by Peter Guralnick (1994 and 1999; Back Bay). We all think we know Elvis Presley, the poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who fell in love with what were called in his teenage years, “race records.” Played only by black radio stations, race records reflected the rocking blues sound of such artists as Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. Presley learned much of what he knew about singing from those disks. In 1953, at 18, he walked into Sun Records and asked to record a song for his mother’s birthday. With that the music world discovered Elvis Presley and saw in him, as Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, “a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of shock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.” The question still outstanding was, When would Elvis discover Elvis—and what would he find when he did? Peter Guralnick’s poignant books finally look for the answers to the many questions surrounding that boy we thought we knew, the answers Elvis himself never found.
Last Train to Memphis covers Elvis’s rise to stardom, leaving off with his induction into the Army in 1958. His beloved mother died at almost the same time, and so the turning point is well chosen. Careless Love opens on October 1, 1958, the day Presley arrived in Germany, when his life began its slow but unmistakable process of disintegration. Guralnick’s two-volume biography is an intricate masterwork that touches on everything from Jim Crow to the sexual revolution to the terrors fame holds for those as ill prepared as Elvis was.
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
by David J. Garrow (1986; Perennial). Bearing the Cross traces the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s emergence as the leader of the civil rights movement in America and simultaneously charts his personal struggles as an African-American man trying to make sense of his own life during that era. David Garrow, who had written Protest at Selma, was inspired by transcriptions of Dr. King’s sermons to search for the emotional spirit behind his subject. He succeeded by bringing to King’s life a level of scholarly research that will probably never be matched.
King was the son of a minister, born in comfortable circumstances in Atlanta and educated at first-rate schools, including Boston University. A self-effacing and thoughtful man, he was often frustrated by the job of governing the complicated personalities within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Ultimately, he had more success as the spiritual head of the movement than as its commanding general. Trying to decide exactly what his role was, though, clouded the sanguine outlook he so eloquently expressed in the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. By 1968, Garrow shows, events had corroded King’s original optimism, making him thoroughly disillusioned and indeed, pessimistic about America’s chances for mending the torn relationship between the races. He was assassinated that year, and he did not live to see the progress that was built on the ideas of nonviolence he laid down.
Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
by Diane McWhorter (2001; Simon & Schuster). In Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter describes in intimate terms the face-off between whites and blacks in the South during the civil rights era. The backdrop is her hometown, the city that became known around the world as a continuing, deadly battleground in that struggle, Birmingham, Alabama, or, as it was known from the 1940s to the 1960s, “Bomb-ingham.” The deadly explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the worst of the violence, killing four young girls, but the city saw many such attacks and protests. One resulted in the incarceration of King and the composition of his famous “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.” Carry Me Home introduces a new cast of characters to the understanding of the confrontation there, as McWhorter, with the greatest sensitivity, describes the individuals who pushed events, often from the shadows. For example, she shows that in the white community it was not the blue-collar core but an unlikely combination of Northern industrial interests and outwardly respectable local religious groups that roiled the violence and sometimes even set it in motion.
McWhorter based Carry Me Home on copious new research yet anchored it with her own recollections of growing up white and to some degree racist in Birmingham during the era about which she writes. For that reason, her book answers the question of why, by examining in the most specific terms possible who.
A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam