If you go down Laurel Lake Road–the one by the old “Richie’s Market”–over I-24 in Monteagle, you will come to the cemetery where Henry Walter “Hamper” McBee is buried. Hamper was a legend in this part of Tennessee, a moonshiner, a singer of folk ballads, and a story-teller, whose own story was captured in Sol Korine’s 1978 documentary, “Raw Mash” (linked to below: if you’ve not seen it already, watch it–it’s a lot of fun). I went out one day last summer with my student Gabby on her lunch hour to find Hamper’s grave, something we’ve both been wanting to do for a while.
In fact, where he’s buried there are three markers. “That’s how you know he’s important,” noted Gabby. The first is the somber sort of stone you usually see with names, birth and death year, and the dash in between representing everything anyone’s ever accomplished in this mortal life. In addition, there was a small plaque commemorating McBee’s military service in Korea (and, I should note, an American flag). The third was the stone pictured below of the man himself, with his elaborate mustache and pompadour under an old hat, alongside which is written, The Hamper. I Seen The Elephant.
“What does that mean?” asked Gabby, and I had to admit I didn’t know. We took some pictures and left, as she had to get back to work.
“To see the elephant,” as I discovered, is an expression dating to a nineteenth-century joke about a farmer who plans to bring his wares to market. As it happens, there is a circus in town, and the farmer thinks that, after he has sold his goods, maybe he will get to go and see the exotic animals, especially the elephant, something he has longed his whole life to behold. So, he loads up his wagon and goes to town, and as it happens, comes up behind the circus caravan making its way along the same road. His mules get frightened, however, at the sight of so many odd and large creatures, and rear up and make a fuss, which in turn causes the circus animals to panic, and before long there’s a stampede in which the farmer’s eggs and poultry are destroyed, his wagon is smashed, and he himself is badly hurt. When his wife comes to see him in the hospital, she asks, “Well, did you at least get to go the circus?” to which he responds, “No, but I seen the elephant.”
As I say, it’s a joke whose elements all point to the nineteenth century, the days when traveling circuses came to town as a parade, though sometimes poorly-managed ones. We think today of the Ringling Brothers, whose circus began in the 1880’s and later would join up with P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey to form “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but prior to that, there were hundreds of smaller circuses, many family-run, which traveled the country in makeshift caravans, their menageries in tow together with, of course, the side-shows and games of chance that are still to be seen at state fairs all over the United States. Hamper McBee was himself one of this number, and spent years as a carnival barker–on “The Good Old-Fashioned Way,” an album of songs and stories recorded in the mid-60s and recently re-released, he tells a few stories of his days as a carny:
You can look and goddam see somebody and tell if they got the damned money or not. You take a goddam little old boy and his face as red as hell and holding a little girl’s hand and walking up there and you holler at her, Hey young lady! What color teddy bear you want? Why you know he’s gonna win you a teddy bear. Good-looking girl like you, why, I’d win you three or four teddy bears. He’ll get up there and spend every goddam dime he’s got trying to get her a bear.
The life of people who ran the circus and those who came to it, the way they behaved and the reasons they did so, were all things well-known to Hamper. To be a good carnival barker, after all, requires some understanding of human nature.
“I seen the elephant.” Like all good jokes, it isn’t over once it’s over but leaves you thinking after you’ve done laughing, for there’s something about human nature that is revealed by a good joke, something understood suggestively rather than straight on. In my online searching, I was surprised to find an editorial from 1861 in the New York Times entitled “Seeing the Elephant” about the rising secession movement in the South, written during the blockade of Fort Sumter. The editorialist retells the joke (not as well as I’ve just done, I must say), and then opines,
So with the gallant men of Charleston. The fact is, that the whole Secession party presents the spectacle of a body of impulsive gentlemen who are extremely desirous of seeing an elephant, and who, could they once feel him kick, or get a moderate toss from his trunk, would go home perfectly satisfied. Some of them have already had quite a satisfactory peep at the animal; others, in one form or the other, will undoubtedly soon get one. It is not positively an eternal Gun-Cotton-dom which they crave, but simply to see the elephant — to have a great time, and retire. Now that some of them have seceded, and done enough to talk about, let them come back. They have smashed their eggs quite sufficiently, and no one will deny them the glory of having seen the elephant.
For the Times, the joke is about a foolish craving after excitement, a desire to play with fire, and in their telling, it’s a cautionary tale about getting too close to danger and learning when to back off.
This isn’t the time or place to get into the wisdom of that particular prediction for the Confederacy, nor is it really the place to discuss what a tin ear the Grey Lady has evidently always had for humor. What I will say is that little of this interpretation really captures the sense of the joke as I took it when looking at the marker by Hamper’s gravestone this summer. While the line “I Seen the Elephant” does indeed have to do with a yearning for thrills, it takes on a wholly more profound meaning when read in a cemetery. In such a context, it serves as a reminder that those extraordinary moments we all desperately want to have in life more often than not come about as a matter of circumstance rather than design. There is excitement to be had in this life, Hamper seems to say, but not the sort of thing to be witnessed safely from the spectator’s seat. It is to be had, instead, unexpectedly along the way, suffered through and then, recollected as a story to be told at the end of the day. I seen the elephant, he says in the Monteagle cemetery. I seen the elephant. Perhaps you have you too?
I gave my first public reading of this post at Ed Carlos’ IONA: Art Sanctuary Gallery on Sept. 21, 2014.
Postscript, March 5, 2015: Ringling Brothers to Eliminate Elephant Acts by 2018, notes the New York Times.