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William Anderson’s The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: the Political Career of Eugene Talmadge is one the most engrossing and compelling portraits of a complex American political figure in American literature. It was, in addition, an essential source of the biographical information and historical insights needed to complete the essay titled “The Bridge and the Monument: A Tale of Two Legacies,” published in the book The American Poet Who Went Home Again.
Mr. Talmadge was a controversial figure when he was elected governor of the state Georgia (USA) four times (he died shortly after the fourth election). He has remained one in the twenty-first century while residents of the city of Savannah repeatedly debate the wisdom of retaining or removing his name––so indelibly associated with white supremacy– on or from the magnificent bridge spanning the Savannah River from the city’s downtown area to Hutchinson Island.
The Eugene Talmadge we meet in the pages of The Wild Man from Sugar Creek is a fierce champion of the supposed underdog white political demographic he adopts as his constituency/tribe. To them he famously declared: “You all got only three friends in this world: The Lord God Almighty, the Sears Roebuck catalog and Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them.” They heard him and many apparently believed him.
We also meet in this biography Talmadge the vehement die-hard racist who advised white citizens of Georgia to follow his lead by “flash[ing] to the world the news [on September 10, 1942] that Georgia recognizes white supremacy and is a white man’s state.” That declaration and many others like it make it difficult to win any arguments in favor of keeping Talmadge’s name on the bridge that currently bears it.
Putting Talmadge’s Wild Legacy in Contemporary Context
The value of Anderson’s unflinching report, however, goes beyond regional or even national policies governing the names of public facilities and spaces. It speaks boldly to the international dilemma of how best to correct grievous historical atrocities of the past.
Talmadge’s legacy and the lessons which may be gleaned from it cannot be ignored as members of diverse cultural groups attempt to establish peaceful coexistence in a twenty-first-century world flooded with political and social discontent, be they due to wars, unyielding immigration issues, the wealth divide, gender concerns, or cyber disruptions.
Truthfully, on many levels Talmadge’s political strategy was not very different from that of the current POTUS Donald Trump’s when it comes to over-emphasizing the plight of one demographic to the exclusion of America’s cross-cultural population as a whole. That observation circles back to the question of what lessons should contemporary citizens take from the xenophobia-inspired rise of The Wild Man from Sugar Creek and which of his pronounced values and practices should be vigorously denounced. The answers should be clear enough but a thorough reading of Anderson’s expert volume can help make them more so.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. He recently completed work on a nonfiction book about cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently writing a play about southern traditions and legacies.