RARA-AVIS: Fiswoode Tarleton

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 06 Nov 2002

A bit late for the 1920s month, Fiswoode Tarleton's only book BLOODY GROUND was published by Dial Press in 1929. Who the hell was Fiswoode Tarleton? From the mid-1920s to his death in 1931, Tarleton published an impressive series of related short stories in magazines from the immensely popular pulp Adventure to magazines like The Forum and McClure's. The stories take place in an Appalachian village named Leeston that was remote even by Appalachian standards. Continuing characters are Sheriff Floyd Jett and Leeston's town marshall Steve Dodie as they deal with murders, moonshiners and moments of racial tension and violence. Very unusual for popular fiction of the time the stories are told in the present tense.

Subtitled "A Cycle of the Southern Mountains," BLOODY GROUND contains twelve stories. One of the most striking is "Color," which tells of a one-ring circus appearing in Leeston which excites the two very separate populations of blacks and whites. Into the town walks a huge, powerful man of mixed race. No one knows him but all eyes are on him. The sideshow features one of those swing-the-hammer and ring-the-bell tests of strength. After various white men have failed to ring the bell, the stranger grabs the maul and rings it with every swing, eventually shifting to one arm and timing the bell with the music of the circus band.

The stranger never speaks a word during the course of the story but he makes both blacks and whites nervous as he refuses to stay within the boundaries of
"how things in Leeston is run." Tension builds until the inevitably violent climax.

The publisher called Tarleton a "new young master of American fiction." Based on the number of times Tarleton stories are listed on the honor rolls of both the two big short story annuals O'Henry and Best American Short Stories many others of the time agreed. More importantly, the evidence is in this book and in the uncollected short stories.

Tarleton is seldom mentioned except in connection to his death in 1931. He died in an automobile accident with Horace Kephardt, who helped create the Great Smokie Mountain National Park and whose book OUR SOUTHERN HIGHLANDERS is still in print. Tarelton was visiting Kephardt and they hired a driver to take them to a bootlegger. Unfortunately, the taxi driver sampled the moonshine himself and failed to negotiate the very well-named "dead man's curve" near Bryson City, North Carolina. Only the driver survived the crash.

Richard Moore

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