Originally created 02/11/01

Former president reminisces about Southern childhood



The story is not uncommon.

A boy, tasting life's sweet pleasures and bitter disappointments, comes of age in the Depression-era South. His story is the same as that of a thousand other young men who grew up in that time and place.

The only difference - Jimmy Carter went on to become president of the United States.

In his recently released memoir, An Hour Before Daylight, Mr. Carter ruminates on his hardscrabble childhood among the sharecroppers and dirt farmers who worked the land. He describes harvesting cotton and peanuts, traipsing barefoot over the hot Georgia clay, butchering hogs, milking cows, plowing behind mules and the myriad other memories of his rural youth. Eloquent and descriptive, Mr. Carter's poetic prose describes a lifestyle where books were read by lamplight, and the family land was worked by the sharecroppers and day laborers who, despite segregationist policy, became his closest friends.

"I began this book probably seven or eight years ago," Mr. Carter said in a telephone conference interview from his Plains, Ga., home. "I was just going to write a brief memorandum for my grandchildren, just describing some of the experiences I had as a boy. You know, just so my grand kids would know how ancient people lived. And then, the more deeply I got involved in the book, well, I began to see that it might have a lot if interest."

Unlike many political memoirs, An Hour Before Daylight was no collaborative effort. As with his 14 previous books, every word is his own. Trained in nuclear science, agriculture and politics, Mr. Carter said writing offered a catharsis he could find nowhere else.

"I think there was a kind of turning point in my life of self-analysis when I began to write poems," he said. "I had kind of a self-analysis, or psychoanalysis, of the way I really felt as a child and the frustrations I harbored and some of the resentments that I had retained concerning my father's harsh treatment on occasion."

Mr. Carter said he wrote about his boyhood so a society that leans heavily on cell phones and sleek automobiles might have a document of how things once were.

"It's almost impossible for Americans to realize, first of all, how poverty-stricken everybody was," he said. "There just was not any money. For instance, my mother was a nurse, and her pay was $6. But most of the people she nursed didn't have any money. So, they would bring mama a dozen eggs a week for a year or something like that. That was the way we lived."

An Hour Before Daylight addresses only briefly the man young Jimmy Carter would eventually become. Only when speaking of others, the personalities who contributed to his life, does Mr. Carter mention becoming governor or president.

"I made a decision originally that I wouldn't insinuate in the description of my boyhood days that someday this little boy was going to become a famous man or the president of the United States," he said. "I tried to put myself back in the atmosphere or situations that I occupied and not project into the future."

In An Hour Before Daylight, Mr. Carter displays a natural prowess for descriptive writing, attaching texture and taste, sound and smell to every recollection. Those memories, now 60 years old, were easy to conjure.

"People have asked me about that, how I could remember so vividly," he said. "I think the reason is I'm sitting right now, in our house, in Plains. This morning we were out at the boyhood home and the house is still there, the store is still there, the whole place is exactly the way it was when I was a child. If I were sitting in a hotel in New York or Paris with a computer and trying to think about what happened in my early years it would have been much more difficult."

Since its release three weeks ago, An Hour Before Daylight has topped The New York Times nonfiction best sellers list. Although pleased that people have taken his book to heart, he isn't surprised that readers have found his simple childhood appealing.

"I think it's because it resonates with so many people," he said. "It shows the common and very simple life that's astonishing to many Americans, a life without electricity and without running water."

In the end, Mr. Carter's book is a love letter to his family, his friends and the small town that remains home.

"When I left the governor's office and the White House, I could have gone anywhere in America, opened an office, served on corporate boards, gone on the lecture circuit and made an awful lot of money, but there was just a strong attraction here. I would presume that a lot of people who may now live distant from their birthplace and boyhood place have kind of an unfulfilled desire to go back. Maybe that's one of the appeals of this book. A nostalgic attraction to the things that shaped our lives."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626.

By the book

An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood, by Jimmy Carter. Published by Simon and Schuster. $26.