Elvis: America's Secular Saint?

August 15, 1993

The 16th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death will be observed throughout the nation tomorrow. A massive candlelight vigil is planned at Graceland, the singer's mansion in Memphis, Tenn. Among local observances will be a one-hour festival at noon Monday at Fells Point's Market Square.

At 58, Elvis lives.

His life and legend have developed into a $100- million-a-year industry.

By the thousands, the faithful trek not only to Graceland but to such other Elvis shrines as his birthplace, his first home, his clothier's store, his recording studio, even the restaurant where he and his entourage used to wolf down hamburgers in a back room.

When the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring the singer earlier this year, it was so hot the initial 300 million print order had to be increased by 200 million more.

For millions of Americans, Elvis personifies the rags-to-riches American dream.

His fans have erased from their memories the singer's drug abuse, obesity and paranoid violence. Instead, they speak of his love for his mother, his humility and generosity. (In the official fan magazine, a 28-year-old Californian is searching for someone who looks like Elvis did in 1970-75. "Wanting friendship, love, trust, marriage to the right man," she says.)

Southerners with a blue-collar background are particularly susceptible to this legend. But they are not the only ones.

Among the less predictable Elvis fans is Gary Vikan, curator of medieval art at the Walters Art Gallery. He has written a paper that suggests today's Elvis idolatry is not very different from the worshiping of holy places by medieval pilgrims.

"There are votives with overt religious messages, like 'Elvis Lives' above a radiating Calvary Cross and finally there are votives that capture the very essence of pilgrimage piety and of Graceland," Dr. Vikan writes, mentioning one Elvis homage that he observed: "I have seen Graceland, my life is complete. Miss you terribly."

Dr. Vikan interprets Presley in terms of the non-religious, value-neutral terminology of the seminal German sociologist, Max Weber.

It is not the lifestyle of a "saint" that counts but his followers' love and veneration. Despite his imperfections -- or because of them -- Elvis is loved.

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