Could Elvis' Graceland be a key to bridging the cultural divide in America?

Almost 50 years have passed since Elvis Presley died; aside from an annual memorial service in August on the anniversary of the singer's death, there may be little news most days about Presley or his Graceland estate, which a national historic landmark in 2006.

So fans weren’t prepared when, in late May 2024, a mysterious private investment company issued a public notice of foreclosure on Graceland. The property seemed were used as security for an unpaid loan of nearly $4 million.

Suddenly it seemed as if a chunk of history could disappear with the blow of an auctioneer's gavel.

Many details of the episode are still unclearalthough the courts suspected fraud and immediately stopped the sale. An identity thief later claimed responsibility for the attempted fraud from the shadows of the dark web.

But the fear of The possibility of the family losing control of Presley's home raises a crucial query: Why is Graceland essential?

It is the second most visited house within the USAonly surpassed by the White House. According to the US Department of the Interiorthat made Graceland a landmark, “American culture and music were irrevocably changed by Elvis. It would be difficult to tell the story of the 20th century without mentioning the many contributions of this legendary, iconic artist.”

The department's report is definitely correct, but Graceland's story is more nuanced than the decree suggests.

In my two Books about PresleyI argue that the singer did indeed make significant contributions to American society. At the identical time, nevertheless, many have looked upon the singer's life, output, and legacy with derision.

Nowhere is that this condescension more evident than in condescending references to his homeland.

From East Memphis to Whitehaven

Graceland was not the primary house Elvis bought.

In 1956, he bought a house for his parents in an upper-middle-class suburb of East Memphis. The family had moved at the least 16 times since Elvis' birth, most of them in Pensions, social housing and rental houses.

The Presleys were accustomed to bringing their cultural customs with them to each stop.

At their latest address in East MemphisThis didn’t go down well with the neighbors, regardless that Elvis had turn into a superstar through his music, television appearances and film roles.

After receiving notification from his wealthy neighbors that they didn’t approve of his mother hanging laundry out to dry and raising chickens within the backyard, Elvis began to search for a house where he and his family wouldn’t suffer the violations of social class.

In 1957, when he was just 22 years old, he settled in Graceland.

Young man walks towards the camera, a mansion can be seen in the background.
Elvis Presley strolls across the grounds of Graceland in 1957, the 12 months he purchased it.
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Graceland was in-built 1939 as a ten,266-square-foot, two-story, Colonial-style “mini-mansion” with five bedrooms and 4 and a half bathrooms, 4 years after Elvis was born in a two-bedroom apartment. East TupeloMississippi, shotgun shack, a number of steps from the family outhouse.

The property was not a plantation, nevertheless it comprised 13 acres of a former large cattle ranch in Whitehaven, a hamlet several miles from downtown Memphis and named after Colonel Francis Whitewho helped construct the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad.

The Whitehaven neighborhood had developed within the late nineteenth century, attracting Memphis' gentry as residents. In the mid-Fifties, real estate developers arrived and commenced to parcel out formerly large estates. Although it was still considered “rural,” it began to resemble a traditional middle-class suburb. By the top of the last decade, Whitehaven and the adjoining Levi neighborhood were were about two thirds white and one third black.

In 1970, Memphis annexed Whitehaven. When the Memphis City Council renamed the section of US Route 51 that ran through the community in 1971 to Elvis Presley BoulevardDesegregation and faculty buses encouraged the arrival of latest black students, residents and businesses. This activated the white flight, which eventually saw Whitehaven becomes a predominantly black suburb.

When tourists visit Graceland today, they find the “mini-mansion” in a predominantly black community. Many of the staff who work within the tourist complex are black.

A mood board with American motifs from the Fifties

Immediately after moving into Graceland in 1957, Elvis began renovations. He added rooms, a swimming pool, a stone fence and the now iconic wrought iron gates decorated with musical notes.

As along with his alternative of garments, Elvis approached interior design with the verve of a real postwar American consumer. If he liked something he saw in a magazine, movie or TV show, there was a superb probability a version of it could appear in one in all the home's 23 rooms.

Inspired by President Lyndon Johnson’s three televisions In the Oval Office, the singer placed the identical number in his media center within the basement. After spending plenty of time in Hawaii working and vacationing, Elvis redecorated a study with stone tile waterfalls, artificial ferns and tiki-style furniture, while Floor and ceiling covered with green shaggy carpet.

Living room with wood paneled walls, artificial stone walls, artificial plants and green shag carpet.
Elvis Presley was inspired by his trips to Hawaii when designing his “Jungle Room”.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

The overall results of Presley's intuitive house design was a mishmash of furniture, decor and art of varied styles and quality. Visitors expecting celebrity splendor were surprised by the house's relatively modest size and its unreserved acceptance of popular culture trappings. (Prince Harry, apparently, was not impressed when he visited Graceland.)

He never got beyond his raisins

Graceland – flashy and uninhibited – embodied Elvis.

He can have been essentially the most successful artist of his generation, however the cultural establishment all the time saw him as an outsider: he was too provincial, too Southern for a mainstream that was conditioned – rightly or wrongly – to see the South in a negative light. Every success he achieved was accompanied by an asterisk labelling him as “Horatio Alger with a drawn-out voice.”

Graceland was Elvis's sanctuary. It reminded him of his mother Gladys, who died in 1958. Here he felt most comfortable in his Southern identity, here he could simply be himself without having to fear being belittled.

But he was also isolated. Elvis and Graceland embodied a duality. They each reflected the rags-to-riches journey of the American dream, but each also had cultural qualities that were never perceived as dignified enough.

Perhaps this duality can make clear the cultural tensions that dominated the twentieth century – and proceed to accomplish that within the twenty first.

Many critics judge Elvis' refusal to offer up a rural working-class culture as backward and ignorantwhich dampened his artistic success. In a nation whose history – at the least that of polite society – emphasizes progress, Presley's unwillingness to alter was inexcusable, his penchant for the most recent gadgets or trends was derided as ostentatious and tasteless.

But for a lot of others, each inside and out of doors the United States, who should cope with the balance between tradition and modernity, between past and present, Elvis meant something else. They admire his connection to home and family and an ethic that Never get beyond your raisins – and all this when selling over a billion records.

Oh yeah, and he could sing pretty much too.

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