57th Post: 9th DIXIE. SEWANEE – The Tennessee Balliol

View towards Alabama from the house


Having rejoined James, Lyn, and their small daughter Alice-Elizabeth in Birmingham, the next day we set off on the promised trip to their cabin in Tennessee.

 2001 May: Saturday

By-passing Chattanooga to the north-east, we headed west on the interstate towards Nashville. After some fifty miles through the hills of the Cumberland Plateau, we came off the main road onto a smaller road, then a smaller road, finally onto a track through dense trees. We halted at their wooden cabin. If ‘cabin’ is the right word for a three-storey, five-bedroom, luxuriously furnished and equipped palace straddling the ridge of a high cliff. The panoramic windows opened to the view outside. If ‘view’ is the right word for a sheer drop of 500 feet and overlooking one hundred miles of forest canopy stretching away southwards to the Alabama border.

The house at Sewanee

Lyn brought out some beers as we sprawled on the balcony deckchairs and absorbed the silence. It was a scene of utter peace. Carpenter bees dawdled amongst the flowers; hawks hovered over the treetops.

NJT at the house at Sewanee

I pointed out a golden eagle circling below us. James coughed politely:

“Well, that’s not actually a golden eagle. It’s a vulture.”

He continued:

“When it’s dusk it’s amazing here. You see the bats flying, and then the fireflies come out. They’re just streaks of light flaring down there in the trees. We’ve got copperhead snakes round here and they are dangerous. But there is a big black snake that lives nearby and he keeps them away. Just keep an eye out for poison snakes, poison spiders, and poison ivy. Other than that, it’s paradise.”

Evening at in the Sewanee woods

At 5pm we left the house and went for a short drive to the most extraordinary sight I had seen in the USA. After travelling a few miles along a road hemmed in by thick glades of Tennessee pines, we turned a corner into – medieval England. Ahead of us was Kings College, Cambridge, mixed with Tom Tower, Oxford, and a bit of Harlech Castle thrown in for good measure. Gothic quadrangles, castellated cloisters, stained glass chapel windows – the lot.

University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee

With a grin, James explained that this was his alma mater, Sewanee, the University of the South. Sewanee had had a chequered history. In the mid 19th century, Bishop Leonidas Polk attempted to fulfil his dream of recreating the whole of Oxford University here in the Appalachian wilderness. As a conspicuous slave owner himself, and funded by John Armfield, the co-owner of one of the largest slave-trading companies in the USA, Polk wanted to build a university dedicated to Southern values and English architecture. In 1860, they laid the cornerstone of their endeavour at Sewanee – it was not an auspicious date.

University of the South

As the Civil War erupted around him, Bishop Polk became a General in the Confederate Army, neatly managing to embody the Church Militant in his own person. Known as ‘the Fighting Bishop’, his dual roles sometimes clashed. At the Battle of Perryville, he heard a colleague, General Cheatham, encouraging his men by shouting: ‘Give them goddam’ hell, boys!’

Keen to similarly cheer his own troops but mindful of his ecclesiastical position, he bellowed: “Yes, boys, give it to them! Give them what General Cheatham says!”

Neither Polk nor his university survived the war. Polk was killed during the Atlanta Campaign, while Union troops attacked the college site and blew up the foundations. In the post-war period, the Church decided to continue the project but on a much reduced scale and budget – Sewanee would consist of just one college rather than replicating the whole of Oxbridge.

University of the South

Despite this setback, it was still an amazing place. It now catered for 1,500 Anglican students and owned 13,000 acres of the surrounding mountain, making it one of the largest campuses in the world. It had received a major financial boost when the playwright Tennessee Williams bequeathed his literary rights to the college in 1983. It even had its own airstrip.

Stopping for a beer at the Shenanigan student bar, James said that the university still maintained vestiges of Bishop Polk’s image of English college life. Each December, a Festival of Lessons and Carols was held in homage to the Cambridge Christmas, while Sewanee was almost the last place in North America still to allow faculty and students to wear academic gowns when attending lectures.

University bar – Shenanigans, Sewanee

This weekend had a particular significance as it was the annual reunion of the alumni – dozens of ex-students had turned up to fraternise – literally. The college fraternities and sororities were each holding parties for their former members – we passed one house conducting mock canoe races on the front lawn with the contestants wearing Fijian grass skirts.

Unfortunately the first fraternity house we visited was much more sedate – the fruit juices in circulation outnumbered the beers. Never a good sign. One woman asked what I was doing in the States. On hearing about the tour, she gave a sudden squeak of shock. She said that her reading class set its members the job of writing papers on various authors.

“Mrs Kretzelhower did her paper on Oscar Wilde and she said it was the most disgusting and distasteful paper she’d ever had to write!”

Her gaze deepened into open hostility. James overheard the exchange and came to the rescue. He assured the woman that Bishop Parsley had seen my show and ‘entirely approved’. It turned out that my Episcopal acquaintance from Birmingham was also the former Chancellor of the University. The confrontation subsided. It was a strange experience though – the first out-and-out attack on Oscar since I got to the US.

Claire, the Sewanee folk singer

The final call was at another club house – this seemed to be the heart of the Christian college establishment and even further from my preferred objective of joining the Fijian grass skirt brigade. I was introduced to the Dean of Theology, a large man in a resplendent dog collar, and then sat down to hear a folk concert performed by his wife. She was a singer/guitarist and was rather good in a trilling Joni Mitchell style. Looking round the room, I was struck by the women – they all seemed to share the same over-scrubbed, raw-boned look of shining-eyed purity. It was rather depressing.

We left early as Alice-Elizabeth had started to grizzle after the third encore of ‘Amazing Grace’.

The Dean of Theology blessed us as we took our leave.

The road back from Tennessee to Alabama

2001 May: Sunday

The drive back to Birmingham took three hours. It gave me an opportunity to observe the debris of an average interstate. First was the surprising amount of scattered burst tyre remnants – according to James, the result of trucks using retreads. The second was the trail of dead animals – it occurred to me that one could actually study American wild life just from road-kill.

Next week on Tuesday July 3 – From Atlanta to the Sky 


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