Chicago Herald Examiner
A Sunday Edition
Culture of Natchez
Old Mansions Invaded by Tourists
By Thomas Craven
The spirit of the old South, the languorous, magnetic South, lingers on in the little city of Natchez. Situated on the Mississippi, with wooded hills and a magnificent view of the river and the low green fields of Louisiana, Natchez is waging its last fight against the irresistible forces of the changing world. As a commercial center, the town is a tomb, a plaintive echo of past opulence, as the sacred citadel of culture with its aristocratic embellishments. It is a landmark in the history of American manners. Here uncontaminated by the encroachments of modern life, you will find mansions, gardens and great estates and the ancestral pride which is the outstanding glory of the ancient regime.
Natchez is famous for its gardens, and that fame is abundantly justified on every hand, but the old houses, with two or three exceptions, are architectural messes. The houses erected from the fruits of slave labor and in the old days staffed with a retinue of black servants are enormous structures with endless balconies or galleries ornamented profusely with grilled ironwork.
You will see in these time-eaten mansions, some of the finest extant specimens of English silver, old chairs and tables of excellent design and incomparable craftsmanship, and occasionally, family portraits painted by real artists such as Audubon and Gilbert Stuart.
The peculiar appeal of Natchez is not based on the intrinsic excellence of its showplaces, nor can it be attributed to any superiority in matters of taste and artistic discrimination. It arises from the legendary appeal of the Old South; and that lure, critically examined, is rooted in snobbery and fantastic notions of superior breeding. Snobbery, of course, is not the exclusive possession of the South. We find it permeating the cultural aspirations of Americans of every locality driving our heightened artists into complete subservience to European standards. But as concerns the actual traditions and deposits of slave-holding lords, the South is still esteemed as the cream of American culture.
For this reason, Natchez attracts to its hallowed atmosphere an annual pilgrimage of culture seekers. Conscious of its superiority and literally bankrupt, the town, in plain language, has been forced to sell its most cherished possession, its culture, to outsiders with money to spend. Every spring a week is set aside for the exploitation of inherited treasures and family pride. The far-famed old mansions are thrown open to the public – admission twenty-five cents: visitors are fed and quartered at reasonable rates in houses which, some years ago, could not be penetrated for love or money: the skeleton in every is exhibited for a small consideration; and there are other sources of revenue – costume balls, parades, festivals, and garden parties.
Last spring the PILGRIMAGE netted the town about $40,000 and enabled the mortified aristocrats to carry on another twelve months.
After the curiosity seekers have departed, laden with cultural baggage and sometimes with antique chairs and soup tureens, the aristocrats close the doors of their august abodes and meditate on the glories of a vanished society -- the life described by Stark Young in his fable. SO ROSE THE DEAD.
I couldn't ascertain the date of the publication, which I estimate at sometime in the 1930s. "So Red the Rose" was published in 1935, so it had to be after that.
The author, Thomas Craven was an art critic with a decidedly jaundiced eye. You can read about him here.
Enjoy! It's kind of mean, which is probably why I find it so delicious.
*Photo "Saragossa" by Lee England, Echoes Photographic Gallery