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The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: The Political Career of Eugene Talmadge

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The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: The Political Career of Eugene Talmadge, By William Anderson, Louisiana State University, 1975. xviii + 239pp.

William Anderson presents a well-written history of the rise and fall of a Georgia demagogue, Eugene Talmadge. Anderson's narrative provides insight into Talmadge's popular support and how he orchestrated the perception of being a "man of the people." He also has a smooth flowing writing style that keeps the story moving and the reader interested in following along.

Anderson shows how Talmadge was a complex personality holding seemingly contradictory ideas like most white men in the South at that time. Like Anderson says, "by no means could Eugene Talmadge be considered an integrationist" but he invited his African-American workers to eat lunch with him at his table in his home when he ran his farm in McRae, Georgia. He would allow blacks certain respect as long as they "kept their place." James Corley remembered that all the black people that "knew Gene liked him." Like most white men in Georgia, he held strong paternalistic ideas. Talmadge lived in a time when for the first time in Georgia's history less than half of her population was living on farms. Classical rural Georgia was changing along with the rest of the nation, albeit slower but it was faster than Talmadge and other paternalistic white males wanted or even recognized.

Inadvertently Anderson gives us an even bigger lesson about politics in Georgia and the South in general. The Democratic Party was typically seen as the party of the downtrodden for poor farmers and other people who were economically depressed. The poor certainly saw them as their political savior. However, the party support only extended to white Georgians and particularly to white males without having their best interests at heart, only their best interests as perceived and allowed by the political elite. Some of the issues that made Talmadge disenfranchised with the Democratic Party under Roosevelt like setting wage levels, dependence on the federal government, fighting outside interference in "his" state, and especially desegregation subsequently forced many southern Democrats out of the party later. When the Democratic Party found itself without the paternalistic southern white male and the downtrodden white males' allegiance, it was forced to search for support from what they perceived to be the next group of downtrodden voters instead of redefining their issues. The ones who stayed with the party did so merely out of party allegiance or their support of a particular political figure or because they could not join the party of the carpetbaggers and scalawags in good conscience. The Democratic Party was assured of its power in Georgia due to Reconstruction. Talmadge even equated the New Deal with Reconstruction.

Anderson draws from his research with close associates and long time friends of Talmadge and provides a more insightful and intimate portrait of the former governor. He relies heavily on interviews with people who personally knew Talmadge instead of written accounts and I think it helps rather than hurts his ability to tell the story of Eugene Talmadge's political career since Talmadge did not leave many written records. From Anderson's interviews one can see how a chance encounter and the backing of a major Georgia newspaper along with one hundred legislators propelled Talmadge from being a mediocre backwater politician to the Governor's mansion.

Anderson shows how entrenched the power of the Democratic Party was in Georgia. Election outcomes were not determined by voting along party affiliations since the Democratic Party was the de facto party of Georgia and most of the South at that time. Personalities and the perceived identification with the common white men of the state often won elections due to the lack of any real opposing local issues in Georgia's political campaigns.

Talmadge had personality in abundance and a penchant for catchy phases that excited and won over the heart of the common man. His vulgar and homespun language greatly endeared him to the crowds that attended his rallies. In private

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