The Real Education of Little Tree

How the author of a current best-seller conned the world into believing he was a gentle Texas novelist instead of a vicious Alabama Klansman.

Everyone knew Forrest Carter had been drinking. It was October 1978, and the novelist from Abilene was a guest speaker at the Wellesley College Club book-and-author luncheon in Dallas. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, the author of the Rebel Outlaws: Josey Wales and other Western adventures delivered a slurred speech about the need for people to love one another. The message was straight out of Carter’s 1976 book, the Education of Little Tree, an account of his upbringing in the backwoods of Tennessee, where his Indian grandparents taught him self-reliance, distrust of “guvmint,” communion with nature, and love of one’s fellow man.

In the grand ballroom of the Sheraton, the audience shifted uneasily at this gushing of bonhomie. Most of the listeners were well-groomed North Dallas men and women—the distinguished supporters of what passed for the city’s literary scene. In an expansive moment, Carter pointed across the podium at his fellow speaker, historian Barbara Tuchman.

Now, she’s a good ol’ Jew girl,” Carter said. Then he swung his arm toward Stanley Marcus, who was in the audience. “Now, Stanley,” he went on, “there’s a good ol’ Jew boy.”

A few uneasy titters arose from the audience as Carter’s boozy attempts to demonstarte his bigheartedness. The listeners were left to wonder how someone who had written so poignantly about humanitarian values could suddenly start talking like an anit-Semite. The answer was not fully known until last summer, when The Education of Little Tree improbably reached the New York Times best-seller list, fifteen years after its publication and twelve years after Forrest Carter’s death.

As it turned out, he was not a cowboy author after all. He wasn’t even Forrest Carter. His real name was Asa Earl Carter, and he was not from Texas but Alabama. He had sounded like an anti-Semite because he had been one all his life. He had also been a racist, an open advocate of white supremacy. As Asa Carter, he had been a writer, not of novels but of incendiary speeches for George Wallace, the David Duke of twenty years ago. The most famous lines Carter ever wrote were for Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

What’s more, all of this was known to many people during the years that Asa Carter masqueraded as Forrest Carter. The story had appeared in the New York Times in 1976, two years before Carter’s speech to the Wellesley College Club. Yet it was forgotten — or ignored — for years. Not until The Education of Little Tree became a best-seller did the truth resurface that Carter and the book were phonies. By that time, Carter had joined Clifford Irving and the forgers of the Hitler diaries as perpetrators of the century’s most brazen literary hoaxes.

THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE SOLD moderately well during Forrest Carter’s lifetime. But when it was reissued in 1986, its gentle message of environmentalism and multiculturalism was perfectly attuned to the times. Carter’s story about life with Granma and Granpa is filled with rhapsodic passages about nature:

I trotted behind Granpa and i could feel the upward slant of the trail.

I could feel something more, as Granma said i would. Mon-o-lah, the earth mother, came to me through my moccasins, i could feel her push and swell here, and sway and give there … And the roots that veined her body and the life of the water-blood, deep inside her. She was warm and springy and bounced me on her breast, as Granma said she would.

Last summer, Little Tree mania broke out across the country. Hollywood studios competed for movie rights. School-children formed Little Tree fan clubs. But then an Atlanta historian wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that unmasked Asa Carter a second time. For weeks, Carter’s agent, Eleanor Friede, vehemently denied any link between the two men. “An anti-semite, anti-Negro? That was never Forrest,” she said. Not until Carter’s reclusive widow acknowledged the truth in October did the Times shift The Education of Little Tree from its nonfiction list to fiction.

With the book revealed as a fabrication, the questions remained: Who was Forrest Carter? How could someone who had ranted about the “bestiality” of blacks, who had once vowed to die to preserve the Anglo-Saxon race, write so movingly about downtrodden Indians? Did he undergo a spiritual conversion? An emotional breakdown? The mystery was enhanced by the silence of Carter’s wife and four children, who refused to discuss the details of Carter’s double life. His New Age fans desperately wanted to believe he had changed, for if he had not, they had been duped. Worse, they would have to acknowledge that the book they had seen as a validation of their leftist beliefs actually sprang from the far right, from a value system they abhorred.

The only way to learn the answers was to reconstruct Carter’s life — to talk to his friends in Alabama who knew him as Asa and to the Texans who knew him as Forrest. In Alabama, he saw himself as a crusader, the last defender of the noble south. He clung to the idea of a white uprising against the civil rights movement, but by 1970 he had to concede that his cause was lost. A defeated man, Asa Carter did what so many other Southerners had done when faced with failure — carved “ GTT” on the porch post and headed West, gone to Texas. But where others moved to find a new future, Asa Carter moved to find a past. To become Forrest Carter, all he had to do was dress up in cowboy clothes and alter his Southern self-reliant ideology to a Western frontier guise. So convincing was his performance that he seemed to believe it himself. Two days after the book club luncheon, Dallas Morning News columnist Bob St. John wrote, “I tell you the man was amazing, as much of an established character as anybody in his books.” Unknowingly, St. John had hit upon the truth: Forrest Carter had become

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