Presentation on theme: "Fact or Fiction? Did Berendt take the anecdote too far?"— Presentation transcript:
Fact or Fiction? Did Berendt take the anecdote too far?
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Written by John Berendt and first published in 1994. The on-going debate surrounding Midnight is centered on the claim that the book is truly a work of non-fiction. Berendt spent eight years living and visiting Savannah, Georgia while researching his book. Berendt became friends with many of the citizens of Savannah in a rather short period of time. The first half of Berendt’s book introduces us to many of the more interesting characters that Berendt became associated with during his time in Savannah.
Characters Joe Odom-Joe befriends Berendt early on and essentially serves to “show him the ropes” during his stay in Savannah. As it turns out, Joe is also a public con-man who seems to charm anyone around him. Luther Driggers-Luther is a local inventor and is recognized as an all-around loony with the capability to kill the whole town via poisoning.
Lady Chablis-The Lady Chablis is a hot-headed black drag queen who befriends Berendt after convincing him to be her chauffer. Serena Dawes-Serena seems to be a representation of a “Southern belle” who is past her prime. Minerva-Minerva is the local voodoo priestess who Jim Williams hires to “assist” in his murder trial defense. Emma Kelly-Emma is the prime example of modern Southern hospitality. She is called “The Lady of Six Thousand Songs” and is known for her unfailing generosity in sharing her musical talent.
Jim Williams-Williams is a rich antiques dealer living in his restored Savannah mansion who is charged with murdering his young, rather deviant, bisexual lover.
The Murder The second half of the book is centered around Williams and his record-breaking four murder trials. Williams is eventually found “not guilty”. Throughout the trials, the readers are given interesting insights into what life is really like for the upper-class living in Savannah. Many questionable incidents involving Savannah’s elite are shared with Berendt as he spends more and more time becoming involved with Williams and others.
More than meets the eye Although it appears to be a lovely, rather quaint Southern city, Savannah has it’s other side too. Berendt’s readers are exposed to Savannah’s “under-belly” where brutal hate crimes are left unpunished and alternative lifestyles are kept quiet.
How Savannah measures up to Southern stereotypes… Berendt gives us plenty of prime examples that serve to support many typical Southern stereotypes. Minerva, with her curses and graveyard rituals, perfectly represents the view of the South as being saturated with voodoo and mystery. The Lady Chablis mirrors the picture of the dramatic and colorful drag-queen lifestyle. Mary Harty relates several stories to Berendt that support Savannah’s claim as being the “Hostess City of the South” (Berendt, 1994 p.30).
Perhaps the most significant element of Southern life that is reflected in Berendt’s writing is his use of the anecdote. An anecdote can be defined as “a short entertaining story about a real incident or person; an account regarded as unreliable or as being hearsay” (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 2001).
Essentially, Berendt’s entire book is a compilation of anecdotes that he has collected throughout his stay in Savannah. Because the South is known for it’s storytelling culture, it seems only natural to utilize the anecdote as a means to write a book set in the South.
David (Davy) Crockett used storytelling and anecdotes as a means to attract voters and supporters while he ran for office in the Tennessee Legislature and later into the U.S. Congress (Cited in Pate and Thomas, 1999). To this day, children’s books and nursery rhymes still tell the story of Davy Crockett. However, it is this use of the anecdote that has caused some critics to question Berendt’s claim that Midnight is a work of non-fiction.
The Debate… Berendt does make it clear that he changed the names of some people to protect their privacy (Berendt, 1994). However, several stories that Berendt includes in his writing are being questioned. Some people are claiming that Berendt went too far in embellishing the anecdotes in Midnight.
Berendt used himself as a character in the book. Indeed he did live in Savannah on and off while writing Midnight, but some critics are claiming that by inserting himself into particular scenes that he was not really present in, he has crossed the line.
Examples Berendt places himself inside the courtroom during Williams’ first two trials. (notes 1) The voodoo ritual that Minerva performs at the cemetery at midnight. (notes 1) The opening scene of the book where Williams and Berendt have a discussion that is interrupted by Hansford. (notes 1) Berendt writes about an outing he took with Luther Driggers to test the inventor’s glowing goldfish. Driggers claims the outing never took place. (notes 1)
Further Embellishments and Character Distortion Serena Dawes: based on the real-life Helen Drexel who actually died in 1974, six years before Hansford’s death. (notes 1) Joe Odom and Mandy (Nancy Hillis)-Berendt portrays them as having a sexual relationship where in reality, Hillis claimed this never happened. (notes 2) Spencer Lawton: Lawton claims that Berendt misrepresented him and his actions involving the murder trials. (notes 1)
Jim Williams: Williams’ sister, Dorothy Kingery, claims that “the author ‘grossly exaggerated’ her brother’s reliance on voodoo during his trials”. (notes 1)
Defending Arguments Berendt’s Author’s Note New York Times interview Interview with Kristine Anderson of The Writer
Resolution? After all of this, we now ask ourselves if Midnight really is a work of non-fiction. Did Berendt go too far? I think that is up to the reader. The reader carries the responsibility of interpreting Midnight.
To say it best: “Truth is stranger than fiction, folks used to say, back when they were two different things. These strange days, only the ordinary seems a bit queer, and whether something is truth or fiction is a matter left largely to the marketing department. Whether it’s true is less the question than whether it’s all true or, if iffy, so true. And occasionally there are truths that are self-evidently fiction, in which case the accepted phrase is based on a true story.” (notes 2)