PRINT March 1984


IN 1957, AT 22 the most famous man in America (save for President Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur, who had won their glory in other times and with whom he was in only metaphysical competition), Elvis Presley bought Graceland, a postbellum (1939) white-columned mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. With his mother (until her death in 1958), his father, his grandmother, various cousins, his paid friends and hangers-on, his teenage ward who became his wife (until their separation in 1972), his daughter, and finally his girlfriend (“Fiancée!” she insisted, too late), he lived there until his death in an upstairs bathroom on August 16, 1977. He had been, depending on how you saw it, either a ludicrous white-trash fraud or the greatest artist in American history. In the years since his death, one hears in Memphis, more people have visited his grave on the grounds of Graceland (catching a glimpse of his mother’s storied Pink Cadillac in an open carport) than visited the grave of John F. Kennedy in the seven years following his assassination on November 22, 1963. Graceland itself was closed to the public until 1982, when its first floor was opened for tours; last summer William Eggleston took photographs of what it contained.

What you first see through Eggleston’s eyes is no kind of house, but a 1957–77 version of King Tut’s tomb. Unlike the walls and furnishings of Walker Evans’ 1936 photos of an Alabama sharecropper’s shack, photos of which Eggleston’s are inevitable and likely acknowledged descendants, these walls and furnishings cannot speak. The silence is overwhelming. There are no echoes of the assiduously contrived amusements or the long hours of boredom that in fact took place here. It is impossible to believe that anyone ever lived in this place.

One can look in vain for revelation. Elvis Presley’s secrets, hidden from himself perhaps more than from his audience, were in his music, his house an attempt to say that none were necessary (FLORET PAUPER could have been chiseled over its entryway). The first shock an Elvis fan experiences upon visiting Graceland is that the mansion is only barely set back from the road—that through its gates one can see, as Elvis Presley could see, a shopping center, every shop in which today sells only Elvis souvenirs. Boiled down to post-cards Eggleston’s images belong in those shops more than in the pages of this magazine.

Which is to say that while the Graceland visitor will not see what Eggleston saw, he or she deserves to. Born and now living in Memphis but raised in Mississippi (reversing “Born in Mississippi/Raised up in Tennessee,” the Delta blues motto that described postwar Southern migration and which Elvis Presley lived out), Eggleston is no barefoot picture-maker. Across 25 or so photos you can follow his careful path through the Graceland labyrinth—through generations of humiliation, a moment of conquest, twenty years of pop culture, and millions of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars), all of it incorporated into a living room, a Taking Care of Business room, a bathroom, a television room, a music room. If the rooms will not speak, they must be given a language.

THERE ARE ORDINARY SHOTS here, shots of the graveside “Meditation Garden” or of fans’ graffiti on the stone barriers on the street side of the mansion, that are arty versions of a thousand similar wire photos—but the most lucid pictures, the most displacing, are of rooms, their walls raised in the compositions as if by an architect, their furnishings placed as if by a decorator, and Eggleston works as both.

The two skewed corner shots, of rooms holding a television (the color scheme is white and gold) and an organ (the color scheme is indescribable: the ceiling is quilted, the walls are covered with drapes that effect an effete version of quilting, on the drapery is a framed assembly-line pastel of a generic European city), are perhaps the most silent, because both rooms were established to produce sound. You don’t credit that they ever did, and not because the rooms are museum-pristine: the carpet in the television room is marked, the paint on the door jamb in the organ room is flaking off. The rooms seem still in readiness for the arrival of he whom they were meant to please. Eggleston’s color presses the feeling: the pictures look like 1950s painted photos. You see a house that was built, that was decorated, but that was never inhabited.

NEVER INHABITED BY WHOM? By the corporeal Elvis, films of the autopsy on the body of which can, it is said, be had for a price? By the “Hound Dog” Elvis, the rocker, which, its fans must believe, could never have been contained by such rooms? By the once indigent, always ridiculed Elvis, the boyhood poverty of which has been prettified from the first press releases to the present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace shrine—the Elvis for which a mansion could never be more than an inverted reminder of what could never really be escaped? Those long hours of boredom, when Elvis’s paid friends and hangers-on waited downstairs for Elvis to awake, perform his toilet, and then descend, and who then waited for Elvis to announce what it was he wished to do (“Hey, Elvis! Wanna fly this model airplane in the house?”), are finally in these pictures—a deco bar, a room draped in blue framing a golden piano, a room with a breakfront on top of which a white marble bust of a Greek god gazes upon a speckled white marble bust, mounted on a black-streaked white marble coffee table, of Elvis Presley—not as presence but as absence.

EVERYONE I KNOW WHO HAS visited the inside of Graceland (I have only been through the grounds), people who to a real degree shared Elvis Presley’s class background and whose lives were formed by his music, have returned with one word to describe what they saw: “tacky.” Tacky, garish, tasteless—words others translate as white trash. There is not a hint of this in Eggleston’s photographs. In the end what they communicate is an irreducible dignity, and though the pictures could not be less naturalistic, less objective, though it can’t be told if this aura is Eggleston’s contribution or simply what he found, that sense of dignity populates the house, despite the insistent absence of the man who bought the house and lived in it. It becomes clear that Walker Evans’ pictures of a 1936 sharecropper’s shack were precisely as unnaturalistic and nonobjective as Eggleston’s are of Graceland. This is interesting—but it is worth remembering that in 1936 Elvis Presley lived in just such a shack, that at that time Walker Evans took many photographs in Tupelo, Mississippi, and that Elvis Presley, twenty years later the most famous man in America, might well be known to us today only as a nameless face in a famous Walker Evans photograph. Just as Eggleston’s photos are inevitable and contrived descendants of Walker Evans’ photos, Graceland was an inevitable and contrived descendant of the shack Walker Evans pictured; the transition is powerful as art because it did not work as life.

Greil Marcus, who lives in Berkeley, writes regularly for Artforum. He is the author of Mystery Train Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, New York: Dutton, 1975.