"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 22, 2014

Tolstoy’s War And Death–Why Soldiers Willingly Fought And Why 70,000 Died At Borodino

Tolstoy was a philosopher as well as a novelist, and in War and Peace he not only traced the romantic history of the Bolkonskys, Kuragins, and Rostovs, but also elaborated his views of war and history.  He debunked the ‘Great Man’ theory, saying that ever action was conditioned by every other since the beginning of history, and that it was only fiction and fantasy to assume that Austerlitz was won by Napoleon or Borodino by Kutuzov.

Battles were won and lost by the weight of historical antecedent – everything from Charlemagne to the French Revolution to Napoleon’s cold; from the character of the Russian Imperial family, to Tsar Alexander’s youth and upbringing, to the rain and mud on the fields of battle. Tolstoy has been called a Nihilist by those who see in his fatalism and determinism a rejection of nobility and purpose; and a Christian hero by those who read ‘determinism’ as ‘God’.

In the end Tolstoy accepted the strategic genius of Napoleon and the military savvy of Kutuzov, but insisted on placing it within the context of historical antecedent.  He confected a theory in which he could have his cake and eat it too.

There is a second component to Tolstoy’s theory – battles are won and lost not because of the decisions of emperors, tsars, or generals but the will – or absence thereof – of enlisted men. If Kutuzov’s army refused to fight, Napoleon would have marched ahead and conquered Russia; and similarly had Napoleon’s men mutinied because of back pay or the probably of imminent slaughter, Kutuzov would have routed Napoleon and dealt a mortal blow to France’s imperial ambitions.  Tolstoy wrote about the ‘transfer of authority’ from the masses to their leaders, not the other way around.

The question of why the soldiers of both armies fought is far more perplexing than the historical record of war, diplomacy, and geopolitics which lead to macro-decision about war and peace. Soldiers knew that their chances of survival were very small.  While they could not have anticipated the staggering attrition of Borodino – 70,000 men, French and Russian, were lost in one day – but they knew about the nature of war in 1812, and Tolstoy’s description of battle was more than accurate. Soldiers stood on open ground while cannonballs howled and thudded around them.   The fusillades were such that the bullets sounded like angry bees chased from the hive.  Men unceremoniously fell to the ground left and right.  Officers were killed and regiments left leaderless.  Chaos often ensued. It was indeed a vision of hell.

The men who fought had no choice, for conscription had been established by Peter I in 1699; but they could have run (as many did in the rout at Austerlitz) and disappeared into the countryside.  No military justice, court martials, or police pursuit followed them.  So why did they willingly fight? Patriotism? Moral conviction? Respect for officers of the aristocracy and years of subservience to their class?

When Pierre asks Andrei on what does success in battle depends, he replies:

On the feeling that is in me and in him and in each soldier.  A
battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it! Why did we lose
the battle at Austerlitz? The French losses were almost equal to ours,
but very early we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and
we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for there, we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could.
‘We’ve lost, so let us run’ and we ran

Andrei suggests that the will to win is behind victory; but his explanation does not explain everything and does not answer the question of what lies behind will.

Pierre has noted something else – a spirit and camaraderie that seemed to ignore death and dying:

The booming cannonade and the fusillade of musketry were growing
more intense over the whole field, especially to the left where
Bagration’s fleches were, but where Pierre was the smoke of the firing
made it almost impossible to distinguish anything. Moreover, his
whole attention was engrossed by watching the family circle –
separated from all else – formed by the men in the battery. […] Pierre
did not look out at the battlefield and was not concerned to know what
was happening there; he was entirely absorbed in watching this fire
which burned even more brightly and which he felt was flaming up in
the same way in his own soul.

This was more than Henry V’s band of brothers at Agincourt. 

Something else animated the spirit of the soldiers – an indefinable sense of humanity, life, and the exhilaration of war. It is more than morale, discipline, or even patriotism.  Pierre saw in the almost happy faces of his comrades a complete, transforming, and overwhelming drive.

By ten o’clock some twenty men had already been carried away from
the battery; two guns were smashed and cannon balls fell more and
more frequently on the battery and spent bullets buzzed and whistled
around. But the men in the battery seemed not to notice this, and merry
voices and jokes were heard on all sides.

Even though the battle became more dangerous and threatening, the spirits of the men never flagged, and to Pierre’s surprise increased:

Pierre noticed that after every ball that hit the redoubt, and after every
loss, the liveliness increased more and more. As the flames of the fire
hidden within come more and more vividly and rapidly from an
approaching thundercloud, so, as if in opposition to what was taking
place, the lightning of hidden fire growing more and more intense
glowed in the faces of these men

Tolstoy concludes that in addition to will, battles are won on morale:

But all the general and soldiers of [Kutuzov’s] army…experienced a
similar feeling of terror before an enemy who, after losing half his
men, stood as threateningly at the end as at the beginning of the battle.
The moral force of the attacking French army was exhausted. Not that
sort of victory which is defined by the capture of pieces of material
fastened to sticks, called standards, and of the ground on which the
troops had stood and were standing, but a moral victory that convinces
the enemy of the moral superiority of his opponent and of his own
impotence was gained by the Russians at Borodino…The direct
consequence of the battle of Borodino was Napoleon’s senseless flight
from Moscow… and the downfall of Napoleonic France, on which
at Borodino for the first time the hand of an opponent of stronger spirit
had been laid.*

However morale, will, discipline, respect for class order, and brotherhood still do not fully explain the enthusiasm of battle described by Tolstoy, nor the seeming disregard for almost certain death.  The answer has to come from something as practical and prosaic as demographic statistics.  The life expectancy of a man in 1812 was barely 40, for people in the early 19th century still died of endemic and epidemic diseases, accidents, and wild animals at an alarming rate. Whether or not a man died of an infected cut caused by an inadvertently dropped knife or by a bullet from a French fusilier, death was going to come soon.  Better to die gloriously on the battlefield with brothers in arms fighting for a patriotic cause, then to swell up and die in bed. Life expectancy very much determines attitudes towards death and dying.

All of which leads to an examination of today’s soldier, living in an era where life expectancy in the United States is currently 80 years – twice that of Tsar Alexander’s soldiers at Borodino.  A soldier of 20 can expect a long and hopefully productive life if he survives, and therefore the American military strategy of safeguarding the lives of its soldiers even if it means the loss of a strategic objective is understandable.  Napoleon or Kutuzov didn’t think twice about sending conscripts to almost certain death because they were going to die soon anyway, but today’s generals are very much concerned about the moral responsibility of sending boys in harm’s way.

This operational approach, however, does not win wars; and the lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting the fight against the enemy filters down from top brass to enlisted men very quickly. Questionable military motives have been with us since Vietnam, if not Korea. When a risk-adverse battlefield strategy is combined with this uncertain and hesitant commitment, victory against a bloody-minded, implacable enemy like ISIL is highly unlikely.  Our troops have little of the morale, will, patriotism, and fearlessness that Kutuzov’s had at Borodino.

* Thanks to Irina Itriyeva, Wesleyan University for the organization of these quoted passages in her paper An Examination of Free Will in Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Living To 100 And Beyond

My mother was a few months shy of 100 when she died in fine fettle except for a body that had worn out.  She walked on the treadmill until she was 95, pushing herself to the limit of strength and endurance.  Yet when she was finally confined to a wheelchair, she said, “Pigs don’t fly”; and as long as he had strength in her arms she pushed herself around the house like a wheeled Madwoman of Chaillot.

 

She knew that it was better to have a sound mind in a non-working body than the other way around, and enjoyed hectoring my sister and warning me off my ways until her time was up. 

The National Institute on Aging estimates that the life expectancy of a baby born in 2080 will be 100, and although the curve of increasing age drops off around that time, few experts doubt that it will keep on increasing.  No one is predicting exactly what a 100-year old will actually look like at the close of the century, but more than likely she will have artificial everything – eyes, ears, nose, and throat – and a symbiotic interface with the computer which will enhance her intelligence a thousand-fold.  Her DNA will have been recombined to give her the skin of a twenty-something, resistance to disease, and the athletic potential of Michael Jordan.  In fact, she will be good for another hundred.

                          Chart by Gregg Easterbrook, Atlantic, 9.17.14 What Happens When We All Live To 100?

This is all well and good except for the cries of the Doomsayers who say that if one disrupts the natural culling process – death – Mother Earth will become totally unsustainable, and wars for territory and resources will continue.  Human beings will become like feral animals travelling in packs defending their trash can turf and raiding the stores of others.

These nay-sayers have watched The Road Warrior too many times, and reality will be much tamer.  As people live to 150 and beyond, there will be no need for any more people, and couples (if that innocent convention is still around) will remain childless.  Any vestigial longing for the innocence of children and the ideal two-parent family with a working father and stay-at-home mother can have it virtually.  In other words, we will all live across the far horizon and will simply create all the pleasures and accoutrements of life that we desire.

“It will be wrong to think of these Bi-Centurions as old”, said the noted futurist and social critic, Harbour Fellings. “Age itself will have no meaning in a hundred years.  We will all be permanently young”.

“A nightmare scenario” said Abraham Schectman, a rabbi, Old Testament scholar, and respected progressive.  “A world of perennial adolescents is not to be hoped for”.

True, but the human mind is very good at dilating or contracting time fitting expectations within it, and although the definition of ‘maturity’ will have to evolve, there is no reason to think that we all will still have emotional zits  “Yes”, said Schectman, “but what about happiness?  Can one keep up a lively conversation for 200 years?”

Not to worry. In the virtual world of the 22nd Century we will be able to keep up our end of the conversation with Louis XIV, Napoleon, or even Jesus Christ, roaming freely as we will throughout a personalized cyberspace.  “Ill-advised utopia”, said Schectman. “Adolescent video games. Where is God in this? People will stop looking for him.”

Schectman was right on this score, and Nietzsche’s bald statement that God is Dead will once and for all be true.

All this, of course, is neither here nor there for today’s aged, all of whom have to pay attention for the first time to the flickering light at the end of the tunnel and eternal extinction beyond. Everyone deals with aging in different ways.  I see bags of bones rattling away on the treadmill at the gym every day, chicken-breasted men pumping 10 lb. weights and checking themselves out in the mirror for muscle resolution and form, old women swimming so slowly that the pool doesn’t even register a ripple.  They all are convinced that their exercise will keep them going for many more years.

They are still nibbling carrot sticks for snacks, drinking skim milk and avoiding red meat and are trying to follow the diet of the Abbey of Montmorency, a Franciscan monastery high in the French Alps – gruel, millet seeds in broth, and unleavened bread. As Jason Karlawish notes in the New York Times (9.21.14):

Today, 3.6 percent of the population is over 80, and life is heavily prescribed not only with the behaviors we should avoid, but the medications we ought to take. More than half of adults age 65 and older are taking five or more prescription medications, over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements, many of them designed not to treat acute suffering, but instead, to reduce the chances of future suffering. Stroke, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney failure, hip fracture — the list is long, and with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ plan to prevent Alzheimer's disease by 2025, it grows ever more ambitious.

This is folly, of course.  Whatever will kill them is already percolating within, and it will only be a matter of time – no matter what they do – that an artery will burst, cancer cells will grow exponentially, and the blood clot which has been waiting for the right moment to break off and lodge in the brain.  Longitudinal researchers have concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that eating like a monk or pounding zinc daily will add even an hour to your life.

Leonard Cohen has the right idea.

This weekend, the singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen is celebrating his 80th birthday — with a cigarette. Last year he announced that he would resume smoking when he turned 80. “It’s the right age to recommence,” he explained.

Karlawish elaborates on Cohen’s philosophy:

When is it time to stop saving and spend some of our principal? If you thought you were going to die soon, you just might light up, as well as stop taking your daily aspirin, statin and blood pressure pill. You would spend more time and money on present pleasures, like a dinner out with friends, than on future anxieties.

In other words, alte kockers, it is time to slack off.  Forget about the gym, draw down on your savings and buy the Porsche you always wanted, vacation in Rimini, eat butter-rich Lyonnais cuisine, drink Scotch instead of an abstemious glass of Chardonnay, and smoke cigars.

Look at it this way: you rehabilitated your life and restored physical equilibrium after a dissolute and misspent youth, spent decades pruning your hedges and edging your lawn, and now it is time to reap the rewards of a life of such rectitude and common sense. Fuck it!

I recently told my friends that I was about to do a Leonard Cohen, so if they didn’t see me at the gym they would know why.  I warned them that my house was no longer a smoke-free environment; and asked that they please don’t call me to advise me of their allergies and food intolerances. 

“Don’t do it!”, they shouted in unison. “Think of your bones and your heart”.  Such admonitions fell on deaf ears.  “Numbers don’t lie”, I retorted, citing my irrefutably advanced age.  “My three score and ten are coming right up”.

My physician thinks I’m joking, and he can’t get his head around the fact that despite the fact that I have been an ideal patient, doing all the check-ups, keeping my vital functions in good working order, and following the Five Basic Food Groups, I now I want to give it all up. “Don’t do it”, he said.

Men are the same the world over, and even at 70 they are still checking out their abs and pecs, and sucking in the roll of flubber creeping over the belt.  You never know when the right woman’s head will turn.  So a lot of this geriatric pumping of iron and aerobics is done in pursuit of a vain and impossible male dream.  It is so internalized and an integral part of the psyche that flab and/or spindle legs are simply not a possibility.  In other words, men take care of themselves even though the scythe of the Grim Reaper is cutting grain close by.

Dr. Karlawish closes this way:

I don’t plan to celebrate my 80th birthday with a cigarette or a colonoscopy, and I don’t want my aging experience reduced to an online, actuarial accounting exercise. I recently gave a talk about Alzheimer’s disease to a community group. During the question and answer session, one man exclaimed, “Why doesn’t Medicare pay us all to have dinner and two glasses of wine once a week with friends?” What he was getting at is that we desire not simply to pursue life, but happiness, and that medicine is important, but it’s not the only means to this happiness.

The alte kocker in the audience, Karlawish, and Leonard Cohen all have the right idea.  Live it up.

I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Garden Parties, The Deep South, And Pilgrimage Balls

Pilgrimage is an event held in many towns in the Deep South to celebrate the antebellum period of cavalier manners, graceful elegance, and spacious homes.  It is time for the owners of these homes to show them to the public, and romantics from Maine to Michigan come down for the experience the recreated life of a plantation.  The houses are indeed grand, and most of them have been restored with patience and meticulous care by owners who want to preserve Southern or American history, descendants of the plantation owners who lived there and wanted to relive a part of their past, or simply those who loved old houses, antiques, and historical appointments.

                               Madewood Plantation, Napoleonville, LA (circa 1846)

At each of the houses open for Pilgrimage, local Southern girls dress up in antebellum finery and take visitors through the formal gardens, men’s and women’s sitting rooms, formal dining rooms, conservatories, balconies, and children’s rooms.

Many of these antebellum residences have been furnished and appointed not only with furniture and accessories from the period but original to the house itself.  A tour through one of these homes is truly a trip into the past.

The Auburn Garden Club is the organization in charge of the Fall and Spring Pilgrimages.  On an extended trip to one of the East Mississippi towns that was known not only for its antebellum houses, but for the ceremonies arranged to complement the historical events.  The Pilgrimage Ball, for example, was a high-society affair attended only by the wealth landowners out on the prairie, the descendants of the plantation owners of the pre-war period.  The Ball was a costume affair and a sumptuous dinner prepared by a chef from one of New Orleans’s best restaurants. He was given the menu, meticulously researched by the organizers of the Ball, and the banquet he prepared could have been served in 1850.

An old friend from Baltimore with whom I was staying was the owner of The Brook, an antebellum house that she had converted into a B&B.  Sarah told me that Mrs. Dorothea Corning, the President of Pilgrimage was coming to tea on Thursday, and would I like to join. Shortly after Sarah had taken ownership of The Brook, Mrs. Corning paid her a visit. Mrs. Corning said that she had seen contractor trucks in the driveway, and knowing that Sarah and her husband were settled in, felt that it was time to say hello. She soon found out that she had come on on behalf of the Club, with the express purpose of encouraging Sarah – pressuring, really -  to stop any renovation of The Brook – alterations which would “destroy the integrity of the house and interrupt the unspoiled history of the city”.

I had seen pictures of Mrs. Corning in picture books – not the Mrs. Corning, but a hundred ladies of a certain age in floral hats and long gloves seated in the ornate gardens of Southern homes. I had thought that these ladies had long left Natchez and other towns and turned over ownership to buyers from New Orleans and the New York; but she and her family had never left. White Oak, one of the premier houses of the city, was hers – all fifteen bedrooms, vast formal dining room, a parlor and two living rooms; sunroom, conservatory, library, two kitchens, portico, and thirty-two feet Ionic columns. Having the house on the Historic Registry and on the Pilgrimage meant that the house had not changed since 1854 and never would.

The Brook was on the Historic Registry, but not on the Pilgrimage Tour, and for Mrs. Corning that was all the difference in the world. It might not have mattered so much if her grand uncle had not owned the property in 1880. An important part of her lineage had passed through the house, and her family would not be complete until The Brook became a true part of the community. I soon found out that every white-gloved, floral-hatted matron in the town was is related to Mrs.Corning one way or another, and that The Brook was not just any historic antebellum home.

The Brook simply had to be on the Pilgrimage Tour,said Mrs. Corning, and to do that it had to conform to Auburn’s code. While no one at the Garden Club would object to an odd Victorian piece here or there, the house had to be appointed with the furnishings of the period, and as importantly painted the colors that had been prominent and popular at that time. The previous owner had refused to change the bright yellow of the kitchen to a ferny green and her rejection had become a cause celebre. The fact that the minimum standards for a house on the Historic Registry were far more lenient than those of Auburn made no difference at all. A non-conforming house was like a loose board on a porch: you had to fix it.

When Mrs. Corning heard that not only was Sarah going to keep the color scheme of the kitchen, but she was going to bang out the back wall and extend it ten feet into the garden, she stammered and spluttered, “Why, you can’t….I mean you shouldn’t… the house has always been….” Painting the kitchen yellow was nothing compared to this…desecration.

“All these dried out, blue-haired old Natchez crones should go shrivel up in a corner”, said Sarah.

Dorothea Wentworth had lived in her mansion, Rosewood, for ninety-four years. She had been wet-nursed and brought up by a black mammy, went to a girls finishing school in Natchez, and married the son of one of the best families of the city. She rarely travelled outside her home town and never out of Mississippi. She was an active member of the Auburn Garden Club and a proud member of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

She survived her husband and three children, lived alone, and had long ago closed off all ten bedrooms, the formal dining room, men’s and women’s parlor, conservatory, library, sitting room, and study. She lived in what had been the maid’s quarters. That and the kitchen were the only functioning parts of the house. A woman from Social Welfare came in once a week to buy provisions - TV dinners, milk, sugar, and tea. Mrs. Wentworth was worth a fortune, but she parceled out her money like a pauper, refused to consider a live-in companion or nurse’s aide, and kept to her routine of knitting, daytime television, and microwaving turkey tetrazzini, the dinner she had every night. It was easier for the lady from Social Welfare to pull out a frosty load of them from the back of the freezer case at Kroger’s than to vary the menu.

When she saw that stocks were running low, she asked the supermarket to reorder. When the supplier was late and she had to substitute chicken à la king, Mrs. Wentworth didn’t seem to notice. The tetrazzini was finally restocked, but Clea Barrow, the woman from Social Welfare, decided to stick with the chicken because she didn’t have to stick her hands so far back in the freezer chest. “Clea treats me so well”, said Mrs. Wentworth. “She makes me something different every night”.

Despite the fact that Mrs. Wentworth was a recluse and was becoming dottier by the day, and that Rosewood had been a musty crypt for decades, Dorothea Corning insisted that it be opened for the Pilgrimage tours. Every year she propped Mrs. Wentworth up behind her tea service, gave a brief history of the house, and led the guests on a tour of the rooms. Because the windows of the house were never opened, and nothing stirred within, there was surprisingly little dust in the closed rooms; but the house had a funereal air, and visitors never raised their voices above a whisper.

Mrs. Corning had finally come to the conclusion that Rosewood had to go, and that she was going to remove it from the Pilgrimage tour this year.  Too many visitors wrote critically about the place, and even though it was the grandest house on the tour and the one with the longest and most storied, history, word had already gotten to New York and Michigan, and fewer and fewer people bought tickets to see it. “Lovely home, but something very creepy about it”, said one comment left in the Guest Book.  “Definitely spooky”, said another.

Mrs. Corning had to admit that despite its grand exterior – Georgian columns, 200 year old oaks and magnolia trees, spacious lawn and gardens – there was something a bit off about the interior rooms.  The ‘White Room’ for example was a ball room that had been painted and decorated completely in white – white floors, white walls, white ceiling, and white chintz curtains.  The white chairs were arrayed along the walls, and Mrs. Corning couldn’t shake the feeling that all the dead members of the Wentworth gathered there at night and did a ghostly dance.

Every room had something unearthly about it.  The mannequins in the sitting room were dressed to the nines in antebellum finery but had no eyes and stood alone ‘looking’ out the balcony window.  On the porch swings sat child-size dolls also with no eyes, and the wind from the river rocked them gently on creaky hinges.  There were no floral bouquets usually displayed in the foyer, on the landings, and on the Empire furniture. 

Rumor had it that Mrs. Wentworth had kept every bouquet and nosegay given to her by lovers and suitors, pressed or dried them, and displayed them throughout the house. Sprays of dried Fall marigolds, heather, or marsh reeds have the color, natural feel, and classic decoration that add warmth and character to rooms; but the dried bouquets of Mrs. Wentworth added to the funereal and ghostly feel to Rosewood. Perhaps if they had been displayed along with some other mementos – leather-bound books, for example; or pipe stands, silver tea services, or Wedgewood china – they might have lost their spooky feel; but Mrs. Wentworth had obviously gone out of her way to display them individually, alone in a spare room, or held by one of the mannequins or clutched in the hands of the child-dolls on the swing.

The problem wasn’t only that Mrs. Wentworth wouldn’t die; but that even if she did, who would buy this old, antiquated ark?  She hated to use such harsh terms, she was enough of realist to understand the dynamics of the marketplace.  Few Southerners or even Yankees would invest in such a property, in need of repairs inside and out, or spend the time necessary to purchase the furniture and appointments which would assure recertification as a Historic Site.  River’s Edge, a grand and incomparable antebellum mansion in Greenwood had been on the market for over five years with nary a nibble.  Mavis Blessing, the current owner, apparently had had enough, and was about to sell it to the Church Glorious and Resplendent which had plans to gut it and turn it into a meditation and survival center for its growing confederation of faithful.

“If only she’d get rid of those mannequins”, Mrs. Corning thought to herself when she considered what it would take to keep Rosewood on the tour.  She had already talked to Miss Bowers, a woman of Mrs. Wentworth’s age who was an antique dealer in Eupora who agreed to loan some of her Empire furniture for Pilgrimage if Mrs. Corning and Pilgrimage would pay the round-trip freight.  A little like the rental car business, Miz Bowers told Dorothea. “Let the marks have a test drive, and they’re sure to buy”.  As good an idea as this was, the Auburn Club’s coffers were near empty.

Many homes on cheaper Pilgrimage tours in the South billed themselves as ‘haunted’; and attracted the lower end of the tourist trade – black families from Memphis and Houston who wanted to expose their children to the realities of slavery, but who liked a little levity as well  vacations. One owner in Indianola actually stooped to rattling chains in the old wine cellar; but Mrs. Corning could never see herself approving even a slightly exaggerated story.

Actually, one house had a rather suspicious history although Mrs. Corning never completely believed the story.  Apparently Constance Biggers lured her tipsy and wayward husband to the narrow third floor landing of Magnolia Green and elbowed him down the narrow mahogany staircase built by a Florentine craftsman in 1841.  He cracked his skull on the Venetian marble statue of Marcus Aurelius which stood at the foot of the stairs, and lay bleeding while Constance stood over him cursing him like a sailor.

All well and good – this kind of thing happens in the best of families, and one of America’s greatest playwrights, Eugene O’Neill wrote of incest, murder, and the foulest play in a well-to-do New England family – but what happened next is what gave Mrs. Corning her idea.

Mr. Biggers, the story goes, appears on the top balcony of Magnolia Green on certain nights of the winter as a foggy wraith, howling and bemoaning his fate and consignment to Hell.  If one were to believe the legend, Biggers was indeed an unrepentant pussy hound who caused his wife untold misery and so deserved the hellish fate he received; but as I have said, Mrs. Corning dismissed it as nonsense, and considered it only as a revenue-generating ploy.

As far as The Brook went, Mrs. Corning decided upon the counsel of her lawyer, not to bring my friend to court, for even according to loosely-worded Mississippi law, there were no loopholes on which to prosecute.  The up-to-date kitchens would have to stay and the home, residence to some of the most honored and revered members of the Corning family, would never again be the same.

The saddest part of all in this saga is that Pilgrimage itself was under attack.  Newly black majority towns were passing ordinances left and right to outlaw ‘any and all veneration of the slave-owning, plantation South’.  This meant no more Pilgrimage Balls unless they were transformed into multi-cultural events where chitlins and fatback were served along with oysters and roast beef and where Nat Turner was celebrated along with J. Hargrove Wentworth III.  Black city councils reluctantly allowed the home tours to continue, but insisted that a ‘Visit to Darktown’ be included in the offerings.

Mrs. Wentworth did indeed die and left Rosewood to her Social Services aide, Clea. She left no explanatory note, although her will was legally tight and uncontested.

I lost track of what happened to Clea, Mrs. Corning, Rosewood, or even my friend Sarah who couldn’t take the South and returned to Naugatuck where she eventually retired.

The South is a crazy place for Northerners, and I wasn’t surprised by Sarah’s capitulation and return home; but I still return to Mississippi and buy tickets to Pilgrimage every year.  There are still marvelous homes to visit, unsullied and resistant to ‘diversity’ pressures; and one or two Pilgrimage Balls still exist where wealthy families from the prairie come into town to celebrate their heritage.  The balls are now few and far between, and Pilgrimage has become a Disneyworld Pirate Ship adventure, so I don’t expect to return; but it was a good ride.  “You can’t understand American history”, a friend of mine once said, “unless you understand Southern history”, and Pilgrimage was certainly part of that long, unbroken tradition.