The Best Cemetery in the South
(in which to Kiss a Woman)
by Kirk Curnutt
followed by Q&A
There are as many lovely settings in which to kiss a woman as there are varieties of kisses and places on her body to plant them. I’ve always been as big a sucker as any romantic for the slow dance and the candle-lit dinner, the dimming movie theater and the reclined passenger seat of a 1981 Grand Prix. Yet none of these ever made me appreciate how fragile a lip-lock can be more than the ones that occurred in—of all places—a cemetery.
At the risk of sounding ungentlemanly, I’ve been fortunate to smooch among some of the world’s most famous gravestones. In my wayward youth, I once made out with a Parisian gamine next to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s plot in Père Lachaise, inspired by a none-too-intelligible conversation about the none-too-intelligible Tender Buttons. Four summers ago, I snuck a buss from my now wife, D., while touring Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. Not all this osculating was confined to tourist stops, however. I once startled a girlfriend by landing an unsolicited smacker at the foot of my father’s eternal resting place in Tipton, Indiana. I think I was trying to win his approval by proving to him that at least one of us was still alive.
For all my globe-snogging, I’ve decided that the cemetery most conducive to kissing is the one closest to home. Since moving to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1993, I’ve made a habit of strolling Oakwood Cemetery, located only four blocks northeast of the downtown made historic by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Regardless of season or weather, it seems I need only traipse a hill or two of Oakwood’s rolling acres before I stumble upon a canoodling couple. Sometimes they’re teenagers mooncalfing to the soundtracks of separate iPods, sometimes they’re gay, quite often they’re non-locals paying their respects to Hank Williams, the most famous of the cemetery’s 200,000 residents.(1) Usually when they see me the lovers pretend to be conversing close together out of a hushed respect for the dead. Every once in a while they continue on as if I were just another loitering ghost.
What intrigues me about these kisses is that they’re rarely sexual. Something about the juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos in a cemetery is so kinky that the very idea sends the imagination panting straight to the Gothic extremes of getting it on. That’s why, while ink aplenty has been spilled over the phenomenon of graveyard trysting, nobody much talks about what kissing there means.(2) While I can appreciate that to some folks charnel romps are thrilling because they let us flip a middle finger at the Grim Reaper, methinks the bravado is a bit of an existential conceit. For all the nuzzling I’ve witnessed among Oakwood’s ledger stones, I’ve never once caught anybody in flagrante delicto, much less flagrantly delicto-ing to confirm they’re not spiritually dead. Not that I don’t doubt that it happens, but my traipsing has taught me that a good cemetery will make us ponder the lugubrious side of love as much as it’ll send us wuthering to the heights of passion all Heathcliff-like. That’s the only conclusion I can draw, anyway, when I trespass upon private moments that aren’t the lip-crushing, teeth-chipping, uvula-twiddling tableaux that the word kissing conjures up. Rather, most kisses I spy at Oakwood are sad, sad exchanges of emotion, and in a weird, quite possibly perverted way, I find them uplifting.
What makes the atmosphere at Oakwood so congenial to the poignancy of un baiser is its peculiar history and literature. Opened in 1810, it is a quintessentially Southern burial ground, every bit as redolent of Old Dixie’s tortured legacy as the Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston that inspired Henry Timrod’s “Ode: Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead” and the McGavock Confederate Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee, the setting of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” After Hank Williams’s grave, Oakwood’s biggest draw is a steep east-facing slope where 724 Confederate veterans are buried under identical white tablet stones, many of them anonymously. Crowning the slope is the first of the cemetery’s two Civil War memorials, and even a cursory trot among the brick coping will lead to the graves of stalwart secessionists with baroque antebellum names such as William Lowndes Yancey, Benajah Smith Bibb, and William Burr Howell (aka Jefferson Davis’s father-in-law). The headstones of these men are especially prominent in April, when loyal CSA sons celebrate Confederate History Month by tamping fresh Rebel stick flags into Oakwood’s gray grass.
Because Montgomery sells itself as both “the Cradle of the Confederacy” and “the Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” Oakwood also bears the scars of African-American history. The juxtaposition of the city’s contradictory legacies is not as stark in the cemetery as it is downtown, where two blocks and a right turn is all that separates the First White House of the Confederacy from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church. Nevertheless, with a little sleuthing, one can locate unheralded black heroes whose presence lends balance to Oakwood’s more prominent Confederate memento mori. In addition to several slaves, there are first-generation post-bellum black entrepreneurs such as Henry Allen Loveless, James Hale, and Victor H. Tulane, as well as many families who participated in the 1955-56 bus boycott. Among the more tragic stories is that of Dr. Harper Councill Trenholm, whose presidency of the all-black Alabama State College (now University) from 1926 to 1962 has been overshadowed by a single concession to white power. When Alabama State students attempted to desegregate a courthouse cafeteria at the height of the sit-in era, Governor John Patterson pressured Trenholm to expel the protestors and fire sympathetic faculty. (It was Patterson’s defeat of George Wallace in 1958 that inspired Wallace’s infamous pledge to never again get “out-niggered” in an election). Under threat of dismissal, Trenholm relented, an act that King—Trenholm’s former pastor at Dexter Avenue—decried as “cowardly.” Labeled an accommodationist, Trenholm soon fell ill from the pressure of his unenviable position and died in February 1963, only a few short months after the college he shepherded for thirty-five years unceremoniously forced him from office.
As emotional a punch as its history packs, Oakwood could hardly compete with more famous Civil War and Civil Rights shrines were it not for its literary legacy—one that specifically centers upon kissing. By the late 1910s, the cemetery had garnered a reputation among white teenagers as a primo spot for petting. (Not of the heavy variety necessarily, but merely first base). One belle especially fond of this pastime was Zelda Sayre. According to legend, the irrepressible Zelda had many a beau, one of whom, Peyton Mathis, was a well-to-do marbleworks proprietor responsible for two of Oakwood’s most celebrated memorials, The Wings of Death and The Broken Column. It’s not hard to imagine the dandy Mathis—half of an ostentatious hometown duo known as “the Gold Dust Twins”—squiring Zelda through the cemetery, hoping his art was sufficiently aphrodisiacal. Yet, however talented, Mathis was no match for a rival from Minnesota, a second lieutenant stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan, where the Army’s 67th infantry regiment trained for the Great War. The outsider had arrived in Montgomery in June 1918, boasting of two imminent accomplishments: he’d just finished drafting a novel he insisted would make him famous, and he was convinced he would die a hero on the Western front. Suddenly, Zelda didn’t find funerary art so seductive, and Mathis was jealously reduced to mocking this bibulous interloper as “F. Scotch Fitzgerald.”
The exact role Oakwood played in the earliest stages of Scott and Zelda’s fabled courtship is unclear. It isn’t referenced in their published correspondence until April 1919, nine months after they met at a Montgomery country-club dance. By then, the aspiring author was neither famous nor dead; shortly after Charles Scribner’s and Sons rejected his novel the previous fall, the Armistice dashed his hopes for military martyrdom, and upon his discharge he scrounged by as a $90-a-month copywriter for a New York ad agency. Zelda was understandably doubtful about Fitzgerald’s prospects, yet those doubts didn’t stop her from writing ornate love letters that simultaneously strung him along while hinting at extracurricular adventures with other men:
I’ve spent to-day in the grave-yard … trying to unlock a rusty iron vault built into the side of the hill.… The boys [probably the Gold Dust Twins] wanted to get in to test my nerve—to-night—I wanted to feel “William Wreford, 1864.” Why should graves make people feel in vain? I’ve heard that so much, and [Thomas] Grey is so convincing [in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard], but somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived—All the broken columnes [sic] and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances.… Isn’t it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves—when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss? Old death is so beautiful—so very beautiful—We will die together—I know—
References to other men drove Fitzgerald to such a fury that Zelda soon ended their relationship. The pair didn’t correspond for several months until, predictably, the first thing Scott did when Scribner’s accepted a revised version of his novel—now titled This Side of Paradise—was to book a train to Montgomery. As the couple renewed their romance that November 1919, they visited Oakwood. As Fitzgerald later remembered, “While out walking with [Zelda] I wandered into a graveyard. She told me I could never understand how she felt about the Confederate graves, and I told her I understood so well that I could put it on paper.”
The fruit of that boast was a tale about mismatched Dixon-Mason lovers called “The Ice Palace,” which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1920 as This Side of Paradise was fast becoming a succès de scandale. In the story, the Zeldaesque heroine, Sally Carrol Happer, leads her Yankee beau, Harry Bellamy, through Oakwood’s “wavy valley of graves” to the hillside of Confederate dead. Overtaken by emotion, she delivers a eulogy for the “strange courtliness and chivalry” she imagines the South stood for: “People have these dreams they fasten onto things, and I’ve always grown up with that dream. It was so easy because it was all dead and there weren’t any disillusions comin’ to me. I’ve tried in a way to live up to those past standards of noblesse oblige—there’s just the last remnants of it, you know, like the roses of an old garden dying all round us.… Oh, Harry, there was something, there was something!”
Even for the Jazz Age this was lachrymosity laid on thick. As with much of Fitzgerald’s early fiction, the satire and sentimentality are virtually indistinguishable. My own feeling is that Scott was slyly tweaking Zelda’s Old South pretensions as much as he was hymning them, especially when Harry’s response is to whip out a handkerchief and declare, “I want to kiss you, Sally Carrol.” Satirically or not, Sally Carrol dabs her tears and obliges. Fitzgerald’s description of their petting is vintage Roaring Twenties overstatement: “She kissed him until the sky seemed to fade out and all her smiles and tears to vanish in an ecstasy of eternal seconds.”
Sentences like that suggest why the boy from Minnesota fancied himself a “connoisseur of kisses.” And yet, as with all passionate embraces in Fitzgerald’s work—and they are legion—Sally Carrol’s ecstasy is haunted by loss. She already senses that she and Harry are incompatible. His gelid kiss has revealed that Northern boys don’t know what it means to “indulge in the cheering luxury of tears.”
I hadn’t read “The Ice Palace” before moving to Montgomery, so when I discovered the Oakwood connection through the Fitzgeralds’ correspondence in late 1993, I carried a copy of Flappers and Philosophers to the cemetery’s Confederate slope. I figured the story would mean more if I was communing with the ghost of their love.
Instead, I was disappointed. I found it cute but dangerously close to cloying—a common criticism of Fitzgerald’s gaudier romances. I was also leery of Sally Carrol’s nostalgia for antebellum Alabama, especially when, mid-oration, she drops an un-ironic reference to “old darkies.”
For the next several years, whenever I wandered Oakwood, I brought books about other famous Montgomery figures, from MLK and Miss Rosa to Jefferson Davis and George Wallace—people whom I felt gave me a broader perspective on a city I’d come to love because its paradoxical history struck me as America encapsulated. It wasn’t that I stopped reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. Far from it. Professionally, I specialized in him, authoring books and organizing conferences devoted to his career. I read him intellectually rather than emotionally, however. I felt I had to. I’d taken a hard left into my thirties, and I was mindful that when Zelda brought Scott to Oakwood, she was all of nineteen and he twenty-three. Pondering cemetery kisses, whether theirs or mine from my wayward youth, frankly, seemed immature.
Then one day in October 2000, my wife asked to meet in the old graveyard. She was another reason I regarded Fitzgerald so dispassionately. She was a dead ringer for Zelda and even shared her birthday. Friends had accused me of only marrying her for those reasons, which was both insulting and untrue. Even if I were deluded enough to try to morph into F. Scott Fitzgerald, finding a look-a-like spouse born in Montgomery on July 24 would seem an improbable aim. Some coincidences simply can’t be planned.
So, as I entered Oakwood that day, the Fitzgeralds were the least of my worries. My wife and I had only been married two years, and we’d spent the past one seesawing between separations and reconciliations. We were both exhausted, underweight, insomnious. I’d taken to soaking my blues in the bathtub for hours at a stretch and drinking too much. I was all of thirty-five, and my hair was gray.
“What do you think we should do?” she asked.
Right then it hit me why I’d been summoned to Oakwood as opposed to the bedroom or bar or the long country drives that usually coerced us into giving our marriage another go. Consciously or not, she’d invited me to the cemetery because she was ready to lay me to rest.
“I guess you better call a lawyer,” I answered.
We tried walking around to forestall the inevitable tears. Crazily enough, at one point I realized we were near the grave of Zelda’s parents, Anthony and Minnie Sayre, and I thought of Zelda’s description of her father’s interment in Save Me the Waltz (1932), her only published novel: “It was peaceful in the old cemetery. Wildflowers grew there, and rosebushes so old that the flowers had lost their color with the years. Crepe myrtle and Lebanon cedars shed their barbs over the slabs; rusty Confederate crosses sank into the clematis vines and the burned grass. Tangles of narcissus and white flowers strayed the washed banks and ivy climbed in the crumbling walls.” Zelda’s poetic style is often criticized for veering off into such flowery digressions, but on this day, I could attest that the roses were indeed color-bled and the narcissus knotted beyond repair.
Then it was time to leave, and all that was left was to kiss goodbye. This kiss seemed like a reliving of our entire relationship—French kiss, holy kiss, Judas kiss, vengeful kiss. It was every imaginable emotion at once, which is undoubtedly why it went on so long.
I won’t lie and say that was the last pash we ever shared. Like many divorced couples, we went through that masochistic period of disentanglement uncharitably known as “ex-sex.” We discovered that burying memories or even smooching them adieu takes much longer than legalities; it wasn’t easy for either of us to accept that we were to be “yellowish moss” on the tomb of each other’s dead love.
Now, almost a decade later, my ex and I occasionally run into each other in Montgomery. We never talk; we politely turn our backs out of respect for our present partners, with whom we’re each infinitely happier. I’m still a homer for all things F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I still weekly hike Oakwood, sometimes with a book, sometimes with D. and her Labrador.
When I catch sad canoodlers in our “wavy valley of graves,” I’m tempted to intervene and assure them that the melancholy I see in the meeting of their lips is the only reward of knowing that love is more mortal than we are. That way they, like me, can justify the allure of kissing at Oakwood with a line from Sally Carrol Happer: “Even when I cry I’m happy here, and I get a sort of strength from it.”
(1) The name actually refers to two separate but adjoining burial grounds, the 140-acre, city-owned “Old Oakwood” and the twenty-acre “Oakwood Annex,” which is where Hank Williams lies. The annex was privately operated before going into receivership in 2004; since then, it has been maintained by the Alabama State Department of Insurance.
(2)A few examples: in the Hades section of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom fantasizes about “love among the tombstones” with “Turkish whores and young widows” because “in the midst of death we are in life.” The late Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran takes Joyce’s sentiment to exclamatory extremes in Tears and Saints (1995), describing cemetery sex as “the urge to desecrate tombs and to give life to cemeteries in an apocalypse of springtime! There is only life in spiting death’s absoluteness.” The motif appears across the literary spectrum, from philosophical allegories such as George Bataille’s Le bleu du ciel (1935) to chick-lit like Beverly Brandt’s Dream On (2005). Nor do sepulchral tangos necessarily require two: in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (1995), eponymous hero Mickey Sabbath attempts to exorcise his nostalgia for his dead mistress by masturbating over her freshly filled plot—after catching not one but two competing lovers practicing similar handiwork, no less.
Kirk Curnutt is the author of twelve books of fiction and criticism, including two novels, Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009), as well as Coffee with Hemingway (2007), featuring a preface by the late John Updike. Among other awards, he has won the Indiana Center for the Book’s Best Books Award for Fiction and the Faulkner-Wisdom gold medal in nonfiction from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. His current book is Brian Wilson, an entry in Equinox Publishing’s Icons of Pop Music series.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your process for incorporating research into the essay?
A: The main idea behind this piece is how we interact with history, how our own stories have to live among the ghosts of other people’s. I just let the writing flow from the personal to the objective and back, taking the structure in sections. The form is intentionally fractured in that way, which didn’t please everybody who read the essay in draft. More than one person told me it didn’t hang together. But the reality is that our intimate memories butt up against the more public past of the places where we live or the ones we frequent, often in ways that are jarring because that discrepancy makes us wish we could regard the events that constitute our lives as dispassionately as we read the dates on a stranger’s headstone. Which never happens, of course. So it just felt right to try to invoke in the reader that queasy juxtaposition I always feel at Oakwood between the tales interred in the cemetery and those anecdotes of my own I’d love to bury.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best advice was to partake of the adverb—indulgently. Most mentors and how-to books recommend doing away with them. Too flowery, too written. But I knew a Hemingway scholar once who pointed out to me in a single short story how many times EH used them, and how unobtrusively he could do it. Gertrude Stein had a whole theory of them, how they conveyed “continuous being.” Then I studied Fitzgerald and I realized the glamour they can bring to prose. If used judiciously, of course.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: I try to have a set schedule: the same hours, the same days. It’s like farming. You get up early and you do your chores. If I don’t keep to the schedule, I get lazy. I write a lot of different things—fiction and criticism—so I always have a choice of projects to work on. If sparks aren’t flying on one thing, I can flick my Bic on another.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: Honestly, I don’t organize my library. My books won’t sit still long enough. They barely tolerate my immobility. (They charge a lot of rent, too.) They gather in corners of the house one day, then dogpile in whatever empty space they can find the next. Until just recently, many would stretch out on the side of the bed, forming the contour of a body. I always have a book in a pocket, too, whether the hip of a sport coat or the back cheek where a wallet would be if I had money. If a pickpocket ever targeted me, he’d probably be disappointed to walk away with a copy of Tom McGuane’s Panama. And if he tries to plug me in the gut in the course of that robbery, he better be packing high caliber because there’s a couple hundred pages tucked in my waistband his heater will need to tear through.