The National Catholic Review
Peter Heinegg

Most Americans who were adults during the Carter administration probably remember Jimmy Carter as a well-intentioned, if somewhat inept, politician, a policy wonk avant la lettre who presided over 20 percent inflation and the Iran hostage debacle. Since then, of course, he has become an admired humanitarian and (what else?) elder statesman. We might recall that before serving as governor of Georgia he was a peanut farmerand before that a Navy officer who studied nuclear engineering. Oh, and he’s also widely recognized as a sincere, articulate Christian of a problematic sort: a liberal Southern Baptist. But beneath all these various identities, we now learn, lies the mythical American bedrock of an omnicompetent country boy.

Urban readers should be warned that Carter’s subtitle means business. In this loving return to his rootsnot in Plains, but in nearby Archery, Ga., where he lived from 1928 (aged four) to 1941Carter is not going to spare them any of the rural or agronomic details. Like it or not, they are going to learn an awful lot about shaking peanuts, measuring cropland, pruning watermelons, poisoning boll weevils, plucking breast feathers from geese, shooting quail, fishing for largemouth bass, blacksmithing, plowing (with mules), hog processing, cotton mopping (with a mix of arsenic, molasses and water) and every conceivable kind of harvesting. The sharp-eyed, earnest, hard-working lad (nicknamed Hot by his father, Earl) mastered all of this and tried his hand at other things too: collecting Indian artifacts, selling peanuts, investing the income in tenant houses and setting up as a landlord.

Make no mistake, Carter is quietly reveling in this saga of grit and achievement amid a harsh, primitive (no electricity till just before World War II), unforgiving place. While he’s written more than a dozen books and may, at times, sound rather intellectualespecially compared with Reagan and the Busheshe can also delight in explaining how to make buttermilk or in reckoning that he has probably eaten as much possum meat as any living Georgian. But fortunately, there’s more to his story than Carter’s pinpoint Tom Sawyer recollections. Among the broader themes that emerge is the continuous presence of blacks, who were at once beloved family friends, trusted employees and brutally oppressed ex-slaves. The book takes its title from the fact that Jack Clark, the Carters’ black foreman, rang a big bell before dawn to start every workday. Young Carter was instinctively drawn to Clark, to Annie Mae Hollis, his warm-hearted babysitter and mother-substitute (Lillian Carter was often away working as a nurse) and to black playmates like his good buddy A.D. He mixed freely with them, learned to speak their dialect, butto his later chagrinnever understood the cruelty of the system that kept most of them desperately poor and made them increasingly deferential to him as he grew up. A very nice lad, Jimmy Carter, but no rebel and no crusader for civil rights. Earl Carter couldn’t see past the privileges and pleasures of being a traditional, modestly well-heeled white patriarch (though fair and square, by his own lights); and Jimmy, who naturally called his father sir, had only the vaguest notion that anything was wrong with the racialand sexual and economic and so onarrangements of the day.

Though his story more or less ends with his departure for Annapolis, Carter expands the frame by surveying his ancestors’ history as far back as 1764 (at one point he discovers the long lost tomb of his great-great-grandfather Wiley Carter, only to realize that he has just been discovered by a rattlesnake coiled right behind him) and fast-forwarding to the present. Apart from fame, the years also brought a string of painful losses, notably the deaths from pancreatic cancer of his father and three younger siblings (smokers every one). Carter mentions all this briefly, for completeness’ sake, and throws in a colorful item or two (such as the cortege of his sister Gloriaa hearse preceded by a long double line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles).

But serious grappling with these and other family issuesRosalynn is all but invisible here, though she and Jimmy knew each other practically from babyhoodwill have to wait for the sequel, if any. Even the intense-but-not-intimate relationship with his father is never closely scrutinized. In one startling aside Jimmy hints that Earl may have had an adulterous fling with a beautiful widow (aptly named Mrs. Free), but he doesn’t pursue the lead.

Well, we never thought of Jimmy Carter as a self-revealer. His most famous lapse into the confessional mode, in the November 1976 issue of Playboy, where he said that he had often committed adultery in his heart, seems now (and was then) excruciatingly innocent. So we don’t get, and probably shouldn’t anticipate, any tragic conflict or emotional nakedness. Maybe there was none. What we do get are low-key, cleanly written, prodigiously particular tales of a world about as vanished as any part of America in the 1930’s could be. As its archeologist, Carter is thoughtful, observant and honest; his performance only confirms the consensus that he has aged wisely and well. It also suggests the possibility that wemany of us, at leastnever properly appreciated him.

 

Peter Heinegg is a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.