Note: This series contains spoilers for S-Town, a new podcast by the creators of Serial and This American Life. Please consider listening to the program before engaging with these reflections.
Brian Reed begins S-Town with a stirring description of the labors of antique clock restorers:
When an antique clock breaks, a clock that’s been telling time for 200 or 300 years, fixing it can be a real puzzle. An old clock like that was handmade by someone. It might tick away the time with a pendulum, with a spring, with a pulley system. It might have bells that are supposed to strike the hour, or a bird that’s meant to pop out and cuckoo at you. There can be hundreds of tiny, individual pieces, each of which needs to interact with the others precisely.
To make the job even trickier, you often can’t tell what’s been done to a clock over hundreds of years. Maybe there’s damage that was never fixed, or fixed badly. Sometimes, entire portions of the original clockwork are missing, but you can’t know for sure because there are rarely diagrams of what the clock’s supposed to look like. A clock that old doesn’t come with a manual.
So instead, the few people left in the world who know how to do this kind of thing rely on what are often called witness marks to guide their way. A witness mark could be a small dent, a hole that once held a screw. These are actual impressions, and outlines, and discolorations left inside the clock of pieces that might have once been there. They’re clues to what was in the clockmaker’s mind when he first created the thing…
By the end of seven episodes, it is clear that Reed crafted this meticulous introduction to capture the journalist’s method. In this metaphor, the clock is John B. McLemore, the restorer Reed himself, and the witness marks glimpses into McLemore’s life, painstakingly reconstructed by Reed and the show’s other producers. Yet the notion of coaxing a story from faded impressions also describes the historian’s craft. And make no mistake: S-Town is a deeply historical podcast.
Reed and company offer us so much more than a mystery narrative; S-Town is all at once a biography, soap opera, eulogy, and history. In seven roughly hour-long episodes, the careful listener will catch references to the Civil War, the Latin quadrivium, slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, the history of time pieces, and much more. By the time Reed concludes the final episode with a brief history of Bibb County, the listener is already familiar with the broad outlines, or at the very least should not be surprised by the details.
S-Town, as the title suggests, is not just the story of John B. McLemore, but the story of Woodstock, Alabama. It is the story of a troubled, enigmatic activist living in a small community whose residents feel forgotten. Indeed, the citizens of Woodstock are every bit as important to the story as McLemore, as no interesting biography is ever about a single person.
By telling the story of a community, Reed reveals the myriad ways that history intervenes in the present. Sometimes it is as an invigorating component of a person’s identity, and other times it is as an unwelcome guest who just cannot seem to stay away. Sometimes history manifests as the revelation of an old secret, and other times it lurks in plain sight as a familiar name. The important takeaway is that history, by necessity, comes from the present. It endures in our collective memory, in our books and works of art, and in the landscape itself.
Halfway through the first episode, I knew S-Town was going to be important. By the final scene, I knew I had to reflect on its thorny meaning. With this in mind, and on behalf of the editorial board of The Activist History Review, I am happy to present two essays that wrestle with NPR’s treatment of John B. McLemore and his shit town. We will publish the first tomorrow and the second on Thursday, returning to our normal schedule on Friday.
Kate Steir, a PhD candidate in Atlantic history at Georgetown University and former education officer for the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection, begins the conversation with an insightful essay that grapples with issues of privacy, the human body as a commemorative space, and the politics of public death. Kate transformed my suggestion of a materially-grounded analysis into a profound reflection on the sometimes troubling history of the body’s earthly afterlife.
Matthew Sparks, a native Kentuckian living and working abroad in Cairo, continues the discussion by introducing us to his own small, rural community. His thoughtful and intimate essay stresses that, for all their quirks, John B. McLemore is just one man, and Woodstock just one town; the issues that plague Bibb County echo into every corner of the country. Matt transformed my suggestion of an autobiographically-driven statement into a dazzling portrait of a community in motion. I am glad that both he and Kate wisely disregarded my advice.
These two essays show the value of thinking historically and actively about the people we encounter and the stories they choose to tell. Not everyone can be as uniquely forthcoming as John B. McLemore. For better or worse, NPR’s S-Town reminds us of the virtues of reticence and the costs of revelation.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Kate Steir was the education officer for the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection. She is, in fact, the former education officer for the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection (but she remains an avid supporter of the institution and its work).
Cory James Young is a History PhD candidate at Georgetown University studying slavery, abolition, and expansion in the early United States. His dissertation examines the fates of enslaved and slaveholding families in the northern United States during the age of gradual abolition. He can be contacted here or on Twitter @coryjamesyoung.