Writer’s tarnished reputation fuels Zuckerman Museum flap

Corra Mae Harris, a popular Southern writer from Georgia and one of the nation’s first female war correspondents, often wondered what legacy she would leave behind.

“If after a very long time in heaven I should [find] a very old and dingy book open upon your table…” she confessed to readers in 1924, “I should know that some kind old heart had been refreshing himself upon my heart and I should feel tremendously puffed up.”

She might have felt somewhat deflated, then, to imagine that a century later a fellow artist would rip pages out of her novels, insert them into a blender and shred them to pieces the size of black eyed peas.

Like others who have gone before her, Harris’ historical reputation has been tarnished by her views on race, in particular an 1899 letter that described the black man as a “wild beast” that poses a “possible menace to every home in the South.” That letter launched her career, earning praise from a New York editor for her “intellectual vigor and crispness of style,” but over the years her stance has seen her relegated to obscurity.

Ruth Stanford, a multi-media sculptor born in Greenville, Miss., in 1964 — the year the Civil Rights Act passed — had never heard of Harris until last year, when she was invited by curators at Kennesaw State University’s new Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art to create an installation inspired by Harris’ homestead in north Georgia. The piece was to appear in the museum’s inaugural exhibition.

Stanford, an associate professor of sculpture at Georgia State University, spent nearly a year reading Harris’ work, taking photographs and collecting artifacts from the homestead, all the while struggling with how to portray the author fairly to a modern-day audience.

“The whole thing is about complexity,” she said about “A Walk in the Valley,” the installation she created for the Zuckerman opening. “It’s about how we respond to a place over time.”

Stanford was stunned when, the day before the new museum was set to open on March 1, curators informed her KSU president Daniel Papp had previewed the exhibition and demanded Stanford’s work be removed. Papp declined a request for comment, but according to a university statement, Stanford’s installation was removed because it “did not align with the celebratory atmosphere” of the museum’s opening. Officials also worried it might reignite the dispute over its decision to accept Harris’ 56-acre homestead as a gift from a Cartersville business leader in 2008.

Some members of the local arts community were outraged that an opportunity for artistic dialogue exploring the muddied life and legacy of a once-celebrated Southern figure had been shut down. A petition was circulated. Some boycotted the museum’s opening night, while others, such as gallery owners Robin Bernat and Alan Avery, protested outside. The decision also drew condemnation from the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Last week, the university offered to reinstate the installation, arguing that the display would be “more appropriate and meaningful” when the community had prepared to revisit the issue and engage in “related programming.”

After much deliberating, Stanford decided to re-install her piece on the condition that it’s restored to its original content, with nothing mediated for viewers. It will be on view March 25-April 26.

“In the end,” Stanford said, “you have to trust people who go to see it.”

As a contemporary artist grappling with how to present the uneasy legacy of a contentious historical figure, Stanford began work on the piece by reading Harris’ first published writing, a letter entitled “A Southern Woman’s View,” which appeared in The Independent, a New York periodical featuring political and social criticism. Offering her thoughts on the notorious murder of Sam Hose, a black farmhand in Newnan, who was tortured, tied to a tree and burned to death, Harris set out to inform the reader “of facts which do not mitigate the atrocious conduct of the Newnan mob, but which might explain its savage fury.”

“She’s being sarcastic, right?” Stanford thought as she read Harris’ description of the black man as a “negro brute” with “murderous instincts.” Yet as Stanford researched, she found that there was some complexity to Harris’ views on race; for example, she was an admirer of W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American sociologist and historian. While some of her words were ugly, Stanford found many were beautiful, even insightful.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she said, “that it all came from the same mind.”

Born in rural Elbert County, Harris was a self-taught writer, adept at conveying a heartfelt, traditional sensibility, even if her work often had a more complex, subversive agenda, according to Catherine Oglesby, history professor at Valdosta State University and author of “Corra Harris and the Divided Mind of the New South.” Her 1899 letter reflected the norms of that time, Oglesby said, but Harris also dissented from those norms, challenging the popular mythology of the Lost Cause and a South mired in its past in an era when such criticism was frowned on. Modern-day anxiety about Harris and reluctance to consider her in the context of her era reveals “a lack of historical imagination,” said Oglesby

“She was a product of her time, but she was not your typical Southern Methodist,” Oglesby said. “She was nothing if not a person who thought things to death.”

Harris wrote more than two dozen books, hundreds of short stories and thousands of book reviews for publications including Harper’s and Good Housekeeping. Her most famous book, “A Circuit Rider’s Wife,” was semi-autobiographical. A story of a Methodist minister and his wife’s life on the north Georgia church circuit, it was a spiritual biography, an idealized version of her own marriage to Lundy Harris, whose ministerial career was curtailed by alcoholism, depression and eventually suicide in 1910, just months after the book was published.

In 1914, the year Harris acquired her 56 acres near Cartersville, she sailed across the Atlantic to report for the Saturday Evening Post from London and Paris “on the women’s side” of World War I. She spent her last years working as a columnist for the Atlanta Journal, offering readers thoughts on everything from the New Deal to prohibition and birth control. She died in 1935.

To present some of this complexity to present-day viewers, many of whom have never heard of Harris, Stanford decided to incorporate the idea of multiple layers into her work. In “A Walk in the Valley,” glass cases exhibit Harris’ books, the hard covers intact, with shredded pages spilling out. Alongside are Paleolithic and 19th century artifacts archaeologists have recovered from her former homestead, as well as slices of a tree cut down on the property: the inside, polished and smooth; the outside, knotted with a tangle of English ivy.

On the walls are sepia photographs of the writer at home, reading a book beside her fireplace, posing outside her wood cabin, drinking out of a gourd. In every image, Harris’ figure is blotted out, presented as a blank, white silhouette, as if redacted, or maybe just a mystery. Looming over the exhibit is a 10-foot map of north Bartow County, with text from Harris’ notorious 1899 letter printed over it. After struggling over how to present the letter in a way that was not too inflammatory, Stanford decided to block out the most hateful words. She felt comfortable she was not presenting material with hurtful intent.

“Everything dark and ugly about that letter was obscured,” she said.

Whatever the fate of her work, Stanford said that after all the publicity, it will never be seen as she intended.

“It’s got this filter now,” she said. “I wanted to present a puzzle and allow people to figure it out. But what happened sets the potential for people to look for controversy.”

It’s a point that Harris might have understood. Although she hoped to connect with future readers, Harris seemed to recognize that human history could be complex and time less than forgiving.

“Justice is a queer thing,” she noted in 1915. “We do not understand it yet. We do not live long enough to balance the scales over in the second or third generation.”

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