Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, April 1, 2011


Ghosts Along the Mississippi by Clarence John Laughlin.  (Scribner, 1948; Bonanza, 1961)

    This week's theme of Forgotten Coffee Table Books was suggested by Patti Abbott, Empress of All Books Forgotten.  After a lot of consideration (and after deciding this was not an April Fool's prank) I settled on Ghosts Along the Mississippi, a marvelous collection of photographs and text subtitled An Essay in the Poetic Interpretation of Lousiana's Plantation Architecture.

     I first came across the work of Clarence John Laughlin when one of the photographs in the book was used for the cover of August Derleth's 1962 collection Lonesome Places.  Here was a cover that epitomized the book's title:  an eerie, haunting, and lonesome place, forgotten by man and enshrouded by the mists of time.

     There are 100 full-page black and white photographs presented in the book, each accompanied by a text from the author/photographer.  Most of the photographs are of crumbling plantation homes, some are of old cemeteries, bayous, sharecropper homes.  The entire work is an essay on "grandeur and decay", a title the author gave to several of the photographs.  Here is a land swallowed by Spanish moss and endowed with a sense of mystery.  Who lived in these now-ruined homes and why have they been abandoned to the ravages of time and nature?

     Laughlin gives us some of the answers, as well as details into the lives of the people who lived on these plantations.  Here is part of a description  from a photograph of Pine Alley Plantation's narrow tree-lined road, seeming leading off endlessly to nowhere:

     "The date of the establishment of his great house, again, seems uncertain; but the oak and pine alley leading to it is said to have been planted in 1829 by slaves.  But, unlike anything in Louisiana it led a full three miles from Bayou Teche to the house!  Among other things, his set of regal carriages, including even the harness, were ornamented with gold, and must have made a spectacle indeed when the family went driving.  Each morning, too, slaves woke them with sprays of perfume, and the family learned to delight in bathing in water strewn with perfume crystals -- an unheard of refinement at that time."  The owner of this large plantation, we are told, was Charles J. Durande, who had twelve children by his first wife and twelve children by his second wife.  He was a man who did everything on a grand scale:  "But it was in 1850, on the occasion of the simultaneous wedding of two of his daughters, that Durande's imagination soared to really superb heights.  For this event he had made special preparations.  Large spiders -- brought from China, according to some accounts -- had been set free in the oak alley several days in advance.  Great webs had been spun.  And on the morning of the wedding the slaves were given bellows and gold and silver dust.  With these the webs were coated.  Beneath this utterly fantastic canopy, aerial and metallic, that billowed in the moving air, that quivered and glinted in the torch light when the sun had descended -- and over carpets spread between the trees -- the couples were led.  Lasting until nightfall, the wedding festivities included food and wine for two thousand guests."  After the Civil War, Durande lost his wealth, the house was stripped and abandoned, fell to decay, and was eventually razed.  What remains is a section of the alley, now less than a mile long, a moss-covered ghost along the Mississippi.

     And from Laughlin's introduction:  "The dark mystery of time, the luminous and living mystery of light -- so intricately and strangely interrelated with time -- the snake-brown waters of the great serpentine Mississippi -- these are the chief protagonists now on the darkening stage occupied by the last structures of the doomed plantation system  They, and they alone, determine everything we see and feel.  Lost in a curious evocative pattern of light and shadow, lost in a nameless union of light and time whose intimations can never be completely phrased in words -- we find again a past which, cryptically, is no longer wholly dead, a splendor no longer wholly unreal -- but which lives tenuously, yet undeniably, in corroded walls, in empty and discolored chambers, in shadow entities, in the labyrinths of our blood...."

     A moody book.  A fascinating book.  A beautiful book.


     For a look at other forgotten books, coffee table and otherwise, visit Patti's blog, where there is always something of interest.