A Letter from America XXXVI: A Visit to Natchez (August/Sept.)

From the Rare Book Review

A few months ago I found myself (terribly absent-minded these days, lose anything I put down) in Natchez, Mississippi. This is a state of our union better known for blues than books, since it steadily comes in as 50th in rankings of literacy or just about anything else one cares to measure. Indeed the citizens of Arkansas across the river, perennially 49th, profess to thank God for Mississippi, as it keeps them out of last place. Indeed times are tough in much of the state – the closure of several factories has left Natchez with a 30% unemployment rate and not much to bank on except its past.

Indeed, the past is the one business that is booming in Natchez. The town is positively loaded up with stately mansions that evoke moonlight and magnolias and the brief florescence of the Cotton Kingdom before the damn Yankees came down and ruined it all. These days, the owners of those mansions, under the auspices of two sparring garden clubs, bring revenue into the town by dressing up in antebellum garb and opening their homes to tours eight weeks out of the year. The clubs started as one in the 1930s when the tours began (the economy was depressed back then too because…it was the Depression), and then split over some procedural dispute, provoking the War of the Hoops, named for the skirt bustles. Nowadays there is an armed peace between the clubs, and a central ticket agency will get you on a tour into many of the homes.

The visitor soon discovers some surprising things. First, Natchez is a very old town by middle-American standards, and houses survive from the Spanish era in the 1770s. Second, most of the big mansions were built by northerners, who had major investments in the slave South. The town escaped destruction by Gen. Grant in the Civil War because of its well-known northern sympathies. Nowadays the descendants who own the mansions are more Southern than the Southerners, and nobody seems to see any irony in the great-grandchildren of pro-Union builders dressing up in Confederate uniforms for the annual garden club ball. Thirdly, for the book person, Natchez was an extraordinary center of printing in the beginning of the 19th century. Most of the imprints are very rare these days, the bulk of the editions having been consumed by bugs the size of mice which frequent these parts.

Printing started in Natchez in 1799. The first printer, Andrew Marschalk, was an American army officer who brought a small English printing press with him to Mississippi Territory in 1798. It was first situated at Walnut Hills (present-day Vicksburg), where the Army had established a fort while settling the issue of who owned Natchez with the Spanish colonial government. Marschalk later recalled that he printed one piece, a broadside ballad entitled “The Galley Slave” of which no copy now exists. Shortly thereafter the Americans took over Natchez and Marschalk moved there. His first imprint was an attack, by a planter named John Henderson, on Paine’s Age of Reason. This too is a bibliographical puzzle, because the pamphlet was known to exist (although without a titlepage) and a photocopy supplied to the Library of Congress in 1934, according to McMurtrie. The original has not surfaced since – it may be sitting in a pile of imperfects somewhere. The first Marschalk imprint to survive is the 1799 Laws of Mississippi, printed half in Natchez and half back at Walnut Hills; still in the Army, he was reassigned to that post, and dragged his press back with him to finish the job. Only four copies are located of this fairly substantial, 209-page book. Besides those, I owned a copy once, almost thirty years ago, and cannot remember who I sold it to. Please write in and I will buy it back.

My favorite of the Natchez ghosts is a supposed work by Philip Nolan – the “Man Without a Country” of E.E. Hale’s novel – who perhaps wrote a description of his trip to Texas and published it in Natchez in 1799.  The first reference to this book appeared in a U.S. Geological Survey report in 1887, and was repeated by C.W. Raines in his 1899 bibliography of Texas, where it was confidently described as “18mo.” Texas collectors have tormented themselves with thoughts of this book ever since, and Thomas Streeter in his Texas bibliography wistfully remarks that “this would be one of the great Texas books.” It, too, could be lurking out there.

So it’s back to the house tour circuit. “Of course I think your garden club’s the best one, ma’am. Do you have any old books stuck away in the attic?"

                                                                                                           – William S. Reese