By now you may have seen a quick news item or a Facebook post or two about this story: according to the House of Representatives, the Holy Bible (unclear which translation, or whether it’s all of them) should be Tennessee’s official state book (along with its state flower, the iris, and its state tree, the tulip poplar). The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sexton, passed the House 55-38, with only 6 Democrats voting in favor and 20 Republicans voting against the bill. In a story that is raising a lot of eyebrows, there was one even bigger facepalm and two silver linings.
Let’s take our medicine first: Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, offered an amendment that would have made one specific Bible the state book: the one belonging to President Andrew Jackson—noted Tennessean, Trail of Tears approver, and target of a campaign to remove his face from the $20 bill. Now for the silver linings: even the Tennessee House won’t go that far (the amendment was defeated) and there are two Republican representatives (brothers no less!)—Matthew and Timothy Hill—who responded to the amendment with exactly the same smartass questions my sixth-grade self would have offered after acing Tennessee History: why not Davy Crockett’s Bible, or Elvis Presley’s?
Full disclosure: I’m a native Memphian and I have a PhD in English, so I’m not exactly neutral on the idea of a state book in general or how literary expression should intersect with politics. But while I have definite opinions about all of that, my main concern about this news from my home state (now that the Senate has duly derailed the bill) is how a state with such rich literary and cultural history could pass up an opportunity to honor its own heritage (the rumors you’ve heard are true: we’re big on that sort of thing down South).
Even if you’re not a reader, here are some things you should know about my state’s history: Tennessee is either the home or birthplace of some Badass Women. Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith (happy belated birthday to her, by the way) and Mad Men bombshell-with-acting-chops-for-miles Christina Hendricks. Also: two of the four Designing Women (Dixie Carter’s Julia Sugarbaker and Annie Potts’s Mary Jo Shively, for those of you following along at home). Or, for godsakes: Dolly Parton.
But never mind that. Only in my dreams do I have a doctorate in Badass Women, Past and Present. Since literature is my jam, herewith Seven Books the Tennessee House Could (and Depending on Your Politics, Should) Have Chosen as the State Book Before the Bible, presented in chronological order (you can tweet us your own suggestions at @BklynQly, fellow Tennesseans). Homeplaces—or places closest to it—are in brackets:
1. Ida B. Wells, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895): A pioneering work of investigative journalism, data-gathering, and activism for racial justice from a woman whose Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight, was an anti-segregation vehicle and whose anti-lynching stance eventually forced her to leave the state. [MEMPHIS]
2. Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (1964): I don’t mean to be domineering about this, but unless you’re holding the fate of the world in your hands at this very moment, you’d be better off dropping whatever you’re doing and buying Fitzhugh’s entire oeuvre—especially her lesser-known books Sport (a Harriet sequel) and my personal favorite, Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change. DON’T THINK JUST DO IT. Now that we’ve got that settled, Harriet the Spy—if only because of its enduring popularity—would make a sensational state book. As recently as 2012 it was voted in the top 20 novels for kids and spawned a 1996 film adaptation as well. One can see Harriet, an observant and boyish outsider from the Upper East Side, as an early icon for queer kids as well as a quiet prototype of Gossip Girl (replace a blog with notebooks and you’ve got your girl). But mostly she’s just awesome. [MEMPHIS]
3. Nikki Giovanni, Black Judgment (1968): Though she grew up and became known as an activist and poet in Cincinnati, Giovanni spent much of her childhood in Knoxville, where she was born. Giovanni, now a professor at Virginia Tech, would become known to an entirely new generation for her rousing and cathartic chant-poem at the memorial service for the victims of the 2007 massacre there. This book includes “Nikki-Rosa,” the widely-anthologized poem for which Giovanni is best known, a reminiscence of her childhood in a close-knit African-American home. [KNOXVILLE]
4. Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976): Haley won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1977 for this sprawling novel (later made into a record-breaking miniseries) which traced Haley’s family history back to the 18th century. [HENNING]
5. Peter Taylor, A Summons To Memphis (1986): Taylor, best known as a short story writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1987 for this story of a middle-aged New York City editor who is called by to Memphis by his two unmarried sisters to help them prevent the marriage of their elderly father to a younger woman. [TRENTON/NASHVILLE]
6. Charles Wright, Negative Blue (2000): Known for his long, intricately structured poems that traverse East Tennessee landscapes as easily as they pose new epistemologies, Negative Blue is a trilogy of three books—Black Zodiac (1997), which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Chickamauga, and Appalachia (1998). [PICKWICK DAM]
7. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (2001): Patchett should be a shoo-in for author of a state book, if for no other reason than she has lived in Nashville most of her life and in 2010, when she found that the city lacked a strong independent bookstore, she founded one of her own with Karen Hayes. This novel, her breakout book which explores how terrorists and hostages cope with living together and explores the nature of friendship and love, won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award. [NASHVILLE]
h/t to Ezra Fitz