Natchez Was a Lady

I have just been visiting a town that you must see — Natchez. It is the fragile, frozen embodiment of a dream that ended long ago on bloody battlefields, even if the Chamber of Commerce does call it ‘the place where the Old South meets the New.’ The place, so to speak, where any moonlight night along the vine-embowered Woodville road one may expect to find Henry Ford taking Varina Howell Davis out for a ride in his new V-8.
Last week was a poor time for me to go anywhere, but I went. Cotton is coming in, and this is the time of year for all good men to come to the aid of the crop. But the war got on my nerves. It was impossible to resist the morbid fascination of hearing transoceanic voices chanting details of the doom of their own civilization. When the Athenian ships went to the bottom off Syracuse centuries ago, only the wine-dark sea and the enemy heard the cries of the drowning sailors with whose bodies a golden civilization perished. It remained for later historians to record the events:
‘ Thus ended the third year of the Peloponnesian war, of which Thucydides was the historian.’ But now, when H.M.S. Courageous is torpedoed at afternoon in the North Sea, English voices come into my Deer Creek home at evening telling the age-old, ever-new story of man’s dying, and his heroism in the face of death.
It is one thing, however agonizing, to read history after the event. It is quite another thing, and infinitely more harrowing, to hear it described as it is being made — especially the kind of history we are making. For after all, although I am an inheritor of Greek civilization and am deeply moved when, twenty-five centuries later, I read the mournful record of its passing, I comfort myself with the reflection that this occurred far away and long ago. But these are my times; I am part of modern civilization; and voices come out of the air foretelling its doom.
I was deeply disturbed, but could not move from my radio chair. The impulse to go away was furnished by Lige, our gardener. He had hung around my room while Hitler was speaking from Danzig. He has, in fact, a great admiration for Hitler without quite knowing why. On this occasion he was puzzled. ‘Mr. Dave,’ he asked, ‘if dat man is de kang like folks says he is, why can’t he chop people’s heads off if dev frets him?’ He continued without waiting for a reply: ‘How come he call hisself de fearer? If he de kang, what he got to be skeered of?’ I didn’t try to answer Lige’s questions. I merely said, ‘Put some gas in the car. I’m going away for a few days.’
That, my dear, is how and why I went to Natchez last week. It isn’t the first time I have gone there in search of peace and found it. Natchez, wrapped in dreams, has not for years been either of the world or of the country of which physically it is a part. It has moved to the spirit ditties of no tone amid the sounding automobile horns of a new time. On my previous visit it struck me in this wise: ‘Natchez is in the world but not of it. People walk in its streets, boats move on its river, newspapers are printed and read, and business is transacted. It is cluttered with the paraphernalia of contemporaneity; the illusion of nowness hovers about its bowed head. But its eyes are cast downward as are the eyes of the Virgin Mary in a Pietà. Its eardrums were shattered at Sumter, its hands stilled at Appomattox.’
Today much is changed in Natchez. The Old South is so busy meeting the New it is difficult to tell where the one begins and the other ends, just as at great distances from the Mississippi’s mouth the sea is stained yellow, and for all the surge and thunder of the ocean one still seems to be on the bosom of the great river. Hordes of Baptists have poured into town to work in the newly opened factories, but the small Episcopalian congregation continues to commune calmly with God on Sundays, serene in the belief that, although there may be many roads to Heaven, Southern gentlemen and their ladies proceed only by way of the Episcopalian road. Newcomers arrive in town, prepare to spend their lives there, and are graciously received by the old inhabitants, but they and their children’s children will be regarded as strangers by the Quality. And the Quality themselves, impoverished, long remote from contact with the brawling world, receive guests and visitors now by the thousands, only to be untouched by them in the end; to go back to their gardens, their dreams, and their whiskey (when they can get it) after the barbarian horde has vanished in a cloud of automobile dust. For Natchez is now a Tourist Town; one of the sights of America; ‘quaint and romantic’ in the eyes of Northern visitors; its life the spit and image of that life described by Margaret Mitchell, the impassioned Baedeker of the Old South, in Gone with the Wind.
In the 1840’s, Natchez, possessing more millionaires than any other town in America, was also one of the most civilized cities in the country. It was a seat of a planter civilization which H. L. Mencken, an expert heaver of rotten eggs at the South, has called ‘one of manifold excellencies — perhaps the best the Western Hemisphere has ever seen — undoubtedly the best that these States have seen.’ On the high bluffs of Natchez, planters built great homes, filled them with Chippendale and Sheraton, old silver, rare rugs, and bookshelves lined with the classics. In their stables stood blooded riding horses and horses for numerous carriages. At their door flowed the Mississippi, on whose bosom moved the palatial boats that took the planter’s cotton and the planter’s family to New Orleans, where they visited friends, bought the latest dresses imported from France, the current English books and magazines, and a bountiful supply of wines and páatés. Across the river from their bluff-built homes lay their Louisiana plantations, where black slaves and white overseers produced the cotton clamorously demanded by a growing world in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. It was in these homes and against this background that Natchez planters received visitors as diverse and distinguished as Aaron Burr and John James Audubon, who lingered to teach painting and dancing at Jefferson Military College; and it was in such homes that, whenever they saddled their horses and prepared for the long ride to Nashville over the Natchez Trace, they made their peace with God and their wills, for no man knew when he rode out into the wilderness whether he would return.
And it was here, too, that the planters of Natchez added their voices to the planter voices in Congress which had maintained the dominance of an agrarian civilization against an upsurging industrialization from the founding of the republic until 1861. ‘With the collapse of the most articulate agricultural group that has ever existed in the United States,’ says the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ‘business interests entered upon a period of almost unchallenged control of the federal government and most of the state governments. Far from being hindered by government regulation, they received at the hands of the central and local governments every favor they desired. . . . What could not be obtained by fair means was frequently obtained unfairly.’ And ever since the collapse of the planter group, it might have been added, the farmer has been the Man with the Woe, the farm problem the constant x in the equation of our national life.
These planters, moreover, were deeply under the spell of noblesse oblige; if they enjoyed privileges, they shouldered responsibilities. But now for many years, under another name, we have been begging our great industrial leaders to practise noblesse oblige as ‘social responsibility in business.’
In 1861-1865 all this was destroyed. The planters were crushed or killed; their slaves were flown; their stock was dead, their lands grown up in weeds. (Thomas Dabney, a proud, seventyyear-old, once-great Mississippi landowner, washed his family’s clothes for years after the Civil War.) Other sections of the South rose from the ashes, but in Natchez the ashes became a thin soil in which the shattered population nurtured pale flowers reminiscent of those that had blown so vigorously in their gardens of the past.
It does not detract from the gallantry of the gentlemen of the post-bellum South to say that their women were often their superiors in energy and business acumen. Many a war-broken Southern family owed its resuscitation to the valor of its women, and this is largely true of the recent rise of Natchez. Here is a town that a few years ago had neither agriculture nor industry nor amassed riches. People lived surrounded by rare furniture and tax collector’s bills; their cupboards were filled with old silver and little to eat. But the town had a Past — a Past that was, if you will, romantic. Over its ramparts had flown the flags of France, of Spain, of England, of the United States, the Confederacy, and the United States again. And long before the white man came there had been the Natchez Indians.
America, as befits a country coming to maturity, has suddenly become conscious of its past. It was all very well for porcelain-fragile Daughters of the Confederacy in Natchez to live on tea and crumpets and spend their time puttering with the memoirs of their dead youth in dusty attics. But their daughters wanted more. Even Southern women, for all that they like to hear false rhymes recited in the moonlight, have been known to hanker after the fleshpots of Chanel copyists. But how to get the clothes so alluringly described in Vogue? How even to get enough money for a week in near-by New Orleans? Natchez had nothing to sell but its Past. Then, concluded Katherine Balfour Miller, we’ll sell the last thing that we have left of our Past: the Past itself.
Mrs. Miller organized what she called The Garden Pilgrimage, and through letters, circulars, and lectures invited America to visit Natchez. America accepted the invitation. The national interest in gardening is great; the national interest in America’s past is high. Natchez promised old gardens, magnificent ante-bellum homes, spiritualsinging Negroes, the Mississippi River, mint juleps, magnolias, moonlight on the levee, fried chicken, and the Quality receiving their paying guests clad in hoopskirts, with Cape jessamines in their hair. All this spelled Romance to the people of the corn and wheat states, and the grimy industrial Northeast; it was the stuff of which Hollywood dreams are made; and the savor of seeing would be spiced with that touch of condescension which always lingers in the minds of the conquerors after however long a period.
So hordes of visitors with money in their pockets began to come each spring to Natchez. Even Massachusetts took a gingerly look and ever afterward sensed the disturbing aroma of magnolias blowing across Walden Pond. But both the guests and the hosts were to receive a shock. The gardens of Natchez were nothing to brag about because it had not been able to keep them up. There were finer ones, perhaps, in Mobile and the North. Everything else that was promised was, however, delivered in overflowing abundance, and even the most critical visitor was content. It was the Quality who were to be severely shocked. They had never rubbed shoulders with America, and consequently, when the guests came from afar, the Quality let them roam all over the houses filled with priceless antiques, exerting no more vigilance than that employed by whitecoated old Uncle Tobe, as, laden with chill silver goblets of mint juleps, he chased strange white gentlemen around the whatnots. The owners of these houses had never heard of the American passion for souvenir grabbing, and there was naturally some dismay when it was found that great-grandfather’s copy of Pliny, the daguerreotype of grandmother as a child, and odd bits of silver had walked out with the guests.
At the next Pilgrimage, the rooms of the houses were roped off. ‘This old furniture is so fragile,’ explained a hoopskirted lady to a delegation representing the Culture Club of Tomahawk, Kansas.
Year after year the Pilgrimage increases in numbers, and out of the fees charged visitors the owners of old homes have been able to repair the chimneys, stop leaks in the roofs, build trellises in the gardens, and even pay part of the taxes. When the tourists are in town, hotels flourish; liquor sales (in a dry state) increase; rooms in town are rented; and some of the Negro population find employment singing spirituals to the descendants of those Yankees who, as they are taught, long ago fought and licked the white folks. Thousands of visitors spend enough money in a few weeks to help the town along for a large part of the year, and now, whatever the month, there are always a few strangers in Natchez come to see the promised Romance. Thus it has a certain prosperity based upon the past of the Quality. But it has recently achieved a new and different prosperity based upon the present of ordinary folk.
Out in the hills and down in the bottoms near Natchez, there is a large population of poor whites and Negroes. If the soil on which they live is too thin to grow much cotton, it is rich enough on which to produce children. (There is no more logical relationship between the fertility of the soil on which a people live and the fertility of the people themselves than there is — despite the American legend — between love and marriage.) Child growing is consequently one of the major industries of Adams and adjoining counties.
Up North there is abundant capital clamoring for employment and a population rapidly becoming static. The true marriage of capital and labor produces — if not happiness, truth, and beauty — factories. And the mills have come to Natchez to employ the labor of a people who used their spare time (when not out rabbit hunting) producing children. Today they toil in a great rubber factory making tires and other things of rubber that comes by water from Malaysia to New Orleans and up the river. They get good wages — prodigious wages for Natchez. They have more money in their pockets than they ever dreamed of having. The result is that they wear shoes every flay in the week; eat sardines whenever they please; go to the picture show; drink store-bought whiskey; and whoop up the old-time religion on Sundays. Others work in a new shirt factory and — an unwonted novelty for Southern toilers — find it possible to buy some of the shirts they make. The result of all this is that Natchez has new sources of revenue, new life, new people, and new business in the police court. And if the Quality and the people do not fraternize, they are at one in that contented dreamdrowsy world whose foundation is the satisfied stomach.
But, for all this, Natchez will never be part of the world in which it lives. It is not only that everywhere on earth palpable and subtle differences set Southerners and Northerners apart; it is also that Natchez lives with its dead. A few miles from the town there is a singularly ugly and huge ante-bellum house — ‘Longwood.’ It has never been completed. In 1858 a rich and cultured planter (his library contained ten thousand volumes), by the name of Dr. Nutt, employed a Philadelphia architect to construct this house. The architect was told by his client to hire artisans in Cincinnati and bring them down river to Natchez, where they would be assisted by some of Dr. Nutt’s twenty-five hundred slaves. He went to work on Longwood, while the planter and his wife left for Europe to buy linens in Ireland, silver in England, paintings and furniture in France, marbles in Italy. By the time the Civil War began, the framework, the roof, and the sides of the house had been completed. Then the artisans went home to fight for the North; the architect returned to Philadelphia; the slaves ran away; most of the shipments made by Dr. Nutt from Europe were seized by the enemy.
In Natchez this house still stands today. The cypress scaffolding reaching from the unfinished first floor to the unfinished fourth floor remains where it was placed in 1861; paintbrushes are frozen in paint long since solidified; hammers, nails, overalls, and saws lie where they were dropped seventy-five years ago. In the basement — designed to be a billiard and hunting room — lives the impoverished, elderly grandson of Dr. Nutt, amid eternal dampness, pools of shadow, and the huge, dark, ancient furniture. Outside in the grounds that were to have been a stately garden grows a matted jungle of trees and vines, sanctuary to snakes, rabbits, owls, and mockingbirds. At the rear of the house, slave quarters rise white in the moonlight.
Here, my dear, is the place where you may see and feel the Civil War. The spectacle of this half-completed house is a far more poignant reminder of the tragedy of that war than the war-burned houses of the Southern states, just as a legless, blinded veteran of the last World War is a more poignant reminder of its tragedy than the neatly tended graves of the dead at Arlington. In this house you note how the old South came suddenly to an end; how an avalanche poured down upon it, stopping all work and driving away the workmen, yet preserving the frame for a life beyond life, as Vesuvius destroyed and perpetuated Pompeii. And it is here, for twentyfive cents admission, that visitors come to look upon the old South in the form of this ghostly home and the person of its lonely tenant. They come to look, to murmur ‘How quaint,’ ‘How Southern,’ and go rolling away in their cars. But it is at Longwood that the soul of Natchez lies buried.
The landscape in and around Natchez is starred with ante-bellum homes to the number of thirty or forty. They are intact, and occupied sometimes by members of the families who built them, sometimes by others. There are so many, indeed, that when the ladies of the Garden Club of Virginia — a group who en masse achieve the remarkable effect of seeming to move in Panathenaic procession— visited Natchez they were gracious enough to say they could not believe their own eyes. Among these homes, high on a bluff, stands ‘The Briers,’ the residence of an uncle of Miss Varina Howell, who married Mr. Jefferson Davis there. The home stands, and Miss Howell’s soul goes marching on. It is from her spiritual presence, perhaps, that Mrs. Miller and the other women of Natchez derived the inspiration to be up and doing, and with much intelligence in the order of their work.
Here I must tell you this: it is part of the American legend that, while Southern belles are gifted with charm and allure and move sometimes to the music of a femininity almost unbearably sweet to masculine ears, they yet lack shrewdness in the sense that, say, the women of Boston are shrewd. Let’s see.
When Varina Howell was a beautiful girl of seventeen, she was a guest at ‘The Diamond Place,’ a plantation house near Vicksburg. One day a handsome horseman rode up to the house, dismounted, exchanged a few words with Miss Howell, gave her a letter to be handed to her host, and rode away. A little later she wrote her mother of the impression made upon her by the fleeting rider: —
Today Uncle Joe sent by his younger brother (did you know he had one?) an urgent invitation for me to go at once to ‘The Hurricane.’ I do not know whether this Mr. Jefferson Davis is young or old. [He was thirtysix at the time.] He looks both at times; but I believe he is old, for from what I hear he is only two years younger than you are. He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself. The fact is, he is the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward. I do not think that I shall ever like him as I do his younger brother Joe. Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated, and yet he is a Democrat.
These were the first impressions made upon a young girl by the man who was to become her husband and the President of the Confederacy. History has since confirmed them in every particular, without, however, expressing itself so trenchantly and charmingly. Southern belle, indeed!
Natchez is not, as you might imagine, all moonlight, Quality, and ante-bellum houses. It is also Negroes. While I was there this time I looked up my old friend Santa Claus, who is inseparably part of my memories of the town. My first meeting with him a few years ago was a triumph of Southern hospitality.
I had heard a great deal about Santa Claus from Judge Patterson, who felt that we might he kindred spirits, but, alas, he could not be found. One day I was seated in the Judge’s court while he was trying a colored lady for slapping another lady in the face with a lighted lamp, when the Judge interrupted the trial to say to me, ‘There he is.’ I turned to the door, and there stood Santa Claus, ashen with fright, flanked by two policemen. (Southern hospitality had decreed that the local constabulary be sent in search of him so that we might meet.) He looked simultaneously at me, concluding that, since I was a strange white man seated in court but not on trial, I must be Uncle Sam’s Law, and in any case you can never tell what white folks are up to. I quickly rescued him from the police and assured him I was not the Law, and we became firm friends.
He is a gray-haired man of about sixty, with pork-chop lips, popeyes, and an irresistible smile. He is one of the few people in town who know that his real name is Green Smith; to all Natchez he is Santa Claus, and it was as Santa Claus that he emerged triumphant from his only encounter with the law.
For years he had gone about the streets of Natchez selling roasted peanuts; for years the children of Natchez had seen his infectious smile and heard him cry: ‘Hot pinders! Roasted pinders! Get ’em red-hot. Here come ole Santa Claus. Chillun, here’s ole Santa Claus. Once, however, he got ambitious and opened a hamburger stand. But business was poor. ‘So,’ he told me, I thought I’d sell jes’ a little whiskey. I sold a pint to a boy w’at’s at de Jefferson Millinery College; he got drunk, and de commander put de Law on me. Dey arrested me and put me in jail. W’en my trial was over, de Jedge he says, “Green Smith, stand up.” I stood up. Den he say, It is de order of de Cote dat you are to pay a fine of three hundred dollars and serve sixty days in de county jail.” I say, “Suh?” He say, “You ain’t deef. You heerd me.” Well, my white folks got me out on bail because I had ‘pealed, an’ I went back to selling pinders. All de white ladies and dey chillun knows me. So w’en a white lady stop to buy pinders I say, “Lady, please m’am, gimme a little something to pay twarge my fine.” So de ladies dey gimme dimes an’ quarters and sometimes fo’-bit pieces, and dat way I paid my fine and kep’ out de jailhouse.’
Santa Claus grinned complacently, and well he might. Where else, my dear, save in Natchez or in the lower South, could a convicted criminal go out on the streets and in a few weeks take up enough money by passing the hat to pay his fine? He is, I’m happy to tell you, doing well these days. The pinder business is good because of all the strangers in town, while Sweetheart, his wife, has more washing and ironing for the white folks than she can do. Sometimes Santa Claus has to help her at night when he is not attending meetings of the Independent Brothers of Charily, or serving as deacon of the Old Jerusalem Baptist Church out on the Woodville road. And I am glad that when I drove reluctantly away from Natchez my route took me past this church, where Santa Claus, his brethren and sisters, were gathered. I stopped for a little while under a persimmon tree to hear the singing that came through the open windows: —
Off in the west the darkness was stabbed every little while by the flashing of lighthouse beacons above the Mississippi. There on its bluffs stood Natchez. What shall set it free, I wondered. Then I released my brakes and rolled onward into the soft night over the flat plain that leads to New Orleans, dreaming by its river.

‘ De blood done sot me free,
De blood done sot me free,
Oh, don’t you see what de blood done done,
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
De blood done sot me free.’