The exodus of the South’s Civil War generation, its Confederate generation, holds elements of drama, irony and tragedy not found in other southern migrations. — The Confederate Carpetbaggers Paperback, by Daniel E. Sutherland
A major concern in our time is the echo chamber theory, one that says we select information that conforms to our own preferences.
Accordingly, this can also apply to our reading habits. Non-fiction books, of course, but sometimes even fiction.
A topical example is, “Varina,” a new novel by Charles Frazier. The author of “Cold Mountain,” Frazier has been praised for his “feeling for the Southern landscape, which is reverential and beautifully composed.” (New York Review of Books)
I feel a desire to read Varina, but on the other hand, I feel pulled in the other direction. As the wife of Jefferson Davis, Varina Howell Davis was the First Lady of the Confederacy. Their sixth child, “Winnie,” was known as the "Daughter of the Confederacy.”
On the other hand, there’s what Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.” In 1891, the widowed Varina and her daughter moved to New York City. Both became authors and correspondents for the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer.
Varina's trajectory reminds me of Constance Cary Harrison. With a Fairfax and Cary lineage, noble family names in Virginia, she grew up in Vaucluse.
Situated on the crest of a hill next to modern day INOVA Hospital in Alexandria, Vaucluse was alive with stories in the 1850s. Owned by Thomas, Ninth Lord Fairfax, whose father Bryan was a close friend of George Washington, the occupants of Vaucluse included Harrison and her widowed mother. When all her aunts and uncles and cousins visited, the home was full of Cary and Fairfax kin.
I remember having worries about including Vaucluse in my book. Harrison’s memoir (“Refugitta of Richmond: The Wartime Recollections, Grave and Gay of Constance Cary Harrison”), is drenched in the pathos of the "Lost Cause." Like a lot of slave owners, the family referred to their enslaved humans as “servants.” Even today you will hear people say, “yea, but they treated them well.”
On the other hand, how could our humanity not allow us to feel something for Harrison and the others? When the Civil War arrived in Alexandria, every single occupant of Vaucluse fled en masse. When Harrison returned, their home had been reduced to ashes. In effect, an act of domicide.
During the war, Constance Cary Harrison met Burton Norvell Harrison in Richmond. He was serving as the private secretary to Davis. As such, Constance stood in the inner circles of the leadership of the confederacy, and rubbed shoulders with Varina Howell Davis.
Like Varina, Constance moved and settled in New York. She and Burton Harrison were married there.
According to one of her biographers, Varina enjoyed living in Washington when Davis served his legislative term in the Capitol. This likely gave her a taste for the urban life.
Constance Cary Harrison wrote in her memoir that she, too, enjoyed the trips to Washington. Perhaps that is where she got her first taste of the big city life, something Alexandria could not quite do.
The world flies past us at mind-numbing speed. As a coping mechanism, we develop cognitive strategies called heuristics. These can lead to biases and prejudices. Rather than telling ourselves we should not make quick judgements, it’s easier to put things in a compartment and just leave them alone.
On the other hand, for those who can get past the barriers, there are rewards beyond the echoes.