In the early 1990s, The Education of Little Tree became a publishing phenomenon. It told the story of an orphan growing up and learning the wisdom of his Native American ancestors, Cherokee Texan author Forrest Carter's purported autobiography.
The book was originally published in 1976 to little fanfare and modest sales, but in the late 1980s, the University of New Mexico Press reissued it in paperback — and it exploded. By 1991, it reached the top of The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. It was sold around the world, praised by Oprah Winfrey and made into a Hollywood film.
The Education of Little Tree would go on to sell more than 1 million copies. But the book and its author were not what they seemed.
Meet Asa Earl Carter
Three decades earlier, in Alabama, Asa Earl Carter was a Ku Klux Klan organizer, a rabid segregationist and a talk show host who expounded on the dangers of integration. In 1963, he drafted an inaugural address for Alabama Gov. George Wallace that would become one of the most notorious speeches of the civil rights era.
"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth," Wallace said, "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"
Wallace's words came from Carter's pen, but as the decade progressed, Carter turned against Wallace. According to Tom Turnipseed, Wallace's national campaign manager, Carter felt that Wallace had gone soft on the issue of segregation. By 1970, Turnipseed says, Carter's ideas had become "too extreme" and Wallace pushed him aside.
Alabama reporter Wayne Greenhaw covered Wallace's 1971 inauguration. Before he died last year, Greenshaw said he found Carter behind the Capitol after his speech. "He started crying," Greenhaw said. "He said that Wallace had sold out to the liberals."
Then Carter got up, turned around and bid Greenhaw farewell. "And that was the last time I ever saw Asa Carter," Greenhaw said. "It's like he just vanished, dropped off the face of the earth."
Ron Taylor was a close friend of Asa Carter's. He remembers Carter calling him one day to say he was going away. "He just pulled up out of the Choccolocco Valley, tanned himself up, grew a mustache, lost about 20 pounds," Taylor says, "and became Forrest Carter."
From Asa Earl To Forrest
And then Forrest Carter became a novelist. Through the 1970s, he published four books: Gone to Texas (later made into the Clint Eastwood western The Outlaw Josey Wales), The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, The Education of Little Tree and Watch for Me on the Mountain.
Chuck and Betty Weeth were running a bookstore in Abilene, Texas, when, in 1975, Forrest Carter walked in and introduced himself. He was dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat, had a dark complexion and told the couple that he was Cherokee and had been raised by his grandparents in a Tennessee cabin. "I liked him from the start," Chuck Weeth says.
That same year, author Forrest Carter appeared on The Today Show, where he was interviewed by Barbara Walters. "She'd ask him questions and he'd mumble these answers," Greenhaw said. "He said he wrangled horses and, when he was in Oklahoma, he was the storyteller to the Cherokee Nation."
Ron Taylor says when he saw the interview, "I literally got down on the floor laughing. Asa's on TV! He had pulled it. He had fooled them."
"I was bumfuzzled," Greenhaw said of his own reaction to the broadcast, so the reporter decided to look into what Forrest — or Asa — was up to. He started calling around, interviewing people who knew Asa and after a few days, Forrest Carter got in touch.
Greenhaw said he had clear memories of the call: "He said, 'You don't want to hurt old Forrest, do you now?' And I said, 'Come off of it, Asa, I recognize that voice.' "
In 1976, Greenhaw published a New York Times article drawing the connection between Asa and Forrest Carter.
Readers Saw What They Wanted
Historian and George Wallace biographer Dan Carter (no relation) is working on a book about Asa. He says fans of The Education of Little Tree should have known that it wasn't what it appeared to be. For one thing, the Cherokee words that Forrest Carter used in the memoir weren't Cherokee — they were just made up.
"Most people who loved the book couldn't imagine that a former Klansman, racist, anti-Semite could have written The Education of Little Tree," Dan Carter says. But the genius of the book is that people took what they wanted out of it.
"One way you look at it, it's a tree-hugger book," Taylor says. "But the other way, it's a right-wing, government-leave-me-alone book. That's how I took it."
Almost four decades after they first met Forrest Carter, Chuck and Betty Weeth remain perplexed that the man they knew — the man they considered a friend — had a dramatically different past. "I didn't like Asa Carter," Chuck Weeth says, "but I did like Forrest Carter."
Forrest Carter died in 1979 in Abilene. He was buried in Alabama, where today his tombstone still reads, "Asa Earl Carter."
Produced for All Things Considered by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries with consulting editors Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Special thanks to the producers of the documentary The Reconstruction of Asa Carter, which is airing on PBS stations through April.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Now the story of two writers who, on the surface, could not have been more different. Asa Carter was a speechwriter for George Wallace when he was the governor of Alabama. Carter penned one of the most infamous speeches of the era, Wallace's "Segregation Now, Segregation Forever" address. Forrest Carter was a Cherokee writer who grew up in Tennessee. His autobiography, "The Education of Little Tree," is a beloved classic that has sold millions of copies around the world.
But these two men shared a secret. Producers Samara Freemark and Joe Richman, of Radio Diaries, have the story of one of the strangest literary hoaxes of the 20th century.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIDDLE MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Ma lasted a year after Pa was gone. That's how I came to live with Grandpa and Grandma when I was 5 years old. I was Little Tree.
RON TAYLOR: "The Education of Little Tree" is the story of a Cherokee orphan boy who, at the age of 5, goes to live with his Indian grandparents and learns the wisdom of his Native American ancestors.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) I followed Grandpa down the trail. The wind had died in that late afternoon of winter, and I heard Grandpa ahead of me humming a tune. I would've liked to live that time forever, for I knew I had learned the way.
BETTY WEETH: You really felt for this little boy growing up in the Tennessee mountains. It made my heart sing, and I thought it was actually the truth.
TAYLOR: (Singing) Let me tell you of a time in Tennessee when ta-da-ta-da-ta-da-da-dee...
My name is Ron Taylor, and this is my copy of it. It has gotten rather tattered. His signature page, it says: For Ronnie, my friend whose loyalty to the Southern cause has made us comrades. Forrest "Asa" - endquote - Carter. The only time he ever signed it that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
WAYNE GREENHAW: Asa Carter had a colorful background, to say the least. My name is Wayne Greenhaw. I've been a reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, since 1965. And back in those days, Asa Carter was a segregationist, Ku Klux Klan; and he worked as a talk show host in Birmingham.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
GREENHAW: In the early '60s, he got a job as Gov. George Wallace's speechwriter.
TAYLOR: They'd call him and tell him what they wanted, you know. And they'd just give them a cup of coffee and two packs of Pall Malls, and he could write you a 20-minute speech in 30 minutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GREENHAW: The George Wallace "Segregation Now, Segregation Forever" speech is vehement; it's mean-spirited; it's hateful. It's like a rattlesnake was hissing it, almost. But it's beautifully written, and it all came from Asa Carter's pen.
TOM TURNIPSEED: My name is Tom Turnipseed, and I was director of George Wallace's national campaign. Times changed, and Wallace wanted to cool it a little bit. He wanted to be more moderate. Asa's views were too extreme. And so Gov. Wallace, he just kind of brushed Asa aside.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We present to you the next governor...
GREENHAW: I was covering the inauguration in 1971. And after the speech, I found Asa out on the back steps of the Capitol. And we sat on the stairs talking, and he started crying. He said, Wayne, George Wallace sold out; he's betraying us to the liberals of this nation. He stood up and turned around and said, farewell.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
GREENHAW: And that's the last time I ever saw Asa Carter. He just vanished like he dropped off the face of the Earth.
CHUCK WEETH: My name is Chuck Weeth.
BETTY WEETH: I'm Betty Weeth.
CHUCK WEETH: And I and my wife ran a bookstore in our town of Abilene, Texas. In 1975, this man came walking into the store and said, I'd like to introduce myself. I am Forrest Carter.
BETTY WEETH: He wore a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and had a mustache.
CHUCK WEETH: He's dark-complected, smile wrinkles around his eyes.
BETTY WEETH: He was so friendly.
CHUCK WEETH: He said he was Cherokee. And he didn't have parents. They died in a car wreck, as he told us. And he was raised by his grandparents back in Tennessee; no electricity, no running water. And I liked him. From the very start, I liked him.
GREENHAW: Forrest wanted to be a storyteller, and so he started writing. In 1973, he self-published the novel "Gone To Texas."
DAN CARTER: My name is Dan Carter. I'm a historian, and I'm writing a book on Asa Carter. He literally sends his novel out over the transom, to a number of Hollywood people - including Clint Eastwood. Eastwood reads it and immediately likes it. And so they sign a film agreement with Forrest Carter, as they know him, to produce what becomes the film "The Outlaw Josey Wales."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES")
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
GREENHAW: She asked him questions and he said, well, he rounded up cattle, wrangle horses. And then he said, and when I'm in Oklahoma, I'm the storyteller to the Cherokee Nation.
TAYLOR: I literally got down on the floor laughing and rolling around, called the wife, Asa is on TV, he's on with Barbara Walters. And I'm just rolling around on the floor laughing 'cause Asa had fooled them. You know, he had fooled them.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREENHAW: And it just bumfuzzles me. I was working for the Alabama Journal and I thought, well, hell, I've got to find out if this really is Asa. So I started interviewing more and more people. Sure enough, in a few days, Forrest Carter called me. And he said, you the Greenhaw boy writing about me? And I said yes, sir.
And he said, now, you don't want to hurt old Forrest, do you, boy? And I said, come off of it, Asa, I recognize that voice. I said I'm not trying to hurt you but I want to tell the truth about what is going on here. And he pretty much after that hung up.
And the story ran in The New York Times, August the 26th of 1976.
DAN CARTER: I really honestly believed that once readers knew who this individual was, it would cause them to reject the books. But it was like it didn't take.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAN CARTER: People just ignored it. They denied it. And that was it.
GREENHAW: Forrest Carter died in 1979, and they buried him out in the country where he grew up. The tombstone reads: Asa Earl Carter. But probably the most interesting thing about his entire, ironic life was the huge success that happened after he died.
DAN CARTER: In the late 1980s, the University of New Mexico Press reissued Forrest Carter's autobiography, "The Education of Little Tree."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Reading) One time, Grandma told me, when you come on something good, first thing to do is share it with whosoever you can find. That way, the good spreads out where no telling how far it'll go.
DAN CARTER: A sweet, sentimental story of this little Indian boy, and it suddenly exploded. It just took off.
BETTY WEETH: Oh, everybody loved it.
CHUCK WEETH: Customers read it, and passed it around to friends or sent it on to relatives.
TAYLOR: People cried. They cried through that book. It changed their lives.
DAN CARTER: The word that people use is, this is a deeply spiritual book. It sold well over a million copies. It's translated into other languages. Oprah Winfrey endorsed it on her television program, and it was number one on the best-seller list of the New York Times, despite the fact that it was not what it appeared to be. For one thing, the Cherokee words that he uses aren't Cherokee at all. They're words he made up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Mon-o-lah, the earth mother, came to me through my moccasins. She was warm and springy and bounced me on her breast, as Grandma said she would.
DAN CARTER: Most people who love the book simply could not imagine that a former Klansman, racist, anti-Semite - this person couldn't have written "The Education of Little Tree."
CHUCK WEETH: Well, one way you look at it, it's a tree hugger's book. You know, it's all about nature and, you know - and this, that and the other. And the other way, it's a right-wing-government-leave-me-alone book, you know.
TAYLOR: The government took Little Tree and put him in an orphanage, you see, and the government did this and the government did that to the American Indian. And that's the way I read it.
Asa Carter - I wish I knew what he thought. I really do. But I honestly don't know. (Singing) On that Smokey Mountain region, Tennessee.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHUCK WEETH: Thirty-seven years have transpired since Forrest Carter walked through our door. Do you think that it's been a difficult thing to reconcile these two different people?
BETTY WEETH: Well, I personally chose to remember the Forrest Carter I knew. And the other life he seemed to have had, I just sort of dismiss it.
CHUCK WEETH: I agree with that. I didn't like Asa Carter, I'll guarantee you, but I did like Forrest Carter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Today, "The Education of Little Tree" is sold as an autobiographical novel by Forrest Carter. Readers won't find any mention of Asa Carter in its pages. Reporter Wayne Greenhaw, the first person to expose Carter, died earlier this year.
Our story was produced by Samara Freemark and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, with editors Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. A film documentary about Asa Carter's life airs on PBS this month. You can find more at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.