Moral Turpitude

In 1972, Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories won the National Book Award winning over John Updike, E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Walker Percy, just to name a few. Eight years after her 1964 death, O’Connor moved notches up in American letters by posthumously winning the National Book Award as her writing progressively secured itself among, and surpassed, much of the writing she studied at Iowa just after World War II. At Iowa, O’Connor wrote a graduate paper on William Faulkner in her MFA program. She studied and read Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe and Faulkner, just to name a few. Many writers influenced hers. One of O’Connor’s most recognizable fictional characters from her novel Wise Blood begins with Hazel Motes returning from WWII, and he buys a blue suit, changing from his Army fatigues. Then in 1988 amidst The Cold War, Pete Dexter is awarded the National Book Award for Paris Trout. O’Connor had been passed twenty-four years, by then.  

Despite the years, O’Connor and Dexter have two things very much in common besides both being awarded one of America’s most prestigious writing awards besides the Pulitzer. 

For one, O’Connor and Dexter have in common the streets, squares, people and their stories that echo in Milledgeville. During separate decades, O’Connor and Dexter inhabited the streets of Milledgeville as Dexter lived in Milledgeville for a time before Paris Trout was published.

The more specific streets are Wayne, Hancock, Jefferson, and Wilkinson. On Wayne, Marion Wesley Stembridge owned a dry goods store. Wayne is where Mary Flannery O’Connor’s grandfather, Peter James Cline, had also owned a dry goods store. At Hancock and Jefferson, O’Connor attended weekly mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. At the corner of Hancock and Wilkinson, O’Connor’s mail was postmarked Milledgeville where, during The Depression, her aunt Katie L. Cline was a money order clerk, and O’Connor’s uncle Hugh T. Cline had been Postmaster. Diagonal the once post office turned Visitor’s Center, across the convergence of Wilkinson and Hancock, O’Connor and her mother often ate lunch. A story above the restaurant in the building that no longer stands, Pete Bivins once had a law office in the Sanford building in May of 1953. On Hancock above the Campus Theatre, Marion Ennis also had a law office in May of 1953.  

Stairs.jpg
2017 view of the stairs leading to the offices above the Campus Theatre where Marion Ennis’s office was in May 1953. 

For two, O’Connor and Dexter have in common Marion Wesley Stembridge. On 2 May 1953, O’Connor hadn’t been long returned from Iowa, New York, and Connecticut. Later, Dexter will hear about the infamous 1953 Saturday and base the eponymous fictional character Paris Trout of the National Book Award winning novel Paris Trout on Marion Wesley Stembridge.

Maybe a sliver of a silver lining can be seen. In a way, the story of Stembridge and Emma and the Cooper family and, subsequently, Pete Bivins and Marion Ennis and all others sadly involved in the story will win the National Book Award twice–once in 1972 then again in 1988.

How? 

O’Connor’s first draft of “The Partridge Festival” was first published in The Critic in 1961 and collected in the body of work that comprises The Complete Stories. “The Partridge Festival” was once a draft and then eight more drafts as the nonfictional Marion Wesley Stembridge is first named Mr. Sparrow then ultimately Singleton. The first draft is described; “Dr. George Gordon de Lacey comes to Pittsville from the university, takes a motel room to write about Mr. Sparrow’s murdering three prominent businessmen and then killing himself. [de Lacey] visits his spinster aunts, Minnie and Elizabeth de Lacey” (Driggers & Dunn p. 119).

O’Connor added a businessman.   

They call it Milledgeville; O’Connor fictionally called it Pittsville in an early draft of “The Partridge Festival”, and fictionally, Dexter told the story his way, telling Emma’s story, calling her Rosie

Continue reading “Moral Turpitude”

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Eye-Gougers and ‘Duellists’: A Sense of Continuity

Art is born of pain; art is currency ∴ pain is money.

We live in a violent world ∴ we live in a beautiful world.

Zora Neale Hurston criticized her own color during the Harlem Renaissance, died poor in Florida beyond sandy beaches, abandoned. Hurston was buried in a pauper’s grave, unmarked. Her grave was so lost until Walker asked Hurston’s ghost to lead her, and Hurston’s spirit did. After Walker stepped in the grave, Hurston was found. Alice Walker brought Zora Neale Hurston’s works like Their Eyes Were Watching God back to life. Alice Walker brought Zora Neale Hurston back to life.

Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize. Walker’s work is immortal. She published a poem in 1973 about Rock Eagle, a Native American animal effigy just north of Milledgeville in Putnam County, Georgia:

Eagle Rock

In the town where I was born

There is a mound

Some eight feet high

That from the ground

Seems piled up stones

In Georgia

Insignificant.

But from above

The lookout tower

Floor

An eagle widespread

In solid gravel 

Stone

Takes shape

Below; 

The Cherokees raised it

Long ago

Before westward journeys

In the snow

Before the 

National Policy slew

Long before Columbus knew.

I used to stop and

Linger there

Within the cleanswept tower stair

Rock Eagle pinesounds

Rush of stillness

Lifting up my hair.

Pinned to the earth

The eagle endures

The Cherokees are gone

The people come on tours. 

And on surrounding National 

Forest lakes the air rings

With cries

The silenced make.

Wearing cameras

They never hear

But relive their victory

Every year

And take it home

With them.

Young Future Farmers

As paleface warriors

Grub

Live off the land

Pretend Indian, therefore

Man,

Can envision a lake

But never a flood

On earth

So cleanly scrubbed

Of blood:

They come before the rock

Jolly conquerors.

They do not know the rock

They love

Lives and is bound

To bide its time

To wrap its stony wings

Around

The innocent 4-H Club.

(“Eagle Rock”, Revolutionary Petunias, pp. 20-3)

It’s a beautiful poem.

“Cherokees” didn’t build Rock Eagle, but the mistake is a perfect example of misinformation approved by The State of Georgia and extended to Walker at a young age, as a student. Creeks didn’t name themselves Creeks no more than the Cherokee named themselves. In all, it’s an ultimate example of how malleable history is and how wrong, and rhetorical, history is. When I was young, Alabama History taught me Creeks were “belligerent”, yet Cherokees were good because they were peaceful. I’ve no doubt Georgia History taught Walker the same.  What is peaceful?

Emma Johnekin was/is from Putnam County. Walker and Emma Johnekin grew up near the same road near Lake Oconee–a lake created by damming the Oconee River, for power. The road is called Old Phoenix.  The lake was dammed after 1949.

Enough pain put into words, music, or other media makes one rich. Enough pain put into words also can make one poor. If not for Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston would remain intentionally forgotten, particularly forgotten by the Harlem Renaissance. Jean Toomer oversaw a school in Sparta, and Toomer often passed as a white man.

Flannery O’Connor lived in Milledgeville. Alice Walker lived here when her bluest eye was shot-out by her brother. Jean Toomer lived in Sparta. Joel Chandler Harris is also from Eatonton, which is where Brer Rabbit is thrown in the briar patch after the run-in with Tar Baby, which put Brer Rabbit at the mercy of Brer Fox who set the unspeaking trap made of pitch, dead, in the rabbit’s path.

‘Skin me, Brer Fox,’ sey Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘snatch out my eyeballs, t’ar out my years by de roots, en cut off my legs,’ seize, ‘but please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,’ seize. (Harris 18) 

Brer Fox is smart, but Brer Rabbit is smarter. The briar patch is the rabbit’s home. The fox and the rabbit, the crow, the turtle, and others, are tricksters borrowed, or taken, from Native American lore known as Trickster Tales retold through oral tradition from indian to slave to indian to slave to indian-slave until the stories reached Harris’s ears, and eventually Walt Disney makes a movie called Song of the South that offends. Actual bombs that kill thousands are expected, but words are painful. Savage is now a cool, hip word. If anyone at all, the word offends few. It’s a rad word. It’s applied many times in The Declaration of Independence to describe a people The United States of America reduced to 1% of the current North American population. The original document is behind bullet-proof glass. Officials in Washington DC are also bulletproof. If you’re important enough, it’s another person’s honest job to take a bullet for you. Read past the two famous paragraphs of the eternal document if you want to see the savage words.

Toomer’s Cane, O’Connor’s works, Walker’s juke joint, The Color Purple and Walker’s mothers’ gardens might be, or might range a twenty mile radius from Milledgeville. Dee (Wangero) moved to the big city, but Mama and Maggie lived in the country. Maggie was scarred by a fire.

Continue reading “Eye-Gougers and ‘Duellists’: A Sense of Continuity”

A Natural Born Citizen: How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us

Blood from a stone

Water from wine

Born under an ill-placed design

A stroke of bad luck,

Wrong place, wrong time

This flier is out of the lime

The story is a sad one, told many times

The story of my life in trying times

Just add water, stir in lime

How the west was won and where it got us

–R.E.M.

Forts like Fidius and the 1797 west bank Fort Wilkinson on the Oconee River evolved into townships and communities with cool, unique names like Blood Town, which was near Fort Wilkinson. When whites dared establish structures outside fort walls, the west was won. Houses ranged from plantations to shotgun shacks. In Milledgeville’s early days, there were public springs. There were taverns, hotels, and public toilets. There was at least one “whorehouse,” which Mulford writes in 1809 on a map, “these [houses] are plenty, and make money out of the adventurous old Bachelors of this town” (Mulford Map). Before the bridge across the Oconee was built that Sherman will burn, there were ferries across like Fluker’s, Holt’s, and Bolan’s.

Milledgeville was born a capital in the fading light of an Indian war dance,” says Nelle Womack Hines, historian and writer. “It died a capital city in the fading light of a burning bridge as Sherman passed on. (Perkerson 65)

Mulford Map of Milledgeville 1808
Mulford Map: 6 July 1809

When the Oconee water level stages low, ruins of the old bridge are a common sight, sitting like an island of rubble mid river. The pylons were made of brick, and they wash when it floods. On occasion, I find a white brick one with Dixie imprinted and fired into its center.

Emma Johnekin was shot three to four times in Oconee Heights, which would’ve been near/ if not Blood Town. The place with its many names is on the way from Milledgeville to Midway where Central State Hospital is located, which, again, was once called the Georgia Lunatic Asylum.

Continue reading “A Natural Born Citizen: How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us”

Eternal Debt: linsey, nankeens, hollands, romans, buttanias, mamodies, hum hums, cantons, guerahs, prinsums, durant, punjums, and India

West of the Oconee River, Milledgeville is the oldest white settlement in Georgia–land ceded by the Creeks through legitimate and bogus treaties such as the Shoulder Bone Creek Treaty, which was named for a former boundary creek northeast of Milledgeville near Sparta. Shoulder Bone was a 1786 attempt to acquire the lands east of the Oconee.

From the Atlantic coastline and up from the Gulf, whites moved inward introducing European economics into an indigenous culture that had no concept of the new way. Compound interest and/or microeconomics might be understood and/or misunderstood the same these days; however, many would just call it math. Besides genocide, incurred debt won the West. The land of The United States was acquired through as simple of means as annual percentage rates on student loans, home loans, a bottle of rum for a hundred acres, or car loans such as the 1941 Chevrolet bought and financed by Marion Wesley Stembridge then bargained to the Cooper family at an inflated rate with the deal sweetened with a spurious insurance policy.

Debt has been around since at least the Middle Ages, spanning Europe’s feudal serfdom to America’s sharecropping then its credit cards. It’s not a stretch of the imagination that a supposed free American is also his/her credit score.

The way to control is through being owed, and it didn’t take European culture long to deduce that Indians liked things and had little concept that land could be owned or lost. Later, it won’t take the haves long to deduce that the have nots want and need things with little concept that a debtor, in may ways, is owned by the grantor of a debt. Of course, it didn’t take long for Marion Wesley Stembridge to do the same in the former capital of Georgia of the former Confederate States of America as progressiveism turned a blind eye to early twentieth and mid-twentieth century Milledgeville. Continue reading “Eternal Debt: linsey, nankeens, hollands, romans, buttanias, mamodies, hum hums, cantons, guerahs, prinsums, durant, punjums, and India”

Eva Sloan: ‘God is Angry’

The 1949 murder of Emma Johnekin was initially ruled Voluntary Manslaughter against Marion Wesley Stembridge in Baldwin County Superior Court; however, the ruling was overturned to Involuntary through an exceedingly shady appeal to the State of Georgia citing The Writ of Habeas Corpus. The ruling to Involuntary kept Stembridge from behind bars and fleecing the needy just as Milledgevillle payday loan businesses still do. However, somewhere between 1949 and 1953, Stembridge loaned an employee of Frank Bone $50. By the time the man noticed and asked for Bone’s help, Stembridge had collected $550 from the man. Bone hired Eva Sloan to research the transaction. Due to Sloan’s work, Stembridge was ordered to repay the overcharge of $500.

On GA 441, along what’s now the busy business strip of Milledgeville, I can count five payday loan/ title loan places in a half-mile stretch. If I tried harder, I could count more. At them, you can get an advance on hours you’ve not worked or sign over the title of a car you don’t own–perhaps you can sign over the family house. Among the loan stores, the scattering of pawn shops will take your family jewels at, roughly, a 300% annual percentage rate. After the loan place of your choice, you can eat at Sonic, Waffle House, or Zaxby’s after you cash the disbursement check.

I once heard compound interest called the eighth wonder of the world, yet double loans are more amazing. Reverse mortgage is a new way of putting it. After all, reverse mortgage resonates more appealing in television commercials to those getting by on Social Security checks. Just after Martin Luther King Boulevard and Columbia Street, I saw a new payday loan store had opened the other day. Flagging the cars driving by, a man dressed as The Statue of Liberty held a sign and danced, offering $50 in cash, “right now.” Before these places thrived, the likes of Marion Wesley Stembridges abounded and served America as America grew, offering the American Dream for a signature and a soul.

It was because of such a loan that Emma lost her life. Somehow, the sentencing for Stembridge’s Voluntary Manslaughter (Emma Johnekin) case was delivered to the wrong county’s courthouse, bringing into play the ancient law of The Writ of Habeas Corpus. It seems that, in the other county, Stembridge was already there the afternoon his sentence was to accidentally arrive. Stembridge lunched with that county’s judge and other officials that day in that county; it just so happened. After a mock arrest and his attorney in tow, Stembridge drove back to Baldwin County a free man, but more on that later. Continue reading “Eva Sloan: ‘God is Angry’”

The Most Beautiful, Saddest Place in Georgia

I once heard Milledgeville called the saddest but most beautiful place in Georgia.

In Milledgeville, I live atop a hill eight miles from town. For over three years, watching the sun set itself near the location in the distance where a small small cluster of lights appear at dark that students call Milly or Illy, I’ve generally avoided downtown after nightfall. I could be afraid of Marion Wesley Stembridge’s ghost, but it’s not Marion’s ghost that scares me. Maybe his ghost isn’t there, at all. Employees of Ryal’s Bakery disagree. Some say his cigar smoke wafts the air in Stembridge’s old store on South Wayne Street early in the mornings.

Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe I see things that aren’t there. I once tried to write an essay where I ask Milledgeville permission to call it Illy or Milly because a pet name made Milledgeville less scary, to me. The essay is called “Can I Call You Milly?” where a stray cat shows up at my remote rented house on the hill. The cat hid in the shadows. At dusk, I would talk to the cat, and the cat becomes a metaphor for Milledgeville. I try to make friends with the two: a cat and a city. The Milly essay didn’t find its way into my MFA thesis at Georgia College because it didn’t fit.

In reality, the cat was afraid, yet, eventually, the cat comes closer after I talk to it night after night. The cat turned out to be a girl. Her name did become Milly—a calico cat of all cat colors. Milly lived with me until fate brought a solid black cat to my door. Milly left because I think she was afraid of Harlem, the black cat. Milly, the calico, was more afraid of Harlem than she’d been afraid of the woods. They were both female cats.

Maybe I’m a crazy cat person. Maybe I’m certifiable like my neighbor. My 53 year old neighbor gets a “crazy check,” as she calls it, from the State of Georgia. Today is her birthday. Sometimes she needs a ride to River’s Edge, which is a mental facility on the outskirts of Milledgeville, to get her medicine or her check. I’ve given her a ride to the facility a few times. She’s been deemed agoraphobic, but she loves to be outside in open spaces. It doesn’t make sense. After enough years, she’s said, “minds get made up on what you are, so you just go with it.” To me, that’s also metaphorical.

central-state-hospital-milledgeville-georgia-1st-building

As the smoke from fires in north Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and north Alabama blow southwest over Milledgeville, after the 2016 election polarized my country with its venomous spewing of maliciousness and clandestine dealings that ranged from secret emails, foreign powers (among other hidden agendas) from both fronts, after a man yelled at me for sitting in my parked vehicle because he wanted my parking place when several open spaces were available near me, after a car sped down Highway 441 at 100 mph in the twilight of dawn last week, crashing into a section of Georgia College’s campus where students sleep at night, I sit down to wonder if it’s just Milledgeville, or if it’s all the World that’s lost its mind. Or maybe it’s just me; however, the World is burning because I can smell it burning.

Continue reading “The Most Beautiful, Saddest Place in Georgia”

All Souls’ Day: In Articulo Mortis

Emma Johnekin testified in articulo mortis on 7 March 1949 to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s J.E. Jones, who, in turn testified against Marion during the July Term, 1949 The State vs. Marion W. Stembridge. Through Jones, Emma spoke although she was dead.

Some people are afraid of ghosts; some people aren’t. This writer is fond of ghosts and the dead especially since the dead can speak long after they’ve crossed over. I don’t mean in a haunted house kind of way. To some, ghosts exist. When the dead speak, it’s often not in whispers. Ghosts can be loud. They can echo for centuries, and I’ve known one to bawl for months until his voice faded. Communication doesn’t always need to be spoken. Legally, as in law documents, legal records, and courts, the crucial moment when the dead speak is called in articulo mortis. Medically, it’s “at the moment of death.” Legally, people can marry in articulo mortis, spending brief moments in living matrimony before one dies, or both. The line between the living and the dead is thin. Some commune with the dead. Some appease the dead.

dia2

609 A.D.

Our most immediate yesterdays were Halloween and All Saints’ Day. Today is All Souls’ Day. In Mexico and many other places, it’s Día de (Los) Muertos or Day of the Dead. Many believe the liminal space between the living and the dead is thinner right now than on other days of the calendar. This liminal space is often called a veil—a thin cloth between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In these current days, the dead are said to be easier to reach, and the living are more attuned or more vulnerable–depending on one’s perspective. It all began with Samhain, which led the Holy Roman Catholic Church to create All Saints’ Day. In Fasti, Ovid suggests that it began with Lemuria (The Feast of Lemures), which is the supposed ancient holiday named Remuria. That holiday is Romulus attempting to appease his dead brother Remus. Both suckled from a she-wolf and created civilization as we know it when the brothers created Rome. Although pagan, there are effigies in Roman Catholic basilicas across Italia to the brothers. History and religion get complicated, very quickly. Continue reading “All Souls’ Day: In Articulo Mortis”