Awful Things of Great Beauty and Horror: a Cultural history — Michael Seth Stewart


IN THE ORIGINAL BOOK, which has never been recovered, Cahawba is an antebellum Alabama town. It is real, it is rich, & the mansions are cooled by well-water pumped through the high white walls. There are more slaves than non-slaves but the slaves are only mentioned when something goes wrong.

There is a maze of cedars, filled with dark corners. In the original book, the Curse of Cahawba is a living thing disclosed by history, in fire and floods & rumors of floods, political cataclysms, romance & murder. First editions of the original book are said to contain a significant pattern of typographical errors. This pattern has not been confirmed, but errors were made.


Of the forty-seven known artistic, musical, and literary adaptations of the Cahawba myth, the most notorious is certainly D.W. Griffith’s 1936 epic Darkness!, now more famous for its opening-night riots than its groundbreaking cinematography. The film follows the machinations of a malcontent slave named Elijah, played by Robert Mitchum in blackface as he leads his fellow slaves in a monstrous group-murder of their owner’s translucently white wife Anna Chapman, played by a visibly sedated Frances Farmer. The seven slaves are arrested and tried by Charles Laughton in full foghorn mode, and he argues seersuckerly and absurdly that The Seven, as they’re called, killed their mistress in hopes of framing her notoriously violent husband, out of alleged love. The Seven are lynched in a perfectly choreographed, pristinely photographed orgy of violence. Darkness! is beloved by cinephiles and racists, but otherwise remains an unfortunate footnote to film history.


Kenneth Anger’s 1968 short film Cahawba on Fire. Scored on the Theremin by Leslie van Houten, the six-minute film opens on a room full of dark male bodies writhing on bunks in a small log cabin, the dreaming men played by bisexual bikers in blue jeans, high on methedrine and homosexual violence subsumed here in nuzzling and the pretense of sleep spliced with footage of a floridly rouged Anaïs Nin licking her lips as van Houten’s otherworldly hum whines through the film like an electric eel sliding through and shocking the dark. The bikers are presumably slaves, there are seven of them, and the actors are all white but greasily bronzed. They wake from bad sleep and start wrestling and cutting up lines of speed, as the music cross-fades from Theremin to Jan & Dean’s “Deadman’s Curve” played at 78 rpm. One of the biker-slaves grabs an axe and they all head out the cabin door while Anaïs Nin blinks rapidly in extreme close-up, the legend being that she is summoning the devil in Morse code. The film culminates with the murder of a white-gowned brunette played by Sal Mineo, the ax-wielder a San Francisco dancer in hakama and cypress mask indicating a background in Noh theatre uncommon among ax murderers back east. Jonas Mekas called Cahawba on Fire “barely watchable,” but later admitted he’d seen it “zillions of times.” It is out of print.


Freud’s brief mention of Cahawba situates its myth within the realm of the death drive. In a letter to Sandor Ferenczi, Freud writes, “Nun ist die Luft von solchem Spuk so voll, dass niemand weiss, wie er ihn meiden soll.” Roughly translated from German into English, and from English into images & sensations, Freud is expressing a broken wall & tall grass, a blue-like color which has not been seen since 1939, and a specific kind of terror that sets in when one is lost in a maze and everywhere there’s leaves and the sharp whine of cicadas. In a letter to Lou Andreas Salomé, Freud borrows from the work of post-Freudians Abraham & Torok, insisting that “Cahawba” is a cryptonym, a name that hides. He writes, “In allen Wipfeln spürest du Kaum einen Hauch; Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,” which translates as, “The word ‘ghost’ covers a hereditary trauma, a melancholic legacy, which agitates deep within Alabama religion & politics, manifesting in the present as white supremacy, a malignant resentment and adherence to dead tropes.”


Jack Smith’s first foray into color film was the lyric short Burning Ghosts (1959), of which Pauline Kael memorably wrote, “This movie left me well and truly fucked.” Its palate is pale pastel, filtered through innumerable gels and veils and lubricants smeared on lenses. One scene consists of seven and a half minutes of ugly men applying lipstick while Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor plays trans-diagetically on a transistor radio. After several viewings a sort of a plot begins to emerge, in which a white girl, played by Frank O’Hara in a long white gown and cheap brown wig, gets ready to go somewhere, applying makeup with friends, tying and untying her corset, seemingly unable to find a good fit. The scene changes to the back yard where a man, played by Gertrude Lawrence, hunches behind an azalea. The hatchet that he’s holding is a clue which has led many scholars to look back to Alabama history, including Susan Sontag in a report for her ninth-grade language arts class in which she calls Burning Ghosts “a cinematic refocusing of the infamous murder of Cahawba’s Anna Chapman, suggesting that it was not the slaves who killed her, but her husband, the historical revisionism a liberation. But the realization one feels soon fades, as the film’s slickness renders us impotent against the implacable figure whom Walter Benjamin addressed as the Angel of History.” The film has never been released on video, but it does screen nightly at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Mario Montez plays both the sun & the moon.


And finally, the best-known adaptation of the Cahawba story is, of course, Ghost-town, the novella written in 1968 by Harper Lee, who burned the manuscript before anyone could read it. One night in 1974, however, Lee was stoned on gin and mescaline at a dinner party at Babe Paley’s with Slim Keith, Capote, & Tallulah Bankhead, and there she made her only recorded mention of the book. In her memoir, Tallulah!,  Bankhead recounts their conversation, and based solely on this text, Ghost-town was presented with the National Book Award in 1975, although Harper Lee refused to attend the ceremony, to confirm that Ghost-town was ever written, or that she had, in fact, even met Tallulah Bankhead. Asked about Ghost-town by Mike Douglas, a sloppily drunk Capote quipped, “Well, now she’s written two books I’ll never read.”

Bankhead writes:

Nell was sobbing like a punched baby as she ran from the table. Babe grabbed my wrist and muttered, “You take care of it,” never dropping her smile, you understand, pure Babe Paley. I was the one who’d brought Nell, thinking naïvely that she could handle it, you know, the lifestyle. So I went to the cloakroom and there she was, huddled in her brown wool sweater and brown wool skirt – hand to God, that’s what she wore – to the Paleys’ – and I dried her eyes with my Valentino cashmere scarf, which she yanked off my neck, burying her square wet face in it. I’ll never see that scarf again. I said, “What’s on your mind, darling?” and I lit us two cigarettes, both at once, you know, and settled in for what I was sure would be some lesbian sob-story, I mean, just look at her. But she said “I burned it,” which I took to be a drug thing but she added “The book I wrote. I burned it.” She took a long drag and shuddered when she exhaled so it looked like smoke signals. I don’t know, we were both pretty messed up; honestly, I’d already forgotten what we were talking about. And Nell said, “There was a ghost town. As a little girl I dreamed about it every night. There were artesian wells that swallowed people whole, especially mothers, and nothing meant anything because everything ended. And there was a cedar maze where I got lost. And things happened there, Lu, awful things of great beauty and horror and I can no longer remember them.” And she threw up in the scarf. I patted her shoulder gingerly and said, “there, there,” because darling really,  what the fuck do you say to that?

Michael Seth Stewart teaches English at the U of Alabama, and edits the letters and journals of poet John Wieners