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George Washington Harris' Cemetery Party by Special Guest Dr. Sheila Byrd

As I stood on the hillside of this compact, well-kept cemetery in a place I had known for a few short months, I was struck by the beauty of the spring day: the blooming dogwoods, the bright green grass, the fresh air, and brilliant sunshine. It was as if he had ordered it specifically for this day, April 20th 2008.

My family, friends, colleagues, and honor students gathered along with members from the Trenton, Georgia, community. We came together for one reason: to recognize and dedicate George Washington Harris’s final resting place. Harris (1814-1869), an important figure in American literature who wrote regional southern sketches and stories and influenced at least two of the greatest American writers, Mark Twain in the 19th century and William Faulkner in the 20th century, created the inimitable character, Sut Lovingood. The unsophisticated, uneducated, wily Sut appears in a series of stories published in newspapers and periodicals and finally as the collection, Sut Lovingood, Yarns Spun by a Nat’ral Born Durn’d Fool (1867), making Harris a best-selling author. If one reads Sut in conjunction with Huck, s/he will find touches of Harris in Twain’s character.

How is it that a man this important did not have a designated gravesite? Using a few simple clues from his mysterious death as described in his obituary, literary scholars have been searching for Harris’s grave for about four decades. These clues consist of bits of information such as he had recently married a widow from Decatur, Alabama, and was returning to Decatur from Richmond, Virginia, where he had taken a new manuscript for publication. He became sick in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was taken off the train, attended by physicians where his last word before he died was this: “poisoned.” His second wife traveled to Knoxville and returned his body to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The obituary ends here. Literary scholars have been puzzled by four things: What happened to the man? What did his last word mean? What happened to his new manuscript? What happened to his body?

As part of a literary scholar/historian detective team, I was able to answer at least one question: the location of his final resting place.

I fell into this project via a good friend and colleague, Dr. Randy Cross, and by virtue of serving as the Executive Director for Sigma Kappa Delta National English Honor Society for Two-Year College Students housed at Calhoun Community College also located in Decatur, Alabama. For years, Randy had been interested in Harris’s last residence in Decatur and other final Harris questions. One night, Randy called me at home, asking me if SKD had found a national project, knowing that I had been working with another colleague, Jill Chadwick, National SKD board president, to find a project for the SKD chapters across the nation to participate in and fulfill our mission of celebrating literature.

Randy had received a cyber “message in a bottle” from writer John Bayne, who was working on a book about gravesites of famous authors. Bayne, through his resources, had been led to question Randy about G. W. Harris, by way of the Decatur Archivist, who knew that Randy was interested in Harris too. Randy began looking for what he called “a good cemetery man.” Our final team member, Phil Wirey, was just that: a tenacious cemeterian. Phil began his logical, historically-based search, and his final word was that Harris was buried beside his first wife, Mary Emma Nance Harris, in a small cemetery in Trenton, Georgia, about 30 miles south of Chattanooga and tucked into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Phil reasoned that Harris’s second wife, Jane Beall Pride, a wealthy widow, would send Harris’s body to rest eternally beside his first wife because both Harris and Jane Pride had previously deceased spouses, and each had grown children from their first marriages. Some of Harris’s children were still living in Trenton at the time of his death.

In the fall of 2007, Randy and I began making calls and planning our trip to Trenton and Chattanooga. With the support of our college president, Dr. Marilyn Beck, and the help of many generous citizens of Trenton, Georgia, we searched archives there. But most importantly was our trip into this tiny cemetery situated on the sloping hill amid the brightly colored autumnal trees. I have found no words as yet to describe the exhilaration of the moment I spotted Mary E. Harris’s headstone nestled in the back corner of Brock Cemetery. Stationed beside her headstone was a triangular fieldstone serving as a makeshift marker for George Washington Harris’s grave. Phil Wirey had informed us that typically fieldstones were used as markers for graves of Southerners (even famous people) during and after the civil war.

At the moment of my discovery, I shivered and finally understood with my heart Keats’ description of discovery: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken” ("On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer").

Throughout the winter months, our team worked toward securing a proper marker and permission for its placement. Then, we began organizing a dedication ceremony to include SKD members; Trenton citizens and community leaders; the most famous Harris scholar, M. Thomas Inge; and best of all, Harris’s descendants from New Mexico: Bill Fowler, great grandson of Harris; Kevin Fowler, great, great grandson; and William Fowler, great, great, great grandson.

Thus we all came together on this fine April day to celebrate George Washington Harris and to designate to him his proper resting place in history: a marker dedicated to his contribution to American literature. Over the course of this project, our team laughed about what Sut might say about our formal dedication. We also had great fun thinking of what we might put on the monument for future generations to read i.e., “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” We finally settled on Harris’s own words: “Let us try an' ricollect his virtues -ef he had any- an' forgit his vices- ef we can. For of sich air the kingdom of heaven!"

Therefore, I got a chance to solve a literary mystery, make history that would change the literature books, but best of all, I made good friends for life. 

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