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GP 28 June 2006: Tennessee Gone Missing

The Most Beautiful State.  Twenty years ago, a lanky and somewhat ornery New York money manager by the name of Hall who years before had got himself thrown out of the Citadel decided to replant himself in San Francisco.  With a large trailer behind his car, he slowly rolled across the continent, for the first time acquainting himself with the nation, on the way to his new life in California.  The most interesting asset managers take long trips; earlier we have remarked on Jimmy Rogers’ Adventure Capitalist in “Rounding the World Then and Now.”  Ray DeVoe, truly a  bonhomie and publisher/editor of the DeVoe Report, Wall Street’s best financial newsletter, has given us a tour of Asia by visiting its various stock markets as well as retelling his other adventures abroad.  Hall, too, learned by looking around. 

In his report back to us, the wanderer waxed passionate about Tennessee, finding it to be far and away the most beautiful state in the union.  If you climb up to the verdant University of the South at Sewanee and take a read on the state from the lazy hilltop at the end of Green’s View, you would share his opinion.  This school, really more a college than a university since it gave up the bulk of its graduate activities, sits on 10,000 magnificent acres, a bucolic setting in which Aristotle and his fellow walking-around, peripatetic philosophers would flourish, a campus  probably unsurpassed by any of the other groves of academe around the nation. 

But if you mill around its wounded cities or pour across its truck-stuffed interstates, the state will seem tortured and tired.  Not atypical perhaps is Chattanooga, long thought to be Tennessee’s grungiest city, which even now is struggling, yet it is thought to be staging something of a renaissance.  Tennessee is trying to become the comeback kid, but instead is sporting new, unrecognizable mutations.  

The Volunteer State.  Circa 196l, a noble first sergeant from Tennessee remonstrated with his training company, marching off to rifle practice: “You’re bunching up like a covey of quail.”  No profanities for him.  He mustered out of the Army for health reasons not long after, having served his country long and well.  It was there and in other places after that where we learned of Tennessee’s unique spirit.  Then anyway, it was the most patriotic state in the Union, but it was not filled with flag wavers.  Unlike the desk jockey jingoists from whom we hear so much cant, the men of Tennessee actually serve in battle. 

Tennessee was the home of Old Glory before it migrated to the Smithsonian.  One William Driver brought this storied flag to Tennessee from the North before the Civil War, later secreted it during the Confederacy, but once again proudly flew it after the Civil War ended.  He remained a staunch Unionist throughout the conflict, although his issue fought for the Confederacy, symbolic of the split personality that has characterized Tennessee since the earliest days of the nineteenth century.  Old Glory has recently made a trip home to Nashville as part of a great display at the Tennessee State Museum where one can learn of its importance in the life of the city.  It is in a fragile estate so this is probably its last journey outside the Smithsonian.  Not far away, incidentally, is the Military Museum, which commemorates Tennessee’s participation in overseas conflicts dating back to the Spanish-American War.  This is the Volunteer State because its citizens have heeded the call to battle in all the nation’s conflicts ranging as far back as the War of 1812. 

417 Union and Satsuma Tea Room.  It seems entirely appropriate that the quasi-historical 417 Union opened just a week or two ago in Nashville, a very pleasant hamburger joint,  and a real contribution to downtown Nashville, which has been shorn of real plain-spoken luncheon places that are of the city and not part of god-forsaken poorly conceived national eatery chains.  It was once the Satsuma Tea Room, which had a wondrous history to include a to-die-for bread pudding with bourbon sauce: 

For the nearly three decades that I lived in Nashville, the best eating place in town was the Satsuma Tea Room.  This was a downtown establishment which served only lunch, five days a week.  Presided over by Miss Arlene Ziegler who was the owner, manager, buyer, meal planner, and sometime cook, the Satsuma had one special meal every year just before Christmas.  The whole city oriented itself to this Happening from about 3 p.m. until the food ran out about 9 o’clock.  The spread was fabulous: baked ham, roast turkey, boiled shrimp, spiced round, Swedish meat balls, fish, chicken, even a plump roast pig with an apple in its mouth, salads, aspics, delicious vegetables (cooked, not the raw ones that yuppies pretend to like), salads, deviled eggs, turkey hash, sweet potatoes, boiled custard, all kinds of great desserts, and bottomless cups of steaming hot coffee.  One entered into this incredible experience without having eaten a bite of lunch and then exited some two hours later with no earthly intention of ever eating again (From The Joy of Eating). 

But the Satsuma shut, and one Anthony Leath bought up the lease.  With a tremendous amount of work, he took the plaster down to the original brick.  The amiable joint is decorated with World War II memories, a compliment if you like to the War Memorial and the Military Museum.  There are pictures of the 40s, soldiers aplenty, while the smoothe harmonics of 40s singers pipe out gently from the rear.  What’s wonderful about the place is that it seems to be part of Tennessee, rather than a formica knockoff of something hatched in a distant corporate cookie-cutter development center.  Leath, who grew up in Oak Ridge, is a returnee to Tennessee who worked for many of the genetically defective national food chains, mostly in the Northeast.  Now he has put his own stake in the ground.  His return home is all part of the reverse migration that is bringing a host of people back from the North to the South, taking Indians back from America to their sub-continent, and urging China’s scientists back to Beijing and Shanghai. 

The Nashville Revival.  Leath is just one more sign that Nashville is slowly coming back to life.  Downtown Nashville, a few short years ago totally rundown and crime ridden, has begun to recover: that means a fair number of fairly sterile, architecturally uninspiring tall buildings, lots of open lots (temporarily used for parking), the beginnings of condominiums for intown living, plus little remnants of history and character, such as the refurbished Hermitage Hotel, as well as the Customs House and Union Station on Broadway. 

If you stay at the Hermitage, you will be urged to take a more expensive room with a view of the Capitol which is completely pointless since that unprepossessing structure is blankfaced and stolid with a very curious statue of Edward Ward Carmack (1858-1908) in front, erected by the Women’s Christian Temperance people.  He was a rather undistinguished attorney, Congressman, failed gubernatorial candidate, and journalist.  This odd statuary commemorates as well a rather sad speech he gave to Congress known as his Pledge to the South, invoking the pain and not the pleasure of his homeland.  We, as well as others, have wondered why Old Hickory, or James Polk, or Sam Houston, or Davy Crockett—why they are not there instead?  A fine blog, Runaway Imagination, is equally bewildered by this monument to mediocrity. 

As we remember, William Strickland of Philadelphia designed the capitol, and perhaps he imported some of the Philadelphia spirit into Nashville.  Philadelphia is another city that lost its way.  The center of colonial America, its people turned inwards and William Penn’s town has never come back.  Even today, when one visits Philadelphia, you come upon museums and town squares and the like which speak of greatness, but then find a dowdy people who don’t measure up to its surroundings.  Strickland, by the way, is entombed above the cornerstone of the faceless Tennessee capitol. 

Nashville is potentially one of the nation’s great cities, but it will be a long march to the top.  Now it is eerily vacant and disconnected.  We see smart money coming in, buying up pieces of the town before it gets too pricey and getting businesses seated there before the gold rush begins.  Yet The Tennessean, its newspaper, is caught up in microscopy.Belle Meade, where all the houses of the grandees are located, is far out from the core, a long unpleasant drive out on West End and Harding: it is beautiful, quiet enough, but harbors a slightly morbid feeling. 

As disconnected is Vanderbilt, very close to downtown, but a university that seems to exist in its own bubble, without vital relation to its urban setting.  Vanderbilt is well heeled and would like to consider itself the top educational institution in the state—and more.  But its buildings, though well maintained, form a complex mishmash, giving it a mongrel architecture.  Visiting there, one hears a fusillade of words, but not much reflection.  In this, it is an utter contrast to Sewanee, or even neo-Ivy Rhodes in Memphis.  One is aware, however, that each institution leads a somewhat hermetic existence, each without organic ties to the state in which they find themselves situated. 

Missing Links.  This feeling of disconnectedness in Nashville is of a piece with the state, but simply a bit more intense in the capital city.  The city fathers are promoting a direct flight from Nashville to Japan now, since Nissan and other Japanese businesses lie at the heart of its revival.  But you cannot find a Japanese, or even an Asian beer, on the menu of its better restaurants, hinting that the welcome mat is only half out for the people who can bring the town back to life. 

The Frist Museum or, as it is more grandly called, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, is utterly curious.  The visitor can only cry, “Where’s the beef?”  Right now, you are asked to pony up $17 for a traveling Egypt show, the Frist having nothing, nothing else on display.  It’s more like a movie theater, determined to do art on the cheap, not really building collections.  Something’s missing.  There will be little of Tennessee here. 

The Wiring’s Not There.  Nashville, and Tennessee, is a city and a state with vacancies, gaps, missing DNA.  It seems to have turned its back on beauty and its Volunteer tradition and become something else, something elusive.  One must remember that Tennessee was the stage for the Scopes Trial—perhaps Tennessee’s biggest moment in the sun—where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued about evolution, our monkey ancestry, and the like.  Sort of an earlier and more colorful version of today’s silly and debasing debates over intelligent design.  Bryan won the debate but lost the war: he and the state of Tennessee became the butt of jokes that have not ended in the present day.  This intellectual breakdown surely has tainted the state’s re-creation. 

Curiously, this oddsome tendency to deny the fruits of modern science seems to have led to a stunted mentality.  Certain political leaders are less than evolved, such that one asks if they are missing some DNA.  Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., formerly Vice President and now master of ceremonies for the pseudo-science global warming orchestra, and William Harrison Frist, Senate Republic Majority Leader and cheerleader for the Schiavo case in Florida, are the state’s leading politicos.  Both seem to be missing some of the vital tissue that connects one man to another; both seem curiously incomplete; both seem capable of going down very strange paths.  Neither—we think—has done much for Tennessee, each harboring more grandiose dreams than the state can support.  Each, of course, spent a lot of time at Harvard which was probably heady: in spirit they may never have made it back to Tennessee. 

The Making of America.  When the state cops stop your car on the way down to Nashville, supposedly to warn you about speeding, but really to look for dope, you can forget that this glorious state gave birth to much of the nation’s history.  There is quite a drug trade based on the great amounts of flavorful hemp cannabis grown in the national forests in the hills dividing Tennessee and North Carolina—as well as other drug traffic making its way back and forth across the state.  You wish moonshine were in the ascendancy, for narcotics can really lay a people low. 

Crime and drugs are not just an everyday problem in Tennessee.  At last report, the state experienced 695 violent crimes per 100,000 people annually, putting it in the unenviable number 4 spot amongst all states.  In general the South and the Southwest are high crime regions, with our nation’s capital taking the cake.  In the north, only Alaska is in their league.  If we understand correctly, the state spends about 10% of its budget on drug related matters.  The DEA finds all the usual drug problems to be prevalent in the state. 

But the state’s rich, constructive tradition is still evident just below the surface.  Just outside of Nashville is Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, from whence the hotel takes its name.  There lived the president who shaped the nation’s thrust into the West.  His protégé, Sam Houston, born in Tennessee, was signal in adding the Republic of Texas to the Union.  And James Polk, the President who most embodied Manifest Destiny, projected the nation far into the West.  It was Tennessee, lest we forget, that put the United States all over the American map.  And it might even be Tennessee, as much as California, that projects us into the Pacific Rim, if it will seize the moment. 

Doubting Itself.  Tennessee doubts itself, transparently so.  As do Gore and Frist, incidentally.  This self queasiness comes home to the traveler who glances at “Revisiting Sgt. York and a Time When Heroes Stood Tall,” New York Times, June 20, 2006, p. A3: 

Now another battle is unfolding as rival researchers use global positioning systems and computer programs, old maps and military reports to try to establish the exact site of the fighting on that day 88 years ago.  Their heated examinations do not challenge the essential heroism of Sergeant York, yet such scrutiny helps explain why it is hard to be a hero these days. 

A whole clutch of revisionists, including some Tennessee professors, are busy debating where World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York fought and how many of the exploits attributed to him are true.  Essentially the hullabaloo is to groan and moan as to whether this brave fellow killed a couple of Germans or lots of Germans.  Busy splitting hairs, they have fractured history and broken apart this glorious myth that makes the people of the Volunteer State certain of their past, and keen to get on with the future.  This is a state, and Nashville is a city, embroidered with potential if only its people can recover a sense of themselves, allowing the Jacksons, and Polks, and Yorks  somewhere in their midst, to work their magic. 

An Earthquake Needed?  The worst earthquake in American history occurred in the winter of 1811-12 in northwestern Tennessee.  Is a shock of the same magnitude needed to rekindle the grand ambition shown by its people in the nineteenth century, or is there some other way for Tennesseans to find themselves and find each other? 

P.S.  To borrow a phrase from Al Gore, we would not not like to find out what either he or Frist have stowed away in their “locked boxes.” 

P.P.S.  Those who have a talent for keeping the past alive know that their passion unlocks the future.  None more so, than Vince Giordano, whose Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a musical ensemble, has a passionate if limited following in New York City. In Greenwich Village one night, we found him huffing up some stairs with his instrument, late to a jam of the Sidney Bechet Society Ltd.  An instrumentalist from Paris was featured that evening. 

P.P.P.S.  Tennessee almost got called Franklin, but that idea melted away.  Instead it got a Cherokee name, Tennessee, but nobody quite knows what it means.  It captures the ambivalence and ambiguousness that is inherent in this state. 

P.P.P.P.S.  Perhaps the greatest strength of the Volunteer State is its storytelling tradition.  We consider this even more important than the Opry and Elvis Presley.  The heart of story country is Jonesborough, which we discuss a little in “Stories R Us.”  Story and myth could have a great deal to do with the resurrection of Tennessee.

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