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Down to Earth

Jimmy Carter's new memoir moves from the panorama of American politics to the personal song of an American boyhood



Down to EarthAn Hour Before Daylight begins at the ocean and then heads west, across the coastal plain, rivers and towns. It hovers for a moment over the Georgia county seat and then descends to the now vanished town of Archery, outside of Plains. Jimmy Carter's memoir repeats this movement many times as he alternates between aerial overview of the political and economic climate and plunges down into the landscape, farmyard and fields to describe in earthy detail his daily life, under a scorching sun, suffused with the odor of manure and sulfur, accompanied by the buzzing of flies.

From the torrential recollections that tumble together to form Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel to Proust's delicate convalescent musings on the landscape of his pillow in Remembrance of Things Past, recalling the history of the self is an important literary tradition. Memoir writing can be high art, can be colloquial, and can be more revealing than intended. In ostensibly simple prose Jimmy Carter illustrates both the joy and the cruelty of life on a Depression-era farm in rural Georgia, but the complexity of the story belies the text. And though he represents himself as a humble farm boy, Carter is well aware of his historical and cultural context. This is one of the differences between the autobiography of an artist and the autobiography of a politician.

During his campaign for the White House, Jimmy Carter frequently promised a more compassionate government. He is remembered as a weak president, but his record shows important human rights advances, both in the United States as well as worldwide. Some of his acts were merely symbolic, like the boycotting of the Moscow Olympics during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Yet others we still feel the weight of today, because it was Carter's administration that truly afforded and enforced equal opportunities for women and African Americans.

It was also during the Carter administration that the first official and important steps towards peace in the still volatile Middle East were taken--the reconciling of Israel and Egypt. Carter was praised for his honesty and humility, though these traits were said to make him an inadequate president. There has always seemed to be some basic contradiction there, the drive and ambition with which one must campaign to reach the presidency versus Carter's trademark modesty. In An Hour Before Daylight, he offers us signs of the forces that would shape his future.

Born in 1924, Carter's backdrop is the Great Depression as it ravages an already impoverished, agrarian South. Farm life and work are very hard but Carter never forgets that there are people whose lives are much harder. With patent honesty he acknowledges his good fortune. He is the descendent of wealthy plantation owners. His great-great-grandfather who died in the Civil War left each of his 12 children an inheritance of 43 slaves, over 2,000 acres of land and many assets. The immense inheritance, however is devalued to nothing by the defeat of the South; slaves are freed, Confederate dollars are just paper, what is left is land. So, although their legacy is depreciated, they never lose their self-sufficiency. Even in the bleakest days of the Depression, the Carters are never homeless or beholden. And as the son of a landowner, Carter has a privilege beyond most of his neighbors--the privilege of living without desperation.

The narrative of An Hour Before Daylight runs a bit like a crooked stream. Season leads into season and each crop sown calls up some bit of lore or anecdote. Life on the farm is difficult and often brutal. Through it, Carter takes his pleasure where he can, in hunting, fishing and the bravado of local politics. Of utmost importance is his father's approval. The Carter children are expected to labor as the adults do. Recalling an instance where a deeply embedded splinter of a thick stem makes him unable to move his wrist and therefore work, Carter remembers:

"It was midsummer. We were picking cotton and peanuts on the farm, and everyone needed to be working. My arm was swollen only slightly, but I couldn't bend my wrist or move my fingers without intense pain, so I stayed at home instead of going to the field. One day, after our noon meal, as Daddy was leaving to go to work, he said, 'The rest of us will be working while Jimmy lies here in the house and reads a book.' I was stricken by his remark, knowing that he was disgusted with me when he called me 'Jimmy' instead of 'Hot' or 'Hot Shot.'"

Desperate to return to his father's precious approval Carter devises a tourniquet from his own belt and forces the splinter from his now infected wrist.

"I ran back to the house, got on my bicycle, pedaled it as fast as possible to the cotton field and reported to Daddy for work. When I showed him the splinter, he smiled and said, 'It's good to have you back with us, Hot.'"

Much of Carter's memoir centers on his father, practically an archetype of the Southern landlord. Both hardworking farmer and lord of the manor, Carter's father has an immense sense of his dominant place in the social hierarchy. He rents his land to the poorest of black sharecroppers. He also runs the commissary where those who rent his land must shop for their tools, food and clothes. He is a strict segregationist. He is also a brilliant farmer who runs many businesses on the side in order to amass money and keep up to date with farming innovations.

Through Carter's eyes, we see his father as his young son saw him--a hero, a hunter, a loyal friend, upright in his dealings with his tenants, instinctively in tune with the seasons and the natural world, celestially navigating his family through the worst of times. After a careless fishing accident, Carter loses an entire day's catch. He expects his father's wrath and is surprised by his sympathy.

"Daddy was rarely patient with foolishness or mistakes," Carter writes, "but after a long silence, he said, 'Let them go, Hot. There are a lot more fish in the river. We'll get them tomorrow.' I almost worshiped him."

From his father, Carter learns about survival. From his mother, he learns about life. There is not just a division of labor in the Carter household; there is a division of perception. Mr. Carter's concerns are of a more pragmatic nature--getting the crop out of the field, keeping a running tally of what his tenants owe. Mrs. Carter, a nurse, treats outbreaks of pellagra, hookworm and other diseases of poverty among their tenants. She instructs her children to bring a bucket of lemonade to chain-gang workers on a hot day. When she wonders why so many of the homeless poor roaming the roads in search of day labor stop at her door, she asks one of her "vagrant visitors."

"Mama asked why they had stopped at our house and not others. After some hesitation, one of them said, 'Ma'am, we have a set of symbols that we use, to show the attitude of each family along the road. The post on your mailbox is marked to say that you don't turn people away or mistreat us.' After they were gone, we went out and found some unobtrusive scratches; Mama told us not to change them."

A fusion of these two views--the ambition of his father and the compassion of his mother--seems to explain both Carter's drive to become president as well as his reputation for clemency.

"Daddy knew how much each family earned, how much they owed, what equipment or tools they had, their past record as fieldworkers or sharecroppers, the degree of their industry and ambition and, of course, their misbehavior on weekends if it involved an encounter with law-enforcement officials," Carter explains. "Unlike my father, Mama was often inside the tenant houses performing her nursing duties, and she knew about their families, the general status of their health, and their personal sanitary and grooming habits."

And here Carter finds his own place, somewhere between his parents' roles.

"But I was the one who lived with them, ate at their tables, and participated in their private family conversations. The black parents, and especially the women, would sometimes talk directly to me about their concerns, and I realized as I grew older that these were messages they hoped I would pass on without their having to speak directly to my parents. I usually found a way to bring up these issues at home when I thought it might help."

For most of this book, Carter sings an old song, a Stephen Foster-inspired ballad about the old folks at home, of the mythical Southern love of the land, of his bucolic childhood pleasures. But he never loses sight of his self-history or his future as he knows it now to be, an embattled former American president. He shows his life as it intersects with some of the most difficult episodes in American history, Civil War, Depression, segregation, the feudal serfdom of the South before the era of Civil Rights. Revealing his past with simplicity and accuracy, he retains his loyalty to his family while acknowledging their place in a fundamentally flawed way of life. EndBlock

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