Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

Akashic Books

||| |||

News & Features » November 2015 » Laureen P. Cantwell & Leonard Gill’s Introduction to Memphis Noir

Laureen P. Cantwell & Leonard Gill’s Introduction to Memphis Noir

To celebrate the release of Memphis Noir, the latest in Akashic’s Noir Series, we’re pleased to give you a look at editors Laureen P. Cantwell and Leonard Gill’s introduction, “City of Marvels & Misfits.”

City of Marvels & Misfits

A city equal parts darkness and hope. A scarred city. An often violent one. But a resilient city too.

That’s our Memphis.

Like many cities, we have a namesake—in Egypt, Men-nefer became Menfe became Memphis, enduring and beautiful, on the banks of the Nile. Centuries later, another continent, another people, another river: Memphis, Tennessee, the soul of the Mississippi Delta, was formed. We are a place born of history, inhabited as much by memory as by the living—the past and present inextricably and inescapably linked.

What is the relationship between our city and the rest of the world? What does Memphis bring to mind?

We bet it’s not that we had the world’s largest mule market in the 1950s, or that we led the world in hardwood lumber and spot cotton in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. No, it’s usually the river. Floods. Music. Race. Yellow fever. And—of course—barbecue.

We also bet we’ve changed the world you live in.

Part of our resilience is survival against the odds—the Battle of Memphis in 1862 (which turned the city into a Union stronghold), seven yellow fever outbreaks and the flight of local wealth after the 1878 epidemic, political corruption, poverty, high teen pregnancy rates, high murder rates—we’ve definitely had enough going against us. Maybe even a lot worth hiding.

But lifelong Memphian Edwin Frank, Curator of Preservation and Special Collections at the University of Memphis, might ask you, “Why shouldn’t the city be itself?”

In a city of deep and persistent tensions, the people of Memphis reside low in a delta, but sit high on the bluff. Remnants of slavery and sharecropping, of shifting underclasses (black and white), and of African folk traditions abound. Our popular culture works from the bottom up, built without the support of (but not so very far removed from) the sprawling plantations and aristocratic sociopolitical structure so often part and parcel with the image of the South. Instead, race and music, old endings and new beginnings, connect this city in webs spun deep in its very core.

R&B producer Ralph Bass could tell you of the impact of black radio stations like WDIA, the “Mother Station of the Negroes,” in breaking down segregation in Memphis over unsegregated airwaves. Those airwaves brought black music to the white ears of a new generation and encouraged black clubs to add “spectator” tickets for whites, then “white nights,” to become, eventually, a shared space.

Beale Street was built on black music and black commerce, and, for a time, it blurred racial distinctions—until Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination brought tensions to a new level and urban renewal razed the music mecca and many of its landmarks. Decades would pass before Memphis, the “Home of the Blues,” saw fit to bring Beale back, fitting for a city as rich in blues as in spirit—but not without its dangers.

Danger and music seem ever-entangled, like pit vipers in molasses: Richard J. Alley’s contribution to this volume, “The Panama Limited,” puts the reader inside a train car headed south for Memphis. So too in David Wesley Williams’s “Her Better Devils,” which takes us from floodwaters to the South Bluff, in the company of a black blues singer, her white man, and the looming presence of an escaped criminal.

Adam Shaw and Penny Register-Shaw’s graphic story “The Never Never Is Forever” takes hold of the tensions of love and oblivion in the city’s downtown music scene in the ’90s, with its constellation of alternative rock, abandoned buildings, drugs, and death. Just north of downtown, in Uptown Memphis, the folks inside Fat Red’s underground club know good times and violence, and both collide in the gyrating crowd of Troy L. Wiggins’s “Tell Him What You Want”—a tale evocative of Langston Hughes’s poem “Beale Street Love,” with fists and knuckles passionately engaged with lips, eyes, love, and desire. If Hughes’s Clorinda had lived near Uptown, we have no doubt she’d have been at Fat Red’s cooing, “Hit me again.” Moving farther east, it’s a matter of money and a loveless cage of a marriage in Suzanne Berube Rorhus’s “A Game of Love,” where a national tennis tournament serves as a backdrop to adultery—and murder—among the city’s well-to-do, harnessing the faithlessness of lovers so often figured in the blues.

In the infancy of this project, Stephen Clements, author of “Battle,” shared with us perhaps the most elegiac of summations: we had two kings, and we killed them both. “Battle” meshes Clements’s experiences as a veteran, his love of the city of his birth, and his keen eye for redemption even in the darkest of corners, among the saddest of souls. “Heartbreak at Graceland” by Kaye George goes beyond heartbreak: a dark fascination with Elvis’s place of death, his bathroom, leads to even darker revelations and little resolution behind the Whitehaven mansion’s gates.

But leaving Graceland does not put the darkness behind. Sheree Renée Thomas’s “Nightflight” captures the solitude of a brilliant woman at a time when the sun can no longer bear to shine on the soul of the Delta, which brings to mind another poem, John Townsend Trowbridge’s “Memphis”:

At last he seemed to lose it altogether
Upon the Mississippi; where he stayed
His course at Memphis, undecided whether
He should go back or forward. Here he strayed
One afternoon along the esplanade
And high bluff of the river-fronting town,
To watch the boats and see the sun go down.

Spinning poetry, performance, past, and present into a tornado of a tale, Arthur Flowers highlights Memphis’s hoodoo history with his special brand of prose in “There Is No Rest.” “Mother,” by young writer Ehi Ike, unearths the darkness at the heart of a nuclear family in the upscale suburbs, while Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin, in “Chain of Custody,” takes a slant approach to the commonplace: a party in Orange Mound leads to a shooting, which leaves police certain of their suspect but the suspect certain of very little.

And, no question, we are one of the most crime-ridden cities in America. Historically, Al Capone’s Chicago had nothing on us; presently, there’s hardly a negative top ten on which you can’t find Memphis. Amid all the changes this city has seen, our crime problem remains.

Dwight Fryer’s “Green-Eyed Blues” looks at our desegregated police force in the 1940s, the city’s political power brokers, and the juxtaposition of love and lust, racial tension and murder. Shifting to the present-day: Jamey Hatley sets us squarely on the other side of the law, and takes us to Pussy Valley, in “Through Valleys,” a story of conspiracies, fraud, and more—borrowed from local headlines and laid at the feet of city councilmen, state senators, the Memphis Police Department, and a librarian who isn’t what she appears to be. The boarded-up remnants of a Midtown mansion sets the stage for the strange goings-ons in John Bensko’s “A Shut-and-Open Case.” Noir veteran Cary Holladay’s edgy and eerie “Stinkeye” features not only Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest (from beyond the grave) but also the bizarre case of a Memphis medical examiner, a story imaginatively recast but torn from a front-page news story that garnered national attention.

Some might say it’s the people who come here from elsewhere who often teach us most about Memphis, but—whether you’re a native or a newcomer—there’s no denying that the city has carved its place in history. Grasping our bottom-up culture, Sir Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization states, “What the Memphis story finally shows is that the music of an underclass could literally become the music of the world.” In fact, popular song lyrics feature Memphis more often than almost any other city in the world. Whether you’re sad or wistful, leaving or returning, walking in Memphis or riding the City of New Orleans, miles from or real nearby, thinkin’ ’bout Elvis or honky-tonk women . . . you’re singing about us in a bittersweet way. George A. Norton knew the moody, muddy echoes of the city well:

Hear me people, hear me people, hear I pray,
I’m going to take a million lessons ’til I learn how to play
Because I seem to hear it yet, simply can’t forget
That blue refrain.
There’s nothing like the Handy Band that played the
Memphis Blues so grand.
Oh play them Blues.
That melancholy strain, that ever haunting refrain
Is like a sweet old sorrow song.
Here comes the very part that wraps a spell around my heart.
It sets me wild to hear that loving tune again,
The Memphis Blues.

Somewhere between our blues and our kings, our fevers and our rock ’n’ roll, our history has transformed yours—our Piggly Wiggly began the self-serve grocery businesses; our FedEx changed the way you do business; our Holiday Inn brought you your Holiday Inn; and our music has been the soundtrack to your life. Its wild beat has rocked your world. And our struggle against our own darkness has kept us in the headlines. Memphis is marvels and misfits—two-faced and unabashedly so.

And no, we are not Atlanta, or Chicago, or Nashville; we are not Austin or New York, Detroit or Los Angeles—and we shouldn’t try to be.

We are Memphis, and this is our noir.


LaureenPCantwellLAUREEN P. CANTWELL grew up in eastern Long Island and eventually found her way to Memphis —“the rock ’n’ roll side of Tennessee.” She lived in Midtown for two years while working as a librarian at the University of Memphis and grew to love the darkness of the city—and Elvis.


LeonardGillLEONARD GILL was born and raised in Memphis. He writes a book column and blog for the Memphis Flyer, the city’s alternative newsweekly, and spotlights local writers for a monthly book feature in Memphis magazine.

Posted: Nov 24, 2015

Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,