30 November 2009

Savannah, Georgia: Conrad Aiken: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #25

Conrad Aiken (1989–73) was a modernist, a friend of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the mentor of Malcolm Lowry. Although he was born and died in Savannah, Georgia, he was swift to disclaim any literary affinity with Southern writers: in an interview with Robert Hunter Wilbur published in an issue of The Paris Review of 1968, he said:

'I’m not in the least Southern; I’m entirely New England. […] I was never connected with any of the Southern writers.'

From the age of 11, he was brought up by an aunt in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and educated in the same state, finishing his education at Harvard.

Nevertheless, he returned to Savannah every summer, although he describes this as ‘Shock treatment’: ‘The milieu [was] so wholly different, and the social customs, and the mere transplantation; as well as having to change one’s accent twice a year – all this quite apart from the astonishing change of landscape. From swamps and Spanish moss to New England rocks.’

It is pouring, it feels like flooding underfoot, but there's a grave to be found, and I inch the car through Bonaventure Cemetery in search of the Aikens' plot. I leave the car – and the dry Penny – in a small parking patch and half run to the site. The idea of the bench-grave, it is said, is that Aiken wanted people to sit down on it and enjoy a glass of Madeira, although, of course, this would now almost certainly be illegal.

Aiken lived in fear of madness, and all his life he was traumatised by his discovery – at the age of 11 – of the bodies of his parents in their home in Savannah: his unstable father had killed his mother and then himself. On one occasion he was traveling to be psychoanalysed by Freud, although Eric Fromm discouraged him.

On returning to the car, Penny thinks it would be a good idea to get a few shots of the Johnny Mercer grave too, now we're here and (one of us at least) soaked to the skin already anyway. Yeah, good idea, do the crazy tourist thing, eh? Well, he was a writer too. So back I go, and, mirabile dictu, I meet a bunch of equally crazy, equally soaked, Americans taking photos of Mercer's grave, discussing his relation to others in the Mercer plot. I shoot back to the warmth of the car, grab a coffee at the nearest McDonalds, and it's foot down all the way to Macon 166 miles away. And the comfort of the next hotel.

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