Survey Says!: The King Is Dead

This week marks the anniversary of the death (?) of Elvis Presley, a transformative cultural figure of the twentieth or any other century. If you have memories of that afternoon in 1977, you perhaps recall what you were doing when news of the King’s demise shook our primitive, pre-digital media. I, for instance, was on the way to football practice. When one of the other kids in the car made a joke about Elvis, his dad reached back and thwacked him one but good.

Greil Marcus called Elvis’s life The Presleyiad. The arc of it remains a part of our collective history: the rise from Tupelo poverty; the supernova of Sun Records music that changed it all; years in the army; celluloid slavery in a hundred awful movies; the brief, transcendent 1968 comeback that provided a too-short-lived taste of an alternate reality where the mature Elvis was scared enough to put forth the effort necessary to create art; the crash and burn of that dream in Vegas; tabloid notoriety; death; life everlasting.

Not surprisingly, a figure as epic and American as Elvis has long inspired analysis, reflection, and scholarship. University presses have participated in the ongoing project to make sense of the King and his effect on his world. Today the Large Blog turns its attention to Elvis books, a genre that even in at its depths—and they are murky depths—provides more entertainment than any Elvis film.

williamsonElvis Presley: A Southern Life, by Joel Williamson
Oxford University Press

Historian Joel Williamson follows the King’s life against the backdrop of Southern culture. Williamson illuminates the zenith of Presley’s 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. He also delves into the “revolution of the Elvis girls,” the long-loyal female fan base that Presley captured in his early years and held onto for decades. Explosively, white girls went wild for a white man inspired by and singing black music while “wiggling” erotically. Elvis did nothing less than give 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.

bertrandRace, Rock, and Elvis, by Michael T. Bertrand
University of Illinois Press

Depending on where you stand, Elvis ripped off African American music or brought it to a new (white) audience. You could even say he did both and find takers. In a narrative peppered with the colorful observations of ordinary southerners, Michael T. Bertrand argues that appreciating black music, even as sung by a white man, made possible a new recognition of African Americans as fellow human beings. Bertrand documents black enthusiasm for Elvis and cites the racially mixed audiences that flocked to the new music at a time when adults expected separate performances for black and white audiences. He describes the critical role of radio and recordings in blurring the color line and notes that these media made black culture available to appreciative whites on an unprecedented scale and helped working-class whites orient themselves in new, unfamiliar urban settings by enlisting black music and culture in their own self-identification.

dundyElvis and Gladys, by Elaine Dundy
University of Mississippi Press

The strange aspects of Elvis’s life are legion. Elaine Dundy looks at what was no doubt at the core of many of these oddities: the King’s devotion/obsession to/with his mother, Gladys. Hailed as “nothing less than the best Elvis book yet” on its 1985 publication, Dundy’s book reconstructs the extraordinary and not always healthy role Gladys played in her son’s formative years. Combining a biographer’s detective work with a novelist’s gift for storytelling, Dundy’s compelling narrative is a poignant portrait of a unique boy and the maternal tie that bound him, an intimate psychological portrait of a tragic relationship and a mesmerizing tale of the early years of an international idol.

zolov largerRefried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture, by Eric Zolov
University of California Press

As anyone who has seen the film Mystery Train can attest, Elvis affected people far beyond the U.S. borders. Rock and roll, for example, became a major influence in Mexican politics, society, and culture. From the arrival of Elvis in Mexico during the 1950s to the emergence of a full-blown counterculture movement in the late 1960s, Eric Zolov uses rock and roll to illuminate Mexican history through these charged decades and into the 1970s. This fascinating narrative traces the rechanneling of youth energies away from political protest in the wake of the 1968 student movement and into counterculture rebellion, known as La Onda (The Wave).

clemensAll Shook Up!: Collected Poems about Elvis, edited by Will Clemens, photographs by Jon Hughes
University of Arkansas Press

A lot of the poetry about Elvis springs from the cottage industry in tasteless pop culture that appeared after his death. But not all. Elvis inspired even heavy lit hitters like Joyce Carol Oates to pen verse to his Kingliness. This Elvis-themed poetry collection—get your brain around that phrase for a moment—invites readers to experience the connection between the historical and mythical status of The King, on the one hand, and the poetic imagery of him on the other. All Shook Up! combines history and myth and art in the words of some of our most well–known poets and in the elegant and revealing photographs of Jon Hughes.