John Muir On The ‘Negroes’ Of The American South

John Muir often wrote soaring prose about the beauties and majesties of nature, about how the outdoors were our ‘natural cathedrals’; he urged his fellow human beings to leave behind their sordid, grubby, weekday cares and let themselves be elevated by the sublime qualities of hill and vale and river and babbling brook. Here, on earth, he sought the transcendent, and his writings reflected that elevated aspiration and his delighted and delightful responses to the grand offerings of awe-inspiring locales like the American West. Elsewhere, in his opinions of human beings, he often showed himself to be anchored firmly in his times and place; a man ultimately, of a particular locale, at a particular point in history.

During his famed 1867 walk from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, Muir passed through an American South still recovering from the Civil War. Its population included both ‘whites’ and ‘negroes.’ Muir’s encounters with the latter are described in a language typical for its time–‘negroes’ are creatures with distinctive characteristics, a sub-species of a very particular kind.

In Kentucky,  Muir met “a great many negroes going to meeting, dressed in their Sunday best. Fat, happy looking, and contented.” There too, when trying to cross a “deep and rapid” river, he had been aided by a “negro woman” who asked him to wait while she arranged for a horse. This was arranged; “the little sable negro boy that rode him looked like a bug on his back.” Muir was soon “mounted behind little Nig. He was a queer specimen, puffy and jet as an India rubber doll and his hair was matted in sections like the wool of a merino sheep….little Afric looked as if he might float like a bladder.” Muir did think that “many of these Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” In Georgia, Muir found that the “negroes here have been well trained and are extremely polite. When they come in sight of a white man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty yards, and they walk bare-headed until he is out of sight.” Still, Muir was worried about “idle negroes..prowling about everywhere” and took considerable concern to avoid them–and their “wild eyes”– in his search for a resting place at night. He was generally less than impressed by their work ethic for “the negroes are easy-going and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.”

His impression of the negro’s essential wilderness was confirmed by an encounter with a ‘negro family’ in Florida, who he encountered in a forest:

When within three or four miles of the town I noticed a light off in the pine woods. As I was very thirsty, I thought I would venture toward it with the hope of obtaining water. In creeping cautiously and noiselessly through the grass to discover whether or not it was a camp of robber negroes, I came suddenly in full view of the best-lighted and most primitive of all the domestic establishments I have yet seen in town or grove. There was, first of all, a big, glowing log fire, illuminating the overleaning bushes and trees, bringing out leaf and spray with more than noonday distinctness, and making still darker the surrounding wood. In the center of this globe of light sat two negroes. I could see their ivory gleaming from the great lips, and their smooth cheeks flashing off light as if made of glass. Seen anywhere but in the South, the glossy pair would have been taken for twin devils, but here it was only a negro and his wife at their supper.

I ventured forward to the radiant presence of the black pair, and, after being stared at with that desperate fixedness which is said to subdue the lion, I was handed water in a gourd from somewhere out of the darkness. I was standing for a moment beside the big fire, looking at the unsurpassable simplicity of the establishment, and asking questions about the road to Gainesville, when my attention was called to a black lump of something lying in the ashes of the fire. It seemed to be made of rubber; but ere I had time for much speculation, the woman bent wooingly over the black object and said with motherly kindness, “Come, honey, eat yo’ hominy.”

At the sound of “hominy” the rubber gave strong manifestations of vitality and proved to be a burly little negro boy, rising from the earth naked as to the earth he came. Had he emerged from the black muck of a marsh, we might easily have believed that the Lord had manufactured him like Adam direct from the earth.

Surely, thought I, as I started for Gainesville, surely I am now coming to the tropics, where the inhabitants wear nothing but their own skins. This fashion is sufficiently simple, “no troublesome disguises,” as Milton calls clothing, — but it certainly is not quite in harmony with Nature. Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young; but these negroes allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.

These lines of Muir’s are only odd because Muir wrote so eloquently and voluminously about how he descended into a kind of feral existence himself when he ventured into the wild, how he slept wherever he could make a bed for himself, and so on. Clearly, in his case, his ‘wilderness’ represented a kind of movement outward, while for the ‘negro’ it was just an essential state of being.

O. Henry on the South (Mainly Nashville)

I’ve only read a couple of short stories by O. Henry but have long owned an omnibus collection of them (presented to me on my twenty-eighth birthday). I’ve finally taken a gander at it, and stumbled on his classic A Municipal ReportHenry was a Southerner transplanted to the East Coast, so I find the narrator’s voice–a supposed ‘outsider’ speaking of the South–of particular interest. This developing ‘attitude’ towards Nashville (and its people) leads to several memorable, witty descriptions. Here are a few of my favorites.

On Southern weather:

Take a London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; gas leaks 20 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick yard at sunrise, 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix.

The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle. It is not so fragrant as a moth-ball nor as thick as pea-soup; but ’tis enough – ’twill serve.

On Southern hotels, hospitality, and history (race and the Civil War too!):

I went to a hotel in a tumbril. It required strong self-suppression for me to keep from climbing to the top of it and giving an imitation of Sidney Carton. The vehicle was drawn by beasts of a bygone era and driven by something dark and emancipated.

I was sleepy and tired, so when I got to the hotel I hurriedly paid it the fifty cents it demanded (with approximate lagniappe, I assure you). I knew its habits; and I did not want to hear it prate about its old “marster” or anything that happened “befo’ de wah.”

The hotel was one of the kind described as ‘renovated.” That means $20,000 worth of new marble pillars, tiling, electric lights and brass cuspidors in the lobby, and a new L. & N. time table and a lithograph of Lookout Mountain in each one of the great rooms above. The management was without reproach, the attention full of exquisite Southern courtesy, the service as slow as the progress of a snail and as good-humored as Rip Van Winkle.

Tobacco chewing:

All my life I have heard of, admired, and witnessed the fine marksmanship of the South in its peaceful conflicts in the tobacco-chewing regions. But in my hotel a surprise awaited me. There were twelve bright, new, imposing, capacious brass cuspidors in the great lobby, tall enough to be called urns and so wide-mouthed that the crack pitcher of a lady baseball team should have been able to throw a ball into one of them at five paces distant. But, although a terrible battle had raged and was still raging, the enemy had not suffered. Bright, new, imposing, capacious, untouched, they stood. But, shades of Jefferson Brick! the tile floor – the beautiful tile floor! I could not avoid thinking of the battle of Nashville, and trying to draw, as is my foolish habit, some deductions about hereditary marksmanship. [links added]

The Southern gentleman, Major Wentworth Carswell:

I happened to be standing within five feet of a cuspidor when Major Caswell opened fire upon it. I had been observant enough to percieve that the attacking force was using Gatlings instead of squirrel rifles; so I side-stepped so promptly that the major seized the opportunity to apologize to a noncombatant. He had the blabbing lip. In four minutes he had become my friend and had dragged me to the bar.

I desire to interpolate here that I am a Southerner. But I am not one by profession or trade. I eschew the string tie, the slouch hat, the Prince Albert, the number of bales of cotton destroyed by Sherman, and plug chewing. When the orchestra plays Dixie I do not cheer….Major Caswell banged the bar with his fist, and the first gun at Fort Sumter re-echoed. When he fired the last one at Appomattox I began to hope.

Staying Together, Fighting Together, Dying Together

In his one-volume history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom (Ballantine Books, New York, 1988), James McPherson notes how the protagonists mobilized for war:

In the North as in the South, volunteer regiments retained close ties to their states. Enlisted men elected many of their officers and governors appointed the rest. Companies and even whole regiments often consisted of recruits from a single township, city or county. Companies from neighboring towns combined to form a regiment which received a numerical designation in chronological order of organization: [e.g., the 15th Massachusetts Infantry]…Ethnic affinity also formed the basis of some companies and regiments….Sometimes brothers, cousins, or fathers and sons belonged to the same company or regiment. Localities and ethnic groups retained a strong sense of ‘identity’ with ‘their’ regiments. This helped to boost morale on both the home and the fighting fronts, but it could mean sudden calamity for family or neighborhood if a regiment suffered 50 per cent or more casualties in a battle, as many did.

As I read this, I thought it sounded grimly familiar. I was correct, for in The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo & The Somme (Vintage Books, New York, 1977), the magisterial John Keegan, writing on those elements of Kitchener’s Army that were to fight at the Somme, informs us that:

Perhaps no story of the First World War is as poignant as that of the Pals….[The] the Earl of Derby…called in late August 1914 on the young men of Liverpool’s business offices to raise a battalion for the New Army, promising that he had Kitchener’s guarantee that those who ‘joined together should serve together’. The numbers for the battalion were found at the first recruiting rally, and the overflow provided two others. The clerks of the White Star shipping company formed up as one platoon, those of Cunard as another…the Pals idea at once caught hold of the imagination of communities much smaller, less self-confident, less commercially dominant than Liverpool. Accrington, the little East Lancashire cotton town, and Grimsby, the North Sea fishing port, shortly produced their Pals, Llandudno and Blaenaw Festiniog, the Welsh holiday resorts another, the London slum boroughs of Shoreditch, Islington, West Ham and Bermondsey theirs….

The promise of tragedy which loomed about these bands of uniformed innocents was further heightened by reason of their narrowly territorial recruitment; what had been a consolation for the pangs of parting from home – that they were all Pals or Chums together from the same close network of little city terraces or steep-stacked rows of miners’ cottages -threatened home with a catastrophe of heartbreak the closer they neared a real encounter with the enemy. Grave enough in the case of the 30th, with its three Liverpool or Manchester brigades, the threat bore even more heavily on the 34th, containing not only the so-called Tyneside Irish and Tyneside Scottish Brigades – 8,000 young men all domiciled in or around Newcastle-on-Tyne -but also a Pioneer battalion, the 18th Northumberland Fusiliers, raised by the Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce from the shop assistants of the city: the notion of a regiment of Kippses and Mr Pollys fine-tunes the poignancy of the Pals idea.