On those too-rare occasions I’ve been able to be around other writers of western novels long enough for good conversation, I’ve noticed that a frequent topic is discussion of favorite western movies. One film always mentioned is Clint Eastwood’s 1976 classic “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
For atmosphere, action, scenery and great characters, that one indeed is a jewel.
There’s something in the backstory of that film, though, that many fans of the movie may not know about. I knew nothing of it myself until years after first seeing the movie. And Clint Eastwood himself didn’t know about it when he made the film.
It has to do with the man who wrote the novel from which the film was adapted.
His name was Forrest Carter … in a manner of speaking. Forrest Carter actually was a pen name for a man from Anniston, Ala., who was born in 1925 as Asa Earl Carter.
Before Asa Carter became a western novelist, he worked in radio and assorted jobs, then became a writer of controversial political material. Remember George Wallace’s famous line in his inaugural speech as Alabama governor, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”? Those words were written by Asa “Ace” Carter, say many who knew the man.
Some have noted a rhythmic and structural similarity of the famous line to a slogan associated with the Ku Klux Klan: “The Klan now, the Klan tomorrow, the Klan forever.” Did Carter base the line he wrote for Wallace on that Klan chant?
It’s possible, because Asa Earl Carter was a Klansman. He even formed a KKK splinter faction of his own, calling it the “Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy.”
You read it right: the man who created Josey Wales was associated with the KKK, though Eastwood and company didn’t know that at the time they adapted Carter’s novel. Nor did most people who viewed the film, which concerns a Confederate-leaning Missouri farmer who seeks to avenge the murder by Union “Redlegs” of his wife and son, and refuses to recant his allegiances and actions after the war ends, making him an outlaw.
Carter sent his Josey Wales novel to Eastwood’s Malpaso production company unsolicited. It was just one item in a “slush pile” stack of unrequested submissions when one of Eastwood’s associates picked it up randomly one day on his way home, read the entire thing that night, and recommended his boss do the same. Eastwood did, and suddenly Asa Earl “Ace” Carter, (hiding behind a pen name he derived from the name of Confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest), was being offered a movie deal by people who would have fled at top speed had they known his true identity and history.
But if the author of the Josey Wales book was racist and controversial, his novel’s content was not, nor was the resulting film’s. In fact, the film is noticeably sympathetic toward Native Americans, exemplified in the characters of Lone Watie, Little Moonlight and Ten Bears. Some over the years have expressed surprise that a story by a man of Carter’s background would treat non-white characters so positively.
In a 2011 documentary about Carter, “The Reconstruction of Asa Carter,” which aired on PBS and can now be viewed on YouTube, a man who knew the late Carter in his “Ace” Carter days presented an intriguing speculation about Carter’s positive portrayal of Indian characters.
He suggested that Carter saw Native Americans as enemies of a despised federal government that took away the world they knew and forced a new way of life upon them. Carter, he speculated, may have been using Native Americans as a stand-in of sorts for white southerners of pro-segregation mentality, who also disliked the federal government and perceived it as forcing unwanted changes upon them.
If lumping Native Americans and white segregationists together feels like a contradictory pairing, it does mirror the contradictory qualities of Carter himself.
Those who knew the man in his early days in a community and family setting knew him by the nickname of “Bud” and found him a likable man. Likewise, the literary agent who handled the sale of film rights to Eastwood’s film company, was surprised when she later learned her client’s background.
Carter seems to have been a salesman and something of a shape-shifter, able to make those around him see him as he wanted. His literary agent said in the PBS documentary that Carter “handled” people. She said that Carter “was handling me, he was handling the publishing world, he was handling Clint Eastwood. He was handling our LA (agency) office. We weren’t handling him.”
Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times, also is interviewed in the Carter PBS documentary, and said the Carter he knew was driven by “a desire for celebrity, for being noticed.”
The Times was among the first media outlets to uncover and publish Carter’s actual identity.
The success of the first Josey Wales book and film inspired Carter to write a second Wales novel, “The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales,” which also was adapted for film, but without Eastwood’s involvement. With the late Michael Parks playing the title role, and with a much-reduced production value and quality level, that second project never achieved the success of the the first Josey Wales novel and movie.
Carter was moving on past Josey Wales anyway, writing under his Forrest Carter pen name a purported true memoir of his life as an orphan raised by Cherokee grandparents who called him “Little Tree.” He titled the work “The Education of Little Tree.”
The book became a best-seller and major award winner and Oprah Winfrey promoted it … until it was discovered that Carter had made the whole thing up. He was not an orphaned child, nor had he been raised by Cherokee grandparents, and maybe had no Cherokee heritage at all. Carter was “handling” others again. He had hoaxed the world.
The publisher reclassified the already-popular book as “fiction” and continued to sell it. Oprah Winfrey withdrew the title from her list of recommended books.
Carter, despite it all, set out to write a followup, “The Wanderings of Little Tree.” He was finished before the book was, though. A heart attack ended his life in 1979.
When they buried him, a public graveside service was held that was attended by publishing and movie industry figures. The tombstone had on it the name Forrest Carter. Carter’s family left the ceremony early, as a group.
After the public ceremony was over, the family returned and held its own private graveside ceremony. The Forrest Carter name on the unassuming tombstone was replaced by Carter’s real name of Asa.
Here are some further details, in random order, about this man of multiple names and personas and how he lived and operated:
• Carter actually visited East Tennessee during his anti-desegregation period. When the previously all-white high school in Anderson County’s Clinton finally allowed black students to enter, Carter and some fellow segregationists came to Clinton the week after the so-called “Clinton 12” group of black students entered the school. Carter and another vocal pro-segregation activist led in public agitation against the change.
The Sept. 1, 1956, Knoxville News-Sentinel reported on the day:
“The frenzied mob was hurled to emotional peaks by white supremacy advocate Asa (Ace) Carter, a professional agitator who is executive secretary of the North Alabama White Citizens Councils and who has been likened to Adolf Hitler’s Fascists by members of his own movement.
“Then, while Carter slipped away, the mob went about tearing up the town,” the News-Sentinel reported.
Cars with African-American passengers were stopped, rocked and shaken and their occupants terrorized, a dynamite blast was set off in nearby Oliver Springs, shots were fired at the courthouse, and a lingering state of riot went on until National Guard and Highway Patrol personnel called in by the governor over a two-month period helped quieten things down. Tensions were not gone, though. In 1958 a bomb was set off in the Clinton High School building, severely damaging it, fortunately on an early Sunday morning when the school was empty.
• As public sentiment shifted in favor of civil rights, George Wallace ultimately disassociated himself from Carter (who had been paid for his speechwriting “under the table” by some of Wallace’s staff). And Carter grew disillusioned with Wallace when the latter sought to soften his firebrand reputation. Carter ran for governor but gained almost no support, his segregationist values having fallen out of favor.
• Members of one of the segregationist groups Carter helped build and advance physically assaulted the popular African-American singer Nat King Cole in mid-concert in Birmingham, Ala. in 1956. This apparently was in retaliation for Cole’s favorable stance on the civil rights movement. Carter was not involved in the attack beyond helping perpetuate the hostility that led to it.
• Failure in political life is what spurred Carter to reinvent himself as a writer, producing the first Josey Wales book. He moved himself and his family to Texas, ditched his old black suits and ties in favor of western garb, a cowboy hat and a mustache, and lost weight. He tried to erase his own history, even denying he was or ever had been Asa Carter. Unfortunately for him, “Forrest Carter” was recognized by several people when he did a national television interview with Barbara Walters, and also because his photograph was on the dust jacket of his books.
• There are hints that Carter might have been backing away from some of his more extreme views late in life. He was hired to write a racist speech for another speaker, who delivered it with great success at a racist group’s meeting, and when Carter was told later by a friend that he should have delivered the speech and gotten the applause himself, Carter shrugged off the notion.
“Ace” Carter replied that for a man to effectively deliver such a speech, he would have to actually “believe that sh — t.”
To learn more about Carter, the aforementioned PBS documentary is a great source of information. To find it online, do a YouTube search for “The Reconstruction of Asa Carter.”
As an endnote: I have read Carter’s “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales” once and have seen the film many times. The book was readable, but I liked the movie better, because some of the best characters in the film were created by the screenplay writers and didn’t appear in Carter’s novel. I might have liked the book better had it been a “novelization” of the film.
The Greeneville Sun’s Tiny Day gave me two gifts I treasure to this day. One was a record of him singing “Foggy River,” his trademark song. The other is the poster for “The Outlaw Josey Wales” film, the same poster that hung in the Capitol Theatre when the movie played there as a new release.
Tiny operated the theatre in its cinematic days in addition to his celebrated work as Sun sports editor.
My kids may put that poster on eBay someday, but as long as I’m around, I’m keeping it as a memento of Tiny.