Trials of the Earth

February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am an epic history nerd.

So, when Circuit Judge Ashley Hines recently told me about a remarkable memoir of Mississippi Delta life in the 1880’s, I made it my business that very day to find and buy a copy at Square Books in Oxford.

trialsThe book is Trials of the Earth, by Mary Hamilton, who lived from 1866 to 1937. How her papers came to be published is a story in itself.

In 1931, Delta writer Helen Dick Davis and her husband, Reuben, moved to a home that Mr. Davis had built in Phillip, Mississippi, north of Greenwood. Reuben’s younger half-brother married Mary Hamilton’s daughter, Edris, and it was through this family connection that Helen Davis came to know and befriend Mary Hamilton, who lived nearby at the time.

As they whiled away time together, Helen was enthralled by Mary’s tales of a Delta altogether unknown and foreign to Helen’s experiences. The Delta that Helen knew was rich farmland under cultivation, civilized towns, culture and agriculture. The Delta that Mary painted in vivid hues was a nearly impenetrable wilderness of virgin timber and flood-prone bottomlands where people lived in isolation, in peril from sudden floods, storms, panthers, wolves, bears, snakes, and disease. It was a land where one’s very existence had to be wrested from the earth every day. Mere survival came at the cost of bone-wrecking toil.

Helen urged Mary to reduce her memories to writing, but the elderly woman, then in her mid-sixties, at first declined. It was only after she fell ill and had a feverish dream which she interpreted to mean that she should commit her story to paper that she began writing. And write she did. In 1933, she turned over a 150,000-word handwritten manuscript to Helen, who edited it and wrote a preface. She submitted it to Little Brown publishing house, which rejected it.

Before she could submit it to another publisher, however, she got word from Mary not to try any more to publish it. Mary said that her dead husband, Frank, had come to her in a dream and told her that the stories were their “private Valentine,” not for others to read. Helen put the manuscript away.

Helen’s daughter, Carolyn, discovered the manuscript in 1991, and submitted it to the University of Mississippi Press, where JoAnne Morris, wife of Willie Morris, was Senior Editor. Before she married Willie Morris, she had been JoAnne Prichard of Yazoo City, a co-worker of Helen Davis. The book was accepted for publication. It was released in 1992, only a few months after Helen died, and it included a foreword by Mississippian Ellen Douglas.

Mary Hamilton’s heirs filed suit to stop publication and to establish their claim to the rights, and they succeeded on both counts. The book sold out the run published by University Press, and lay un-republished until January, 2013, when it was self-published including the Davis and Douglas additions, and an introduction by Morgan Freeman. The 2013 edition is in paperback, and is available through Nautilus Publishing of Oxford.

As Ellen Douglas points out in her foreword, we have many portrayals of Delta life in the form of slave narratives and tales of upper-class plantation life, but memoirs depicting the everyday struggles of poor whites in the lowlands along the Mississippi River before the land was cleared and put into cultivation are practically non-existent. The story of the poor white settler of that era is what Mary Hamilton gives us.

In eloquent, simple language, Mary’s book tells how she was forced into a marriage to a secretive, mysterious Englishman when she was only 17 years old, and how they embarked on a hard life full of struggles, minor successes, gargantuan failures, births and deaths, dangers, joys and heartaches. They were among the first white people to enter the Mississippi Delta to clear it and make it habitable. Remarkably, all this occurred in only the twenty years or so before the dawn of the twentieth century. The following passage will give you a sense of what they were up against:

… Cane, undergrowth, blackberry briars, grape and poison oak and muscadine vines, all growing to enormous size out of that rich Delta ground, interlaced through that fallen timber so that it was one tangled mat. Not a trail or path through it.

But the whole country was almost as bad. A man couldn’t get through any of the woods without a compass in one hand and a cane axe in the other to blaze every foot of the way. In throwing the timber the men had to cut a path to their tree every morning. then they would estimate the direction they would throw the tree, and each man cut a path to get away in when the tree started to fall, and God help them if they couldn’t outrun the falling tree.

At the end of the book is a holographic transcription of Mary’s writing, demonstrating at once her command of imagery and description, as well as her inadequate spelling, grammar and lack of understanding of punctuation and paragraphing. The editors took care to preserve her plain language, correcting only as needed to render a readable product. Fair warning: the editors also left intact her language describing those of other races, which reflect the attitudes of her day, and not those appropriate to the 21st century.

You don’t have to be a history nerd to be fascinated by this book. It’s a story that oscillates between vibrant adventure and humdrum existence, pretty much like most people’s lives, which is a key reason why it is so approachable and entertaining.    

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