Trenton’s “Sut Lovingood”
George Washington Harris (Mar. 20, 1814 — Dec. 11, 1869)
Dade County can claim a wide variety of characters in its long history, but few today know that it was once the home of an important and influential author.
That may be because he made Trenton his home during tumultuous times, or because he left Georgia shortly before his death, or because all of his local descendants seem to have departed for points west not long thereafter.1,2,3 But George Washington Harris’ “Sut Lovingood”tales are as highly regarded by historians today as they were loved by the readers of their day. Of course, Harris’ 1867 collection of short stories was as likely to have been hidden under ma and pa’s mattress as it was to have been found in the parlor bookcase, for his burlesquestyle was considered by some “too highly seasoned”4 for proper Victorian tastes!
George Washington Harris was born March 20,1814 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of George Harris and Margaret Glover Bell Harris.5 His father was a silversmith by trade who spent his days making spoons and hilting sword blades, and forever left his mark on that place by designing Pittsburgh’s city seal.6
In about April of 1819, the boy Harris was brought to the frontier town of Knoxville, Tennessee by his elder stepbrothers David and Samuel Bell.7,8 In some combination, the two raised young Harris into adulthood, and he was apprenticed into Samuel’s chosen trade of silversmith. “During his boyhood,”it was said, “George was known among his companions and their parents, as a boy gifted with genius beyond his fellows.”9
At 21, Harris was described as “small of stature, active and alert, but quiet and sedate. He was always neatly dressed, and was kind, and scorned both the officious person and the bully.”10 In 1835 he married Mary Emilene Nance, daughter of the local horse track owner.11 Over the course of his life, Harris tried his hand at more occupations than even seems possible, proving skilled at some but financially successful in few if any. Occupations that can be assigned to him include: steamboat captain, farmer, silversmith, racehorse jockey, engraver / die sinker, glass factory superintendent, surveyor, sawmill manager, alderman, postmaster, railroad freight agent,12 railroad superintendent,13 and merchant.14,15 And that’s not including those that can’t yet be verified!
It was likely during his first stint as a steamboat captain that George W. Harris first glimpsed the green hills of northwest Georgia. In 1835 young Harris was made captain of the steamboat Knoxville,16 and regularly plied the Holston and Tennessee Rivers between Knoxville and Decatur, Alabama — including a stop at Ross’s Landing (later known as Chattanooga.)17 Harris was still captain in 1838, when the Knoxville was rechristened the Indian Chief and used to help move the Cherokee westward.18
It’s believed that Harris’ first literary contributions came in the form of political articles for the Knoxville Argus and Commercial Herald in 1839 and 184019, though these contributions are impossible to identify today. In 1843, Harris contributed the first of his “sporting epistles”for the New York based Spirit of the Times over the pseudonym “Mr. Free,” and these led to more stories and the adoption of another pseudonym, “Sugartail” — based, we are told, on the resemblance of a donkey’s tail to a stalk of sugar cane.20 But the first piece that brought Harris real notoriety was “The Snake-Bit Irishman,” a humorous sketch that initially saw print in the Jan. 17, 1846 Spirit of the Times (Day) and was widely reprinted thereafter.21
Harris discovered his finest vehicle in the form of “a queer looking, long legged, short-bodied, small-headed, white-haired, hog-eyed, funny sort of a genius”22 named Sut Lovingood, who made his Spirit debut in November of 1854 with “Sut Lovingood’s Daddy, Actin’ Hoss”.23 From that point on, Sut was Harris’ voice in nearlyall of his writings, and the unusual name was attached to Harris himself such that his friends often referred to him as “Sut.”24
In late 1859, George Harris moved to Nashville and joined the employ of the Nashville &Chattanooga Railroad, beginning an association with railroads that would continue up until his death. By the time Nashville was taken by Northern forces in early 1862, Harris, a lifelong Democrat and vocal secessionist, had moved southward.25
Exactly how and where Harris and family spent the War is not precisely known, but it is generally believed that they lived in a succession of places in northwest Georgia and the tri-state region.26 One of Harris’ daughters thought that her father worked for a time at “the armory in Chattanooga,”27 and also recalls her mother pacing the floor while the guns of Chicamauga boomed in the distance. With two sons in the War, and one involved in that very battle, she had plenty of reason to pace.28
In the late nineteen-twenties, Trenton attorney Ben H. Brock told an anecdote that suggests the Harrises were already in Trenton before Wars’ end:
”I remember my mother telling me of a trip she made with other ladies from this section to Rome, Georgia, to procure salt under the permission of the Federal Authorities, granted the party, escorted by “Sut”riding an old tall, shanky, shaggy, grey mule. Arriving at Rome and handing their “Pass”to the Corporal of Guard, they were waiting for the proper officer to pass them through the lines. The “Sut”mule stretched and craned his neck and brayed. A“Yankee soldier” standing near, thinking to have a bit of merriment at the expense of “Sut”and his lady companions, brayed in imitation of the mule, when “Sut” [Harris] remarked — “kinfolks by God!”29
Harris’ residence in Trenton becomes clear in 1866, when he can be placed there as the Superintendent of the Wills Valley Railroad.30 Founded in 1852 and completed in 1860, the Wills Valley Railroad was built from Trenton to Wauhatchie and made a connection in the latter with the lines of Harris’ former employer, the N.&.C. RR. This 12-mile stretch of rail played a prominent role in the War and would likewise play a large role in the future rail history of the South, as it became part of the Alabama &Chattanooga and, eventually, Alabama Great Southern systems.31 The daughter of a close friend believed that one of Harris’ tasks was to procure right of way as the line expanded across Alabama.32
Another Trenton reminiscence was provided by longtime resident Frank Nethery, as told to Browny Stephens in an article from the book “History of Dade County, Georgia”:
Going east on 2nd ave and before reaching Second Street North, we reach a dwelling on the left… [m]y mother told me that in this house was written the book, “Sut Lovingood”. The author’s name I’ve forgotten. Iread this book before Iread “Pack’s Bad Boy”, and comparatively, “Pack’s Bad Boy”was a good boy.”33
Mr. Nethery’s map locates the Harris home on the lot behind Gross Furniture, where a white concrete block storage building now stands. George Harris’ long awaited collection of short stories, “Sut Lovingood’s Yarns,”was completed in that house and published in April of 1867 by New York’s Dick &Fitzgerald. While beloved by Sut’s many followers in the South and West, to call its nationwide reception a sensation would be exaggerating. Perhaps Mark Twain himself said it best in his review of the Yarns for San Francisco’s Alta California newspaper:
…[the book] contains all of his early sketches, that used to be so popular in the West, such as the story of his father “actin’ hoss,”the lizards in the camp-meeting, etc., together with many new ones. The book abounds in humor, and is said to represent the Tennessee dialect correctly. It will sell well in the West, but the Eastern people will call it coarse and possibly taboo it.34
Too “coarse” for some perhaps, and though the dialect makes reading difficult at first grasp, the humor between its boards would make it popular enough that Sut Lovingood’s Yarns remained continuously in print for over ninety years.35
In March of 1867, shortly before Yarns was published, Mary Emilene Harris passed away and was buried in Brock Cemetery near Trenton. With the loss of his wife, Harris felt as if his heart were “onder a mill-stone”and it showed in both his public and private writings.36 On July 30 of that year, daughter Mary married Trenton dry goods merchant Thomas Blancherd,37,38 whose old store on the town square still bears his name. Harris would remain in Trenton until 1868 or 1869.39
In October of 1869, G.W. Harris filled the void in his life by marrying widow Jane E. Pride of Decatur, Alabama. He seems to have relocated to Decatur at this time, relating in a letter to the Knoxville Press and Herald“that he had ‘married a wife and found happiness’”40. Sadly, that happiness was not to last. In late November, Harris traveled to Richmond, Virginia on railroad business. After a stop in Lynchburg where he made inquiries for the publication of a second collection of tales, he boarded the train bound for Knoxville. Before his transfer in Bristol, the conductor found Harris in an incoherent state and placed him under special care, as did the conductor of the Bristol-Knoxville train. Upon his arrival in Knoxville, he was taken to the hotel known as the Atkin House, where he died about midnight. The doctors in attendance variously ascribed his death to “apoplexy” (stroke) and the ambiguous “morphia,”but Harris’ own last message to the world came at his rally of about 10:00 PM:“Poisoned.”41
As if that wasn’t ususual enough, two more mysteries grew out of Harris’ untimely end. First, whatever happened to the manuscript for his second book, the one for which he had been arranging publication in Virginia?Many years of searching by family members and historians have turned up nothing.42Was it suppressed, or merely lost in the confusion?
Secondly, where is George Washington Harris’ final resting place? The Knoxville papers reported that widow Jane E. Pride Harris was accompanying the body back to Chattanooga for burial,43 but no evidence that he was laid to rest there has yet been found, nor is there much apparent reason for that choice. A 1927 article in the NashvilleTennesseeanclaimed that Harris was buried in Nashville’s City Cemetery,44 but further research turned up only five George W. Harrises that cannot be the famous writer. Neither is there any evidence that he was buried in Decatur, to where he had recently moved,45 or in Trenton, the resting place of Harris’ first wife. But perhaps the truth will one day reveal itself in a tattered document hidden in some dusty file…
For further reading:
Sut Lovingood’s Yarns by George W. Harris (1867, Dick &Fitzgerald)Harris’ original collection of tales.
Sut Lovingood by George W. Harris, ed. by Brom Weber (1954, Grove Press) The Yarns edited for easier reading.
High Times and Hard Times by George W. Harris, ed. by M. Thomas Inge. (1967, Vanderbilt University Press) Contains Harris’ previously uncollected writings.
George Washington Harris by Milton Rickels (1965, Twayne Publishers). Biography and study of Harris’ work.
“The Life of George Washington Harris” by Donald Day. Excellent, well researched biographical article on Harris. (in Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 1947, pp.3-38; reprinted in Sut Lovingood’s Nat’ral Born Yarnspinner:essays on George Washington Harris (1996, University of Alabama Press).
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(1)1870 U.S. Census, Dade County, Georgia. Entry for Thomas Blanchard’s household.
(2)Entries in Dade County, Georgia Deed Books, 1860s-1870s (researched by Sue Forrester). The last entry for Thomas Blanchard appears in 1872.
(3)Burial records from Hillcrest Cemetery, Bell County, Texas. Posted online at http://ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/tx/bell/cemetery/hillcrs5.txt
(4) Porter, William T. Note to correspondents in Spirit of the Times, 23 Dec. 1848.
(5) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 6, pp.3-38, 1947, Tennessee Historical Society, Nashville, TN
(6) “Pittsburgh’s City Seal and Colors” Pittsburgh School Bulletin, May 1928, p.33.
(7) Bell, David. advertisement in Knoxville Register, 4 May 1819.
(8) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(9) “In Memory of George W. Harris” [Knoxville] Daily Press and Herald, 14 Dec. 1869.
(10) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(13) Lewis, Charles E.; William Crutchfield, and H.W. Snyder. Report on Wills Valley Railroad. [Chattanooga] Weekly American Union, 26 Dec. 1866.
(14) Bell &Harris. advertisement in Knoxville Register, 12 Nov. 1834.
(15) Harris & Bowen. advertisement in Knoxville Register, 6 Jan. 1836.
(16) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(17) Tennessee Valley Authority. A History of Navigation on the Tennessee River System, an Interpretation of the Economic Influence of This River System on the Tennessee Valley. Washington, Govt. Print. Off., 1937, pp. 61-2.
(18) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(19) “In Memory of George W. Harris” [Knoxville] Daily Press and Herald 14 Dec. 1869.
(20) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(22) Harris, George W. “Sut Lovingood’s Daddy, Acting Horse”Sut Lovingood’s Yarns. Dick &Fitzgerald, New York, 1867.
(23) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(27) Rickels, Milton. George Washington Harris. Twayne Publishers, New York, 1965, p.63.
(28) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(30) Lewis, Charles E.; William Crutchfield, and H.W. Snyder. Report on Wills Valley Railroad. [Chattanooga] Weekly American Union, 26 Dec 1866.
(31)Storey, Steve. “Railroad History:Wills Valley Railroad” and other articles at Georgia’s Railroad History & Heritage (website). Posted online at http://www.railga.com
(32) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(33) Nethery, Frank (as told to Browny Stephens)“Trenton, Dade in 1800s Recalled” in Retired Senior Volunteer Program. History of Dade County, Georgia. Summerville, GA: ESPY Publishing, 1981, p.41.
(34) Twain, Mark “Sut Lovingood”[San Francisco] Daily Alta California, 14 July 1867.
(35) Rickels, Milton. George Washington Harris. Twayne Publishers, New York, 1965, p.33.
(36) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(37) 1870 U.S. Census, Dade County, Georgia. Entry for Thomas Blanchard’s household.
(38) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(39)Mellen, George F. “Lovingood’s Settings”. [Knoxville] Sentinel, 7 Mar. 1911.
(40) In Memory of George W. Harris” [Knoxville] Daily Press and Herald, 14 Dec. 1869.
(41) “George W. Harris (Sut Lovengood [sic])” [Knoxville] Daily Press and Herald 14 Dec. 1869.
(42) Day, Donald. “The Life of George Washington Harris”
(43) “George W. Harris (Sut Lovengood [sic])” [Knoxville] Daily Press and Herald 14 Dec. 1869.
(44) unnamed article on Nashville’s City Cemetery. Nashville Tennessean, 18 Sept. 1927. Posted online at http://www.geocities.com/metroarchives/CityCemetery.html
(45) Walls, Dene. personal correspondence with author, 20 Oct. 2002.