Award-winning historian Joel Williamson would seem to have the credentials to illuminate Elvis as a distinctly Southern phenomenon.
Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson. Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $34.95.
By Ken Bader
Elvis Presley: A Southern Life is smartly packaged. The cover succinctly expresses two provocative themes the author promises to explore: the title intriguingly portrays Elvis as a distinctly Southern phenomenon, and the photo captures the performer’s intensely sexual connection with his female followers.
Biographer Joel Williamson seems to have the credentials to illuminate these core aspects of Elvis’s life. A Southern historian, Williamson’s previous books include William Faulkner and Southern History and The Crucible of Race.
Indeed, the early chapters hint that Williamson is onto something. He points out that William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Elvis Presley were born within 75 miles of one another in northeastern Mississippi. A coincidence? Williamson doesn’t think so:
In the black belt South, the suffering was extraordinarily keen and compelled expression, the kind of expression that could only come with art – with writing, with music, and with performance. It was precisely because the culture wracked its people with such emotional violence over generations that its artists in the twentieth century achieved such power in interpreting humanity in America.
As for the screaming girls, Williamson suggests that Elvis was just a vehicle for his fans’ sexual liberation:
By the hundreds and the thousands, they wanted to hear their own voices, to move their own bodies, to express themselves as sexual creatures…
Alas, if you’re seeking further analysis of the particularly Southern nature of “Elvis mania” or evidence that the screaming fans were “expressing themselves as sexual creatures” (as opposed to simply being turned on), you’re out of luck. Williamson spends the book’s second half dragging readers through the sleaze of Elvis’s precipitous physical and emotional decline in the ’70s. In so doing, the author reneges on his promise of an intellectually coherent, insightful, and fresh take on Elvis’s cultural importance.
Specifically, Williamson focuses on Elvis’s insatiable appetites for women, prescription drugs, and adoration. That puts him in the company of trashmeisters Albert Goldman, whose discredited biography of Elvis the author frequently cites, and Geraldo Rivera, whose tabloid T-V interviews with former girlfriends and associates after Elvis’s death Williamson likewise references. Williamson wallows in the sordid side of Elvis’s life, with barely a nod to Elvis’s music and without a connection to the larger themes the author had previewed.
Williamson’s attempt to dethrone Elvis leads him to sloppy analysis and reporting. For example, Williamson writes that when Elvis made the second of his three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was shown only from the waist up, which the writer places in the context of an effort, steered by Elvis’s manager, to tone down the singer’s sexually subversive image. To the contrary, this appearance (actually the third on Sullivan, not the second) communicated the opposite — that because Elvis wouldn’t clean up his act, he couldn’t be shown without censoring those dangerously wiggling hips.
Perhaps the book’s most surprising flaw is the amateur psychoanalysis that academic-and-historian Williamson sprinkles throughout his tawdry text:
It was (Elvis), not (his bedmates), who suffered from unrequited love. It was he whom everybody knew and nobody understood. It was he who was doomed to loneliness, a loneliness that he fought, strangely and futilely, by striving always to have a girl in his bed when he went to sleep and when he awoke.
There’s really no need for this book. Bobbie Ann Mason’s brief 2003 biography better explains the Southern nature of the Elvis phenomenon. This 1956 interview with a fan tells you all you need to know about Elvis’s appeal to Southern white women:
And Peter Guralnick’s seminal two-volume work – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley – covers all the bases with solid reporting and superb musical analysis.
In Elvis Presley A Southern Life, Joel Williamson offers up little original research and even less original thinking. One of Elvis’s influences, Howlin’ Wolf, nailed it better in one line than Williamson does in 368 pages when the bluesman sang, “The men don’t know but the little girls understand.”
Ken Bader has been a writer, editor, and producer for NPR and WBUR, WGBH, and other public radio stations. His credits include a documentary about Elvis Presley for the Voice of America. He admits that he’s old enough to remember watching Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Peggy Warner says
Ken Bader certainly didn’t mince words. It was clear that he thought that many of Joel Williamson’s conclusions were either wrong or derivative and that there were other books about Elvis that would be more valuable.
This is what all book reviews should do; it saved me from buying a book I would not have enjoyed..
I look forward to reading more reviews by Ken Bader..
Alice Chesler says
Yes, i look forward to more reviews by Ken Bader as well. What a pleasure to read such an honest and informative review!