The Tennessee Encyclopedia: Notes Toward a Second Edition

by Jack Neely

Whenever anything that has to do with Tennessee history comes out of Nashville, I scan it for crimes against Knoxville. As a scion of an ancient Nashville-area family myself, I know the way these people think. Nashville culture is the main culture, and Knoxville is populated by aspiring Nashvillians, failed Nashvillians, and hillbillies too dumb to comprehend how elegant Nashville truly is.

When I saw the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, I didn't have high hopes for it as a source of information about Knoxville. It's edited by a professor from Middle Tennessee State, with help from the Tennessee Historical Society, which in the past has exhibited strong Nashvocentric tendencies. Among the book's consulting editors, Middle Tennessee scholars outnumber East Tennessee scholars by about two to one.

I opened it with a yellow pad, ready to jot down every mistake and omission I saw beginning with page one. As it happens, I'm lucky to be able to make a whole column of it. Most of the entries are thorough for their length, well-written, and accurate. There are also a few mistakes, but those I've run across are minor ones.

At first, I was impressed with its inclusiveness. It's the first encyclopedia I've ever seen in which historical subjects that I actually know as flesh-and-blood people have their own entries; each is deserved.

However, there's never been an encyclopedia that's as comprehensive as it tries to be; no encyclopedia is ever quite encyclopedic. As I expected, I did find a few AWOLs.

* Like artist Beauford Delaney and his brother Joseph. Listed in some recent national encyclopedias as two of America's greatest black artists, Beauford and Joseph Delaney were both born and raised in Knoxville and used local subjects in their early works. Beauford is one of only three or four Knoxvillians to have a full-length scholarly biography of his story published nationally (David Leeming's Amazing Grace, 1998). Even though the encyclopedia describes the work of some earlier Knoxville artists like Lloyd Branson and Catherine Wiley (whom the book justifiably calls Tennessee's greatest impressionist) there's no mention of either Delaney.

* Bluesman Brownie McGhee is mentioned a couple of times in the book, but not his equally Tennessean brother Stick, author of "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-de-o-dee." Some critics have argued that Stick actually had a greater influence on popular music than did his more-famous brother, even helping invent rock 'n' roll.

* The Encyclopedia's coverage of popular music is one of the book's strong points. But a couple of brothers who spent a few formative years in Knoxville and several wildly successful and widely influential years in Nashville, are no-shows. To be fair, the Everly Brothers were actually born just across the state line, in Kentucky. But then, even k.d. lang is mentioned in passing, and she's from Canada.

* As all the best reference books do, the Encyclopedia overlooks the perennially neglected journalist Paul Y. Anderson, who won the Pulitzer for cracking open the Teapot Dome scandal. Though his most famous work didn't have much to do with Tennessee, he was born and raised in Knoxville and cut his reporting teeth at the Knoxville Journal. And he's buried here. You'd think that would count for something.

* Alex Haley's entry is written by novelist and former UT professor Richard Marius. Fully half of the Haley entry is given over to extended criticism of Haley's alleged plagiarism and phony research. The entry, in fact, quotes Haley's most outspoken critic, journalist Phillip Nobile, more than it quotes Haley himself. Marius's criticisms are plausible, but his essay, which even questions Haley's lifestyle, is somewhat harsher than my Compton's Encyclopedia description of Stalin.

The sometime novelist Marius, by the way, rates his own purely radiant entry 176 pages later. But novelist and short-story writer David Madden—25 years ago, he was one of Tennessee's best-known authors—gets nary a mention in the whole book. He wrote the Knoxville-based novel, Bijou, as well as Cassandra Singing.

* It's usually easy to calibrate the relative Nashvocentricity of any reference work by applying certain litmus tests. Perhaps the surest compares treatments of George Washington Harris and Mary Noailles Murfree. Harris spent most of his life in Knoxville; Murfree was from Murfreesboro, near Nashville. She spent most of her career writing stories about how simpleminded rural East Tennesseans are. Nashvillians, of course, loved her.

They're comparable in that they both wrote fiction dependent on dialogue spelled phonetically, and were both very successful at it. Posthumously, however, they diverge. Harris's work is included in several standard college anthologies of American literature; Murfree's is not. Harris is sometimes cited as one of the very founders of American fiction. Murfree, to be polite, is not.

Harris, the Knoxvillian, gets more attention nationally. Murfree still gets much more attention in Nashville. I first noticed that when I perused the state bicentennial museum a couple of years ago; it included a veritable shrine to Murfree, as if she was the Virgin Mary of Southern Literature—without a nod to Harris.

Well, the Encyclopedia does better than that. Harris does get his own entry, almost a third of a page, at that. Mary Noailles Murfree, of course, gets a full-page treatment, including a large photograph. (Ironically, the author of the Murfree entry is UT's Allison Ensor, who is also a Harris scholar.)

Having said all that, I'd recommend this encyclopedia, and will keep it handy on my desk. If you wish, take my comments as the mutterings of a grumpy columnist with a busted elbow. I'll feel better soon. But there was one slight here that floored me. There are over a million words in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, and not a single one of them is Cas.