Columns: Secret History

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A challenge to our favorite misattribution, and the political context of scruffiness

If you get on the Internet to look up the origin of the phrase “scruffy little city,” as a correspondent pointed out a few months ago, the first citation you’re likely to find is a piece by radio sage Paul Harvey. In a flattering essay about the Dogwood Arts Festival in 1995, Harvey attributed the quote to the late travel writer John Gunther.

You’ll recall that Gunther, in his 1947 bestseller Inside U.S.A., referred to Knoxville as the ugliest city in America. Harvey’s essay, still posted prominently on the DAF website, refers to Gunther as a “myopic outsider” and calls Gunther’s remark “a rude rebuke from a hit-and-run writer.” Reading Harvey’s essay, you might get the impression that Gunther was the source of all anti-Knoxville prejudice.

But the funny thing is that Gunther never called Knoxville a “scruffy little city.” Gunther died years before the Wall Street Journal published that phrase, written by Susan Harrigan, another rude and presumably myopic Yankee, in 1980.

I brought this error up to the DAF authorities a few months ago, mentioning that it might be misleading. I got the impression they’re reluctant to tamper with Mr. Harvey’s prose.

In every error is some truth. One is that the Internet is not reliable as a handy desk reference. But I think there may be something deeper here that is inextricably wrapped up in our Knoxville hearts. The misattribution has gotten around. I’ve heard it at parties, in committee meetings. Somebody attributes the “scruffy little city” phrase to Gunther every day. People want to believe it. There is a genuine conviction that John Gunther was the only one who ever berated Knoxville’s appearance in the national media, and that to insult Knoxville, one must necessarily be a rude, myopic Yankee.

If you judge journalistic observers who visited the city after, say, 1925, by how flattering they were about Knoxville’s looks, you’d have to conclude that most have been rude, myopic Yankees, even though some of them were Swiss or Belgian. Maybe myopia afflicts nearly every writer who visits Knoxville. Maybe a UN campaign in optometry might help. But maybe some of these observers had a point.

Gunther wasn’t that rude, as near as I can tell from reading the rest of the book. Gunther loved Tennessee in general. Chattanooga impressed him. On that long trip that brought him through Knoxville, he saw more of the South than most Southerners had seen, and he liked very much of it.

What appalled him was just what we’d done, and not done, with this odd, particularly careless, sooty, unplanned city. Some Knoxvillians, including beloved columnist Lucy Templeton, agreed with him. If he’d really just been another rude Yankee, we would have shrugged it off, but we couldn’t, and we didn’t. It was the admission that Gunther was, perhaps, right, that kick-started the whole Dogwood Arts thing.

John Gunther wasn’t the first writer astonished by Knoxville’s ugliness, and he wasn’t the last. Unfortunately, he wasn’t even the last to call Knoxville ugly in a national bestseller.

In a book ostensibly praising TVA in 1936, the Belgian novelist Odette Keun called Knoxville “one of the ugliest, dirtiest, stuffiest, most unsanitary towns in the United States. I speak with feeling, for the summer and the town combined have turned me into a haggard, desiccated old woman before my time.” She went on to describe Knoxville’s appearance as “corrosive,” citing “eyesores of tin frameworks, advertisements and dump heaps.”

About the same time, syndicated columnist Ernie Pyle, who rarely trafficked in negativity, called Knoxville the “dirtiest city in the world.”

In 1947, the same year as Gunther’s remark, conservative British author Malcolm Muggeridge called the Knoxville area “sad, desolate...shabby, broken down.”

Even some Knoxvillians joined the chorus. In 1950, Joseph Wood Krutch, dismayed by a visit to his hometown, remarked in a magazine article, that “the whole town is shabbier than it was” in his pre-1920 youth.

An unsigned 1952 Fortune magazine essay, “The Conservatives of Knoxville,” condemned Knoxville’s sooty “drabness,” remarking on the puzzle of why Knoxville wasn’t able to use “the natural beauty of the setting” to its advantage. Mayor Dempster admitted that there were problems, but nobody wanted to pay the taxes to fix them. “Almost everyone thinks something should be done,” concluded the essayist, “but nobody does anything much.”

New Yorker writer Philip Hamburger, who died just a few weeks ago, visited in 1961, quoted Knoxvillians admitting the place was a dump, and remarked on Knoxville’s ugliness, that “the visual burden” of Knoxville was “overpowering.”

Some things have gotten better here since Harrigan’s “scruffy little city,” remark, especially downtown. But as recently as 1999, trendy Britano-Iowan travel writer Bill Bryson quoted a companion’s assessment of Knoxville: “Jeez, it’s ugly.” Like Gunther’s Inside USA, Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods made the non-fiction bestseller lists.

This time they weren’t looking at the sooty, neglected jumble of downtown buildings and streets Gunther, Keun, Hamburger and the others saw. Bryson was talking strictly about Knoxville’s suburbs, and their “commercial hideousness.” (From the sound of it, it’s either Kingston Pike or along Broadway in Fountain City. The fact that we can’t really tell for certain, based on his vivid description of chain stores, is telling.)

When you have a 60-plus-year span of one writer after another after another using superlative terms to call different parts of Knoxville ugly, you begin to suspect there’s something more to this phenomenon than myopia or Yankee prejudice.

Maybe ugliness is now, as it was in the 1930s and ‘40s, the physical manifestation of a prevalent political doctrine. For the last three or more generations at least, Knoxville property owners have earned a reputation as absolutists. The United States believes much more devoutly in the supremacy of property rights than Europe or Canada does. Knoxville believes much more devoutly in the supremacy of property rights than most of the United States does.

The Invisible Hand is the guiding principal of conservative capitalism today, as it was during Adam Smith’s time. We count on the market to take care of itself; if there’s a need for something, the market will supply it without government help. It’s regrettable that the Invisible Hand rarely sculpts beauty.

Maybe incoherent ugliness is the surest trait of property-rights absolutism. If we believe so fiercely in property rights, we should be proud of the way Kingston Pike looks. It’s the very image of absolute property rights. There should be postcards.

There’s been a lot of fretting about a motto for Knoxville. If we were perfectly honest about it, Knoxville’s motto might be something like, We Enjoy Absolute Property Rights: If You Don’t Believe It, Look Around.

That may be a little too long for a bumper sticker you can read on the interstate, though. A more-succinct alternative might be, Knoxville: Ugly As We Wanna Be.

May 20, 2004 • Vol. 14, No. 21
© 2004 Metro Pulse