The Beulah Land trilogy by Lonnie Coleman fed into the Southern plantation fixation that I developed after reading Gone with the Wind as a high school freshman. This was in the Autumn of 1969, just after Woodstock; you’d think I would have longed for saturation in the Woodstock culture of mind-bending substances, hats made from brown felt, and untrammeled unwashed bodies, but I was only thirteen and still forced to take a bath every night.
Once I realized that “plantation” referred to acres of crops, and not simply to the usual white-columned “big house,” I longed for my Brooklyn house to be surrounded by cotton fields. And though our four-unit (legal three) semi-detached Bay Ridge address did feature three columns across the front porch, it nagged me that they were not an even number, like Tara’s four or Dunleith’s eight. Still, being in the wrong environment didn’t deter me, and the Beulah Land books were my escape into a world of cotton fields and cavaliers first brought to vivid life for me by Margaret Mitchell.
If Mom and Dad had read the Coleman trilogy, they probably would have taken them away from me; I had been a choir boy after all, and choir boys didn’t get to read books like that. I had to sneak and read Jacqueline Susann’s books in the bathroom, for instance, and was even thwarted from browsing through Peyton Place when visiting a grandmother. (She had only two books in her house: Grace Metalious’s New England potboiler, and the Bible.) Set in the usual ante-bellum world of plantation owners, slaves, and the occasional Yankee miscreants, the Beulah books were full of every variety of sex you could imagine– and, at thirteen, there was still a lot of sex that I couldn’t imagine, let alone participate in. Everyone sleeps with everyone at Beulah Land, even the noble characters, and after a generation passes, a rainbow coalition of spawn passes to and fro from house to field to cabin to woods to town and then back again. Beginning in 1800 and ending in 1895, the intertwined family histories have to be charted on the books’ endpapers so that you don’t lose your mind when trying to figure out if so-and-so had a child by her second double first cousin once removed.
That’s another thing; all this byzantine family history caused me to unravel the relationships in my own huge Italian family, and my Aunt Terry used to get all white-lipped when I referred to people at funerals as my “second cousin once removed.”
I drove everyone insane with my plantation fixation. In 1970 Uncle John and Aunt Joanne motored to Florida with me in tow, a trip they are still recovering from. Interstate 95 was still incomplete, especially through the Carolinas and Georgia, and I was always on the lookout for vestiges of antebellum life as we passed through the small towns strung along U.S. Highway 301. At one point I bought a Confederate flag beach towel and tacked it to the wall back in my Brooklyn bedroom; to me it was holier than the Shroud.
This obsession reached the proverbial crescendo a few years later, in college. I decided to throw a theme party in my backyard, and invited a lot of people from school to come and drink mint juleps, sing Dixie, and admire the setting: desperate for some sort of realism, I’d bought hundreds of cotton balls from the drugstore and inserted them among the dark green leaves of the hydrangea bushes. I draped my little sister Gina in bath towels, wrapped her head in a kerchief, christened her “Prissy,” and made her serve my guests from a tray. At one point my mind must have snapped because I even played Annette Funicello records. Who knows why? Don’t ask me; by this point 1863 had blurred into 1963, probably because I was drinking too many wrongly-concocted mint juleps. But a grand time was had by all, and nice Jewish girl Robin Solomon was even crowned Queen of the South.
The next day, in the rain, Dad had to go out in the yard and pick the soggy cotton from the bushes because my grandmother was really annoyed at the mess. (She wouldn’t yell at ME, though. Ha!)
My Southern fixation actually grew, and I visited Natchez, Mississippi in 1976 so that I could wander through the plantation houses that they have on display. Everyone I knew thought I was crazy, telling me of all the horrible things that would happen to an Italian, Catholic, lifestyle-indecisive twenty year old from Brooklyn. And I was clueless. I had no idea how far it was from the Natchez airport to the Ramada Inn, for example, but in the atlas it was like a quarter of an inch and so I figured I would walk into town with my little green suitcase. Luckily, that was not to be; on the tiny plane was a Catholic sister who befriended me and then quickly decided that all the dire predictions of my family and friends would probably come true, so I was driven to the Ramada in a station wagon full of lovely, delightful nuns who were waiting for her at the airport. In fact, they made sure that I was entertained during my week in Natchez: I got a tour of their church and school, and old Sister Dorothy even got me into a family mansion for a personal visit. While at the school I was introduced to a young guy who told me how anxious he was to leave town and set out for a bigger city. “There’s not a whole lot I can do in this place in my line of business.” Well, I feverishly outlined all the reasons why he SHOULD stay in Natchez, that it was a perfect place, and there’s no place like the South, etc. etc. etc. Then I asked him what kind of work he did: “I’m a mortician.”
I would make another trip to the Deep South, in 1977, to the Black Belt of Alabama (To Kill A Mockingbird territory). That was unforgettable– my host took me to the sites featured in the book, like tiny Finchburg, named for Harper Lee’s mother’s people (and the inspiration for the name Atticus Finch). The courthouse in Monroeville, the setting for the book’s fictional Maycomb, featured a Harper Lee – Truman Capote Reading Room (Truman was the basis for Jem and Scout’s compatriot Dill Harris), and I took millions of pictures of everything– abandoned villages like Suggsville and Cahaba; lonely, splintered mansions sleeping in the middle of overgrown woods, tiny, forgotten churches… it all left such an impression on me that I decided I had to live below the Mason-Dixon line one day, and in 1978 I moved here to central Florida. Disney territory. Oranges, not cotton. A different sort of South, but the South nonetheless: there are still plenty of places around here which evoke an earlier time; you just have to know where they are and, with a book of maps and plenty of gasoline, you can easily go back in time.
Remember: you are what you read.