The Accidental Southerner

Edgar Allan Poe

Overcoming the misfortune of being born in Boston

By Nan Graham

One truth about the South can be found in Truman Capote’s famous quote: “All Southerners go home sooner or later . . . even if it’s in a box.” So too, I believe, it is true that once in the South, Northerners — or those from someplace else, as I call them (to avoid the Y word) — become “Accidental Southerners.” Even if here temporarily, they are profoundly and sometimes unconsciously affected by the haunting strangeness of our part of the world.

One such person is Edgar Allan Poe. Though born in Boston in 1809, Poe traveled the Southern theater circuit with his actress mother, Elizabeth, down the Eastern Seaboard from Norfolk to Charleston. She may have even played at Thalian Hall in Wilmington. I like to imagine toddler Edgar and his siblings in tow backstage. Later, the orphaned Edgar grew up in Richmond, Virginia, with foster parents, the Allans. Though New England born, Poe always considered himself a Southern gentleman.

A student in the first class at the newly opened University of Virginia under its founder and president, Thomas Jefferson, Poe was a good student but a wretched gambler. His foster father’s refusal to pay off his gentleman’s debt (a serious violation of a gentleman’s code of honor) resulted in the young Poe being ousted from the university. He eventually joined the Army, served in South Carolina as a private, then returned to college at West Point.

His career at West Point was as brief as that at UVA. First semester he received 44 offenses and 106 demerits. His second term shows a lack of improvement: In only a month he managed to accumulate 66 offenses. And the final straw? The story goes that Edgar Allan Poe showed up for “a dress parade wearing only his cartridge belt . . . and a smile.” The incident remains undocumented, but persists to this day, perhaps because it’s a great and hilarious anecdote.

Mr. Allan left the impoverished Edgar out of his will despite having left a sizeable inheritance to his illegitimate son . . . a son he never met.

Poe’s contribution to American literature cannot be discounted as a mere writer of horror stories. His impact on American letters is major. His is the first authentic American voice among the young country’s other writers whose works were, for the most part, pale imitations of Europe’s literature. He is the first original American author and the first widely famous Southern author.

Among his accomplishments, Poe wrote the first detective story (and detective, Inspector Dupin) in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” inventing the genre we are addicted to even today. His ratiocination (what a word!), a method of solving a mystery by logical deduction and reason, cleared the path for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

Poe was the very first American literary critic. He was also an early developer of the short story form. “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” remain classics.

Why his claim (and mine) that he is a Southerner, despite his Boston birth? Mother Elizabeth had the good sense to die in Richmond and thus sealed Poe’s fate to be brought up a Southerner. Reared by his foster family in Richmond, he always considered himself a Virginian.

Women have been long idealized in the South, and few writers have been more obsessed with women than Poe. He lost his mother, wife and foster mother to tuberculosis. According to Poe, the death and loss of a beautiful woman was the most elevated of all subjects for poetry and literature. We see this theme repeatedly in his works: “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice” and “The Raven.” The writer’s focus on lyricism and language usage is also very Southern.

Much has been written on Poe’s sense of place, famous in Southern literature. His setting for “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in the phantasmagorical and swampy tarn, could be the low country South at its creepiest. Poe knew the Carolina low country. His short story “The Gold Bug” is set in Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, where he was stationed as a soldier — an island which today sports names like Raven Drive and Goldbug Avenue to honor the poet.

My last reason that Mr. Poe is really a Southerner?  He married his first cousin when she was 14. I won’t even touch that one!   PS

After 25 years of broadcasting commentaries for Wilmington’s PBS station, 40-plus years of teaching, and authoring two books, storytelling is still a passion for Nan Graham.

Okra Strut

An ode to the South’s quintessential veggie

By Nan Graham

Ladies Fingers, gumbo or okra . . . the plant has many names and even more uses. Our okra, like many things Southern, is regarded by some as inferior, an essentially unworthy vegetable. We Southerners never remark, as some do, that it is “slimy.” It’s the same as saying that Aunt Tillie’s nose twitches after her fourth bourbon and branch water. In these parts, we tend to ignore such aberrations and avert the eyes.

Okra is a cousin to our emblematic cotton as well as the hibiscus and hollyhock. After the boll weevil decimated King Cotton, the pesky bug turned to okra for breakfast, lunch and supper. Travelers noted okra cultivation in Egypt as far back as 1216, so like most Southerners, okra likes to trace its lineage back a bit. Even today, okra grows wild in West Africa and in parts of India.

It has been popular in our neck of the woods since the 18th century . . . reported by Thomas Jefferson. Aside from its veggie status, whether fried, pickled or paired with onions and tomatoes or used to thicken stews, okra is extraordinarily versatile. During the Civil War, the benighted plant was used by Confederates as plasma and a blood extender. Unable to get coffee, they also made do with a hot drink made from okra seeds, which they pretended was a macchiato from Starbucks.

Possible future uses for okra include a particle board material that is better than material we use now, even chopped into feed for livestock and using roots and stems as fuel. It has been used “for making rope and producing paper.”

But wait until you hear the medicinal benefits. It’s a great low-calorie, zero-fat (unless fried) food. Also a super fiber additive, diuretic, and even contains a male contraceptive, gossypol. Wait, there’s more. Its laxative constituent feeds you good bacteria and slows the rate of sugar in the intestinal tract, stabilizing your blood sugar. Scientists claim that okra helps with acid reflux, and aids in controlling asthma.

It all sounds a bit like the snake-oil salesman in the Wizard of Oz, but studies are recognizing okra’s value. And your mental health is not ignored. Okra is said to be excellent for those feeling exhausted and experiencing depression. Okra seems to have something for everyone.

My husband, wearing his beloved pith helmet, planted a Victory Garden in our side yard. He especially prized his lush okra plants with its star-shaped leaves and spectacular white flowers. But in the sizzling July sun, the plants were prone to fainting . . . a case of the real Victorian vapors. Extra watering revived them for a while, but soon the heat exhaustion set in again, and the okra plants bent back on their stems in a full-out swoon.

Their gardener in his pith helmet devised a rescue plan — ingenious but bizarre. He gathered every umbrella in the house, tied each umbrella to a stake next to each distressed okra plant, and opened every umbrella. Yellows, green checks, fuchsia stripes and firehouse reds (even one red, black and white Mickey Mouse vinyl number) bloomed over the garden. Dazzling!

Passersby stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of the umbrella bouquet. All onlookers agreed it was a novel horticultural solution. Despite my Rube Goldberg’s heroic and theatrical efforts, the okra succumbed. The plants were taken off life support. The umbrellas were returned to their respective closets and automobiles. The day of the whimsical flowers was over . . . the riot of color . . . gone.

Okra, prone to be the object of jokes, seems to lend itself to the theater of the absurd. In Mississippi, Delta State University even has a Fighting Okra mascot . . . no fooling. The official mascot is the Statesman, which is slightly overcome with its own gravitas, especially in contrast to the overwhelming popularity of the zany Fighting Okra.

I think our Carolina cousins to the South may be on to something. The Okra Strut in Irmo, South Carolina, began in 1974 and every September offers a parade, crafts, fried okra, of course, and a highlight event called the Shoot-out at the Okra Corral . . . an eating contest featuring what else?

So if you have been sneering at this fuzzy vegetable, please give it a second chance. We all deserve one. And that old Southern standby might even become the new kale! PS

Nan Graham is a frequent contributor with unparalleled knowledge of the South.