Friday, September 4, 2009

The Education of Little Tree

[September 4 is] the birthday of Asa Earl Carter, who wrote under the pseudonym Forrest Carter, born in Anniston, Alabama (1925). The Education of Little Tree was published in 1976, a memoir by Forrest Carter about his childhood raised by his Cherokee grandparents, who called the boy Little Tree. The book started out slowly, but it got great reviews, became a Book-of-the-Month Club pick, and everyone called it a new classic of Native American Literature. Sales increased steadily, and in 1991, it won the American Booksellers Book of the Year Award and spent weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

But there was a problem. The New York Times Forrest Carter was actually Asa Earl Carter, who was not only not Native American, he was a racist and a segregationist. Asa Earl had been a Ku Klux Klan leader, started a monthly publication about white supremacy, and wrote speeches for Governor George Wallace — Carter is credited with the famous speech "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" He ran for governor in 1970, convinced that Wallace was too moderate on the race issue, but he lost. After that, he left Alabama forever, and he renamed himself Forrest Carter, after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Civil War General and an original leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

After it came out that Forrest Carter was actually Asa Earl Carter, Oprah took The Education of Little Tree off her recommended reading, the Times moved it to the fiction list, and the book's publisher, the University of New Mexico, dropped the subtitle "A True Story," and it took out the biography on the book that said Carter "was known as 'Storyteller in Council' to the Cherokee Nations. … His Indian friends always shared a part of his earnings from his writing."

But otherwise, not much changed. The book is still regularly taught in schools as a lesson in tolerance. It certainly asks us to decide whether what we know about the author of a book changes how we think about that book.

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