In the slow, sinking, reptilian darkness of the Louisiana swamp, mysteries abound. Along the Great River, down the Atchafalaya, through interlacing bayous and across fringed wetlands mystery flows, quiet and languid until forced from its banks by circumstance or time.
That my great-great-grandfather, David Crowley, should be caught up within those shadows and flows with Hushpuppy, the leading character of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, is both remarkable and strange. To appreciate their mysterious connection, perhaps the best (if equally mysterious) place to begin is with Horace Walpole.
A British art historian and man of letters, Walpole appears to have been a bit of an odd duck. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a long-lived and somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition, one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness”.
There’s no question Walpole had plenty of energy, a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters. One of his most famous, a 1765 faked letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva to take up residence in France.
The letter was purported to have been written by King Frederick of Prussia, offering Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, “King Frederick” said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.” Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, in England, as his paranoia increased, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.
When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole delighted in renovating Strawberry Hill, which he called his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house. Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.
Writing in The Guardian prior to the re-opening of the newly restored house in 2010, Amanda Vickery notes that Walpole “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi – for a guinea a tour.” Walpole even produced a guidebook to his own home, but eventually he wearied of the traffic and the numbers of guests peeping over its merlons and crenels. “I keep an inn,” Walpole said. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court. Everyone will live in it but you.”
Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.” It seems reasonable to assume Walpole was creating in Strawberry Hill a concrete analogue to his writing. ”Visions,” he said, “have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.”
Michael Snodin, curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting”. His fixation on the house and its furnishings wasn’t to the exclusion other interests, however. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. In fact, it was Walpole who created an extraordinarily useful word that’s become familiar to nearly everyone: serendipity.
Writing to his friend Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole defined serendipity as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else”. He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip. In that story, the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.
Today, we tend to equate serendipity with accidental discoveries, but “sagacity” is equally important. The ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts can open even more previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight. As John Barthes says in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings in the process.”
When I set out one quiet spring evening for dinner with a friend and a viewing of Beasts of the Southern Wild, I hadn’t plotted much of a course at all.
I’d been wanting to see the film for several months, for a variety of reasons. I had acquaintances in Louisiana who’d been on the fringes of the film’s production. I’d been intrigued by the choice of Quvenzhané Wallis for the leading role and I was more than a little curious about the great, hulking beast shown nose-to-nose with Hushpuppy in the pre-release publicity.
The creature, one of a group of large, mythical and possibly magical beasts called aurochs, had been frozen for millenia in Arctic ice. Once unfrozen, they headed straight for The Bathtub, the self-contained, harsh yet fragile bit of real estate that was Hushpuppy’s home.
When the aurochs finally show up, it’s clear that, whatever else happens, Hushpuppy is going to prevail. Despite the absence of her mother, the failing health of her father and the apocalyptic storm that arrives to wreak havoc on their tiny, defiant community, her mysterious connection with the aurochs helps to ensure her triumph.
Still, by the time the film ended, I felt as though I were the one who’d lost my bearings. Bemused and befuddled, I turned to my friend and said, “What was that?” Equally perplexed, she said, “I haven’t a clue. I was hoping you’d tell me.”
Clearly, another viewing was in order.
After watching the film twice more, I found myself agreeing with Roger Ebert, who described Beasts of the Southern Wild both as an allegory and as “a remarkable creation, [a vision of] a self-reliant community without the safety nets of the industrialized world.” “Someday,” he added, “they will run out of gasoline for their outboard motors, and then they will do – well, whatever people did before they needed gasoline.”
Thanks to Civil War researchers and a small assortment of family documents, I know a bit about life in Hushpuppy’s world before gasoline and outboard motors became convenient facts of life.
The great-great-grandfather I mentioned happened to be a member of the 34th Iowa Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, and his service included many months in Louisiana. After mustering in at Burlington, Iowa on September 15, 1862, the Regiment moved to Helena, Arkansas. They served in Sherman’s Yazoo Expedition and the Siege of Vicksburg, then moved on to Carrollton, Louisiana in August, 1863.
Ordered from Carrollton to Morganza, the men made their way north and west along the eastern edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp, where they ended September fighting in The Battle at Fordoche Bridge, which lay near to Stirling’s Farm. Moving on to Alexandria, they constructed a dam across the Red River, retreated again to Morganza and then engaged in a final expedition from Morganza to the Atchafalaya River.
In his book The Civil War in Louisiana, historian John D. Winters documents the May, 1864 arrival of Federal troops in Morganza under the command of Nathaniel P. Banks.
“The unbearable heat drove the men to construct arbors and bowers to shield themselves from the sun. In a short time an orderly city of tents and company streets stretched along the banks of the river between the water and the levee.
Early in the morning and in the late evening the troops were called out for drill periods and gymnastic sports, but most of the day they were free. They spent much of this time lounging in their tents and in the shade, wearing as little clothing as regulations would allow. Some of the men braved the sun and went fishing, or swimming, or visited the sutlers’ tents. For more than a month the sweating troops lazed away the long, hot summer days with only an occasional review or alarm to break the monotony.
“The heat and the excessive rainfall began to tell upon the troops. Epidemics of scurvy, chronic diarrhea, swamp fever, and smallpox began to take an appalling toll. Many times a day the death march sounded, and new victims were carried to their graves along the river bank.
The numbers lost from the 34th Iowa tell the tale of those days. Of the 258 men who died, twelve were killed in battle. Two hundred and forty-six died of disease. David Crowley had survived.
Just as the effects of a terrible storm lingered for Hushpuppy and the people of The Bathtub, the effects of his time in the swamp lingered for Grandpa Crowley. His filing of a Declaration for an Invalid Pension and the accompanying affidavits include reminders of a war he carried with him through years of farming and raising a family.
On this 21st day of May, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and ninety-five, personally appeared before me, S.D. Hickman, a Notary Public within and for the County and State aforesaid, David Crowley, aged 63 years, a resident of the town of Chariton, County of Lucas, State of Iowa, who, being duly sworn according to law, declares that he is the identical David Crowley who was enrolled on the 9 day of August, 1862, in Co “K”, 34 Iowa Vols, as Private, in the war of the rebellion, and served at least ninety days, and was honorably discharged at Houston, Texas, on the 15 day of August, 1865.
That he is almost totally unable to earn a support by reason of heart disease, general disability and partial blindness, with rheumatic afflictions. That said disabilities are not due to his vicious habits, and are to the best of his knowledge and belief permanent.
That he makes this declaration for the purpose of being placed on the pension role of the United States under the provisions of the Act of June 27, 1890.
Sorting through the obituaries, funeral tributes, regimental records and copies of other official documents, I learn even more: that he was admitted to Jefferson Barracks Hospital, that he suffered heat stroke in Louisiana, that he became the first Colonel of the reorganized Company A, that in 1864 he became a wood-chopper’s clerk.
Amid the records and documents were more personal narratives, tales of the Paxton, Crowley and Deyarmon families who traveled together from Ireland to make a new home in this country. Intrigued by the history, I began piecing together snippets of fact into a more understandable narrative. Imagine my astonishment when, in the process, I discovered this image of the Crowley family crest.
Needless to say, my imagination was piqued. According to websites specializing in heraldry, the beast shown here is a boar, symbolic of fierce fighters. On the other hand, it bears a certain resemblance to an aurochs, which raises some questions. Could that be Grandpa David standing nose to nose with Hushpuppy in The Bathtub? Did Confederate forces experience the Union Army as beasts from the North? Have I found the explanation for my inordinate fondness for hushpuppies?
It’s easy enough to laugh, dismissing any connection between a modern fantasy film and a family lineage extending back through the centuries to Ireland.
On the other hand, an experience of serendipity certainly does have the power to re-shape our view of things. I’ll never think of Beasts of the Southern Wild in quite the same way, just as I’ll never see another wild hog without thinking of David Crowley. I’ll certainly never forget Walpole’s wisdom. The world overflows with discoveries waiting to be made, both by accident and sagacity, and within every landscape of life, mystery still abounds.