3 / Glen Allan
Reconstructing Old England in New Mississippi
Only Faulkner Survives
So the WPA guide mentions three writers who are representative of the contemporary literary scene in Mississippi. This is 1937, Stark Young, William Faulkner, and Will Percy. We’ve talked about Will Percy a little bit. Will was from the Delta, as I’ve mentioned, he was from Greenville. He is one of the great exponents of the Delta aristocracy. A beautiful, eloquent writer. The Percy Holm in Greenville was a sort of crossroads for the literati from across the country. He was a pretty cosmopolitan guy for the Mississippi Delta in 1937.
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Stark Young was also a pretty cosmopolitan figure. He wasn’t from the Delta, he was from Como, which is in North Mississippi. But he is one of these three figures who, in 1937, is regarded as exemplary of Mississippi literature. He’s even mentioned on the first page of the WPA Guide to Mississippi. In the very second paragraph, he is linked with William Faulkner as “Mississippi’s two best known interpreters.”
Now this is interesting for a number of reasons. Everybody knows the name William Faulkner. Whether or not you’ve read Faulkner or have any interest in him whatsoever, you know the name. But how many people remember the name Stark Young? I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of Stark Young until I read the WPA Guide.
Stark Young came from, like Will Percy, Mississippi aristocracy. And this guy was well-heeled, well-educated, he was a world traveler, he taught in the Northeast, in Ivy League schools, for a long time, and eventually, like me, at age 40, he realized that academia was not for him. So he left to write plays. And he wrote these kinds of plays, which you wouldn’t think of coming from Mississippi in the 1930s: highly erudite, evocative of European dramatic tradition. And he won all kinds of awards. He wrote hundreds of articles for The New York Times, The New Republic. He was a drama critic for The New Republic for many years. And he was a decorated figure in not just Mississippi literature, but in literature nationally.
And now he is almost completely forgotten. None of his books are still in print, except for one, So Red the Rose, which is a novel about the Civil War, or at least about the Civil War era. And it illustrates Young’s preoccupation with the world before the Civil War and the world after it. And the reason I mention him here is not because he has any particular association with the Delta, but because of the influence of his ideas about the South, and how they relate to some of the visual iconography of the Mississippi Delta.
Stark Takes a Stand
Stark Young was one of the twelve authors who contributed to a really famous book published in 1930 called I’ll Take My Stand. It was attributed to “Twelve Southerners,” most of whom were of the Fugitive Poets School or the Nashville Agrarians, orbiting mostly around Vanderbilt University. These “Twelve Southerners” included literary A-listers like Alan Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. It was a collection of essays published in 1930, subtitled The South and the Agrarian Tradition.
So these twelve white poets and scholars and novelists got together and compiled this collective defense of the Southern “way of life,” which they identified with the agrarian tradition, as opposed to the industrialism that characterized Northern society, which they all hated.
And that’s its own subject. We’ll leave that to one side for a moment. But you can tell from the title itself that this was a characteristically Southern move in the sense that the book adopted a defensive posture of “Southern culture,” which is a really tricky term, but for now we’ll just hold on to it for a second.
Each of these twelve Southerners defended in one way or another—sometimes full-throatedly, sometimes with some reservations—the idea of the South as an agrarian culture rooted in family, tradition, home, and so on. Some of these essays have not aged particularly well, but the book itself is a monument to a couple of things.
One, the incredible literary productivity of the South in the 1920s and 30s. Even the fact that you could have a national figure like Stark Young, who was so influential and so celebrated in his own day, now completely forgotten is a testament to the fact that the South was producing all of these really gifted writers who, in many ways, saw themselves carrying on this European literary tradition.
These guys went by a lot of different names, the Fugitive Poets, the Southern Agrarians, the Vanderbilt Agrarians. But Stark Young’s concluding essay captures kind of the essence of the project as a whole. It’s called “Not in Memoriam, but in Defense.”
I should say from the beginning that there are some really gorgeous passages in this essay. He bemoans the rise of this sort of charlatan figure, who is a product of industrialist capitalism, who has no talent or skill apart from drawing attention to himself. He hasn’t got a lot positive to say about the culture of capitalism, or the culture of industrialism, at least, as he sees it in the Northeast and he sees it coming into the South.
This is one of the things that the Twelve Southerners were all more or less united against: the encroachment of Northern industrialism into Southern culture, and therefore the evaporation of some of these things that these men felt were essential to that culture. And the concluding note of Stark Young’s essay has to do with what I think is a really good question.
What is the end of living? What is life for? It’s a really, really big question and props to Stark Young for going there, and not simply remaining at the level of superficiality or sentimentality. What is the end of living? That’s what Stark Young is concerned with. And in the penultimate paragraph of his essay, he writes,
“To arrive then at some conception of the end of living, the civilization that will belong to the South, is our great immediate problem. But in this case, as always in life, alongside a man’s open course, there moves a mystery, to him dark and shining at once. The mystery here is change, whose god is mutability.”
That’s a beautiful couple of sentences. It harkens back to Will Percy’s line about “the shifting, unappeasable god of the country [speaking of the Mississippi Delta] feared and loved, the Mississippi River.”
So that kind of mutability for Percy is written into the landscape. I want to give Stark Young credit for his eloquence, the depth of his learning, and of his existential concerns. For one thing, he doesn’t reduce “Southernness,” whatever that is, to sweet tea and pimento cheese. But there’s a lot to pause over in this essay that is a little more troubling.
What Do You Mean “We,” White Man?
First of all, Stark Young is, like I said, of the white aristocracy. At the beginning of his essay, he says, “At the outset, we must make it clear that in talking of Southern characteristics, we are talking largely of a certain life in the Old South, a life founded on land and the ownership of slaves.” At the end of that paragraph, he says that “the manners and customs of the South do not wholly arise from the bottom mass. They have come from the top downward. It is true that our traditional Southern characteristics derive from the landed class.”
So here is a vigorous defense of an idea of Southernness that does not include Black people at all. Its identification of what is characteristically, distinctively “Southern” has almost everything to do with the landed, slave-owning class.
And Stark Young is not apologetic about this at all. I mean, this is 1930, so it’s not exactly controversial in his milieu. He is a defender of the idea of university education for a small number of people, not for everybody. Like many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t regard Reconstruction as a very positive thing.
In what we would now call “coded” language, he talks resentfully about “the rise of people whose share in things had been restricted.” And we know who he’s talking about. He’s talking about Black people, who are now empowered and enfranchised and holding elected office after the Civil War. But then, interspersed between these quite distasteful and coded comments about Reconstruction and the enfranchisement of Black people, are passages like this one, that I think would resonate with just about anyone:
“No matter where you are. In any city, or land, or on the sea, and some old song suddenly heard again, or a childhood dish tasted, or some fragrance remembered from a garden once, or a voice or word brings tears to your eyes because of its memory of some place, that place is your country.”
It’s a beautiful passage. It does have a sort of sentimental quality to it. But at least Stark Young is concerned about the particularity of place and what it has to do with your identity as a person. It may or may not be the place you were born; it’s the place that you identify with that evokes this kind of memory. It’s not to say it’s not wholly backward looking, but it is predominantly backward looking to a time when Southern culture existed in a sort of “purer,” “more noble” state.
And of course, [according to Young] it was the landed aristocracy, the slave-holding class, who was responsible for the things worth preserving about Southern culture. This may be one of the reasons why Stark Young isn’t really read anymore. He was a kind of sentimentalist about the past, about antebellum society, about the South as an agrarian culture in a way that is self-consciously selective about who Southern culture includes. It includes a small group of people: wealthy white people who own slaves. The culture that those people built, according to Stark Young, was not entirely worth giving up. There are some things that died after the Civil War that did not deserve to die from that culture. This is Stark Young’s view. It’s pretty clear that he thinks Reconstruction, the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved people, was not a good thing.
He’s also not a full-throated apologist for Anglo-Saxon men. He thinks they “naturally lack taste.” Nevertheless, they are of the class that rules Southern society. There’s also a note in this essay about religion that I find very interesting. He says, “we have to remember that to convert the south to religion is only to convert religion to the Southern. Our religion will depend on us.”
Now, this is one of many passages in this essay that makes you go, wait, what? What? He has a gift for obtuseness, for obscurity, that, I’m guessing, kind of goes back to that European tendency, the sort of celebrated obscurity that is a mark of erudition.
So, in a nutshell, Stark Young, one of the three people the WPA guide mentions as leading lights of contemporary Mississippi literature, is a gifted dramatist and a kind of sentimentalist about pre-war white society. But this is where I think Stark Young is actually a very relevant figure for today. Because today there are plenty of folks who identify Southern culture with a white version of Southern culture, whose idea of Southern identity and Southern history does not include Black people, whose idea of what it means to be Southern is a white idea of what it means to be Southern. As a general rule, these people can be seen waving Confederate flags. If you see someone waving a Confederate flag today, it is safe to assume that they will defend such an act in the name of “heritage, not hate.” And that “heritage” is the kind of heritage that Stark Young was defending: a white heritage, the identification of southern culture of Southernness with whiteness. That’s where I feel like Stark Young is relevant today. And he is relevant to the Delta and he is relevant to a particular spot in the Delta north of Vicksburg.
Mississippi Coventry: Glen Allan
So back to the road north of Vicksburg: we took Highway 61 into the Mississippi Delta through Valley Park, through onward, through Issaquena, through Cary. In the town of Rolling Fork, we take a left going west on Mississippi Highway 16 that’s going wind northwest and lead us to the town of Glen Allan.
Now, Glen Allan was one of those towns in the Mississippi Delta that used to be a riverfront town. But it’s not anymore, because the Mississippi, that “unappeasable, shifting god of the country,” decided to move somewhere else. So now Glen Allan fronts one of these oxbow lakes that is not connected to the rest of the Mississippi River.
And the WPA writers who visited Glen Allan in the 1930s didn’t have much to say about the town itself, which is named for a nearby plantation. But they did have something to say about the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was,
“completed in 1857, the first Episcopal structure in the Delta. The group of planters who settled around Lake Washington in the 1830s were of English descent. Some of them were English born. Extensive landowners in the older southern states, they had come to Mississippi in boom times. And from the proceeds of the sale of their farmer holdings, had invested in the fertile acres of what were then known as the Mississippi Bottoms. The mansions they built are the remaining evidence of their prosperity. To them in 1844 came Bishop Otey from Tennessee, and the fruit of his visit was the gift by Jonathan McCaleb of five acres of land to be used as a site for the church and a glebe.”
There are a number of sites across the southeast that are now eloquent ruins. They’re evocative of an older culture. They also suggest a regime that brought this culture to an end. Think of the Coventry Cathedral in England. Some of the ruins of the Second World War that dot the landscape of Europe. By contrast, some of the churches that survived, like Cologne Cathedral, those avatars of the Second World War.
Whether they be ruins or the sole remaining structures to survive, there are sites like this across the South. One of them is Old Sheldon Church in the South Carolina Low Country. Another is the ruins of Windsor in Mississippi, just south of Vicksburg, in Port Gibson, a once-glorious, colonnaded plantation home.
All that remains of Windsor are the columns. And it could be a figure for the way the South is identified with a particular snippet of American history. Just think of the outsized airtime the Civil War gets on historical monuments in, say, flags that get flown, and so forth. It was four years of the Southern experience.
Windsor is an image of that. It’s a ruin from 1890. It was completed in 1861, but the house only stood for not even 30 years. And it has been ruins far longer than it ever was as a working or inhabitable home. Even though it’s a ruin, a place like Windsor is rich in imaginative capital for the idea of a lost mythological past.
And then another one is St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glen Allan, Mississippi, the oldest Episcopal Church in the Delta. And it is now one of these eloquent ruins. When you visit a place like this, it’s hard not to think of those European ruins, like the monasteries that were “dissolved” in the 16th century in England by Henry VIII, whose anti-Catholicism left its mark on the landscape. Or the cathedral in St. Andrews in Scotland, right on the edge of the world, it seems, a beautiful Gothic church that is simply a shell of what it used to be.
Glen Allan is kind of like that. And even the name, Glen Allan, sounds like a Scotch whisky. St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glen Allan is like the Mississippi version of Coventry Cathedral, or Fountains Abbey, or the Cathedral at St. Andrews. Which is to say, it’s not just a collapsed building; it’s a building whose state of ruination is meant to say something. It’s meant to communicate something about what was lost, or what was destroyed, and who did the destroying.
The Old Sheldon Church in the South Carolina Lowcountry has been treated for decades by Lowcountry South Carolinians as a testament to the evil of the Union Army, particularly everybody’s favorite villain, William Sherman. The story went down there that Sherman destroyed the church because Sherman was a terrible person. He was an anti-Christian, obviously, because he was a Yankee, and all he wanted to do was destroy Southern culture. It turns out that that’s not exactly what happened, but that’s a story for another time.
We’ll eventually end up in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and we’ll go see Old Sheldon Church for ourselves. But right now, look at St. John’s Episcopal Church here in Glen Allan. The Episcopal Church harkens back to England itself, so it’s a connection not just with a religious tradition, but with a culture.
The fact that it is in a state of ruin says something about what we have lost. Now, I just used the word “we,” and the “we” I mean there is Stark Young’s “we:” what his “we,” the landed, slave-holding, planter class of the South lost. So, a church ruin like St. John’s is a monument to that older culture. It’s kind of a visual image of the thing that Stark Young is talking about in his essay.
Let me read a little more from the WPA guide.
“In October 1852, ‘at which time the families which leave that region in summer months generally return to their plantations,’ the building was begun. There was delay because of the necessity for importing materials from England and an organ for the wilderness. When the church was dedicated in April 1857, the services were stopped by a snowstorm. Slaves were given their own gallery, and the richly carved chancel, pulpit, and altar were fashioned by the Negro sextant Jesse Crowell, who was buried from the church and was afterward given a place in the adjacent cemetery. After the War between the States, the church began to decay and a cyclone completed the ruin. Still evident is the outline of the corner tower with circular brick windows webbed in vines. Its design is based upon that of the English Gothic. The churchyard still bears the name of Greenfield, the plantation of Jonathan McCaleb. In its well-kept enclosure, a number of iron crosses mark the graves of Confederate dead.”
We first visited St. John’s on our fifth tour in 2004.
Breaking the Spell of Southern Sentimentalism
And I think I viewed the ruins of St. John’s Church in Stark Young’s terms: as a sad memorial to a culture that was destroyed, but which did not deserve to be destroyed.
That’s how I think I viewed it when I first saw it twenty years ago. I have to confess, I was somewhat under the spell of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, [namely] this idea of Southern culture as an anti-industrialist, agrarian form of life, which I was not wise enough to realize I had zero connection to. Zero connection, at least within the last 150 something years, to an agrarian way of life.
My family were city dwellers. They were not agrarian people. But anyway, it would take me a while to learn the sentimentality behind that idea of the South as an agrarian culture, the South as the heirs of Old England, the realization of the English ideal of parish life, or of town and country, or whatever it may be; plantation culture as a kind of extension of English manor house living, or whatever it might be. I was under the spell of that kind of sentimentalism. I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I took some pictures of the Episcopal Church, not realizing how twenty years later I would come to see those images as invested with different kind of meaning.
And I think this is one of the things that’s a clue when you’re driving around this part of the world and you see a ruined church. A ruined Episcopal Church that dates from before the Civil War is never just a church that has fallen apart. And there is a story that has been told that may or may not have to do with the particularities of history.
I received St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glen Allan, Mississippi as a visual manifestation of the kind of thing that Stark Young was decrying: of Northern waywardness, of a way of life that did not deserve to die. I had just finished graduate school in England, and so I was probably imputing to this spot a vision of English country life with the parish church, and this sort of idyllic view of society that, to be honest, probably wasn’t that far away from a Thomas Kinkade painting. Just a Southern, slightly dirtier version. I don’t even remember what kind of historical markers there were at St. John’s 20 years ago, or what kind of story (if any) the site attempted to tell about itself.
I now understand that view as an overly sentimentalized version of Southern history that is selective about who the actors in Southern history are, about what Southernness means and who makes it (if there is such a thing as “Southernness”).
Two days into this road trip together, I’m not sure there is such a thing.
But I know there have been attempts to identify Southernness with the culture whose decay is the premise of that culture. The idea of Southern culture, as you find it in Stark Young, as you witness it in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glen Allen, is a celebration—indirectly—of loss, a celebration of victimhood. You see this idea on Confederate monuments all over the place: the moral “innocence” of antebellum society, of the slave holding class. This is one of the fundamental principles of the Lost Cause ideology, and it’s not unrelated to what a church like St. John’s in Glen Allan means and what it represents. I haven’t been back to Glen Allan in a while.
So, revisiting this church now, it’s a different experience. I don’t see these ruins the same way as I did before. Then, I think I wanted to see those ruins as a testament to somebody else’s bad faith. To that favorite antagonist in the South: outside agitators. I was totally taken in by that. Now I see the sacralization of these ruins as ruins, as a testament to the insecurity of that story, the insecurity underneath the Lost Cause version of history.
A culture which is premised on someone else’s bad faith, a culture whose fundamental posture is defensiveness, hose story about itself orbits around a story of its antagonist’s wickedness, selfishness—that is not a healthy culture. (This is to say nothing about what Black Southerners have contributed not just to “Southern identity” or “Southern culture” or whatever, but to national culture.)
So, on my first visit to Glen Allan, I think I viewed the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church as sad because it was sad that this church was destroyed. It was sad that this sort of Mississippi Delta version of English parish life did not survive. Now I view it as a kind of monument to a vision of reality that is articulated in Stark Young’s essay.
And how sad it is that that version doesn’t include Black Southerners. What a sad version of “Southern culture” that is. If you limit the Southern contribution to the world to the valorization of family, home, tradition, and so forth, a) that’s not especially Southern, and b) it’s not especially white either.
Those things aren’t exclusive to the slave-holding class. What is exclusive to the slave-holding class, in Stark Young’s view, is the bounteous leisure that white people have enjoyed at the hands of other people’s labor. How sad it is to celebrate that kind of leisurely existence with no acknowledgement of the free labor of people whose work and existence create the conditions for that leisurely kind of existence.
So now I view these beautiful ruins as like the Mississippi Delta itself, layered with accumulations of silt of meaning. Now they represent something to me that they didn’t twenty years ago. The least interesting thing for me about the Mississippi Delta is the culture that Stark Young wanted to preserve.
The white aristocracy in the Mississippi Delta, which was a very small minority of the population, actually left very little in terms of its cultural contributions. Even Stark Young has vanished from literary memory. That’s not entirely a good thing. But if St. John’s is a monument to anything, for me, it’s a monument to the despair, the melancholy, not of a Lost Cause, but of a culture whose almost paranoid self-protection depends upon its deliberate ignorance of the contributions of people who made that way of life possible. The most enduring cultural contributions that come out of this region are not white contributions.
The Heights of the Mississippi Bottoms
It is a great paradox that this region that has so identified itself with wealth and with violence, with prosperity and oppression, with deprivation, with murder, with violence, with lynching, and with grand estates, has produced some of America’s most magnificent works of art, in terms of literature and music, especially, and continues to do so.
The creative days of the Mississippi Delta are not in the past. They are still with us. It remains, and probably will be as long as this country exists, America’s most fertile imaginative region. America’s most paradoxically creative [region]. It is a depression in the landscape. It is literally almost the lowest place you can go in terms of height above sea level in the country.
And it has produced, in spite or because of that, some of the most singular works of art in American history. Why is that? Who knows. But we’re gonna try and find out.
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