Elvis Presley: A Southern Life  -     By: Joel Williamson
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Elvis Presley: A Southern Life

Oxford University Press / 2014 / Hardcover

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Product Information

Format: Hardcover
Number of Pages: 448
Vendor: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 2014
Dimensions: 9.25 X 6.13 (inches)
ISBN: 0199863172
ISBN-13: 9780199863174

Publisher's Description

In Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, one of the most admired Southern historians of our time takes on one of the greatest cultural icons of all time. The result is a masterpiece: a vivid, gripping biography, set against the rich backdrop of Southern society--indeed, American society--in the second half of the twentieth century.

Author of The Crucible of Race and William Faulkner and Southern History, Joel Williamson is a renowned historian known for his inimitable and compelling narrative style. In this tour de force biography, he captures the drama of Presley's career set against the popular culture of the post-World War II South. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley was a contradiction, flamboyant in pegged black pants with pink stripes, yet soft-spoken, respectfully courting a decent girl from church. Then he wandered into Sun Records, and everything changed. "I was scared stiff," Elvis recalled about his first time performing on stage. "Everyone was hollering and I didn't know what they were hollering at." Girls did the hollering--at his snarl and swagger. Williamson calls it "the revolution of the Elvis girls." His fans lived in an intense moment, this generation raised by their mothers while their fathers were away at war, whose lives were transformed by an exodus from the countryside to Southern cities, a postwar culture of consumption, and a striving for upward mobility. They came of age in the era of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which turned high schools into battlegrounds of race. Explosively, white girls went wild for a white man inspired by and singing black music while "wiggling" erotically. Elvis, Williamson argues, gave his female fans an opportunity to break free from straitlaced Southern society and express themselves sexually, if only for a few hours at a time.

Rather than focusing on Elvis's music and the music industry, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life illuminates the zenith of his career, his period of deepest creativity, which captured a legion of fans and kept them fervently loyal for decades. Williamson shows how Elvis himself changed--and didn't. In the latter part of his career, when he performed regular gigs in Las Vegas and toured second-tier cities, he moved beyond the South to a national audience who had bought his albums and watched his movies. Yet the makeup of his fan base did not substantially change, nor did Elvis himself ever move up the Southern class ladder despite his wealth. Even as he aged and his life was cut short, he maintained his iconic status, becoming arguably larger in death than in life as droves of fans continue to pay homage to him at Graceland.

Appreciative and unsparing, culturally attuned and socially revealing, Williamson's Elvis Presley will deepen our understanding of the man and his times.

Author Bio


Joel Williamson, Lineberger Professor Emeritus of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of a number of landmark works on Southern culture, including William Faulkner and Southern History (OUP, 1993) and The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation (OUP, 1984), which won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and the Ralph Emerson Award. Both books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Ted Ownby is Professor of History and Southern Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998, among other books.

Donald L. Shaw, who assisted with the final editing, is Kenan Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author and co-author of numerous titles, including The Emergence of American Political Issues: The Agenda Setting Function of the Press.

Editorial Reviews


Praise for William Faulkner and Southern History:


"Mississippi--with its heady brew of race, sex, and violence--is brilliantly reconfigured in Joel Williamson's William Faulkner and Southern History." --The Nation


"As rigorous as the best history and as absorbing as the best novel." --William E. Cain, Wellesley College


"Williamson, who once described himself as a failed novelist turned historian, demonstrates a remarkable gift for language, image, and detail. His aim is to reproduce the world which created William Faulkner rather than the other way around. And he succeeds... Williamson... understands the creative artistry involved in writing biography." --Charles J. Bussey, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society


"No one who reads this complex and elegantly written book from cover to cover can help but be impressed by the intellectual depth and breadth of Williamson's passionately humanistic scholarship." --Raymond Arsenault, North Carolina Historical Review


Praise for The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation:


"The most conspicuous landmark of scholarship in an important field... A deeper and more thorough penetration of the endless complexities of the subject than any ever attempted before." --C. Vann Woodward, The New Republic


"Williamson writes with enormous energy, authority, and intelligence... Grappling with a central problem in the history of his nation, his native South, and his own life, gives The Crucible of Race the force that elevates it from fine scholarly study to a work of great history." --Ira Berlin, Florida Historical Quarterly


"A major reinterpretation... [of] the white Southern psyche after the Civil War....Williamson has deepened our understanding of [Southern history's] tragic dimensions and enduring legacies." --Leon F. Litwack, New York Times Book Review


"A remarkable mixture of careful, empirically based historical work and free-wheeling cultural commentary in the vein of W. J. Cash and other imaginative writers on the Southern psyche." --George M. Frederickson, New York Review of Books


"An audacious, and often moving, account of one white southern historian's attempt to unravel the complex history of white attitudes and ideas about race." --Dan T. Carter, American Historical Review


"[A] well-researched but sentimental review of Presley's life and influence on US culture." -CHOICE


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