The Electric Valley
Reviewed by David E. Whisnant
Vol. 6, No. 4, 1984, pp. 18-22
The Electric Valley. Directed and produced by Ross Spears, music by Kenton Coe, narration by Wilma Dykeman, research and writing by Richard Couto, cinematography by Anthony Forma. Funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Film Institute. Knoxville: James Agee Film Product, 1983. 90 mins., 16mm color, videotape available.
TVA was “part of my life,” Nashville Tennessean publisher John Siegenthaler says as The Electric Valley opens; it was like “oatmeal in the mornings . . . and it was good.” What the film presents, however, is not so much TVA’s goodness, but its conflicted history. When he returns to the camera at the end of the film, Siegenthaler admits that confidence in TVA has been “badly shaken” during its first fifty years. But there is hope, he insists: “institutions can be renewed.” Some valley citizens are not so sure. “It was kind of like waitin’ to die,” says one whose land was taken and whose home was bulldozed for the controversial Tellico project; “I learned how temporary we are here on this earth,” says another.
The story of TVA is not just about dams and phosphate fertilizer and cheap electric power, but about some of the fundamental tensions in our national life: private property vs. the common good; private preference vs. public policy; centralized planning vs. organic drift; individuals vs. institutions; tangible goods vs. intangible values; tradition vs. change and “progress”; family and community vs. the state. Few other institutions in our national life have so consistently focused arguments on both sides of these questions. Partly because it articulates and dramatizes these oppositions, The Electric Valley is by far the best film ever made about TVA–and there have been a God’s plenty of them.
The film follows TVA’s history in a simple chronological sequence of well-marked segments: the birth of the idea through the christening of the first dam (Norris) on the
Clinch River; the early valley electrification program; initial opposition from private power companies; the conflict between directors David Lilienthal and Arthur E. Morgan, and Morgan’s departure in 1938; the World War II period during which TVA supplied power for the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge (“We thank God that it has come to us, rather than to our enemies,” President Truman says of the bomb); the shift to coal-fired steam power during and after the war; opposition to TVA by political conservatives during the 1950s, and the Dixon-Yates scandal; the economic and environmental impact of TVA’s stripmined coal purchases, especially in connection with its steam plant at Paradise (“Mr. Peabody’s coal train has done hauled it away”), Kentucky; the agency’s subsequent commitment to nuclear power, and the near disaster at Brown’s Ferry; the Tellico/snail darter controversy; and the recent cancellation of TVA’s partially completed Hartsville nuclear installation.
The Electric Valley gets much of its force through the skillful use of archival film footage, interviews with early TVA officials and partisans, and interviews with ordinary citizens who have felt the negative effects of some TVA programs. Each has been used before in TVA films, but they have never been blended so effectively.
Some of the early dam-construction and rural electrification footage is almost too familiar from TVA’s own public relations films, but other segments are fresh and unfamiliar enough to fan the coals of the old idealism (and the old controversies) briefly into flame again: Norris Village residents working in shop and cannery; FDR opening the gates of Norris Dam; director Lilienthal presenting a $44 million private power company buyout check to Commonwealth and Southern president Wendell Willkie (“Good luck, Dave,” says Willkie); opponents Lilienthal and Morgan before Congressional committees; an under-the-big-top TVA promotion of electrical appliances, with a robotized refrigerator that hypes itself to the assembled crowd, and a voice-of-God narrator who promises “a way of life that is physically gratifying and spiritually uplifting”; Eisenhower at a press conference, linking TVA to “creeping socialism”; Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, announcing TVA’s victory over the Cherokees and the snail darter at Tellico.
A number of important early TVA officials are interviewed in the film: Lilienthal, engineer Harry Wiersma, chief engineer George Palo (who praises GE’s “turnkey” nuclear plants), Eisenhower-appointed director General Herbert Vogel (“TVA meant nothing to me, really”); director Aubrey Wagner, who presided over TVA’s entry into what he calls “the new world of the atomic age,” and who blandly assures us that the Brown’s Ferry incident was “not serious”; recent director David Freeman struggling with a forty-year legacy of policy contradictions. Taken together, these cameo appearances telegraph TVA’s history: early idealism and achievement, persistent liberal hopes and conservative opposition, hydro-coal-nuclear technological drift, corporate co-optation, perennial struggles with high social costs.
Some of TVA’s contradictions emerge most forcefully in interviews with lower-level TVA employees, and with local citizens who felt the agency’s impact most keenly. Since part of TVA’s early employment policy was to hire locally, the two groups overlap substantially. Norris Dam worker Curt Stiner talks of “a whole passer” of Clinch River Stiners
who worked on TVA’s first dam; Henry Clark, the featured test-demonstration farmer in TVA’s early 1940s film The Valley of the Tennessee, tells of his experiences with the agriculture program. Clark and Stiner are older now, but look prosperous and peaceful, having benefitted (we seem urged to conclude) from the TVA experiment.
But others have not. In one of the more moving sequences, a man who was forcibly relocated from the Norris area tells of having bought forty acres of ancestral land from his father, logging his own timber, and building “a good barn, a good crib, and a good smokehouse.” “I dug me a good well and ever-thing,” he says, but he got to live on the place only a year before TVA bought him out and moved him off. A similar sequence introduces a black Fortana worker who recalls that racism in the area was so intense that black workers had to be guarded at night (Lilienthal’s “seamless web” still had a ravelling seam or two), and that TVA, needing the black workers (white workers “couldn’t get no [concrete] buckets down there and back”), acquiesced to the extent of building a Jim Crow wing on the mess hall.
Decade after decade, such costs and contradictions accumulate. Coal-fired steam power brings acid-laden fly ash that filters into the clothing and beds and takes the paint off the automobile of the Smith family who live near the Paradise steam plant (“Pardon Our Progress,” says a billboard on the fence). Before finally forcing them to leave, TVA offers free car washes. Similarly at Tellico: the Ritchie family loses their 119 acre farm because TVA wants three acres of it.
One thing films can offer better than any other medium is efficient and powerfully compressed narration. Thus one can learn more TVA history from watching The Electric Valley than could be learned in any other way in a comparable amount of time. Some excellent research, writing, shooting, and editing have given us images that linger, words that echo, issues that won’t go away.
And yet efficiency and compression come at a price. That price can be raised by poor research and editing–as it too frequently is in documentaries–or lowered by insight and skill, as here. But the price is there in The Electric Valley, nevertheless, and one has to assess it. Consider two brief examples.
One searches TVA’s own documentary films in vain for Arthur E. Morgan. He has been banished, non-personed, by the TVA commissars; it is as if he never was. But he is present in The Electric Valley; the temperamental and ideological differences between him and Lilienthal are at least sketched, and we are asked to consider the cost of his firing by President Roosevelt in 1938. Morgan emerges as a humane and creative public servant sacrificed to TVA expediency. That much is to the film’s credit. And yet the available books, articles, and congressional hearings tell a more complicated story than that: Morgan was also naive in some ways, an impractical dreamer in others, a cultural elitist in still others. And at last his own worst enemy. So the dialectic is too stark in the film; it lacks subtlety, and to the extent that it does, it misleads.
My second example is less familiar than Morgan. Test-demonstration farmer Henry Clark appears here for perhaps a minute or two, and sounds not very much different from the younger Henry Clark of The Valley of the Tennessee: TVA worked for him; he signed on the dotted line, deferred his gratifications, bought the phosphate, contoured his fields, raised the best crop of tobacco ever seen in the county, and tooled smilingly by his dumbstruck neighbors on his new tractor.
And yet when I located and spent several days with Henry Clark in 1980, preparing to write an article on the earlier film, I found him a complex and surprisingly conservative man who (like General Vogel) never really had much use for TVA. Through five or six hours of taped interviews (some of it done while we watched The Valley of the Tennessee together at a local high school) I heard him (echoing Wendell Willkie) express grave doubts about TVA-style “socialism.” He told me he had made a lot of money in Knoxville real estate, and I came away feeling that he had “played” TVA in the same way he played the real estate market. Ronald Reagan, he told me, was his candidate. Did
Clark not say those things to Ross Spears’ interviewers? Did they not talk to him long enough to ask? I don’t know. But in any case, The Electric Valley does not in this instance carry us far beyond The Valley of the Tennessee–with its dumb hillbilly caricatures staring in grateful awe at the dam builders, like some primitive cargo cult–as it might, within the limits of compression and efficiency.
In a sense, this is the larger problem with the film: for all its excellence (which is substantial) it does not carry us as far as it needs to toward new formulations of the issues. It is still–in this darkening Reagan Age–Morgan vs. Lilienthal; hydro vs. coal vs. nuclear; fat nuclear construction workers’ paychecks vs. massive cost-overruns, rising electric bills, and falling demand curves. If Lilienthal and Morgan were idealistically trying to sell a seamless web, Reagan is shamelessly hawking a shoddy fabric of the rankest political, cultural, historical heresy. He and his minions are seducing the public into believing that “guvmunt” (the media mocked Wallace’s and Faubus’s speech in order to question their ethics and analytical powers, why don’t they mock his?) is not us but “them,” that unregulated private greed is the shortest route to public good, that public endeavors are by nature doomed to failure, that the most radically atomized social order is the healthiest.
It would have been unwise for Spears to conceive of this film as an anti Reagan tract; God willing, TVA will still be there after Reagan is gone. And yet the agency’s history might, it seems to me, have been better used–at least in the case of Morgan and Clark, and perhaps in others–to raise public dialogue to a new level. Here and there we catch a glimpse of the possibilities: Decatur, Alabama newspaperman Barret Shelton, who appeared in the earlier TVA public-relations film TVA Town, insists that “the federal government belongs to us,” that it is “our federal government and our people,” but the defense rests there; narrator Dykeman tells us that plan is a “four-letter word” in the Valley (as indeed it mostly is), but the Henry Clark contradictions are passed too lightly over, and some of those TVA victims for whom plan is a four-letter word are then presented as simple martyrs to simple TVA greed and bungling, and exponents of unconditioned (Reagan-like) private ownership.
If my own study of TVA has taught me anything, it is that the historical problems of TVA flow both from the context of political and economic power within which it operates, and from the conceptual limits of the public dialogue surrounding the agency. By themselves, films can’t do much about structures of power except to reveal and dramatize them. This film does that very well indeed: To my knowledge it is the first film on TVA even to attempt to do so in a serious way. Had it followed its own logic a bit further, however, it might have made an even more substantial contribution to sharpening the terms in which future public dialogue is to be carried on concerning one of our greatest–if nevertheless deeply flawed–efforts to address the question of the common good directly and courageously.
The need is urgent as the chilly winds of Reaganisrn continue to corrupt the very terms of public discourse and–to borrow Siegenthaler’s metaphor–cool the oatmeal.
David E. Whisnant is professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (University of North Carolina Press, 1983).