It’s the South, with a capital S, and there is no denying that it is a land all its own, unlike any other region in America. Steeped in history and washed in blood, perhaps also more so than any other, it’s a land where the feeling of history is palpable. It’s in the air, thick like the humidity that clings to you like a physical force.
It’s a mindset as much as anything, a conscious recognition of what has come before. For many, who can trace their family back through the generations for hundreds of years, history has personal meaning. Events didn’t just happen in a vacuum, as it so often seems in the history book recounting, but happened to people – people in your bloodline who you can find your way back to.
Growing up in New England, I never had this. I have no deep roots, and even in New York, at the old family homestead, my family has only been there since the 1900s. They came over by boat, but by then the boats were steel and steam, and the trip was a far cry from the hardships of the age of sail, when an Atlantic crossing could take weeks and survival was uncertain at best.
It wasn’t until I started visiting sites in the south – or at least south of me – that I started to understand that there was more to history. There was mystery, a sense of the cosmic and a sense of belonging, of tragedy and victory. It’s feeling that you can step inside of.
They understand this in the South.
And in Savannah, more than any other place I’ve visited, this is most apparent. In a modern city the streets are still old, cobblestones are still common, and traffic must divert itself around the many parks. The architecture spans the city’s life, hotels from the 2010s sitting next door to restaurants built in the 1800s. They coexist without necessarily clashing.
The old Cotton Exchange may have become boutique shops and trendy eateries, but it still lines the riverfront the way it has for over a century. It looks the part, and when you walk down the old streets at twilight you never feel quite sure if you’ll encounter tourists or old-time Southern gentry.
I visited Bonaventure Cemetery one afternoon, on the southeastern side of the city. And while I’ve visited a number of cemeteries, including some that are quite old, I had never been inside one like this. This was a cemetery straight out of literature, out of the imagination of someone who knew what a cemetery should look like.
New plots mingled with the old, but the overall effect was of ancient tombs cast in shadow below gnarled live oaks heavy with Spanish moss and shade. It was creepy – not in the way of a horror flick, but in the sense that there are stories there so much older than anything I could imagine. So much history lay interred in that ground, so many secrets and so many lives.
Bonaventure – and Savannah – are haunted. Haunted with a history that’s still present, that hasn’t been and cannot be laid to rest. It’s in the blood of the city and its populous. And even as a visitor you cannot help but be swept up in it. And envious.
It must be fulfilling, to live in a place surrounded by ghosts, where history doesn’t know it’s past. To live in a place where your fathers and forefathers and their forefathers have lived for three hundred years, where the world has changed and grown around them but so much is still the same.
And photos don’t do it justice. Photos may represent, but it’s a land that can only be captured in literature. The words are necessary, to really bring across the way it feels. It’s Gone with the Wind, it’s Mark Twain, and the tragedies of Wolfe and Faulkner.
This is just a glimpse.