Once Upon a Time in Memphis: Martin Luther King and William Faulkner
Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world. — Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968
By Stuart Mitchner
In the speech he delivered the night before the day he died, Martin Luther King imagined taking a “mental flight” across the Red Sea “through the wilderness on toward the promised land” to Greece and Mount Olympus, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, then to Wittenberg and Martin Luther, to Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and to the 20th century, “the bankruptcy of the nation,” and Memphis, Tennessee.
A “mental flight” more suited to my sense of the city where Chuck Berry’s Marie lives “high upon a ridge just a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge” is the one Bob Dylan performs in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” where you’ll find the circle-drawing ragman, Shakespeare in the alley, the French girl who knows you well, the stolen post office, Mona and the eyelid-smoking railroad man, grandpa shooting the fire full of holes on Main Street, the preacher, the rainman, Ruthie and her honky tonk lagoon, the Panamanian moon, and the neon madmen of Grand Street. Since I like to think this song is more about Memphis than Mobile, you’ll also find Sun Records, Stax Volt, W.C. Handy, Beale Street, the Blues, William Faulkner’s Miss Reba, and the haunted hotel where a spectral Elvis appears as the radio plays “Blue Moon” in Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch’s timeless ode to Memphis.
Motel to Museum
Last week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination has brought Memphis back into the national conversation. With a population 64 percent black, 30 percent white according to a recent article in the New York Times (“The Triumphs and Trials of Memphis”), Memphis is the poorest large metropolitan area in the country, in spite of the presence of companies like UPS, FedEx, International Paper, AutoZone, an NBA franchise, and a tourism industry that attracts more than 11.5 million visitors every year, thanks to Elvis and Graceland and of course the National Civil Rights Museum established on the site of the April 4, 1968 assassination, the Lorraine Motel, which was named for owner Walter Bailey’s wife Loree and the song “Sweet Lorraine.”
The Lorraine’s post-assassination fate mirrors the troubled history of the city. According to the New Yorker’s Allyson Hobbs, Loree Bailey suffered a stroke when she heard the shot, dying on April 9, the day of King’s funeral. Her husband kept the motel going through the 1970s, turning Room 306 into a memorial preserved exactly as it had been, but after Bailey declared bankruptcy in 1982, the Lorraine became a brothel and might have been sold at auction had not a Save the Lorraine group bought it and transformed it into the museum in 1991.
Pyramid vs. Skyscraper
As a 12-year-old dreamer fixated on cities and skyscrapers, I had a schoolboy crush on Memphis. There was poetry in the name, and associated names like Beale Street, Gayoso, Chickasaw, a newspaper called the Commercial Appeal, and above all the fact that Memphis boasted the Sterick building, the tallest in the South at the time.
Many years ago I was in Memphis traveling for a publisher, my job to talk up textbooks in the humanities to teachers in colleges and universities from Alabama to North Dakota. The high point of my visit to Memphis State was the hour I spent with a quadriplegic history professor named Marcus Orr. Amused to hear of my adolescent attraction to the glamour of skyscrapers like the Sterick building, the man in the wheelchair told me about the time he met with “the city fathers,” who were all excited about a new skyscraper that would top the Sterick by ten floors. When Orr asked them how high, they said 37 stories, 430 feet, and didn’t believe him when he told them that the great pyramid located 12 miles from the ruins of the place their city had been named for was 25 feet higher.
From my window at the Chisca Plaza Motor Hotel, adjacent to the original Chisca Hotel on Main Street just around the corner from the the Lorraine, I could see the neon lights of Beale Street, “in comparison with which Harlem is a movie set,” as Faulkner observes in Light in August (1932). In that novel, the Rev. Gail Hightower’s wife dies after jumping or falling “from a hotel window in Memphis.” Her fate is echoed in a legend about the Sterick building, which has been empty for decades and is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who jumped to her death “to save herself from a loveless marriage.”
Although Faulkner doesn’t mention the Sterick by name in his 1930 story “Dull Tale,” it’s “one of four tall buildings” that “form an upended tunnel up which the diapason of traffic echoes as at the bottom of a well.” There, where “the trolleys swing crashing and groaning down the hill at the clanging of bells,” Memphis is “almost a city,” with “the restless life and movement of cities; the hurrying and purposeful going to-and-fro, as though the atomic components were being snowed down within a given boundary, to rush in whatever escaping direction and vanish like snow, already replaced and unmissed.”
Memphis Day and Night
What may be the most striking view of Memphis in Faulkner’s fiction comes in Sanctuary (1931) when the ill-fated coed Temple Drake sees at the foot of the bluff below Main Street “a narrow street of smoke-grimed frame houses with tiers of wooden galleries, set a little back in grassless plots, with now and then a forlorn and hardy tree of some shabby species …. From the bluff, beyond a line of office buildings terraced sharply against the sunfilled sky, came a sound of traffic — motor horns, trolleys — passing high overheaed on the river breeze; at the end of the street a trolley materialised in the narrow gap with an effect as of magic and vanished with a stupendous clatter.”
Then there’s the night music of a later passage about a couple of callow youths who unsuspectingly mistake Miss Reba’s brothel for a hotel: “They could hear the city, evocative and strange, imminent and remote; threat and promise both — a deep, steady sound upon which invisible lights glittered and wavered: colored coiling shapes of splendor in which already women were beginning to move in suave attitudes of new delights and strange nostalgic promises.”
Of her recently departed guests, Miss Reba says, “I ain’t especially tender-hearted, but after all it ain’t no use in helping young folks to learn this world’s meanness until they have to.”
The photograph on the cover of Preston Lauterbach’s Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis (W.W. Norton 2015) is from 1917, around the time “a young William Faulkner heard the hidden history of the street” and “tales of Madam Mae Goodwin, a brothel keeper and a fence for black market diamonds.” Lauterbach pictures Faulkner as “bushy-haired and soft-spoken … with a pointy nose and dark eyes,” sporting “kneed-out trousers and threadbare coats.” Giving off “no indication of prosperity,” he looked like “a tag-along to his flashy chums. The girls didn’t work him too hard. When they did proposition young Faulkner, he played on his decidedly unsporty appearance, quipping, ‘No thank you, ma’am, I’m on my vacation,’” as if he were taking time off from a strenuous sex life.
Another important American writer who makes a brief appearance in Beale Street Dynasty is Richard Wright. The future author of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) “lived in boarding houses throughout the Beale district from 1925 to 1927, working downtown in an optical factory.” Because blacks were not allowed to borrow books from the public library, Wright had to forge notes from a white co-worker in order to read H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis, all of whom influenced his later work. In Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), he describes how he would stand at the check-out desk, “hat in hand, looking as unbookish as possible … No doubt if any of the white patrons had suspected that some of the volumes they enjoyed had been in the home of a Negro, they would not have tolerated it for an instant.”
The St. Louis in Memphis Blues Again
There’s an amusing reflection of Dylan’s Mobile/Memphis dynamic in the fact that W.C. Handy’s most famous composition, “The St. Louis Blues,” was written in Memphis. After the First World War, Handy’s blues became, in Lauterbach’s words, “a cultural password for a new age,” speaking to the “lost generation” of artists grappling with “the experiences of war.” F. Scott Fitzgerald referenced “Beale Street Blues” by name in The Great Gatsby while William Faulkner “subtly evoked ‘St. Louis Blues’ in the title of his story ‘That Evening Sun,’ and George Gershwin inscribed sheet music for ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ to Handy, saying thanks I couldn’t have done it without you.”
A Great Singer
The music of history is in Martin Luther King’s last speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis about the mountaintop and the promised land and “not fearing any man.” If you’ve witnessed the hair-raising power of his voice when he’s at the rhetorical top of his bent — as a speaker, he was a great singer — you can imagine the music he made of those last words. If you stand in the corridor outside Room 306 at the National Civil Rights Museum, you’ll hear the recorded voice of Mahalia Jackson singing, among other things, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the spiritual he asked to be performed the night of his last speech.