Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 5 • Spring 2003 • Featured Lodestar Writer • Fiction

Mississippi Tales

an excerpt from Fanny: A Fiction

Edmund White

We boarded a great steamboat, the Belvidere, which would be our home for the next week. There was a Babel of languages on the docks around us -- "une picayune!" "Grosse teufel!" "Here, porter, here!," "Claro, signor!" -- as we were jostled by a crowd that seemed as exhilarated as we were.

There was a rank of steamboats in New Orleans nearly two miles long, all of them belching black smoke into the air and each flying its own flag at the jack staff. Freight barrels were rolled down the levee and one had to step nimbly to avoid the teams of cursing mates, the wheelbarrows and carriages streaming past, the last-minute passengers carrying reticules, carpet-bags and screaming, frightened babies.

Looming up beside us were the steamboats themselves, the size of stately homes, each two or three stories tall, each darkening the sky with the soot rising out of the twin smokestacks fore and with the white clouds of steam released through a third, shorter escape stack a bit aft. Black navvies, stripped to the waist, were lowering the cargo into the hatches; even though the weather was mild they were perspiring profusely and crooning, "De las' sack! De las' sack!" It was almost a song, certainly chanted in chorus. I thought they were lovely, though of course they were savages. And the white Americans would have been horrified by my admiration, since for them the blacks weren't even human.

Up ahead the water was thick with a fleet of flatboats extending as far as I could see, as if a road were paved with cobblestones, but all bubbling and undulating.

The water-level deck and the one above were surrounded on every side with wide galleries (or "guards" as the Americans called them) graced every four feet with white wood colonettes except midway back where a giant paddlewheel, two stories tall, was trapped inside a white wood shed. I could hear it churning in its house like a rabid dog straining on its leash.

We were led past a charming room, neatly furnished with well-made cots under each window, the beds outfitted in flowing clothes tucked here and there with shipshape ingenuity, the windows covered with freshly painted green shutters and tidily framed in wood -- but, alas, that was the men's dormitory, by far the finest on board but in this strange country denied the ladies, though we were permitted to enter it for our meals. We found the room destined for the ladies dismal enough, since its only windows were below the stern gallery. At least we enjoyed one blessing there -- we didn't have to worry about trailing our skirts through tobacco spit, as we did everywhere else in American public rooms. We soon found chairs on the galleries where we looked out on the banks (or "coasts," as the people of Louisiana insist on calling them, as if the Mississippi were an ocean). For a hundred miles north of New Orleans the plantations are protected from flooding by raised earthworks, the famous levee, and behind them are the graceful manor houses at the end of allées of trees and beside or behind them the sugar refineries and slave quarters and, farther still, the fields. The band of cultivation and habitation is about two miles wide on either side of the river. Behind it looms the primeval forest, as somber as the promise of a highly moral afterlife. In the clear December evening light we could see children, black and white, playing together on spacious green lawns, every ribbon distinct in the fogless air, and we watched flatboats, burdened with stacked loaves of white sugar, drifting down to New Orleans. The boats heading upstream clung close to the shore, whereas those going down moved out to the center. Every once in a while our smokestacks streaked the darkening sky with showers of red sparks. We could hear the paddlewheel lashing the river.

There was a talkative man seated next to me, at least he became talkative when he saw me slapping at mosquitos, which were swarming in lethal clouds around us. "Pardon me, ma'am," he said in a big, unvarnished voice, as inoffensive as it proved to be inexhaustible, "but did you know we have some forty-two varieties of mosquito? We have the spring mosquito, a little feller, and then the grayback, that's the classic one, then you have your specklebacks, relatively inoffensive" -- he laughed weirdly at that relatively -- "and the gallisnippers, most noxious, and worst of all, the black skeeters... And if you ask me they spread the dengue and the yaller fever and paludial fever, better known as malaria. Why, when a lady told me she was planning to settle in Memphis I told her, yassir I did, I told her she should take along enough plank to make coffins for the whole family." He laughed at his grim expression and I hugged myself, either from the ghastly image he summoned up or from the cold suddenly exhaled by the dark water.

"There don't seem to be as many lights now," I said, awed by the melancholy grays flowing past though I was still unpoetically slapping at various parts of my person.

"No, ma'am, you're right," he said, though an American will always agree initially no matter how much he'll eventually object. "You can go two miles or more along the Father of all Waters (that's what we call this river) without seeing a single human habitation, though someday -- and soon! -- it will be as densely settled here as the Thames River" (that's what they call the River Thames).

"Doubtlessly," I said dubiously. "And who are all those men down there?" I nodded towards a group of men in work clothes, many of them barefoot, sprawling on the foredeck, talking loudly and laughing, passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth.

"Oh," he said. "They're the real men, the River Men. They pole their broadhorns, what you call flatboats, loaded with goods down the Mississippi, discharge them and break them up for firewood and then hop on a steamboat going up to St. Louis and sleep on the deck and brawl and drink away or gamble away whatever money they have left after they've paid their five dollars for passage up to Louisville."


"Yes, ma'am, not the twenty-five you're paying for a bed and sheets and shelter from the rain, though they have to work for the difference. You'll see -- the boat will pull into shore and be loaded up with considerable of firewood . The River Men will scurry back and forth so fast we'll be reprovisioned in five minutes flat. That happens two or three times a day."

In England, of course, I'd never have talked to a man without being introduced, and even then never to a stranger except in the presence of one of my servants, but with my usual powers of mimicry I'd already assimilated American manners. I was decidedly enjoying this calm male voice stroking the back of the night, and I only hoped I wasn't sending him a misleading signal. [My daughter-in-law, reading over my shoulder, says I must rewrite this so that it will sound as if we had been properly introduced. She's right, of course.] This gentleman, whom Miss Wright had presented to me as one of her very particular friends [there! that should do it] was perhaps about forty, long and skinny, with shaggy hair and a shaggier brown beard flecked with white. Of course he was spitting, but into a cuspidor on the side away from me, which already counted as an improvement. He had the most original way of talking and I took notes that very evening, for already I must have been planning on writing about my trip.

He told me that the River Men down below were half-horse and half-alligator and a little touched with the snapping turtle. "Why," he told me, "a good River Man can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio in one stride, ride upon a streak of lightning and slip without a scratch down a honey locust. He can whip his weight in wild cats -- and if any gentleman pleases, for a ten- dollar bill he may throw in a panther or hug a bear too close for comfort, and eat any man opposed to Jackson."

He told me the River Women are equally wild, that they gathered in the woods like Bacchantes and danced barefoot all night, shouting and stomping. "You may think they don't go their death on a jig, but they do, for I have frequently sneaked in there the next morning and scooped up my two hands full of toenails."

I asked him if he was married and would I have the pleasure of meeting his wife. He said, "I loved a woman, and it was the worst cast of hard love this world has ever known. Hard love. When I first saw this pretty little gal I got in a considerable of a narl. I just stared and stared at her -- I was like a nighthawk swooping down on a June bug. When she would speak my heart would flutter and when I'd try to reply my heart would choke me like a cold potato. I imagined she was in love, too, but one day I discovered she had a fiance -- I saw my cake was dough. Not that my disappointment cooled off my love. I had hardly safety pipes enough; my love was so hot as mighty nigh to burst my boilers." (He pronounced it "berlers.")

"Did you woo her with sweet speeches?" I asked skeptically, wondering how one could make love in such a rough dialect.

He laughed ruefully. "Now I talk all the time but then I was a quiet boy; I thought I didn't have much to say and should hide my ignorance. After all, I reckoned a short horse is soon curried. Love made me monstrous solemn."

"And did you ingratiate yourself to her parents?"

He let out a whoop of laughter and said, "Well, what I wanted to do was kick her mother into next week. That's what I wanted to do. Her mother disliked me something awful, I don't know why. Everytime she spoke to me it was hot as fresh mustard on a sore shin. Like most women, she had entirely too much tongue. I'd try to mollify her, but ever time I gits near her, her Irish was too high to do anything with her. She thought her and her kin were too good for me, which was nothing but a piece of pride. I wooed her, though, God knows, on the principle that you must salt the cow to catch the calf. I'd go over there all washed and combed, wearing my best bib and tucker. The funny thing is I knew the daughter liked me more than her fiance -- why, ma'am, she preferred me all holler. But that old mother of hers forced her into the other man's arms."

"And that was the one great love of your life?" I asked wistfully. The River Men down below were now clapping their hands and dancing a square dance, all laughing and falling down. There was no light and the December cold was penetrating up off the water (slap, slap, slap, the paddle wheel recounted, adding its rapid rhythm to the River Men's clapping). The sky would light up with a sudden rain of brilliant red and gold sparks flying up out of the twin smokestacks (they looked dangerous to me).

"The one great and only love," he said. "Nigh on twenty long years ago. I saw that in making me the good Lord forgot to make my mate. I was born odd, and would always remain so, and nobody would ever have me."

And now, as if the tenor had just finished his great lovelorn aria and the chorus of montagnards rushed in, gaily prancing, the River Men began to dance so hard and turn so wildly I feared one would fall in. They were moving most curiously, and the master of ceremonies was calling out, "We are on our way to Baltimore," which was the name of the dance, I suppose, for we were heading to Memphis. When the men became the most agitated he instructed them, "Now, weed corn, kiver taters, an' double shuffle." I transcribed all as if I was watching and listening to the Hindoo, so little did I comprehend. A wizened old black man was playing the banjo. I'd been told he was a free man, though the other blacks on board were slaves, even if they weren't in chains. Some of them, it seems, had been hired out to the ship captain by their masters (who received all their wages, of course).

My companion's tale made me so sad. I thought, America is an astounding country if people can become so intimate so quickly without even knowing each other's names. He stood and said, "Well, ma'am, I hope you like our beautiful country, which is the greatest one on earth. It's been mighty agreeable jawing with you. I'm off to work. I hope you don't think I was putting on poetical airs. I don't want to be like the foolish jackdaw who borrows a tail to play the peacock."

I started to reassure him as to how touched I'd been by his story, but he'd glided away on wings of song, becoming one with the night.

Much later, as I was about to retire to the ladies' dormitory, I saw through an open door my elusive companion playing cards with three men in silk waistcoats. The others had gold chains stretched across their prosperous forms, but my friend was in nothing but his buckskins. His hat was pushed to the back of his head. He had a big pile of money in front of him. The next morning I was told he'd cleaned everyone out and had slipped to shore during a refuelling stop; apparently he got away just in time, since someone had identified him as a notorious gambling man who fooled the unsuspecting with his airs of back-country naivete.

As we sailed up "the American Nile," as someone called it, a metal band of anxious melancholy was tightening around my heart every day. I kept wondering how Nashoba, constructed as it was beside a tributary of the vast river -- how Nashoba could be the delicious little paradise, the calm retreat, that Fanny Wright had advertised to us, when every other habitation along the way seemed so desolate. There were few houses, maybe only one or two every three miles or so, and many of them were just cabins open at the sides -- "dog-trot cabins," as someone said. And the habitants, who exchanged their firewood or game for our bread and money, all looked sickly and yellow from fever.

I became the sort of foreign traveller the Americans like most: a listener. Everyone on the ship, it seemed, eventually had his or her turn of sitting next to me and talking. They registered I was English and therefore in need of instruction about the richest, most progressive and beautiful land on earth. By the time I was to leave America two years later I was ready to agree if wealth meant millions of acres of wasted timber, filthy huts and impertinent children, if progress meant an absence of all deference and if beauty was nothing but such natural monstrosities as the Niagara Cataract and the Mighty Mississippi.

As I listened to all these fellow passengers (I felt like a priest hearing confession, never required to say anything beyond a general absolution) I learned a hundred little things. One man told me the Mississippi is the "crookedest" river in the world after the Jordan. He also opined that it was a "proven fact" that ill luck would attend any boat whose name began with the letter M and that the Midas, the Mayflower and the Magnolia had all duly sunk.

An old woman who mumbled her sentences through toothless gums told me she had "knocked about" Kentucky and that she lived on a hill from which she could see eighty "bee trees," so great was the local quantity of honey. Her old man said he'd "walked jawbone from Tennessee," whatever that means, and that he was so "backward" that the first time he'd ever seen a carpet he thought it was the "folks'" best bed quilt. An English peasant would have been ashamed of his ignorance, but this man laughed and invited me to share his merriment. His mother, he said, was from the eastern part of Mississippi, a region called "the Shakes" ever since the 1812 earthquake.

The old couple started exchanging stories between them about all the corrupt and lazy circuit judges they'd known, as if we had no judicial incompetents of our own back in England and I'd be astonished by these tall tales of local lapses. He told a story about a judge in Tennessee who kept slipping off the bench and ducking out back to eat watermelon, leaving the court to get on as best it could without him. The lady, mumbling in her faint, drooling way, slapped her thigh when she remembered how in a disputed farm sale the cocky East Coast judge had ruled that the new buyer had no right to the feed corn in the mangers because it was personal property but could justifiably claim the manure in the stable -- at which the plaintiff, a sly old woodsman, asked, "Well, can you tell us, your honor, how can a mule eat personal property and discharge real estate?"

She laughed and shook all over and revealed her terrifying gums and he kept up a regular drumbeat of thigh slapping. "That right funny, don't you think, Missy?" she asked. She kept coming back to the chute of her story over and over again, repeating it like a highly spiced, indigestible meal. "Personal property," she said and laughed mildly. "Real estate," she whispered and sighed.

I found her to be a treasure of local idiom. She talked about the old days and the Indians -- their ghastly killing sorties, their halfbreed offspring called "White Indians," their expressionless faces ("like graven images," she said) when they were wounded or ailing, the foul-smelling blend of tobacco and sumac they smoked (called "killikinick"), her first glimpse, so memorable, some thirty years earlier, of the Chickasaws, a "very wealthy" tribe. "I never will forget those old warriors wearing their chintz head rags and heavy shiny silver bracelets with their short chintz tops above lustrous shiny buckskin leggings. And the women! Those old women, all tan as good shoes, proud of a big gold tooth in the middle, their pride in the gold their only reason for smiling, don't you just know, wearing their long tops and solid silver armlets, and their big ol' broad scalping knives worked into intricate wampum belts -- those knives gave me some real cold chicken flesh, I'll tell you, Missy." Her way of saying "lustrous shiny" was typical of backwoods speech, for the "Kaintucks," the old people of Kentucky, double their nouns in the Elizabethan way and refer to "sulfur matches," "bacon meat" and "eatin' vittles."

The next day -- or was it two days later? (time blended together as the dark, gloomy woods floated past and as dead logs slid under our hull, logs called "sawyers" if they were nearly uprooted, "snags" if they were still firmly anchored) -- we longed to sleep even longer every night in order to reduce the boredom of staring at those trees. Now that we were farther north there were no more palmettoes or crocodiles to amuse us and only the odd parrot to sew a stitch of red or green through the morose tapestry. Often the forests were on fire and the air became thick with smoke. Birds hidden in the straggly branches tutted, for the dying foliage seemed to prove Miss Wright's dim view of competition; since no trees had been trimmed back they all had o'erreached themselves in sickly excess. As I was saying, the next day I was tackled by a tall, skinny, ageless man wearing pince-nez ("nose-pinching pince-nez spectacle glasses" my Kaintucks might have said). He was a reserved man who took his time clearing his throat before he assailed me. He said that he was a scientist, that his uncle by the same name had owned two million acres of Ohio at one point and had founded Cincinnati but had lost everything by the time he died, that he, the nephew, had travelled extensively in pursuit of his research.... And before long this gentleman, John Cleves Symmes, had launched into an explanation of his theory of "concentric spheres." "Yes, madam," he said, in a loud voice as if he were addressing a whole Atheneum, "the earth, as is well known, is hollow and (what is generally conceded) habitable within. There are those who objected in the past that these inner, contained spheres were insufficiently aerated and did not possess enough circulating oxygen to nourish living creatures, but now we've learned that there is an opening in the ice and ground near the North Pole which permits the moon, when it is in the proper position, to force air into our planet and suck it out -- a giant bellows if you will permit me the vivid but inexact metaphor. The hot air, expelled from the earth, as we've recently learned, accounts for the Eskimo's dark complexion."

Hot air indeed. Every day Mr. Symmes visited me on the deck. He talked and talked, asked me questions and only stole glances at me very occasionally. When he wasn't talking his lips were moving and his Adam's apple bobbing in subvocal ecstasy. He completely shocked me one evening when, smelling of bourbon, he sat down, looked out over the eternal river and announced, "I feel a great pleasure in seeing you this evening, more than at any other time, I don't know why. Perhaps I haven't shown you enough friendship until now, but if you so desire we can become a pair of friends. You'll see that I can provide excellent companionship. When you're in Cincinnati you must come to see me every day without fail and without ceremony. That would please me; I find you charming."

He then subsided and moved on to a silent, smiling disquisition addressed to a new, equally imaginary interlocutor. I could scarcely believe what I'd just heard. He had addressed me as if I were a man his age rather than a lady. Though he'd proposed friendship I doubted whether he knew my name. And I certainly had no intentions of visiting Cincinnati, though time proved me to be wonderfully fallible. This sudden, insane quest for intimacy, bursting through the dullest indifference, is typically American, as if the loneliness of the United States can be overcome only in a paroxysm of friendliness before lapsing back into cold unconsciousness.

I met a few genuine peasants except we're not allowed to use that word in America. They have such a curious way of talking that I transcribed their speech directly, which made them feel sulky and flattered, like a cat who both enjoys and suspects a stroke behind the ears, both purrs and bites. One such peasant girl, from Ohio, had dreadful freckles and enormous teeth and a vulgar way of spreading her legs under her full skirts and leaning her elbows on them, so that she was sometimes doubled over.

We discussed men. When I asked her if she had any sweethearts she replied, "Well, now, I can't exactly say: I bees a sorter courted, and a sorter not; reckon more a sorter yes than a sorter no."

When I said I found something imposing but eerie about the banks of the Mississippi she snapped, "That's catamount to a criticism."

"Do you mean tantamount?" I asked patiently.

"I am not so ignorant not to be aware that catamount and tantamount are anonymous."

I let the subject drop, but with aggressive unpleasantness she said after a long silence, "I suspicion you're looking down on us. You may think America a minor country, but I opinion quite the contrary and I've heard other foreigners praise it considerable. I reckon that's just the way you calculate."

"I reckon you're right," I conceded, almost bursting with derision, so eager was I to repeat this fantastic conversation to Henry and the girls before I forgot it.

The amazing thing is that a poet attacked me soon after the publication of my Domestic Manners of the Americans and my novel, Refugee in America, for not noticing that the English spoken in America was the purest that exists. He wrote:

While 'tis well known, of numerous sorts, the mixture
Has made the purest English there a fixture;
Each dialect the other has corrected,
And thus a perfect model is collected.
The lowest cockney-slang she has imputed
To one of New York's magistrates! (well-suited
To her weak-bred and mode-empoisoned mind);
Her gross perversions (tending but to blind
Great Britain to Columbia's real worth)
May serve the proud and ignorant for mirth,
But sadly prove her twofold publication
Disgraceful to her age, her sex and nation!

Although I feel properly chastened, I thought it a pity that his indignation had not improved his prosody. Of course he was a Whig. All my enemies were Whigs. They thought I'd published my book to defeat the Reform Bill. And indeed the Tories did bray it about that my book showed that if the Reform Bill passed and the franchise to vote were extended we'd all behave like Mrs. Trollope's Americans.

After so much travel, across the Atlantic from Gravesend to New Orleans and now up the Mississippi, my children were sad and silent. They no longer complained. Like orphans they'd stopped grieving openly and had become dry-eyed and remote. They preoccupied my thoughts but I had no idea what to do for them. I, too, was in a new land where even peasants snapped at one if one weren't lavish enough with praise for everything American, a country (as I observed on the boat) where women flirted but leadenly, with no grace nor vivacity. They were all too visibly running after husbands -- they were coquettes à froid -- and they didn't even bother to pretend that they hoped to encounter in a man something more than just another agreeable fellow much like themselves. They had no winning ways and treated men and women in the same bluff fashion, unsmiling, their shrill tones unmodulated. After two years of marriage the women are faded, lined and used up, even if they're barely twenty. Of course a climate that's arctic in the winter and tropical in the summer dries out a woman's skin and flays it alternately with chilblains and insect bites. (Is this only more of my mode-empoisoned mind speaking?) I wondered if my little Emily's roses would soon fade; after all, they'd been nourished by London fogs.

Years later, in 1840 I'd hazard, I saw a panorama of the Mississippi exposed in London, a great scroll meticulously painted by a Mr. J.R. Smith. It was four miles in length and took two hours and a half to revolve past the spectator. It recorded every town, every bend in the river, every last habitation and was much studied by future immigrants. It pictured slaves at work in the sugar fields, it depicted a burning steamboat, the Ben Sherrod, it gave us orange plantations, it rendered in minutest detail every house and warehouse in New Orleans, Vicksburg and Memphis. But what it didn't capture was the tedium of the passage, the opacity of the brown water, the listless plight of the people living in huts on stilts and piles, nor did it record my growing fear. As the reader knows by now, I was a doughty old thing, ever gay and gallant, full of amusing ways and spiritual resources, but I was also a mother in a strange land surrounded by her babies, who were solemn as owls by now as they watched another ten thousand trees brush past, another five hundred miles annihilate themselves in this American Ganges -- and we were being pulled towards a destination, Memphis, where yellow fever had reportedly killed fifty-three people the year before and buffalo gnats (whatever they are) had destroyed all the cattle, where dengue of "breakbone" fever plagued the children and homesickness sapped the marrow out of the adults. All my peasant girls and toothless backwoods grandmothers, my lunatic scientists and dashing gamblers -- they all praised their country and took umbrage at the slightest reservation, but I was more and more convinced that they feared America as much as I did with its bears and alligators and scalping knives and intemperate climate and mortal fevers and its untracked wastes, its emptiness. Their only recourse in the face of so much sadness and emptiness was a certain thin-skinned irritability.

Edmund White

Edmund White was born in Cincinnati in 1940. His fiction includes the autobiographical tetralogy A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, and The Married Man, as well as Caracole, Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, and Skinned Alive, a collection of short stories. He is also the author of a highly acclaimed biography of French writer, Jean Genet, a short study of Proust, States of Desire, and Our Paris. He lives in New York City and teaches at Princeton University.

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