Ghosts of Mississippi

The Chapel supposedly haunted by the
The Chapel supposedly haunted by the “Bride of Annandale.”
And all times are one time …
All The King’s Men
    Robert Penn Warren (1946)
That’ll be the day I go
Back to Annandale.
—”My Old School”
     Steely Dan
     Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

As the club went by my head I was more surprised than anything else. I didn’t think my player was a thrower for one thing, and for another I hadn’t disagreed with the shot he’d decided to hit—the decision to hit the four iron that (debatably) turned out to be too much club, which led to the little chip from behind the green on the par five that ended up in the hole of a greenside sprinkler head. Either way, he hadn’t asked about the four iron—we hadn’t spoken for about three holes—so I was pretty sure the club wasn’t meant for me. That said, however, not being the intended object of a missile that still hits you is rather like the way that Lawrence Stith, on the 17th of May of 1859, in Mobile, Alabama, did not kill Helen Johnstone’s husband.

Lawrence Stith must have felt that some insults are just too much to bear, which is almost what Bobby Jones said about club-throwing: “Some emotions,” said the great gentleman golfer of the twentieth century “cannot be endured with a golf club in your hands.” Golf has a pretty long tradition of clubs ending up quite far from where they began: “Terrible” Tommy Bolt, a champion thrower, even had advice for would-be club-throwers. (Generally, Bolt observed, you want to toss the club in front of you so you don’t have to walk backwards, which is always tedious and potentially embarrassing. Particularly on television.) But just because there is a history doesn’t mean that it is applauded, or even accepted, by the sport.

Golf is, after all, like tennis, a “gentleman’s game.” And just as, in tennis, there are the people that Stephen Rodrick recently called “tennis ninnies”—the sort of people who, in 2009 at the French Open, objected when Serena Williams offered to make a line judge ingest a ball, and perhaps was not particular about which end would first acquire said ball. Just so, there are in golf people who object to club-throwing; very likely these two groups have a lot of overlap: they are, as Rodrick says, “Veuve-Clicqout-sipping country-club types.”

They are the sort of people used to deciding how other people ought to behave: both more or less descend from the same people who decreed the “no white after Labor Day” rule, for instance. And the point of these rules were, in part, to distinguish between insiders and outsiders; as one writer has put it, with these rules in hand, “if a woman showed up at the opera in a dress that cost more than most Americans made in a year, but it had the wrong sleeve length, other women would know not to give her the time of day.”

That doesn’t mean there ought not be a rule about club-throwing—there’s a pretty obvious motive to prevent people from randomly flinging heavy weapons about—but it’s also true that, while hypothetically nearly anyone could have arrived at that rule, historically speaking it was a certain group that did arrive at that conclusion.

It’s possible, that is, that had another group of people, with perhaps a different experience, been confronted with the possibility of club-throwing, they might have found a different way to regulate it. Maybe, for instance, along the lines that certain wealthy Southerners thought best solved their differences of opinion. As it happens, one such example of that method affected a former resident of the site of the golf course where my player found himself unable to be in the immediate vicinity of his club: the day that Lawrence Stith did not kill Helen Johnstone’s husband.

People have, after all, been asking Southerners, especially rich ones, what they shot a long time before golf ever arrived there. On the night of the seventeenth of May, 1859, for example, a number of people wanted to ask Laurence Stith what—or who—he had shot earlier that day when Stith had not made Helen Johnstone, daughter of the laird of Annandale, a widow. Admittedly, Stith had shot Henry Vick down in Mobile, Alabama, but because the wedding day was the twenty-first of May, Helen had not married before Laurence Stith made Henry dead; thus, Laurence Stith had merely killed her hopes, not her husband.

All of these people were among the aristocracy of the South. Henry’s family had founded the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Laurence Stith was related to the Washingtons of Virginia—you might have heard of George. And Helen’s father—who claimed to be related to a Scottish earl—had built the 2,000-acre plantation, Annandale, outside Jackson, Mississippi. At Helen’s request, Vick’s body was brought to the little Chapel of the Cross, on the grounds of Annandale where, according to legend, and especially on hot, moonlit Southern nights, her spirit even now haunts the churchyard as the “Bride of Annandale.”

These days though what gets shot around Annandale is birdies and bogies, not duelists: it’s the site of what’s now called the Sanderson Farms Championship, which used to be called the Southern Farm Bureau. It’s the tournament held the same week as the British Open each year—perhaps by design. After all, the PGA Tour, ever since it was threatened with a lawsuit by the Attorney General of California over its “Caucasian-only” clause, is likely not interested in overly-drawing attention to golf’s Southern connection. But the South haunts American golf: the Sanderson is held on the original grounds of the Johnstone family’s land.

That golf in America should be so connected to the South is perhaps not to be wondered at, even aside from the obvious climactic attraction of the game. Mark Twain noted the link between Scotland and the South in Life on the Mississippi: the bridge, Twain claimed, was the South’s mania for the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott prior to Fort Sumter. “It was Sir Walter,” Twain says for instance, “that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war,” and also created the desire for the flowery types of decoration that, for another example, created steamboats that looked like floating wedding cakes.

It was because of Scott, Twain argues, that created a South where locomotives could coexist with duels, which is how Twain could actually blame, perhaps more than half-seriously, the entire Civil War on Scott’s hold on the Southern imagination. “Sir Walter,” Twain wrote, “had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” That’s a large statement, to be sure—but according to a history of American dueling produced for the Public Broadcasting Systems’ program on the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel, Scott did have one undisputed connection to the South: “In the South,” the program says, “where the chivalrous novels of Walter Scott held sway, dueling [was] the preferred way to defend one’s honor.” Scott’s hold on the South is one way to explain how men were still fighting duels in the late 1850s at all.

Because that’s a curious thing, if you think about it. Take the legend of Annandale, which relates that Henry Vick’s body was carried to his final rest on the New Orleans steamboat that also conveyed the caterers for his wedding. It’s an odd detail—why should anyone add such a curlicue to what’s a pretty stark tale? But it is, perhaps, a detail that tells us something about why this story about a killing rises above the level of gossip.

Steamboats, after all, aren’t really possible among nations ruled by aristocratic codes, like the one that led to Henry Vick’s violent end. Steamboats are built, as Twain remarks, by nations that have “instituted the setting of merit above birth.” Nations, that is, who don’t think that the way things are is the way they always have to be. Being carried to the grave you end up in because you lost a duel on a steamboat, in short, is about as excellent an illustration of why the Civil War was necessary, and the antebellum South’s conception of the world as stupid, as it’s possible to get.

Yet while dueling is, fairly obviously, not the best means of settling disputes about how to treat employees (which, as best as anyone can say now, is what the Vick-Stith duel was about), maybe there’s some reason to suspect that its existence, like that of club-throwing, gets at some kind of truth of human experience. So at least thought some Southerners long after the war: those who, like William Faulkner, conceded the idiocy of slavery but yet thought that there was some alternative to organizing societies entirely around the production of steamships and railroads.

“It is strange, of course,” as the group of literary Southerners known as the Southern Agrarians put it it in their 1930 book, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, “that a majority of men anywhere could even as with one mind become enamored of industrialism: a system that has so little regard for individual wants.”

That is, to be sure, a conundrum that no one in America has ever been able to thwart successfully; at least not for long. Even that box canyon where many of the Agrarians—like John Crowe Ransom or Allen Tate—eventually holed up in—academia—has, in the mind of at least one denizen of those precincts, become simply another extension of it. “The economic function elite colleges perform,” says Professor Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago, “is to separate the few winners from the great mass of losers in American life.” That function has so far penetrated the mission of academia, in fact, that even mechanisms that might appear distant from that mission, like affirmative action, are instead merely extensions of it.

Thus, Michaels says, even if new proposals were followed that would base affirmative action on economic grounds rather than on racial (or any other) grounds, the debate, such as it is, is just about “what color the elite will be and whether or not a few more of them will come from working class families.” In other words, “the function of both racial and economic affirmative action is just to make sure that everyone believes those winners are chosen fairly.” And as long as it’s “fair,” it doesn’t particularly matter just how many people get whacked out of being part of the elite.

Still, perhaps it is as well to remember that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. In the jargon of psycho-analysis, the repressed always returns; but an old Arab tale perhaps illustrates the point more concretely. In the anecdote, a servant sees Death in the Bagdad market. He knows Death is coming for him because of the surprise on Death’s face upon seeing him, so the servant asks his master for a horse to flee to Samarra. Whereupon the master also sees Death in the market, and asks him about the servant’s flight. “Oh,” says Death, “I was surprised to see him here, because my appointment is tomorrow—in Samarra.”

Laurence Stith joined the Confederate Army after the war began. He was killed in service to that criminal enterprise in the summer of 1863.

In Vicksburg, Mississippi.

 

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