I’ve been stunned in the last week by the outpouring of love toward Jimmy Carter and the extent of the new interest in him. It’s nice that he and Rosalynn have lived to see it. When I set out in 2015 to write a biography of him (published in 2020), I hoped to help kick off a new appraisal of his presidency and his life, as David McCullough did for Harry Truman. But I had no idea that eight years later, I would be fielding calls from journalists all over the world, asking about details of his astonishing life, from risking being irradiated by running to the melted down core of a secret Canadian nuclear reactor, to going door to door for Jesus and trying to convert a madam, to somehow making peace between Israel and Egypt. He’s a global icon now, and deserves the appreciation, even if the “saint” stuff is a little over the top and doesn’t fully capture the tough, driven engineer I got to know. I once asked his son Jeff to choose one word to describe his father. His spot-on answer was: “Intense.”
Like most great men, Carter had daddy issues. After going to the Naval Academy in the mid-1940s, he and Earl Carter, a prominent farmer and merchant in Sumter County, Georgia, grew estranged, in part because “Mr. Earl” was a white supremacist who strongly objected to his son’s integrationist views. On racial matters, Jimmy took after his mother, “Miz Lillian,” an eccentric nurse who took care of black sharecroppers for free. (She also delivered Rosalynn Smith and 95 years ago brought her toddler Jimmy over to see the new baby). Lillian Carter joined the Peace Corps at age 68 and was so funny that she was a regular on Johnny Carson during her son’s presidency. But as a young mother, she was withdrawn and busy with her nursing, and Jimmy credited Rachel Clark, an illiterate black farmhand, with much of his faith in God and love of nature. It was Earl, though, who developed the discipline and work ethic in his son that took him to the presidency. So I thought I’d excerpt my opening chapter to give you a sense of where Jimmy Carter came from.
When he was old and allowed himself a reverie, he remembered the soil and the way it felt as it caressed his bare feet. From early March until late October, he almost never wore shoes, even to school. The loam of southwest Georgia was made of dark sand and red clay that spread over his face and his clothes and his house — one day as powder, the next, he said, as pellets the size of grits.
The blue-eyed, freckle-faced boy enjoyed a carefree idyll in the early 1930s that was little different than it would have been in the 1830s or 1730s or even — he liked to say — two thousand years ago, when Jesus Christ walked the earth. Time was measured not by clocks or pocket watches but by the sun and the clanging of the cast-iron farm bell. Until he was eleven, his homestead had no running water, no electricity, no insulation, and no mechanized farm equipment; only slop jars and outhouses, hand-pumped wells, kerosene lamps, ancient mule-driven plows, and black laborers to work the land in a feudal system just one step removed from slavery.
In other ways, he experienced many of the technologies that were coursing through the twentieth century. His boyhood on the farm coincided almost exactly with the years of the Great Depression, when his family suffered along with the rest of the country. But they were well-to-do by local standards and boasted a telephone (on a shared “party line” with two other families and an operator, Miss Gladys, who knew everyone’s business), automobiles (a Plymouth and later a pickup truck), and a large battery-powered radio, shaped like a cathedral, which everyone sat and stared at while the voices of Little Orphan Annie, Amos ’n’ Andy, Jack Benny, Glenn Miller, and Franklin D. Roosevelt crackled across the small parlor. Atlanta was 160 miles north — as distant as Moscow or Peking, he wrote later, though dreams of the outside world were never far from his mind.
His first universe was Plains, named for the Plains of Dura, the land near Babylon in the Book of Daniel where ancient Israelites refused to bow down to idols. The perfectly flat and circular town, a mere mile in diameter, had been founded only forty years earlier by enterprising merchants anxious to convert the cotton bales that lined the unpaved roads into an outcropping of low-slung buildings that might bring prosperity for themselves and local farmers.
In summer, Plains lay inside “the gnat belt.” Locals learned from childhood the subtle gesture later known as “the Georgia wave”: flicking the annoying if harmless insects away from their faces or more often ignoring them altogether. In winter, it was surprisingly cold, and the boy’s most unpleasant childhood memories were of shivering all night, even under blankets. Set on the western edge of Sumter County, Plains looked like a movie facade and consisted mostly of a one-sided Main Street — a mere one block in length — that local farmers would visit on weekends by horse and buggy or Model T, eager to get out of the fields to shop and converse. Fewer than half of the town’s residents were white.
One of his earliest memories came when he was four years old and first visited the clapboard three-bedroom farmhouse that his family would move to in the country, nearly three miles up the road from Plains. The modest Arts and Crafts “kit house” had been built by the previous owner from materials shipped in a boxcar from Sears, Roebuck, whose catalogue was often a family’s only connection to the bounty of the wider world. That day, the front door was locked, but the small boy was able to slip through a window, then come around and open the door from the inside. Daddy’s smiling approval of his first useful act remained vivid in his mind. It would not come often.
The house where he was raised lay a few hundred feet down a dirt road — also known as US Route 280— from a tiny dot on the map called Archery, Georgia, home to fewer than thirty farm families, most of them dependent on his father for work. All but the boy’s and one other family were black, a circumstance of his early years that would give him genuine comfort with African Americans and, four decades later, ease his way when he spoke carelessly and needed their forgiveness. West of the family farmhouse, beyond his father’s small commissary and the half dozen tenant farmer shacks he owned, was the home of the white foreman of a maintenance section of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, plus shacks for the five black railroad workers. The center of the tiny town, if it could be called that, was an African Methodist Episcopal church, which stood across from a small store for black customers, its roof covered by flattened Prince Albert tobacco cans.
That was about it for Archery. Most of the rest was 350 acres of his family’s property — not just land but proving ground. The boy took to the soil with an ardor that he would one day apply to every endeavor. He planted himself, early, in futile anticipation of the approval of the person who meant most to him. For the rest of his life, he would pressure himself to measure up to his father’s expectations — and his own — and push harder on all fronts when he did not.
Like nearly every white man in the county, Daddy was comfortable upholding a system of rigid segregation and quiet repression that he and most of his family assumed was the natural order of the universe. Within that pernicious system, he prided himself on treating black people with what he, in his blinkered fashion, considered respect. When the boy grew up and became a liberal, he made no secret of his father’s racism, but he sometimes sugarcoated the brutal realities of the time.
Daddy always wore a hat — gray felt fedora in winter, straw Panama in summer — and went nowhere without a Home Run or Picayune cigarette dangling from his lips. He was a merchant by background and never one to bend his back much working in the fields. But he refused to pay for skilled labor he could do himself and so became not just a farmer and forester but also a herdsman, blacksmith, carpenter, and shoemaker. One of the first places the slight, strawberry-blond boy could work alongside his father was in the small machine shop where he turned a hand crank on the forge blower as fast as he could to keep the fire going.
His father called him “son” or Hot Shot — Hot for short — a nickname that, depending on Daddy’s mood, recognized his potential or knocked him down a notch. It seemed to fit the boy, one of his sisters said later, because his emotions ran deep, and he was always in a rush to do something significant with his life. Like other southerners addressing their elders, Hot called his father “Sir.” He was “my hero” and “best friend.” He “worshipped him” even as he waited in vain for outward signs of love and pride.
When he was very young, he fished sometimes with Daddy in Choctawhatchee Creek, a mile north of Archery, where the family fields drained. The Choctawhatchee flowed into other creeks that led near Albany, Georgia, to the Flint River, a great waterway the boy would someday have the power and the passion to protect. Hot spent hours exploring the creek with his playmates and developed there what he called later “an immersion in the natural world that has marked my whole existence.”
Daddy introduced the boy to the deep Christian faith that would become a central part of his life. He made church and religion not just instructive but fun by taking Hot and his fellow Sunday school students — the Royal Ambassadors, a kind of Baptist Boy Scout troop — to the local grain mill for sleepovers. After fishing and swimming in a nearby pond and sword fights with corncobs, the boys would gather around as Daddy read Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and urged them to be “ambassadors for Christ.” Then they lay down to sleep on bags of grain with an aroma so sublime that the boy could still conjure it seven decades later.
Once in a while, Hot was allowed to tag along when Daddy and a buddy went hunting just after sunrise. For quail, he would shout “Point!” as one of the dogs froze — a sign of birds to be flushed. For doves, the responsibilities grew: He ran ahead to retrieve the fallen birds, then arrived at grade school a few minutes late. The feathers still clung to his sweater, a silent boast to classmates that his father had brought him along at a younger age than the other boys could claim. Before long, he was a fine shot himself, a skill he would carry into his mid-nineties.
Daddy was a stickler for the truth. Hot would say later that his basic integrity and contempt for lying came from him. But there was a harsher side. Much of the time, he was mercilessly competitive with his firstborn son, as Hot would replicate later with his own three sons. Daddy didn’t compete at picking cotton or other work in the fields — which he mostly avoided — but he always had to prove he was better on the crude red clay tennis court he built, where his wicked slice beat Hot every time. The same went for fishing and hunting. Constantly losing to his father cut deep. In 1996 the boy, now a former president of the United States, wrote plaintively, “Today I think I could hold my own with him as a marksman and could even outdo him with a fly rod.”
South Georgia had a 245-day growing season — an unrelenting pace for the sharecroppers, of course, but also for the family. Hot’s complexion was so fair that he sunburned easily, so his parents never let him stay out in the fields at midday. But that hardly offered a reprieve from work. As a child, one of his least-favorite chores was to make several consecutive trips carrying a two-and-a-half-gallon bucket of water in each hand from the spring down a steep incline to faraway fields, where the farmhands often drank one or two dipperfuls before carelessly spilling the rest, a wasting of a precious resource he noticed more than their working conditions.
Mopping cotton was worse. “We despised it,” he remembered. An infestation of boll weevils in the 1920s and 1930s ravaged cotton fields across the South, forcing many farmers to turn away from their cash crop. The only way to fend off boll weevils was to mix arsenic, molasses, and water and apply the poisonous concoction to the central buds of every cotton plant. The idea was to attract the insects, then kill them, but mopping often did neither, while leaving a gooey mess — the boy’s first evidence of unintended consequences. To protect against the swarms of flies and bees, he wore long pants that became so sticky with hardened molasses that at night they seemed to him to be standing at attention in the corner of his bedroom.
Avoiding chores brought an icy glare from his father that he would later make his own. When Hot was seven, as his family bundled into the car for a picnic, he admitted he had not pruned the watermelons. Daddy stopped the car, opened the door, and told him to get out. “He wasn’t going to the picnic,” his aunt Sissy remembered. She got out, too, and stayed to help him. “My heart just broke for that little boy,” she said. “I’ll never forget how he looked out there in the watermelon patch — so little and forlorn.” Much later, he attributed his tenacity to his father’s insistence that he finish whatever he started. Daddy demanded perfection, and his son would try all his life to provide it.
After school, Hot helped milk eight cows, feed the hogs, and wring the necks of chickens — but these tasks were a small portion of what he eventually did on the farm. Every tool he was allowed to use was a step forward in maturity. Hot started with a hoe, then a hatchet for weeding and chopping stove wood. A big day came when he was allowed to harness a docile mule, Emma, and hitch her to a primitive turning plow. Soon he was less an ordinary boy than a newborn farmer, anxious to learn anything he could about the land. He said later that aspiring to do this work — a man’s work —“equaled any other ambition I’ve ever had in my life.”
Finally, after much pleading, Daddy entrusted Hot with the cultivation of his precious crops, a sophisticated task assigned to only a few skilled farmers. He started with corn and sweet potatoes and moved on to cotton — dethroned as agrarian king by depressed prices yet still vital — and peanuts, now the dominant crop in Sumter County. They grew awkwardly in the ground like potatoes but were in great demand everywhere to help feed the new national craze for peanut butter that had begun during the First World War.
Covering as much as twenty-five miles a day, he learned to use turning plows, harrows, and planters. He steered Emma (his mule) down the rows of the growing plants, commanding her to turn right (“gee”) or left (“haw”). Mistakes from an errant blade or poorly handled mule were easy for his father or the black foreman, Jack Clark, to discover. But Hot liked that his skill could be assessed in relation to others. It was the same habit of mind that would draw him to engineering: “I felt that this was doing all I could possibly do, and that no one on the farm, no matter how strong or experienced, could do it better.”
Plowing was a complicated job for a young boy. It required him to acquire broad knowledge of all the elements of successful cultivation: topography; absorption of rain; drainage; crop rotation; clodding (pressing oil from meal); preserving moisture in seedbed preparation; juxtaposition of fertilizer (usually guano, from bird excrement) and seed; insect control; and how to mix, measure, and apply fertilizer — all done in hard, often unforgiving red clay soil under a broiling Georgia sun.
Mules — well known to be smarter than horses — had a way of feigning exhaustion, and Emma was no exception. With temperatures often over one hundred degrees, an aspiring farmer had to learn when his mule was genuinely suffering sunstroke — and when a boy his age might keel over, too. All of this required a prodigious work ethic, a fierce discipline, and an attention to detail that Hot learned when he was barely old enough for school.
On most family farms, little or nothing is discarded, but Daddy took this to extremes. One winter, he cobbled too many high-button ladies’ shoes with pointy toes that hadn’t been popular since the turn of the century and weren’t selling well in the stores. Hot had to wear them to school, where the mocking laughter would echo for him through the years.
There were compensations: a baby alligator, a bulldog named Bozo to help him hunt squirrels, and a pony — a gift that greatly excited him on his seventh Christmas — that he called Lady. But his father believed that everyone and everything on the farm — even Lady — must always earn its keep. “There always seemed to be a need for a reckoning in the early days / What came in equaled what went out like oscillating ocean waves,” he wrote decades later in the title poem for a collection of his poetry called Always a Reckoning. When the colt that Lady bore every year or two didn’t fetch a high enough price to pay for Lady’s hay and corn, Daddy wanted Hot to make better use of her. “How long since you rode Lady?” he asked, as if even his son’s playtime contained a lesson about earning one’s way in life.
Daddy didn’t like to spend money on veterinarians, so Hot learned to treat problems such as scours, mastitis, and screwworm, and what to do when a calf wouldn’t descend to be born. In the slaughterhouse, Daddy and Jack Clark would shoot several two-hundred-pound hogs with a .22-caliber rifle, then slash their throats and let the blood drain into a large pan. When he was small and repelled by this process, his father turned to Jack and said, “The sight of blood is too much for the little boy.”
It wasn’t. Before long, Hot would eagerly help boil the huge hogs in cast iron kettles to loosen their hair, then scrape off the follicles with dull knives before washing the liver, heart, kidneys, and other organs and preparing the small intestines to be sausage casings. Chores that others might try to avoid were for him a way to feel closer to his father. As a preteen, he castrated two-week-old piglets, shot edible wild game, and accompanied Daddy to the meetings of the area’s eight-family beef club, where the host would slaughter a steer with the help of the group before everyone went home with delectable innards. “We never heard of anything as strange as a vegetarian,” he wrote later. The family often gorged on fresh brains, scrambled with eggs.
After school, on weekends, and during blistering summers, Hot joined the black tenant farmers and day laborers his father employed not just in the work of picking cotton and shaking and stacking peanuts, but also in pulling worms and boll weevils out of cotton by hand; planting corn (used for fuel and feed), raising okra, peas, collards, turnips, and cabbage; harvesting timber, then clearing new ground with crosscut saws and dynamite under the stumps; shaking trees until swarms of honeybees dropped into one of the farm’s two dozen beehives, then processing the honey (this ended when Daddy was so badly stung that he landed in the hospital); bottling the vanilla and chocolate drinks that his father sold in the surrounding area under the label Plains Maid; shearing sheep for wool and plucking geese for the fine down that filled handmade bedcovers that they transported fourteen miles to Americus, the county seat, for sale in the fancy stores.
As he grew older, the one chore Hot tried to avoid was cutting twenty-five acres of sugarcane and hauling the heavy stalks to the mill in his father’s pickup truck, which he was allowed to operate as soon as he could see over the dashboard. He found cutting cane stalks with a machete dangerous and unpleasant, especially with so many rattlesnakes and water moccasins in the sugarcane fields. He preferred working in the mill, where he learned to fire the boiler and burn the stalks.
Above all else, he looked forward to working alongside Daddy in his combination blacksmith and carpentry shop. He learned to use a sledgehammer, tongs, and anvil to shape and sharpen steel plow points; to shoe mules and horses; to build steel rims for wagons and buggies; and to repair almost any piece of broken equipment. Daddy taught him welding, cobbling, and cabinetry. His love of woodworking would endure throughout his life.
The multiple skills required for committed work as a farmer and artisan would give him the confidence to set his mind to any task and qualify him for a simple adjective long out of fashion but once high praise: able.
Daddy could be amusing with his friends but had little sense of humor about himself. He once ordered by mail a fancy suit that was so big that it engulfed him like a child when it arrived. Daddy sulked all day about it and skipped church. “And no one in our family blinked or smiled,” Hot wrote later. But he likely derived some satisfaction from seeing his father fail to measure up, or he wouldn’t have later written a poem about it.
The most memorable rebuke from his father came when Hot was about ten. After a sharp piece of wood penetrated deep into his wrist, causing intense pain, Hot stayed home from the fields. “The rest of us will be here working while Jimmy lies here in the house and reads a book,” his father snapped. With Daddy’s approval at risk — he called him “Jimmy” instead of “Hot” only when disgusted with him— the boy wrapped a belt tightly around his wrist and pushed it up against a fencepost until the piece of wood was ejected in an eruption of pus. Then he pedaled on his bicycle as fast as he could to join his father in the cotton field. “It’s good to have you back with us, Hot,” his father said.
Hot remembered all six times his father whipped him, the punishment administered with a long, thin peach tree switch. There might have been many more had his mother not stood between her husband and her children. The first, when he was four or five, was for stealing two pennies from the collection plate at church. “That was the last money I ever stole,” he wrote, an assertion that even his worst enemies would never contest. He was whipped for playing with matches in the barn, and for three offenses against one of his sisters, including shooting her in the rear with a BB gun after she’d hit him with a wrench. The final whipping came when Hot retreated to his tree house during a noisy party his parents hosted and didn’t respond when his father called for him. By this time, the boy had grown a little sullen and uncooperative; it was the first shadow of his implacable, prickly side.
One day Daddy asked Hot to come with him while he picked up a holiday turkey at a nearby farm owned by an attractive young widow. Hot thought this was strange; they had plenty of turkeys on their own farm. His father, who seemed to know the Webster County property well, directed him to the pen out back and told him to pick out a turkey while he went into the house. Hot followed his instructions and waited a long time. When his father and the dark-haired woman finally exited together, he suspected strongly that they had been doing more than discussing turkeys. His willingness to volunteer this story nearly seventy years later suggests that he never fully extinguished his resentment toward his father.
Hot wondered why — even in the nearly thirteen years before his younger brother was born — Daddy never suggested that he might want to run the farm after he was gone. Why did he treat two of his younger siblings with greater tenderness? Why had he never “showed much emotion or love toward me”? Only much later would his mother tell him that Daddy had wept from missing him when Hot went to stay with his grandparents in Columbus, Georgia, for a week. But this did little to salve the wound. He “despised the discipline he used to shape what I should be.”
In a poem written decades after his father’s death, he confessed:
This is a pain I mostly hide,
but ties of blood, or seed, endure,
and even now I feel inside
the hunger for the outstretched hand,
a man’s embrace to take me in,
the need for just a word of praise.
In time Jimmy Carter would understand that the inner steel that took him so far was forged in Earl Carter’s foundry and on his farm.
Haunting. LBJ had it easy growing up by contrast. I've often wondered about Jimmy's childhood, ever since I read the anecdote about the night of the Schmeling-Louis fight. The book is on the shelf, now I will take it down and read it.
Thank you so much for this. What a powerful and moving portrait. What hard work! And how wonderful that, as you point out, Carter is living long enough to receive, and feel, the admiration and warmth he so craved -- and deserved--as a boy.