Elvis' Graceland: The Taj Mahal of tackiness


"Graceland: Going Home with Elvis," by Karal Ann Marling. Harvard University Press. 258 pages. $24.95.

Everybody knows that the most-visited private residence in the U.S. is the White House, but the second most-visited may be a surprise to many.

It's Graceland, former home of Elvis Presley and now the top tourist attraction of Memphis, Tenn. It's always in the news at this time of year because of the crowds that gather to mark his death at 42 on Aug. 16, 1977.

Graceland is also the subject of an entertaining book by Karal Ann Marling, professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota and a keen observer of contemporary culture.

In "Graceland," Marling takes the reader on an intimate journey ,, to discover what Graceland says about Elvis, the boy from Tupelo, Miss., who grew up to be the King of Rock 'n' Roll. But this is not just another peek inside a star's home. In chronicling his rise from shotgun shack to dream house, Marling also is holding Graceland up as a mirror to society, to see what it says about the culture that produced such a hero and the millions who still adore him.

The result is a book that can be read and enjoyed on two levels. Marling's observations about the house and grounds will be of interest to Elvis fans, certainly. But there is plenty here for the non-fan as well.

As part of her focus on Graceland the landmark residence, Marling offers telling anecdotes about Elvis and his family, including his late-night flight to Denver for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, his penchant for collecting ugly lamps, his habit of shooting a gun at the television when Robert Goulet came on the screen. For most of the book, she is decidedly nonjudgmental about the aesthetic choices made at Graceland, surely the Taj Mahal of tackiness. Only toward the end does she allow as to how Elvis' notions about decorating - such as sticking shag carpet on the ceiling of the infamous Jungle Room - might seem abnormal to most people.

The book is even more successful as a study of Graceland the cultural icon. Instead of merely depicting Graceland as a shrine frozen in time, Marling uses it as a starting point to look at all the places Elvis visited on his way to fame and fortune, including Las Vegas and Hollywood, and how they're reflected back in Memphis.

She enriches her views by weaving in references to such diverse characters and subjects as Margaret Mitchell and Tara; Liberace and his piano-shaped swimming pools; William Faulkner and his home of Rowan Oak in Oxford, Miss. Her conclusion is that Graceland is the ultimate embodiment of the ideal of home in post-war America - "a theorem in plaster and lathe about the good life and its meaning."

By broadening her scope to include so much of American culture, Marling has cleverly set Elvis up as the ultimate tourist, always on the road and longing to get back home. What makes the trip so compelling is Marling's ability to make his story our story. As readers will discover, the cultural geography of "Elvisness" - alien as it may seen - is ours as well.

Edward Gunts writes about architecture for The Sun. He is also a contributing editor of Architecture magazine and studied architecture at Cornell University.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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