My Southern Lit Road Trip
By: Amy Satterthwaite Pappas
Dabney will marry Troy and there’s nothing for it. She’s only 17, proud and spoiled. He’s 34, the manager of her father’s cotton fields. Beneath her, in other words. She’s set to walk out the side door of the plantation on her heartbroken father’s arm and be handed over to Troy—a glorified farmhand from some little old holler in the hills, far from the Mississippi Delta which is the center of the known world as far as Dabney’s family is concerned.
I attend this chaotic wedding every year. You’re invited, too. Open up Eudora Welty’s first full-length novel, Delta Wedding, and step into this 1923 family crisis with me. By the time you’re back home in your own reading chair, all the peculiarities of close families, social class and race relations in the South will be laid bare.
In 2021, I decide to go in person. It will be a solo pilgrimage to celebrate a favorite novel, and because it’s so far from my house in Charlottesville to Eudora Welty’s in Jackson, Mississippi, I fail to see why I shouldn’t pay my respects along the way to Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. I have the time. The pandemic has malingered into its second year. I’m unemployed, stir crazy and fully vaccinated. So off I go, on my custom-made Southern Lit Road Trip.
I leave in late winter, my 15-year-old Lincoln following the feet of the Appalachians all the way down and then across Virginia’s outstretched tail. This is Lee Smith country, she of Fair and Tender Ladies and On Agate Hill, and if you’ve never read Lee Smith, start with her first, Oral History, from 1983. Here she describes one of its characters:
“He’d be down on Grassy Creek all by hisself most likely, seeing how the water ran over the rocks and how cold it kept even in summer, or he’d be up in the crook of the biggest sycamore, a- setting up there still as a little old owl for hours and hours just waiting to see if anybody ever come up the trace, which nobody ever did.”
Smith was a guest lecturer in my southern literature class at VCU years ago. I longed to be just like her, crafting whole entire worlds other people didn’t know anything about. Her wild, hard-scrabble Southwest Virginia was a revelation to me when, after my literature class ended, I dragged a college boyfriend there to soak up the scene. This is not the genteel Tidewater of William Styron, nor the historic Piedmont of Peter Taylor. Smith’s Virginia is coal mining towns and paper mills in the crooks of mountains darker and steeper than our Shenandoah. The locals are likewise sharpened off; they whittle their soft a’s and e’s and turn them into i’s when they talk, like peaks rising. “Kin you iver git down the road?”
I sure kin. I drive straight through to Chattanooga to rest up, and have to drag myself away after two days. Like I said, I have the time. But I’m watching my money. Haven’t earned a paycheck since the pandemic closed the YMCA where I worked. I stay at family-owned motels except in Jackson, Mississippi when I splurge on an Inn in Eudora Welty’s neighborhood. I eat at roadside diners and gas stations. At night, I sit in my folding beach chair outside my motel room door, smoking and sharing stories with other travelers doing the same. Folks on the road in late winter tend to be different. They aren’t holiday visiting or summer vacationing. They’re burying relatives or divorcing or running from something. They’re on missions, like me.
But don’t forget about Dabney and Troy. They’re why we’re here, just now on the long Dixie highway from Chattanooga to Monroeville, Alabama. The dreaded wedding and its attendant whirl is at first told through the eyes of the teenage bride’s 9-year-old cousin, sent alone by her widowed father on a train up from Jackson. Laura is a city child, an only, adored child, whose mother died less than a year before. A pint-sized reminder of death and mortality, Laura is on her way to the town of Fairchilds, Mississippi, her mother’s home place in the Delta, where dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles await.
As Laura’s train nears its destination, Welty writes, “She felt what an arriver in a land feels, that cold hard pounding in the chest.” Laura will soon be swept up in the Fairchild family’s world of cotton, Saturday night dances, folk magic and unpromising romance. (The town shares a name with its most prominent family.) The Fairchilds never visit Laura in Jackson, “where they’d have been hard to believe.” Everything comes to them.
I’m coming, too. But just now I’m in Monroeville, finally.
Nelle Harper Lee lived here her entire life, calling the little place “Maycomb” when she immortalized it in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her next-door neighbor was a fastidious, fragile boy named Truman Capote, dropped off at his aunts’ house by his fast-living mama, and who would grow up to haunt high society and write novels, short stories and essays.
Monroeville today is well aware why you’re stopping by. I check into The Mockingbird Inn, walk down the street for catfish and fried tomatoes, and am fortified enough to see the whole place on foot. The courthouse with its dome and balcony looks exactly as it does in your mind because the movie was filmed here. It is now a museum honoring Monroeville as “the literary capital of Alabama.” You can sit right in the witness chair where Tom Robinson makes the mistake of saying he feels sorry for a white man. There are exhibits on Capote and Lee, along with photos of Gregory Peck and the rest of the cast.
Miss Nelle grew up in a fine house on South Alabama Avenue, and like Scout Finch, could walk down to the courthouse to watch her father practice law. The house no longer stands. In its place is Mel’s Dairy Dream, a concrete building with a walk-up counter selling ice cream and snacks. Next door, Capote’s aunts’ place burned to the ground, but its cornerstones remain. That’s where I sit with my soft-serve cone from Mel’s melting onto the UVA basketball championship T-shirt I’ve worn to provoke insults or salutes. It’s nice to talk if you’ve been by yourself all day. To argue, even.
Capote is best known for his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, about the murder of a Kansas family. His old friend Harper Lee helped him report the facts, serving as a comfortable buffer between the florid Capote and the clannish townsfolk where the actual murders took place. His essays are arch and gossipy, and his infamous final tome, Answered Prayers, cost him all of his rich glamorous friends. He fictionalized their dramas. It was betrayal. They dropped him. It’s a lesson most writers learn, one way or another.
There’s another Truman, though, the unloved boy who found an adopted family in Monroeville. This Truman sings a sweeter song in his early work The Grass Harp:
“Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons; go to see it in the fall, late September, when when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it, and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”
I’m the only guest at The Mockingbird Inn. Thunderstorms pound all evening, so I’m stuck in my motel room and fall miserably homesick. This happens every time I travel. I’ll just suddenly want to be home. Road trips are easier because you can always turn tail anytime you want. And so naturally you keep going.
Black skies and tornadoes follow me out of southern Alabama and into Mississippi. Pieces of metal roofs and yard junk are spinning obstacles on a country highway my old Lincoln—in a driving rain—must wind around. I’m too scared to stop even though I’m only going 30 with my hazards flashing—and I don’t stop until I’m safely in Jackson, where little cousin Laura first boarded the train for Dabney Fairchilds’ wedding.
Now, I’ve never been a motherless child, nor teenage bride, nor spent a minute on anyone’s plantation. But every summer of my childhood, I felt that “cold hard pounding in the chest” as the arriving cousin. My mother’s people, the Ruggieris, grew not cotton but mushrooms—thousands of them—in manure on raised beds inside long, windowless sheds. You can smell Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, before you see it, especially on a hot day. My mother toted my sister Jane and me up there as soon as the school year ended when we were kids. They called us “the hillbilly cousins from Virginia,” and there were too many of them to fight about it. Jane and I scrambled to fit in and learn secrets everyone else already knew. The longer we stayed, the closer to the inner circle we got. But never all the way in. Like poor Laura. The novel feels personal; I almost never recommend it because of that.
Other than Dabney and Troy’s wedding, there’s no action or plot to Delta Wedding. Much of the story unfolds in the private thoughts and casual chatter of the women in the tumultuous clan. Who they love, or don’t. What will keep the family honor, and what’s likely to bring ruin. Often, everyone talks at once, like in a play. It’s not a masterpiece—this is Welty’s first full novel, remember—and she does go on, in her lovely way:
“In the Delta the sunsets were reddest light. The sun went down lopsided and wide as a rose on a stem in the west, and the west was a milk-white edge like the foam of the sea.”
Jackson is gray and unseasonably cool for late March. My hotel, The Fairview Inn, is in the historic Belhaven district where Eudora Welty lived at 1109 Pinehurst Street for 80 years. She and her mother could be found most days on their knees in the dirt working the extensive gardens behind the English Tudor house. Their camellias, roses and cutting flowers are given cameo appearances in Welty’s novels. Characters are forever smelling lemon verbena on their bare feet, or picking bunches of goldenrod, or scolding fools who don’t know when to prune a rose bush. Dabney Fairchild’s aunts, upon hearing she’s to be married, start a cutting of the Seven Sisters rose for the bride. I’ve planned a picnic lunch in the garden but it’s wet and chilly so I loiter inside. The house and gardens have just reopened after the pandemic, but by appointment only, and I am allotted an entire hour by myself. I feel rich. I stand for a long time in Welty’s girlish bedroom, admiring her antique writing desk, her books and the garden view. Her sky-blue bathrobe still hangs on the door; her fuzzy slippers lined up just-so underneath the bed. I wish Truman Capote were with me; we could be catty about how chaste it is in here. Welty never married; never left her mother, their garden, this house.
Not that she didn’t try. She studied advertising at Columbia and fumbled to make a go of it in New York City before coming home to Jackson where she wrote and gardened, and collected life-long friends in her hometown. I used to feel sorry for her. That was back when I was a young woman first stumbling on Welty’s story “Why I live at the P.O.” and then “A Curtain of Green,” and then wanting to know all about her. Now the life she ended up living sounds like heaven on earth to me. I recognize that primal instinct to bury your roots deep against the winds that blow you this way and that. People might cut you to the ground, but you’ll come back and flourish in your home soil. So, I certainly don’t fault Welty for going back home, especially as I’m also back in the same place I grew up. I was trying to explain this once years ago to my father, who offered, “I know. We’re born with Albemarle County fever. The only cure is to return to the source of infection.”
Dabney Fairchild may throw herself away on Troy Flavin, but she won’t leave the Delta. The couple will live in a vacant house on her father’s land. As her Aunt Tempe explains it in the book, a woman who marries beneath her is far less dangerous to her family than a man who marries beneath him. “It’s the woman who coarsens the man,” Aunt Tempe says. “The man doesn’t do much to the woman, I’ve observed. It’s the woman who determines what comes.”
With that wisdom, I kiss Jackson goodbye and head north to the fertile floodplain between the Yazoo River and the great Mississippi River. You’ll know it when you get there yourself, but I’ll let Welty describe it:
“And then, as if a hand reached along the green ridge and all of a sudden pulled down with a sweep, like a scoop in the bin, the hill and every tree in the world and left cotton fields, the Delta began.”
A flat white sponge of a place. Here and there a green line snakes through all the white—those are cypress flanking a bayou. It’s just cotton fields, bayou and sky, repeating. Though Fairchilds, Mississippi is made-up, the other towns in the novel—like Greenwood, Inverness and Winona—are real. If they’re much changed since 1923 when Delta Wedding was set, I can’t say. Most of the big plantation houses are gone. What the Yankees didn’t burn, the river took. What’s left is generic new construction and billboards advertising government social services. “Breast milk is best milk,” reads one. I drive through a Delta snow flurry, except the snow is tufts of cotton that sift in through my air vents and must be swept out of my grill.
George Fairchild, the bride’s uncle, has a runaway wife, and his unhappiness threatens Dabney’s wedding. One of the house servants, Parthenia, fashions a magic “patticake” for George. “Got a little white dove blood in it, dove heart, blood of a snake—things. I just tell you enough in it so you trust dis patticake,” Parthenia says. “Mr. George got to eat his patticake all alone, go to bed by himse’f, and his love won’t have no rest till her come back to him.”
But, like in Shakespeare, the wrong person eats the cake. One of the children mischievously gives it Dabney’s groom, Troy.
Southern conjure magic is part of the culture here, perhaps nowhere as evident as in Clarksdale, the birthplace of the Mississippi Delta blues and boyhood home of playwright Tennessee Williams. Struggling musicians are known to visit crossroads here at midnight, bringing whiskey and cigars, to trade with underground spirits who will bring them fame and wealth.
I plan to stay in Clarksdale awhile and ask questions. Maybe someone’s heard of a spirit who will help a writer who’s never known what to write about. I turned in a story nearly every day for the 22 years I worked as a newspaper reporter. But those were about things that unfolded right in front of me—men being sent to prison for life, an emergency evacuation at a school, a political campaign. All I ever had to do was tell you what I saw. I wasn’t supposed to tell you what I thought about it or try to shade it any particular way.
Yes, I have questions in Clarksdale. Where is that muse who sang so sensuously to Tennessee Williams? What about the one who grabbed William Faulkner by the mustache and inspired him to create sentences so meandering you hope to live long enough to finish them? Because isn’t that why I’m really down here all by myself hoping to learn?
I’m out here purely and simply nosing around the stomping grounds of the writers who—in my book—did what they were meant to do. The ones whose passages come back as I drift to sleep, or read other stories, or try to write my own. If they could rub off on me, I’d roll around like a dog on their graves.
Another question is whether I have the nerve to wait at some deserted crossroads at midnight like the great Bluesman Robert Johnson to make a deal with Old Scratch himself. I mean, what will he do with my soul once he has it? And what do I need from him? The courage to write something true and lasting?
I’m not afraid of what I write. I’m afraid it won’t mean anything to anyone but me. I wish I could sit at the crossroads and talk it over with Tennessee Williams, who once said, “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead.”
I walk through the Episcopal rectory turned museum in Clarksdale where he and his sister were stashed with their grandparents when they were children. Their father was a terrible drunk and Tennessee Williams’ mother often sought refuge with her parents. Her father was an Episcopal minister. Much later in his life, when painkillers and alcohol ruled him, Tennessee converted to Catholicism. The Catholics would forbid anybody indulging in the Crossroads magic precisely because they believe in it themselves. I do, too, after thinking it over, and decide my soul already knows its worth.
I get back in the car and am in Oxford by nightfall.
William Cuthbert Faulkner needs no introduction from an amateur like me, so let’s get right to what is beautiful and hideous in this passage from his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, about a black farmer, Lucas Beauchamp, falsely accused of murdering a white man:
“Someday Lucas Beauchamp can shoot a white man in the back with the same impunity to lynch-rope or gasoline as a white man; in time he will vote anywhere a white man can and send his children to the same school anywhere the white man’s children go and travel anywhere the white man travels as the white man does it. But it won’t be next Tuesday. Yet people in the North believe it can be compelled even into next Monday by the simple ratification of votes of a printed paragraph; who have forgotten that although a long quarter-century ago Lucas Beauchamp’s freedom was made an article in our constitution and Lucas Beauchamp’s old master was not merely beaten to his knees but trampled for ten years on his face in the dust to make him swallow it.”
If you’re lucky, you had an imaginative teacher lead you through your first Faulkner. A tour guide and translator. I was lucky and it blew my little mind. When I had the hang of just letting his words wash over me, not panicking when I was lost, I bravely took on a few more of his works. Faulkner was in Charlottesville teaching and writing at UVA for a time; in fact, his youngest grandchild was in my class at the Belfield School. It would have been unspeakably rude to give up on his books.
In Oxford, you can usually tour Faulkner’s tall white house, Rowan Oaks, but when I arrive it hasn’t reopened since Covid. The place is deserted but there’s no barrier, so I walk up the front steps and peer in the huge windows. I’m here, Mr. Faulkner. Here I am.
I sit in an Adirondack chair in his sunny backyard and fall asleep, startling awake when the Ole Miss marching band starts warming up nearby. There’s a home baseball game this evening and the campus, just down a shady footpath from Rowan Oaks, is getting ready to rock and roll. I have a ticket to the game, bought off some sorority girls shivering in their sundresses in The Square the night before. But I was a different person then, and was carried away by the gaiety of the young people. I don’t want to sit in their ballpark anymore.
I suddenly want to be in my own house, sitting at my lopsided writing desk and gazing at the Blue Ridge, hoping for a miracle from a muse. I don’t waste another minute even though I’ve paid for an extra night at the Ole Miss Motel. I ascend out of Mississippi on the Natchez Trace and hope to get as far as Knoxville, which is halfway home from here. Because, you know what, maybe I don’t have all the time I think I do. Maybe I don’t need to create new worlds, just look real hard at mine. And maybe I should start writing and not worry about how it turns out in the end.
But first I have get back home.
Eudora and Amy
Amy Satterthwaite Pappas lived and wrote and raised two children in Fredericksburg, VA before moving back home to the Charlottesville area in 2010. She fools around with writing and painting when she’s not fighting the wild woods from taking over her Crozet property or entertaining a captive heavily-medicated audience at her father’s Memory Care facility.