Southern Opulence

May 23rd, 2008 § 0 comments

The moment people arrive in town they demand to see “the south.” Granted Richmond provokes this sort of the response, it clings to its history with a vigor that California lacks. Monument Ave. is a lovely tree lined street boasting statues of southern heroes, in stark contrast to the rest of America. I have gotten so oddly used to seeing Stonewall and Lee that it seemed strange that M, at a distance, guessed that the statue in front the of the capital building was Grant. Grant, I thought, now what is he doing there? But it is hard, I have found, to really get a sense of “the south”, usually referring to pre-civil war northern notions of what the south was, because if those notions even existed at all they are cloudy and hidden now. Susan, who has lived in Richmond for over twenty years, often says the people here cherish their origins and family tree, something I have never seen proof of. Even going to Monticello is tempered by the man Jefferson was, an inventor, an intellectual, and despite his contradictions and flaws, he was pretty interesting if only for the “stuff” he collected in his house.

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Exploring the James River Plantations with M and D, however, I found living proof of what Susan has been saying. The plantations run along a highway that snakes along the James, all of the houses have breathtaking views of the river, an egregious amount of land, and somehow they all survived the civil war, most of the stories told talk about the generosity of the family (women) who took care of union soldiers and thus saved their house. Apparently they did hide their valuables in wells and other cinematic places. The houses, unlike Monticello, reek of old money that has been passed down from generation to generation. In one of the houses we toured, the entire tour was devoted to telling us about every generation of the family who had lived in the house, most of the wives, stereotypically, came from the plantation “next door”. It was really more about the family than about the house or its history, about proving something of character and class by showing how long they had stayed “pure”. I was surprised that I never felt that way about Monticello, and began questioning why. For all my critique of Jefferson, I get the sense from what he left behind, that he was someone I would have liked a whole lot more. Of all our romantic notions of the south, there was nothing romantic about these places, I think the three of us felt universally excluded.

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In one of the last houses we attempted to view, M and D, walking up the path in front of me, were shouted at by a nasty tempered lady who informed us we could not enter the house. We asked if we could see the garden and walked around back to buy tickets. The tickets, like all the houses, were unreasonably expensive (dictating who can afford to tour these plantations) and when D found out the boat replica had been destroyed he voted against paying the 10 dollars. Walking away he joked, that lady thought she saw herself a darky coming up the steps….we all laughed and M commented, and a Yankee! It was funny, but somehow I got the sense that it was true.

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(Scarlett O’Hara’s 350-year-old oak.)

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