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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Crackerland–travels in the Deep South

I remember the first time I went to Florida with my parents and sister when I was growing up in Connecticut.  We went in the winter by train, and after an overnight journey we stopped about half-way down the Florida coast and got off the train to get some air and exercise.  The smell of orange blossoms was overwhelming – sweet, fragrant, strange, and foreign.  I knew I was in a very different place.  How could I have left the cold snow one day and feel the warm breezes and smell exotic and enticing scents the next?  I loved the palm trees – still my favorite tree – the sawgrass, and just being warm.

About ten years ago I began my trips to the South. We drove to Latta, SC; then on to Lancaster, down to Aiken, over to Washington, GA, then back through SC to Monck’s Corner, Marion, and back home.  Our plan then was to stay in old antebellum mansions in small towns; and we did so on subsequent trips to the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana, and Alabama.  Many if not most of these houses were elegantly restored and were furnished with either furniture of the period (a criterion for getting Historic Landmark status) or from the house itself.  The owners/proprietors were either descendants of the original owners or more likely people who had an interest in the house, the period, or the region.  In all cases, the owners had history to recount or stories to tell; and in some cases there were journals kept by the original owners.  One I remember in particular had accounts kept by a slave owner and recorded precisely what was spent on which slave – food, lodging, clothing, medical care, etc.  This direct history gave some grounding to the studies I was beginning on the economics of slavery.

The trips were wonderful – meticulously restored antebellum houses set on spacious lawns shaded by live oaks; visits to local and Confederate cemeteries; endless discussion with older residents of towns about what life was like when they were young, what they remembered from their parents and grandparents.  Someone in their 80s now heard stories of Reconstruction and the Civil War from their grandparents born in the 1870s.  One owner in South Carolina showed us bullet holes in the side of his house.  “Sherman’s army did that”, he said, on their march through South Carolina (which was even more vengeful and destructive than that through Georgia). Another in a house in Vicksburg told of the Yankee bombardment of the town from the River, a siege that lasted days, showed us holes in the walls from cannonballs, and told of how his family was saved through connections with Northern officers.

We went street by street through the small towns, wealthy white areas, poor white, and poor black; and learned which were the black rib places and which were the white. And through these trips began to appreciate the continuing legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Unless you visit the Deep South, you will never get a real feel for current de facto segregation in the North today; or the persistent problems of race.

And then there were the museums in each town with remarkable photographs of cotton fields, levees, river trade, rural life.

I read book after book on the South and continue today with a new history of Lincoln and his evolving positions on slavery.  Eric Foner is an influential author, having written this book on Lincoln and a comprehensive book on Reconstruction.  Another book that greatly influenced my thinking was Time on the Cross, an economic history of slavery.  But I have read journals, personal histories; looked through museum archives, and my interest continues.

I love eating in family restaurants – steam trays of pulled pork, ribs, collards, and peach cobbler; and made it a point to eat both lunch and dinner at these places.  Some were new to me – often the best place to eat was at the gas station – good food prepared on site, fried chicken and catfish right out of the cooker, biscuits, and tea.

We always travelled in high summer, August and September.  I somehow had to have heat, real heat and humidity to enjoy the South.  I love the rich, heavy air, scented with red dirt, flowers, and the River.

I am editing this post (1.20.12) almost a year after all the above, and my travels to the South have continued. In August and September of last year I spent almost a month in Columbus, MS to attend and participate in the 100th Anniversary celebration of Tennessee Williams birth; and I am preparing to go back for two months to teach a course on the plays of Williams, Shakespeare, and Edward Albee at the Mississippi University for Women.

Staying in one place gives a different dimension to travel, a chance to get a feel for the town, the community, and how it lives and works. I stayed in a renovated 1830s house, in a Victorian bedroom with access to a sunny parlor, front porch with a swing, and a back garden. I had bed tea, read theatre, went to the 'Y' every morning at 5am, walked for miles along the Riverwalk along the Tombigbee River, became a local at the Station 7 bar, and had ribs at Hanks more times than I thought was good for me. I made friends, met theatre people from New York who had come down for the Festival, engaged with scholars who made presentations during the Festival.

I am looking forward to going back to Columbus. It is now my second home and my 'other life' as Paul Theroux called his life of travel and adventure. He always had his wife and family in Massachusetts, his home, friends, and routines in New England, but when he travelled he had a second life, a life only that was defined by his new choices. He did not define himself. He had voluntarily loosed his moorings, cast himself on uncharted seas.

It is always hard to leave the familiar, but as I make my bed every morning, make tea, clean and rinse the teapot, settle in to read the newspaper on the couch, make dinner and walk the same route in Georgetown, I know it is time for a change. My travels to Columbus are not like those of Theroux to Africa and to unmapped regions. I did that when I was younger. In fact my life mimicked his - adventure, excitement, romance, reflection, and danger. Now as a much older man I have the same desire for travel and adventure, but look for it in different places differently. Just as I have the patience to savor every line in the dense prose of Absalom, Absalom , James Joyce, or the complex histories of Shakespeare, I have the patience to savor little changes, new smells, personal adventures which are more about learning about lives with which I would never have come into contact to in my previous life than great romantic loves in steamy hotel rooms overlooking the Arabian Sea.

So my travels to the Deep South continue. I listen, I watch, and I learn how to navigate the waters of a small Southern town, its politics, its shoals and hidden rocks.

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