Lindsay Lohan.

As you might guess, since Wikipedia's authors are legion and mostly anonymous, sites vary widely in quality. Cites for some cities, even those smaller than Knoxville, are coherent, interesting, and even a good read. Many aren't. The Knoxville entry reads like a Frankenstein monster of awkward sentences stitched together, like transplanted organs in the early stages of rejection. It's pretty thin in spots, which was the point of the reader who alerted me to it. He suggested it would be a municipal service if I were to help clean it up. I was flattered by his suggestion, and would of course be more than happy to comply, as soon as Wikipedia shares some of its advertising revenue with me. Just a little. I have a deal like that worked out with Metro Pulse .

You can't help but be impressed with how this multi-million dollar company can induce thousands of people around America to volunteer millions of hours of free time every year to improve its product. I doubt the Red Cross gets volunteering on the scale that Wikipedia does. If Metro Pulse could figure out its secret, and persuade writers to volunteer their services the way Wikipedia does, well, we could lower our advertising rates. But then, of course, some of us would need to look for a real job.

The Wikipedia entry opens with the apparently standard prosaic paragraph about metro areas. "Knoxville is the third-largest city in the state of Tennessee behind Memphis and Nashville and is the county seat location of Knox County, Tennessee, United States. It is the principal city of and is included in the 'Knoxville, Tennessee Metropolitan Statistical Area' which is included in the 'Knoxville-Sevierville-La Follette Combined Statistical Area.' As of the 2005 census estimates, Knoxville had a total population of 180,130, with a metro population of 655,400."

There's some complexity there about the new Combined Statistical Areas the entry doesn't clarify--but as far as it goes, it's all true enough. Of course, in the introductory paragraphs there's little indication that any of those 180,130 Knoxvillians are employed. If Knoxville has any particular reason for existing, we don't get to it very quickly on Wikipedia.

The second paragraph claims, "Of Tennessee's four major cities, Knoxville is the oldest." That's a sticky subject with its own history. Knoxville's much older than Chattanooga or Memphis, but when it comes to Nashville, it owes its "oldest" designation mainly to the fact that Knoxville, as the first territorial and state capital, was prominent before Nashville was.

You may have noticed that Wikipedia has no rule that its entries have to agree, or even be on speaking terms with each other. Nashville's Wikipedia entry dates that city's founding to 1779, the construction of Fort Nashborough, seven years before the first permanent settlers here, and a dozen years before the land auction that's remembered as Knoxville's founding. By the 1790s, there were more people living in Knoxville than in Nashville--but they were characteristically tardy in getting organized, incorporating almost 30 years after the first settlers arrived. Nashville beat us there, too.

The third and fourth paragraphs mention that we used to be known as the Marble City because of the city's contribution to the architectural marble industry (to be precise, "Ordovician limestone of the Holston formation"), and specifically mentions the long-defunct Candoro Marble Co. It goes on to state that Knoxville was once known as the Underwear Capital of the World because of our textile mills. As it implies, that's mostly gone, now.

Is there any reason for people to be in Knoxville today? On Wikipedia, it's not immediately clear. Way, way down, several screens later, there's a list of principal employers, which is fairly good as far as it goes. But it's just a list; Wikipedia doesn't presume to make any sense of Knoxville's economy.

It does mention, in passing, a University of Tennessee.

"Knoxville is also the home of the University of Tennessee's primary campus (UTK). The university's sports teams, called the "Volunteers" or "Vols," are extremely popular in the surrounding area. In recognition of this popularity, the telephone area code for Knox County and eight adjacent counties is 865 (VOL). Knoxville is also the home of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, almost entirely thanks to the popularity of Pat Summitt and the University of Tennessee women's basketball team."

So Wikipedia's Knoxville offers, up top, a total of 77 words about UT; 64 of them are about UT sports, and our cute area code. Considering the Vols play only about 12 hours, not counting time-outs, of actual football a year, and only half of that in Knoxville, you wonder how relevant that is to put up top in an entry about Knoxville. Explaining the Vols' importance to Knoxville is like explaining the importance of Knoxville itself, probably beyond the capacity of any website.

Of course, mundane matters like UT's total enrollment, its faculty and academic concentrations, its rankings in any given poll, and the dramatic, musical, and other cultural advantages it offers the citizens of Knoxville, are things Wikipedia assumes its users can figure out for themselves. The Clarence Brown Theatre, the McClung Museum, the Ewing Gallery, Hodges Library--maybe these are esoteric things.

Then comes this handy primer to Knoxville politics, quoted in its entirety: "As of 2006, the current mayor is Bill Haslam, who defeated Madeline Rogero in 2003. The previous mayor of sixteen years, Victor Ashe, was named United States Ambassador to Poland in June 2004. Ashe was term-limited and could not serve another term."

About Knoxville government and politics, that's it. No identifying phrases to describe the current mayor in any way, nor mention that, in fact, there's also a City Council involved. We should perhaps be grateful that nothing in Knoxville's Wikipedia entry suggests that we're also afflicted with a county government.

Noticing that absence, I took the liberty to look up the Wikipedia for "Knox County," which is shorter than the entry for Knoxville. But you hardly get into it before reading about the recent unpleasantness. Almost all of the "Law and Government" section, by far the longest part of the entry, is about the term-limits fracas.

"On January 31, 2007, the County Commission voted to appoint 12 replacements for these officeholders, but not in what many observers in Knoxville considered a forthright, public process. Appointees included relatives and associates of outgoing commissioners." For example, it states, "Outgoing commissioner Diane Jordan nominated her son, Josh to replace her, and even voted for him. Two days after the appointment, it was revealed that Josh Jordan was an admitted drug dealer.... Commission chairman Scott 'Scoobie' Moore nominated and successfully pushed through his campaign treasurer for a seat that was not even in his district. Outgoing sheriff Tim Hutchison nominated his chief deputy, J. J. Jones, to replace him who then hired Hutchison back as his chief deputy.... When the commissioners were deadlocked, they recessed out of view of voters in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Law, where they proceeded to strong-arm commissioners to change their votes."

There's a lot more. You don't want to read it. But it is, basically, what people around the world, assuming they have some curiosity about Knox County, will learn.  

As of this month, Knox County might be abbreviated : Knox County: (n.) Corrupt provincial government in eastern Tennessee. See also: Idiotic Redneck Cabal.

Anyway, back in the tamer "Knoxville" entry, now that we've got past the introductions, we find the History section. Looking at history first, before even having a good look at the city today, may be a little like getting to know a blind date by way of her intestines. Especially in Knoxville's case.

Given that, though, there's a basic formula, tailored for thumbnail histories of cities, perfected by generations of PR types who don't have much interest in history, but feel obliged to roll it out as a sort of duty. As applied to most Southern cities, the basic time-proven outline goes as so:

I. Founding and rugged pioneer days. II. The local Civil War battle, whatever it was. III. Some cheerfully progressive 20th-Century Developments. And out.

A second rule is that the longest part of any historical sketch will always be the Civil War part, which, though it lasted only four years, is generally agreed to be the main thing in American history. Ask anybody.

Whenever somebody finds an old gun in the basement, you can be pretty sure it's a Civil War gun. An old house is a Civil War house. A guy in an old picture is a Civil War guy. A guy who writes about history tends to be introduced as a Civil War writer.

Anyway, Wikipedia follows that timeworn outline rigorously. Almost half of Wikipedia's history of Knoxville's 220-odd years is about the four years of the Civil War. And much of that's a little askew.

It goes into troop movements and so forth, but I'll quote a little of it. "The Confederacy had never had effective control of large areas of East Tennessee," Wikipedia informs us. "There had been little slavery practiced in East Tennessee, partly due to moral opposition to the practice and partly due to the fact that little of the land was suitable to plantation agriculture; pro-Union and Republican sentiment ran high and most East Tennesseans had not been in favor of secession. Therefore, Union forces had little trouble occupying Knoxville early in the conflict."

Some of that's true, but conveniently misleading. I'm not sure whether we could get away with saying there was "little slavery practiced in East Tennessee." Maybe not much compared to Mississippi, but a whole lot compared to New Hampshire. By the 1850 census, there were 462 slaves living in downtown Knoxville alone. In this small, concentrated town of a little over 2,000, about one of every four Knoxvillians were slaves.

Pro-Union sentiment ran high here, yes, but we don't know much about pro-Republican sentiment. Because of Republicans' squeamishness about slavery, Lincoln's party wasn't even allowed on the 1860 ballot in Tennessee. We had Democrats and Whigs, but if Knoxville had any Republicans at the time of secession, they were as closeted as antebellum gays.

Then there's this surprising interpretation: that "Union forces had little trouble occupying Knoxville early in the conflict."

In fact Confederate forces occupied and controlled Knoxville for the first two and a half years of the four-year war. Even as the more pro-Confederate cities of Nashville and Memphis fell to Union occupation, Knoxville flew the Confederate flag for most of the war, about 60 percent of the duration of the conflict. Confederate forces, assisted by prominent pro-Confederate Knoxvillians, successfully repelled a Union attack by a young federal colonel named William Sanders in June, 1863. Through that summer that the tide turned against the South, in Gettysburg, Knoxville remained in Confederate control.

What you won't learn much about in Wikipedia is that Knoxville did witness some very interesting non-war developments in the 19th century.

After 1863, there's nothing at all for the rest of the century. No mention that the Civil War actually ended. Of course, whether it did actually end is a subject probably beyond the capacity of Wikipedia.

In fact, a few interesting things did happen here after the war. A Knoxvillian named William Brownlow, who had been editor of the largest pro-Union paper in the South, became governor, and the first Southern governor to recognize blacks' right to vote. Knoxvillians like Brownlow, despite some extravagant personality flaws, did a lot to assure that Tennessee would be in shape to re-enter the Union, ahead of all the other Confederate states.

Our slaves freed, the Presbyterian Church established an important institution called Knoxville College to train black teachers. That's not quite as important to Wikipedia's editors as troop movements.

Wikipedia offers nothing at all after the Battle of Knoxville until the arrest of outlaw Kid Curry after he shot up a saloon on Central in 1901. It's fun to see that fact in there, and I wouldn't for a moment suggest taking it out. But it might also be equally worth noting that during that vacant four-decade stretch the recovering city spawned dozens of factories, dozens more wholesale firms, and, in the process, sextupled its population. This would seem a good place to bring in those awkward introductory paragraphs about marble and textiles, but also about furniture and iron and railroad cars.

Meanwhile, thanks in large part to Reconstruction Republican politics, Knoxville's small East Tennessee University was designated the University of Tennessee. Knoxville saw the beginnings of a vigorous public-library movement, and of symphony music. Its 1890 electric streetcar system was one of the first in the South. It had an opera house, two passenger train stations and, at one time, three daily newspapers.

After the Kid's arrest and escape, there's no mention of, say, the big expositions of 1910, 1911, and 1913, the last of which was a major international fair devoted to the relatively new idea of conservation. It's one of Knoxville's proudest distinctions, I think, and played some part in spawning another unmentioned distinction, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a movement that was largely prompted and nurtured by Knoxvillians.

Then Wikipedia's assessment of TVA, aligned out of chronological order, sounds almost dismissive: "In 1933 during the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority was founded and headquartered in Knoxville by the U.S. government to help create jobs and attract manufacturing dependent on cheap electricity." Wikipedia's TVA sounds like an ambitious Chamber of Commerce initiative.

In fact, TVA's first job in 1933 was flood control, which had too often devastated valley cities and towns, including Chattanooga, and reversing erosion, which had ruined thousands of acres of cropland and cut the valley's agricultural potential by a dangerous degree, and to help farmers find more effective ways to plant and harvest their crops. But to some early planners, especially TVA's original chairman, Arthur Morgan, TVA's greatest mission was to reorder an entire society, plan communities, educate citizens in ecology and hygiene, combat disease and poverty, and improve life on a scale never attempted in the free world.

Much of TVA's social-engineering mission was on the way out by the end of World War II--but it was that, not the creations of jobs, that drew some of the prominent thinkers and world leaders of the day, from Sartre to Corbusier to Ben Gurion to Nehru, to come gawk at it.

Then it mentions the invention of Mountain Dew in 1948.

After lingering so long rewriting Civil War history, Wikipedia sums up Knoxville's last six decades in 23 words: "Knoxville hosted the 1982 World's Fair, from which the Sunsphere remains. In 1999, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame opened in the city." You can fill the rest in as well as I can.

A separate section economically dispatches Knoxville's "Culture" in two paragraphs, opening with the remark that "BLENDER magazine, in its '20 Most Rock & Roll towns in the U.S.' feature (May '03), ranked Knoxville the 17th best music scene in the United States." It doesn't offer supporting examples like, say, number of nightclubs, bands with records, etc. It does hail the apparently defunct concert series Autumn on the Square, which was discontinued after the 2005 season--but the entry doesn't mention the similar but older and still-kicking summer series, Sundown in the City, though there's a link to it beneath.

That Culture section leaves out a few other things; it doesn't mention the East Tennessee History Center, for example, either the history museum or the McClung Collection. In fact, in the entire entry, there's no mention at all about Knoxville, Tennessee, having a library.

To be fair, the links may provide pertinent information otherwise lacking on the site. As of this week, the links on the Wikipedia entry indicate that Knoxville is affiliated with the United Wrestling Association, but not that Knoxville has any connection to an opera company. It mentions that Knoxville has a daily paper, but no particular weekly. There's little about parks, and nothing about greenways, nothing about downtown development. A brief note implies there's perhaps some sort of public transportation here.

Wikipedia's Knoxville closes with a big party, a section called "Famous Knoxvillians." Of course, we'd each make a different list of who we consider "famous" and who we consider "Knoxvillians," and this list is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. Who's on it, and who's not, would make for an interesting psychological study, a sort of Rorschach test.

A marked subset called "non-native residents," includes Alex Haley, Chris Whittle, and Jake Butcher. To me, its existence implies that the others are natives. But in that list are several non-natives: Phil Fulmer, Jim Haslam, Pat Summitt, etc.

On the main list are three singers whose chief claim to fame is that they were once regulars on the Lawrence Welk Show -- but not included at all is, for example, Roy Acuff, who grew up in Knoxville, had his first successes here, and became one of the most influential figures in popular music of the middle part of the 20th century. Nor, for that matter, Chet Atkins, Don Gibson, the Everly Brothers, or any number of other popular musicians who spent formative time living in Knoxville and performing on local radio stations.

It lists my friend Ed Hooper, who puts together books of historical photographs of local interest, but not, say, major 19th-century American humorist George Washington Harris, who influenced Twain and Faulkner.

It has actors Jake and Bob Thomas, but not major MGM director Clarence Brown, the North Knoxville kid and UT grad who is credited with discovering Greta Garbo.

The alphabetical list is headed by the rock band called 10 Years, which I'm told sometimes plays at Blue Cats. Some others who've earned national press, R.B. Morris, Scott Miller or, heck, Clifford Curry, Carl Martin, Howard Armstrong, who've all earned national followings, are left out.   It shows bluesman Brownie McGhee, but not his brother Stick McGhee, who's believed to have played an important role in the invention of rock'n'roll.

I admit I did learn a few things. Until I found the Wikipedia list of Famous Knoxvillians, I didn't know that Robert Huntington Adams spent a few of his early lawyering years in Knoxville. That was long before his greater fame as a U.S. senator from Mississippi for almost five months in 1830. There's something you don't hear about every day. My hat's off to whoever happened to know that.

According to the entry, Ben Bolt, a master guitarist, is a "Famous Knoxvillian"--I've heard his work on the radio, but never knew he had a Knoxville connection, and the link supplied says he spent his youth in Miami and honed his craft in South America and Europe.

Anyway, if we were to judge the Wikipedia entry by Rorschach standards, the Wikipedia Knoxvillian would seem a rather eccentric, conflicted sort.

He loves pro wrestling, the Civil War, and Lawrence Welk reruns. He doesn't care much for either classic country music or the opera. He's got a season ticket at Neyland Stadium, but perhaps not a library card.

But Wikipedia's a moving target. During the couple of months between the reader suggested I look over Wikipedia and this writing, the Wikipedia site has changed, with a few subtle additions that spoiled some great jokes I intended to use here. Somebody even fixed a misspelling. Chances are the Knoxville entry you look at today will be different, and probably better, than the one I'm describing.

It's certainly an interesting idea, this idea of rewriting history and culture by popular vote. It's history as graffiti. Maybe someday it will be perfect. But for the time being, if you want to find out about Knoxville and its peculiar history, your best bet is still the public library. Which, as we've noted, is not mentioned on Wikipedia. You wonder whether Wikipedia resents its superiors, and would prefer to keep us to itself.