How did a racist speechwriter for George Wallace turn into a "Cherokee" sage and author of a revered multicultural text? The weird tale of Asa ("Forrest") Carter.
Twenty-three years ago this past June 7, Forrest Carter was laid to rest in the Carter family plot at D’Armanville Cemetery near Anniston, Ala. A short time later, family members yanked out the old headstone and put in a new one inscribed with the words “Asa Earl Carter, Sept. 4 1925-June 7 1979.”
Forrest must have been spinning in his grave. For the last few years of his life, he tried hard to kill off Asa. And if he had stayed off television, he might have pulled it off.
Forrest Carter was the bestselling author of “The Education of Little Tree: A True Story,” a literary phenomenon that was published 25 years ago this fall and is credited by many as the book that touched off the boom in what is still referred to in publishing as “Native American Lit.” Carter also wrote another famous book, “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales,” whose eponymous ex-Confederate superhero was played by Clint Eastwood in the most influential western since “The Searchers.”
But “Forrest Carter’s” most memorable creation was himself. “Forrest Carter,” revered author of the beloved “Little Tree,” was actually Asa Carter — virulent segregationist, former Klansman, speechwriter for George Wallace and professional racist. In both incarnations, Carter is the focus of new interest. Diane McWhorter’s critically acclaimed history of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., “Carry Me Home,” has revealed more about the role of “Ace” as a warrior for white supremacy, while the 25th anniversary publication of Forrest’s “The Education Of Little Tree” — minus the “True Story” subtitle — continues to exalt him as a pillar of New Age wisdom and a multicultural hero.
For a man with just three slim volumes published in his own lifetime, Forrest Carter made a significant impact on American culture. (A fourth book, “Cry Geronimo,” published posthumously, has influenced two screen depictions of the Apache chief.) “The Education of Little Tree,” about an orphan boy named Forrest who learns about life from his sage Cherokee grandparents, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1976 to rave reviews in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere. According to an editor at the now-defunct Delacorte Press, the book sold more than a million copies in hard and soft covers before the University of New Mexico Press picked it up in 1985. Since then, it has become the biggest seller in the publisher’s history and one of the great publishing successes for any university press, selling more than 1,440,000 copies in paperback and at least 56,000 more in cloth.
The sales for “Little Tree” don’t begin to tell the story of the book’s influence. Schoolchildren have been so moved by it that they have formed Little Tree fan clubs. For years there were rumors in Hollywood that Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and even Stephen Spielberg were interested in filming “Little Tree”; many think “Little Tree” helped shape the depiction of Indians in Costner’s “Dances With Wolves.” In 1991, 15 years after its publication and 12 years after Carter’s death, “Little Tree” won the coveted Abby Award and climbed onto the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Even though “Little Tree” was publicly exposed as fraudulent the very year of its publication, most readers simply refused to believe the evidence. This despite the fact that the Asa/Forrest Carter scandal was known far and wide, at least in academia: The distinguished African-American literary critic Henry Louis Gates wrote a widely discussed piece about it, for example. (In one of the many peculiar twists of the Asa-Forrest saga, some teachers acknowledge the controversy and include it in their lesson plans.) But while some know about the book’s peculiar history, years after the exposé many, perhaps most, new readers and fans who discover the book through the well-received movie version for young adults don’t even know there’s a controversy. That “The Education of Little Tree” was written by the same man who immortalized George Wallace by writing his racist manifesto, the famous “Segregation forever!” speech, is an inconvenient fact that hundreds of thousands of people seem willing to ignore.
Leading the way in the ignoring department is the University of New Mexico Press, which is apparently not about to do anything that might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Incredibly, UNM’s handsome new 25th anniversary edition (with a cover painting by the Oklahoma Cherokee artist Murv Jacob) makes no mention of Asa Carter or the controversies that have surrounded the book over the years — an omission that Diane McWhorter equates to “publishing a book of Hitler’s paintings without mentioning the word ‘Nazi.’” The specious “biography” that appeared on the book’s back cover in the original UNM edition, which moistly gushed that “Forrest Carter, whose Indian name is Little Tree, was known as ‘Storyteller in Council’ to the Cherokee Nations … His Indian friends always shared a part of his earnings from his writing,” is gone, as is the subtitle “A True Story.” Only the words “Young Adult Fiction” in small print on the corner of the back cover hint at the book’s stormy history. The introduction (which has remained unchanged since the first UNM edition in 1985) by Rennard Strickland, a professor of law at the University of Oregon, blandly tells us that Forrest Carter “wrote a number of important books,” and that “‘Little Tree’ speaks to the human spirit and reaches the very depth of the human soul.”
The University of New Mexico Press declined to comment about its nonacknowledgment of “Little Tree’s” unseemly provenance, referring a reporter to Rennard Strickland. Strickland said he was not consulted by the University of New Mexico about updating his introduction and that his purpose in writing the introduction was to “tell readers what they’d find in this book. I wasn’t doing a history of the controversy.” He added, “I have given my last interview on the subject.”
One of the remarkable things about Forrest Carter’s self-reinvention is how few reminders of his Asa existence still remain. Indeed, aside from a couple of slim pieces of physical evidence, it might be difficult to prove now that Asa and Forrest Carter were the same man.
A few years ago, Buddy Barnett, a childhood friend of Carter’s, produced a first edition of “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales” with an inscription in Carter’s handwriting that reads “Forrest (Asa) Carter.” Veteran Alabama journalist Wayne Greenhaw, who first broke the story of the Asa-Forrest Carter connection, had the handwriting in Barnett’s copy of “Wales” checked against the sample in Asa Earl Carter’s own biography, submitted when he ran for governor in 1970. They matched. In the biography, Carter said that he was born in Oxford, Ala., on Sept. 4, 1925. He claimed his parents, who were dairy farmers, had Cherokee blood in their background, which is either true or a “damn lie,” depending on which family member you speak to. Carter’s brother Doug insists that the family had no Cherokee ancestors, but Barnett claims that “Asa’s mother’s people were Cherokee, and Asa was proud of that fact.”
Some family members recall that while growing up in the Appalachian hills of north Alabama, young Asa Carter pestered older family members for details about Confederate ancestors on both sides of the family. One rode with Morgan’s Raiders, another was a guerrilla fighter with Col. Mosby, the legendary “Grey Ghost.” Maybe Carter had heard family stories of Cherokee ancestors, or maybe he heard stories about the Cherokee when growing up near Chocoloco Creek. Both “Wales” and “Little Tree” feature Cherokee Indians who were Confederate officers. In “Little Tree” the boy makes one of them into his own ancestor: “Granma and Granpa spoke of his Pa in his last years. He was an old warrior. He had joined the Confederate raider, John Hunt Morgan, to fight the faraway, faceless monster of “the guv’mint” that threatened his people and his cabin.” In “Little Tree” Carter brings together the two strains of his ancestry — one real and one, it would appear, assumed — to account for the famed “Rebel Yell”: “Exultation … brought the rebel Indian yell rumbling from his chest and out of his throat, screaming, savage.”
Carter graduated from high school in 1942, joined the Navy and became, like his future boss George Wallace, a boxing champ. He told friends he turned down the Army because he wanted to fight the Japanese rather than the Germans, his “racial kin.” After the war, Carter married Thelma India Walker, a high school sweetheart, moved to Colorado, and attended the state university. After graduating, he returned to Alabama and established a career as a full-time racist.
Around Birmingham, you can still find copies of the Southerner, a monthly magazine devoted to white supremacy, which Carter helped found. Collectors of civil-rights era memorabilia have copies of his radio broadcasts and pamphlets from his 1970 campaign for governor. In one of these, he warned white Alabamians about the prospect of black policemen: “Soon, you can expect your wife or daughter to be pulled over to the side of the road by one of these Ubangi or Watusi tribesmen wearing the badge of Anglo-Saxon law enforcement and toting a gun… but (he’ll be) as uncivilized as the day his kind were found eating their kin in a jungle.”
After getting fired from a radio station for criticizing National Brotherhood Week, Carter formed a group called the White Citizens Council, an organization that espoused the same fundamental views as the KKK. Carter’s association didn’t last; he couldn’t stomach the idea of making a common cause with anti-integrationist Jews, even to segregate blacks.
Instead, he helped create a new and even more virulent organization, the original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, whose members wore Confederate gray robes instead of white. In Carter’s view, the old KKK had become too soft and compromised. Various acts of violence were associated with the new Kluxers, the most famous being the assault on Nat “King” Cole at a concert in Birmingham in 1957. Less well known but far uglier was the 1957 abduction of a black handyman named Edward Aaron who had offended members of Carter’s group with inflammatory talk of forced integration. The abductors, never identified, sliced off Aaron’s scrotum and poured turpentine on his wounds. According to his childhood pal Buddy Barnett, Carter — who openly advocated violence in his speeches and articles — was appalled by the coldbloodedness of the attack. But Don Carter, who wrote a biography of George Wallace, took a darker view, saying, “[Carter] had a long history of violence, in fact, it’s not an exaggeration to call him something of a … psychopath.”
By 1958, disillusioned with the new Klan’s leadership, whom he called “a bunch of trash,” he quit the group. With few prospects and four kids to feed in Anniston, Asa Carter took an ill-advised turn into politics, running for state lieutenant governor. He finished fifth in a five-man field.
Alabama’s most powerful moderate in the second half of the decade was George Wallace. In 1958, stunned over his loss in the governor’s race to Klan-backed John Patterson, Wallace famously swore to an aide that he’d never be “outsegged” again. (Or, as some of Wallace’s less flattering biographers have phrased it, “outniggered.”) The solution was the talented but unstable Asa Carter, whom Wallace’s aides thought they could keep, as one of them now admits, “under wraps.”
Till the day he died, George Wallace denied that he ever knew Asa Carter. He may have been telling the truth. “Ace,” as he was called by the staff, was paid off indirectly by Wallace cronies, and the only record that he ever wrote for Wallace was the word of former Wallace campaign officials such as finance manager Seymore Trammell. “He lived out of back offices in Wallace’s headquarters,” says Wayne Greenhaw. “He’d see his wife and kids on weekends and be a family man. During the weekdays he’d hole up in his room with his typewriter, a quart of whiskey, a dozen packs of Pall Malls and a gun.” Adds a former campaign official: “A revolver, an Old West type of gun.”
From this back room, Asa Carter wrote the most famous racist rhetoric of the civil rights era, words that would reach and be remembered by more people than anything published by Forrest Carter. From the steps of the Alabama state capitol building, on Inauguration Day, 1963, Wallace delivered the speech that, for sheer grandiloquence, rivals Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” “In the name of the greatest people that ever tread the earth,” thundered Wallace, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say: Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Wallace’s national reputation was made.
When Wallace ran his wife, Lurleen, for governor in his place, there was talk of making Carter her press secretary, but cooler heads among Wallace’s advisors suggested that this might be too high-profile for a man with Carter’s past. He was kept on for a while as a speechwriter until Lurleen Wallace died of cancer. By 1968 Wallace was ready to run for president and had to clean up his rhetoric. All ties to “Ace” were cut. Deserted and, he felt, betrayed, Carter ran against Wallace for the governor’s seat in 1970. In his TV commercials, Carter looked large, thick-set and barrel-chested, with dark, thick, Russian-like hair and eyebrows. He looked like George Wallace’s bigger, meaner brother. Positioned in front of a Confederate flag, he railed against “race-mixing,” Communists in Hollywood and anything else he could tie to the “guv’mint” in Washington. He finished last.
Wales was born out of the ashes of Asa Carter’s political defeat, just as, in Carter’s novel, Wales rises from the ruins of the old Confederacy. In 1973 Carter and his wife, Thelma, sold their Alabama home and moved to Florida where Carter could get away from his political debacle. Within a year, a new Carter emerged, slimmer, darker (all that Florida sun) and with a new name: Forrest. The name was chosen in homage to Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, the infamous Confederate cavalry general and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. And, like Wales, Forrest Carter went to Texas to begin a new life — one that was to definitively disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life.
From writing racist speeches, Carter turned to writing genre fiction. In 1973 Eleanor Friede at Delacorte Press accepted his first novel, “Gone to Texas,” for publication. Carter was now spending time around Abilene, visiting his sons (whom he referred to, for reasons that remain unclear, as his nephews) and making new friends. He told them that he was from Florida, that he had Cherokee family in north Alabama and that he was an official “story teller” and “oral historian” for the Cherokee nation. He dressed in jeans and string ties and affected a folksy speech pattern. He performed what he called Cherokee songs and dances for his friends. To the surprise of his friends and family, and probably Carter himself, “Gone to Texas” was published and, thanks to Friede’s clout, even got reviewed in publications that ignored westerns. It sold well, pleasing the vast readership of Louis L’Amour, but also impressing a handful of readers beyond the western audience that an intense new sensibility was at work in the tired and predictable genre. Carter was delighted to promote his book with personal appearances. An Austin bookseller recalls that “He was such a great storyteller that people who heard him, people who didn’t buy westerns, bought his books.”
What kind of people have bought Forrest Carter’s books? Certainly the Wales novels appealed to the readers of pulp westerns and action-adventure novels. But Carter also seemed to make fans of thousands who wanted something more from their pulp — and the story he told shared important themes with his lone wolf, white-supremacist past. The character of Wales is a superhero-like conflation of several Confederate guerrilla fighters of the Civil War and post-Civil War era, particularly Jesse James and Cole Younger. Wales is a child of the mountains, and “he preferred the mountains to remain wild, free, unfettered by law and the irritating hypocrisy of organized society.” Wales is white, but “His kinship . . . was closer to the Cherokee than to his social brothers of the flatland.” Like thousands of ex-Confederates, he hangs a “G.T.T.” sign on his door — “Gone to Texas” — and flees through Indian country, pursued, long after it would seem necessary, by federal soldiers and marshals. Before the novel ends, the Goya-esque landscape is cluttered with corpses, almost in anticipation of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”
In contrast to the Wales stories, “The Education of Little Tree” is a sweet, sad idyll, a pastiche of pop Zen and New Age homilies crossed with a dash of down-home red-in-tooth-and-claw Darwinism. On the surface “Little Tree” is a story of peace and tolerance; at its heart it shares much with the bloody Wales books. Carter’s philosophy of implacable nature is displayed in a passage where Little Tree is saddened when a hawk tears a harmless quail to pieces. “Don’t feel sad, Little Tree. It is the Way. Tal-con caught the slow and so the slow will raise no children who are also slow … and so Tal-con lives by the Way. He helps the quail.” And so, in nature’s harmony, the dominant species rules. Man upsets the harmony by empowering the weak. Government corrupts nature by helping the weak.
In addition to wisdom from Granpa and Granma, Little Tree learns life lessons from a kindly Jewish peddler, “Mr. Wine.” Mr. Wine, anticipating Milton Friedman by half a century, says, “If you was loose with your money, then you would get loose with your time, loose with your thinking and practically anything else. If a whole people got loose, then politicians seen they could get control. They would take over loose people and before long you had a dictator. Mr. Wine said no thinking people ever had a dictator.” Fascists, of course, do not regard their leaders as dictators but as expressions of their own will.
Perhaps no two books by the same author have ever had so few readers in common. But scratch the surface of “Little Tree’s” Native American worldview and you’ll find a Confederate-minded noble savage. In fact, the Cherokees in both “Little Tree” and the Wales’ books are honorary Confederates, fighting the evils of what both Little Tree and Wales call “guv’mint.”
Sometime in late 1973 Bob Daley, a producer for Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions in California, received a book with a note for Eastwood. “The letter spoke of Clint’s ‘kind eyes,’” says Daley. “I thought, ‘Who in the world thinks that Clint Eastwood has ‘kind eyes’? I was curious.” Daley didn’t read westerns, but he gave “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales” a try. Intrigued, he talked Clint into giving it a try; the next day Eastwood told Daley to buy it for Malpaso. Carter’s cut was $25,000 for screen rights — not bad for a first-time author writing in a pulp genre — with an additional $10,000 if the film was made.
A short time later Carter called to say he’d be in the area and wanted to stop by. “Fine,” said Daley, “where will you be? Los Angeles? He said, ‘No, I’ll be in Dallas.’ I just looked at the phone, wondering what kind of character we’d gotten involved with.” Daley had no idea. When Carter arrived, he was staggeringly drunk and proceeded to piss all over the office carpet. Daley had an assistant hustle him to a hotel.
The next day, sober, he made his way back to Daley’s office. “He no sooner got there,” Daley recalls, “than he said, ‘Well, it was fine meetin’ ye, but I reckin’ I’d better be gittin’ ta home.’ It took me a moment to realize that he was talking like Wales. I thought, ‘This is worse than I thought.’ I talked him into staying another night to have dinner with some of my people from the production office. Again, he showed up drunk, and he pulled a knife and held it to the throat of one of our secretaries. He later said it was all a joke.”
The film’s first director, Philip Kaufman, was not impressed by “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales.” “‘Fascist’ is an overworked word,” says Kaufman from his California home, “but the first time I looked at that book that’s what I thought: ‘This was written by a crude fascist.’ It was nutty. The man’s hatred of government was insane. I felt that that element in the script needed to be severely toned down. But Clint didn’t, and it was his movie.” Eastwood eventually fired Kaufman and went on to direct himself.
Then, the same year as the release of “Josey Wales” came the publication of “Little Tree,” and Carter was on the verge of superstardom. But Carter’s gift for promotion became his undoing. In 1975 Carter appeared on the Barbara Walters show, doing pre-publicity for the Eastwood film “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and Carter’s upcoming books, “Little Tree” and his second western, “The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales.” He smiled, winked and squinted under the brim of his black cowboy hat, but moments after his appearance NBC was bombarded by calls from area code 205. A handful of his old cronies in Alabama had made him. Forrest Carter’s days were numbered.
The mask was crumbling, and 1976 brought with it a double blow from which Carter never recovered. First, his distant cousin Dan Carter, a historian and future biographer of George Wallace, wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times blowing the whistle on the identity of the new literary lion from Texas. Shortly after, Carter’s nemesis, Alabama journalist Wayne Greenhaw, wrote a piece — also for the New York Times — digging even deeper into his sordid past. But neither story would have any effect on book sales; indeed, at first, it seemed as if the stories would have no effect on Carter’s career at all. Delacorte Press’s Eleanor Friede publicly denied any connection between Ace and Forrest; for Carter’s new friends in Texas, many of whom weren’t disposed to give the New York Times much credence anyway, that was good enough.
For two years, Forrest Carter hung on in Texas, playing the local celebrity and trying to let Asa Carter fade back into the past. In 1978, in Dallas, he appeared at the Wellesley Book and Author Patron Party, sitting on a distinguished panel including historians Lon Tinkle, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey and, incredibly, Barbara Tuchman. He played the folksy noble savage to the hilt, winning over both the panel and the audience. Tuchman laughed out loud when Carter embraced her and called her “a good ol’ Jew girl.”
I met Forrest Carter shortly after that at the Houston airport, working on a profile for the Houston Post. He was lean and sunburned and had a bushy mustache; he reminded me of an old photo of Wyatt Earp. Wearing a broad Stetson, he looked like a figure in a Remington painting in sunglasses. As a student in Birmingham I had watched him on TV when he ran for governor, but I wouldn’t have recognized him as Asa if he had been pointed out to me.
I knew him only as the author of “The Education Of Little Tree,” a book that I had regarded as inconsequential when I first read it, and of “Gone to Texas,” which seemed a brutal but above-average genre piece. I vaguely remembered having seen something in the New York Times about Asa Carter’s having gone off somewhere and started a new life for himself, but I never connected the bellowing hatemonger on TV with the grizzled-looking urban cowboy who mumbled as if he was the character in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” who spoke in “authentic frontier gibberish.” We talked about his second Wales novel and about his recently finished book on Geronimo. I asked him if Clint Eastwood would be involved in the rumored next movie about Wales. He looked at me warily from under his hat, puffed on a cigarette and said, “I think Clint’s had all he can take ‘a me.” He offered that “Robert Duvall kinda looks more like my Josey” and would make a “good ‘un.”
I told Carter that I thought his Wales novels were an attempt to win back the values on a mythical level that the Confederacy had lost on the battlefield. Carter squinted at me, smiled and said, “The values of a civilization never die so long as they’re kept alive in legend.”
I never got a chance to write my story. Shortly afterward, Forrest Carter was dead. Exactly how and why has never been made clear. Friends said that he had been drinking; rumors of Asa were starting to reach Abilene. One Texas friend said Carter aged 10 years between 1976 and 1978, largely because of his fear of the trickle-down from Dan Carter’s piece. Though it took a year and a half for Carter’s Op-Ed to have an effect, Carter began to feel the heat. A canceled speaking gig at a university here, a call from a local paper wanting to discuss the controversy there. By the summer of ’78, said a friend, “Forrest was a mess. None of us understood at the time, but after the tragedy we could see in retrospect he was turning into a nervous wreck.”
One night in June, Carter stopped off to visit one of his sons in Potosi, just south of Abilene. Perhaps two hours later, an ambulance arrived to pick up Forrest Carter’s body. The death certificate listed “aspiration of food and clotted blood” as probable cause. It also mentioned a “history of fights.” A story circulated that Carter had gotten into a drunken fight with his son and choked on his own vomit; one of the ambulance drivers said the scenario fit. An old friend from Birmingham conjectured that a fight between father and son broke out over the treatment of Carter’s wife, whom he apparently deserted in Florida. Thelma Carter later resurfaced in Alabama, and has gone into seclusion, refusing to discuss her years with Asa.
Most of Forrest Carter’s friends received a triple shock the next day when they picked up the papers. First was the news of his violent death. Added to that was the fact that many did not know he really was, or was suspected of being, the notorious Asa Carter. Finally, most had never heard Carter talk of having a son.
The question of whether the “The Education of Little Tree” represented a conscious attempt by Forrest Carter to rehabilitate himself can never be answered. In the essay mentioned above, Henry Louis Gates argued, as others have, that the sordid past of the author is irrelevant to the book’s message and theme, which is one of tolerance and acceptance. The problem is that when one scratches the surface of the idyllic world of “Little Tree” one finds a philosophy as harsh and unforgiving as the one Josie Wales lives, a world where even the mention of “guv’mint” inspires hatred, paranoia and fear. One might even question whether “Little Tree” is really the plea for racial tolerance that its supporters have always maintained. American Indian activist Vine Deloria Jr. long ago noted that white American men who would bristle at the suggestion that they had African or Asian blood are often quick to claim Indian ancestry so long as the connection is on the mother’s side (as Carter said his was) and Cherokee (also as Carter claimed). Why? Perhaps out of guilt at the deposal of the Cherokee from the eastern states, but more likely because it seems the safest connection to the “real” America, the one experienced by noble savages before the corrupting influences of civilization — of “guv’mint.” Like Asa Carter, many American males see a spiritual kinship between their ancestors, the savage Celts and Anglo-Saxons, and the American Indian, and to be born with Indian blood somehow better justifies being born with a chip on one’s shoulder than being born white.
There appears to be no simple answer to who Carter was, or exactly what his books are about, but for some the solution is to simply deny the apparent contradiction between the legacy of Asa and Forrest. Indeed, some continue to deny that they were even the same man. Eleanor Friede, who manages the Carter literary estate, no longer goes that far, but insisted to the New York Times after Carter’s death that “There was nothing anti-black or anti-Jewish about the man I knew.” (Friede, who is Jewish, says she is retired and declined, through a representative, to be interviewed for this story). To Buddy Barnett, his childhood friend, “Forrest wasn’t no bigot, just somebody who wanted to see right done to Indians.”
However his books should be interpreted, as works of the imagination they pale before the most remarkable creation of Asa Carter’s strange, short literary life: that half-breed ancestor of Confederate soldiers and Cherokee warriors named Forrest Carter.
Allen Barra's next book is "Mickey and Willie -- The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," from Crown. More Allen Barra.
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