March Read of the Month: “A Cuban in Mayberry,” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat

Gustavo Perez Firmat

Gustavo Perez Firmat

Reviewed by Miles Smith IV

When Gustavo Pérez Firmat told a fellow Cubano he planned to write a work on The Andy Griffith Show, his friend lamented that this was an americanada project, meaning that it was typically Anglo-American and beneath a cultured Cubano scholar. Firmat’s project became more than a simple exploration of mid-twentieth century television. Instead Firmat’s work became an expansive exploration of culture, nationalism, place, and society worked through the lens of the popular evening television show.

The Andy Griffith Show’s place was explicitly set in a fictionalized version of Mt. Airy, North Carolina. Firmat deftly addresses some of the show’s hallmarks, especially the use of an undeniably southern ethos without addressing the more unpalatable aspects of 1950s and 1960s southern society. Among the more popular misconceptions is that Griffith and the show’s writers whitewashed the racial aspects of the Mayberry. Modern critics rightly note that few African-Americans populated the show. Firmat himself questioned this omission until he learned that Mayberry’s factual counterpart Mt. Airy lay not far from the Blue Ridge in overwhelmingly white Surry County. The Andy Griffith Show (hereafter TAGS) challenged typical notions about southern place as it affirmed the South’s essential Americanness. Mayberry remained far from the southern Moonlight and Magnolias ideal and instead seemed typically American. Business took place on Main Street and there were no swaggering planters. Even the houses, Firmat notes, seem typical of any American locale of the 1950s. The only concession to Mayberry’s lingering southerness was that the show largely took place not in the home but in the sheriff’s Office and courthouse, a homage to the preeminent place of local politics in the traditional southern psyche.

Mayberry also exemplified a distinctive time. Firmat notes that the South of Mayberry was not the South of Walker Percy’s Last Gentleman—happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic, and Republican—but was instead peopled by moderate southern Democrats who lived in a nethertime between the Old South and the New South. They are placed in time by referencing old pictures of old ancestors (as Andy illustrates by displaying a photograph of his great-grandfather with Robert E. lee) but they do not interact fully with their contemporary chronology either.

Firmat’s most powerful and most interesting chapter reflects on the placed nature of Mayberry’s citizens and contrasts them with the exiled, uprooted, not also placed émigré communities of Cubanos in Little Havana. Firmat downplays the racialized differences and affirms the essential similarities of somewhat xenophobic but always communalistic places. Both Mayberry and Little Havana are peopled by humans with shared experiences and shared histories. Andy and Barney Fife, his sidekick and the show’s comedic relief, intimately understand each other’s history in the town.

TAGS, Firmat argues, remains the story of an essentially American place despite its southern setting. Each episode included a subtle morality tale that offered substantive resolution to its viewers. Firmat challenges the notion that TAGS was childish or simplistic by exploring the surprisingly complicated supporting characters that populate the show. Firmat is at his best discussing the pyrrhic person of Otis Campbell. The town drunk, Otis, is unmistakably a tragic figure whose final redemption comes from understanding his misspent years as a drunk. Nonetheless, he never reforms and remains a pathetic and tragic presence in Mayberry.

Firmat has written an evocative and thoughtful reflection on a piece of Americana that deserves readership by fans of TAGS, southern history buffs, and scholars of the American South and the Twentieth Century.

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