Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Gravely Concerned": From Poe to Thomas Holley Chivers, a tour of writers' graves

No real estate is permanently valuable but the grave.
(Mark Twain, 1898)

Much like the recent unpleasantness between the states from 1861-1865, the topic of death has an unshakable hold on the Southern imagination. Maybe that fascination springs from the rural tradition of long-told family stories: of ghosts and haints, lost relatives and ne'er-do-wells, and other human mysteries that make this conscious life only a pause on eternity's long road. In the South death takes on a mythical stature unparalleled elsewhere in America. People do talk about their long-gone ancestors as if those ancient folk were sitting, here today, on the porch having a glass of tea.

This embrace of the past, indeed the near-physical presence of the departed, is a romantic idea expressed in the over-use of the word
Gothic when applied to the Southern sensibility. There is no mistaking the haunting tales of Edgar Allan Poe as anything but Southern, and the Gothic continues to be a part of the regional feel. As Howard Bahr, writing from Jackson, Mississippi, remarks in the book's foreword as if a plume of one of W.J. Cash's Cavaliers were still in his hat:

I believe that a walk through a cemetery is no intrusion but first, a sojourn into the past and, second, a glimpse into the future of our ephemeral selves. I see no possible harm in walking over a grave, and I think it proper that a man should sit on a tombstone, smoke his pipe, and contemplate his own mortality while the mockingbirds sing in the oaks. I believe the dead, so far as they may be aware, find such occasions enjoyable: footsteps of a visitor from the world they left behind come to acknowledge them as fellow travelers, no different from us but only gone ahead. ... This, I have found, is the artist's view as well.

Graves of Robert Penn Warren and his wife Eleanor, Stratton VT.

Which makes John Soward Bayne's new book
Gravely Concerned (Clemson University Digital Press) a regional celebrity-search of the famous and infamous writers who had much to do with creating the unique Southern imagination. The book is less haunted by morbid curiosity than it is an evocative visual record of where many writers associated with the South have chosen to spend eternity.

In some cases a choice was not offered: in 1973 Alice Walker determined the resting site of Zora Neale Hurston by calling out "Zora, where are you?" in an Eatonton, Florida cemetery to locate the writer's unmarked grave -- in itself an abs
olutely fitting Southern tale.

In other cases these sites, some elaborate and others more simple, reflect the reputations of the writers themselves in their lifetime and (one presumes) in the life beyond. They become points of pilgrimage for fans and the curious: Margaret Mitchell in Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery, William Faulkner (and his brothers) in Ox
ford Mississippi, Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore, whose Poe Toaster tradition as of 2009 may be nevermore.

Yet there are many more -- regional writers whose legacies are less well known but whose fictions are part of the Southern fabric. Bayne began his photography project in 2003 with a mathematician's exactness and a reading fan's zeal, sometimes traveling by Greyhound overnight through Alabama and Mississippi and the Carolinas to locate a particular site.

Over the course of pages the book becomes a treasury of Southern names: John Trotwood Moore. Abbie Mandana Holmes Christiansen. Beatrice Whitte Ravenel. William Tappan Thompson. Thomas Holley Chivers. Douglas Southall Freeman. John Peale Bishop. Hubert Creekmore. Katherine Drayton Mayrant Simons.

It's understood if the casually curious may only be interested in tracking down Thomas Wolfe in Asheville, but where does one go to seek the disputed last rest of Truman Capote? That eternal gadabout may be buried in L.A.'s Westwood Memorial Park (a final cocktail party of sorts, surrounded by celebrities) -- or his ashes may be scattered at Crooked Pond near Bridgehampton, NY.

Many Southern writers are buried here, but not all. Although Mark Twain's grave is featured on the book's cover, in a recent discussion Bayne said he doesn't really consider Twain a Southern writer: born in Missouri, lived in Connecticut, he married a Yankee girl from Elmira NY and wrote several of his novels
during 22 summers there. The serial bankrupt Clemens is buried in his wife's family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. At Woodlawn, driving directions are posted Mark Twain next left, as if it were a kind of final and continuing receiving line for the humorist -- or an eternal advertisement posted by his admirers.

On the other hand, there is the resting place of James Agee
(Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) marked by an large and unchiseled boulder on his farm, also in upstate NY.

Eudora Welty gravesite, Jackson, MS

Monuments with their names and dates chiseled in stone offer many writers the opportunity for a final parting shot, or piece of wisdom on view for eternity. In his preface Bayne offers these: Among the best are T.S. Stribling's 'Through this dust these hills once spoke" and Ben Robertson's "I rest in thy bosom, Carolina, thy skies over me, thine air above and around me. Among my own and in my own country I sleep.'

Not all are quite so serious; some epitaphs are examples of the special Southern wit. On April 20, 2008, a monument was unveiled on the overlooked and presumed grave of George Washington Harris, with a new epigraph from the humorist's own fictional creation, "Parson Bullen's Oration Over the Corpse of Sut Lovingood": Let us try and ricollect his virtues -- ef he had any -- and forget his vices -- ef we can. For of such air the kingdom of heaven!"

John Soward Bayne

Bayne himself was born in Lenoir City, Tennessee, grew up in Anderson, South Carolina, and holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Clemson University, impeccable Southern bona fides on the Gravely Concerned website. So it's no surprise that his book, in its elegiac tone, suggests a certain urgent prompting to the procrastination of aspiring Southern writers and other present-day scribblers:

So, pilgrim, pass by. Be not reluctant at your author's grave. Look at the name indited in stone: what lies beneath the name is only dust, of course, but what lies behind it is the record of the artist's suffering and the true monument that is his or her work. Remember that this person once walked the earth, felt the compulsion to create, suffered rejection and frustration, just as you will do, have done, if you have chosen the writer's craft. Ask your questions; you may be astonished at the reply.

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