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The dissident at dusk

Writer. Folklorist. Activist. Stetson Kennedy has worn many hats in his life. But now, at 89 and in poor health, his legacy worries him.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published September 3, 2005


FRUIT COVE - The old lion, easily tired now, needs a nap, perhaps two naps, to get through the day. "Makes me furious," Stetson Kennedy says, shuffling breathlessly toward bed an hour before lunch.

The humid breeze, blowing off the nearby St. Johns River like a bloodhound's breath, saps his strength. He used to be so strong. He used to have so much energy. He can remember the barefoot boy who rowed 7 miles up the river from Jacksonville to fish for bream.

On Oct. 5 he will be 89.

He has bad lungs and a melanoma on his head. He is worried about money and his legacy.

Will his good life be forgotten? And how much time does he have left?

"I am not finished with my work," he protests.

Upstairs waits his computer, his word processor, his five manuscripts for incomplete books, including the autobiography, Dissident At Large, about his career as a social activist, Klan buster and folklorist for President Roosevelt's Federal Works Project Administration.

Over the years, his sensational books about Southern racism, especially The Klan Unmasked, won him notoriety. But it is his quieter work as a folklorist for the WPA that might have the deeper roots.

Seventy years ago, when so much of America was unemployed, he was part of a team that put together the legendary WPA Guide to Florida: The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s Florida. The purpose of the project was to provide meaningful work for needy writers while producing a guide tourists could carry in their luggage. The Florida guide, and WPA guides for other states, were supposed to hold up a mirror to America.

Sections of the Florida guide, published in 1939, certainly reflected the moonlight and magnolia aspect of the Sunshine State. But the chamber-of-commerce ideal also missed the nitty-gritty, the sweltering heat, the back-breaking labor, the casual and overt racism - not to mention the charming customs, tall tales, folk songs and the jook-joint culture of rural African-Americans.

Kennedy's remedy was Palmetto Country, a fascinating volume that told the story left out of the guide and history books. Originally published by the WPA in 1942 and still in print, it remains one of the best books ever written about Florida.

He was barely out of his teens when he and other unemployed writers scoured the Peninsula, looking for authentic Florida. Now, sitting at his kitchen table, bent fingers trolling down a page, he points out names of WPA writers, editors and field workers who are no more.

Zora Neale Hurston, rest in peace.

The African-American author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, now considered a novel of genius, worked for Kennedy on WPA projects. She once described folklore as the "boiled-down juice, or potlikker, of human living."

Whatever you call it, potlikker or boiled-down juice, it flows through Kennedy's veins. Perhaps not as strongly as it once flowed, but it is there, however faint, along with his tired pulse.

His home, his museum

To find the house, drive through Palatka north on State Road 13, also known as Bartram Highway, named after the explorer who described Florida for the rest of the world in 1791. In the 21st century, Bartram Highway is four-laned and lined by small houses and trophy homes, gas stations and strip malls: Anywhere, USA.

Drive through a hamlet called Switzerland and search for the Hess gas station. Make a U-turn and veer into the woods down a sandy road that disappears into the long past. Steer through the oak trees and the cabbage palms and park beneath an enormous web crafted by a golden spider as wide as a mason jar of Dixie moonshine.

The home, built a half century ago from cedar, has a name above the door. Stetson Kennedy, who never lost his sense of the dramatic, named his house "Beluthahatchee," which translates to "heaven" in Seminole. His small corner of paradise looms over a pond monitored by soft-shell turtles, frogs and egrets.

He opens the door, looking anxious, and nervously leads a tour of what will probably be a museum one day. In the living room he has constructed a shrine to his published work, and to the life of his great friend, Woody Guthrie, the Dust-Bowl balladeer, social activist and working-class hero famous for This Land Is Your Land. They became close after Guthrie expressed admiration for Palmetto Country. Guthrie wrote more than 80 poems and songs, and an autobiography, Seeds of Man, during visits to Beluthahatchee. He often slept in a hammock and enjoyed skinny-dipping in the pond and shocking the neighbors.

One poem was Stetson Kennedy, inspired by Kennedy's losing write-in campaign to be a U.S. Senator in 1950.

Knocking on doors and windows

Wake up and run down election morning

And scribble in Stetson Kennedy.

In 2000, the words of Guthrie's old poem was put to music by the British rocker Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco. It's on an album called Mermaid Avenue II.

"One time somebody asked me what Woody and I talked about," Stetson Kennedy says. "You know, we didn't talk that much. We didn't have to. I knew what he thought, and he knew what I thought."

The other Florida

In Florida, everybody was poor. Or at least it seemed that way. Kennedy's father had a business selling furniture in Jacksonville to people who rarely had the means to pay. Only a teenager, Stetson became his dad's collection agency.

"If I give you the dollar I owe your dad," he remembers a customer telling him, "I won't have a dollar to feed my family."

Kennedy abandoned the furniture business. He abandoned Jacksonville to study at the University of Florida, where a highlight was taking a creative writing course from an up-and-coming author named Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. But he quit college after a year, hitchhiked to Key West and sat on the shore writing poetry. He married a 17-year-old, whose daddy expected Kennedy to provide a roof over her head and supper on the table. Kennedy and his bride returned to Jacksonville, where he took the "pauper's oath" required to work for the WPA. "To be hired you couldn't have a job, property or any prospects," he says. "I was eminently qualified." His WPA salary was $75 a month.

A fellow WPA pauper was Hurston. Although she had written three books, she accepted a job helping collect stories and music performed by Florida African-Americans.

Often she headed out into the Florida hinterlands alone.

"A white man and a black woman could never have traveled together back then without fear of being lynched," Kennedy says.

A hellish place for Florida blacks often turned out to be one of the rural camps dedicated to extracting turpentine from pine trees. Once in camp, many laborers learned too late about modern slavery.

"We told the white turpentine bosses we just wanted to collect "Negro spirituals,' " Kennedy says. "Otherwise they never would have let us in." One night he and assistants hauled a giant tape recorder to a campfire, connected it to a car battery, and turned on the microphone.

"Don't you know they can't make you work against your will?" Kennedy asked.

"They do do it," a worker told him.

"Why don't you leave and get out of it?" Kennedy asked.

"The onliest way out is to die out. If you triesto leave, they will kill you, and you will have to die, because they got peoplesto bury you out in them woods."

Seconds later a black sentry rushed into the campfire circle and hissed: "Here come the Man! Sing something quick!"

Kennedy remembers meeting a turpentine worker who was almost blind. The sulfuric acid sometimes used to increase the pine-sap flow had splashed into his eyes. Kennedy asked if he'd seen a doctor.

"I went to the eye inspector," the blind man said, "and he said my eyes was done wore out."

Seventy years later, sitting on his couch, sipping from a machine that helps his lungs, Kennedy takes a deep breath and exhales.

"That was Florida, too," he says.

"I lived too long'

After a nap, he feels refreshed enough to come downstairs and answer the phone.

"WHAT?" he shouts, fumbling with his hearing aids. "I'M SORRY, I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" He hangs up, sweating. He loathes the heat and dials his air conditioner nice and low. The AC, the computer and a television he says he despises represent the only modernity in the house.

Colorful bottles, some dating to the Civil War, line the window sills among the cobwebs. A driftwood limb, shaped like a sea horse, hangs from the wall. There's a wood-burning stove in the corner and a cuckoo clock stopped forever at 2:45.

But what year, what century?

"I lived too long," he says. His third wife, schoolteacher Joyce Anne Kennedy, died in 2002 after a long illness. Loneliness is never more than a short walk to the kitchen and her photograph still taped to the ice box. When he feeds the egret outside the back door he is reminded of her. She loved "Snow," too.

Sitting on the couch, he stews about popular culture, the Bush administration, the war in Iraq and the intolerance of the religious right. "The American Taliban," he scoffs.

"We're going backwards," he fumes. "I'm glad Woody isn't here to see what's happening to America. I'm glad Lincoln and Whitman aren't here to see what is happening. This world is about one word today. Know what it is? G-R-E-E-D."

A knock on the door. His latest visitor is Joanelle Mulrain, who heads something called the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, set up to promote peace and justice and, of course, Stetson. She is a public relations whirlwind. Lately she has been contacting people who admire Stetson and asking them to go on camera to talk about his accomplishments.

"I want Stetson to win a Pulitzer Prize," she says. "The world can't forget about Stetson Kennedy."

She also guards him like a mama alligator. Last spring, he spent four weeks in the hospital with double pneumonia. When she visits, she nags him about eating better and drinking lots of water. He is easily dehydrated.

"How many bottles of water today, Stetson?" she asks.

"What are you, the alpha female?" he asks. "You might be the alpha female, but I'm the alpha male."

"Everybody knows the alpha female is in charge," she tells the old lion.

Stetson leads the way upstairs to his office. One crate says "Zora" and another spells "Klan." A waterfall of mildewed books spills from high shelves. Lately he has been reading about the Roman Empire. Lately he has been worried about the decline and fall of the American Empire.

"I wish I had more time to read more. All my life I said when I retired I would read the classics. Now I am in a race against time. The clock is ticking, and I have so many books I want to write."

In the corner, the computer shows a blank screen.

He says Grits and Grunts, his book about old Key West, is almost finished. Same with Hate No More, his musings on racial intolerance. He wishes some smart graduate student, some guardian angel, would knock on his door and volunteer to put together Land Be Bright: A Stetson Kennedy Reader.

To fish again

A late afternoon thunderstorm wakes him from his latest nap. He feels good enough to savor a Heineken and suggest supper at his favorite fish camp on the St. Johns River he knew so well as a boy.

He doesn't want to sit inside. Too many people, too many people talking, overwhelm his hearing aids. He chooses a table outside overlooking the river and eats cheese grits and fried catfish.

"One thing I would like to do before I go is fish again," he says. "I like to fish in the river, but I really would like to catch a saltwater fish. Maybe a kingfish or a bluefish. Bluefish are very fierce."

On the way home he is still talking about those fierce bluefish. He remembers the time he caught a nice blue and started cleaning it. He removed the head, but it still was fierce enough to bite him. Bluefish, like Stetson, don't know when to call it quits.

Minutes later he arrives at home. Cicadas in oaks chatter mournfully. Frogs in the pond sing their sad arias.

In the dusk, the old lion hauls himself out of the truck, refusing help. "Oh, I'll be all right," he says. "But thank you kindly." As he vanishes into the old house, his hearing aids trill like the night song of a lonely whippoorwill.

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 and klink@sptimes.com

Further reading

Palmetto Country, by Stetson Kennedy, University Press of Florida.

The Klan Unmasked, by Stetson Kennedy, University Press of Florida.

The WPA Guide to Florida, various authors, is out of print but frequently available at libraries and from the Web site www.abebooks.com

On the Web

A Florida Treasure Hunt by Stetson Kennedy. memory.loc.gov/ammem/flwpahtml/ffpres01.html

The Stetson Kennedy Foundation: www.stetsonkennedy.com

Further listening

Mermaid Avenue II, by Billy Bragg and Wilco, Elektra Records.