Photograph by Nell Dickerson
House, circa 1860s, Henry County, Tennessee
Uncle Shelby said, ‘I’ve in fact written a story about this,” photographer Nell Dickerson recently recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah?’ He handed me the book right then and there. And I thought: This is it. This story is the history of the Mississippi Delta. The story informed the work.”
The “work” that Dickerson is referring to, during a phone interview from her home in Denver, is her book of photographs titled Gone: A Heartbreaking Story of the Civil War. The “story” that Dickerson is referring to is called “Pillar of Fire,” a chapter out of the novel she was handed, Jordan County. And the author of that novel was Shelby Foote, Dickerson’s cousin by marriage but a man she grew up knowing as “Uncle Shelby.”
As Dickerson further explains, she’d visited Foote several years ago to ask him about the ruins of a brick house in Fayette County, Tennessee. A friend had led her to it. He was thinking of buying it, preserving it — a house deep in the woods, the remains dating back to the nineteenth century. At the sight of it Dickerson was “hooked.” She wanted to know more, and she learned more after visiting Foote.
He told Dickerson where she might find other examples of houses that survived the Civil War — houses that had not been burned to the ground by Union forces but houses, today, in stages of disrepair and in dire need of preservation. And if they are beyond preservation? Then whatever remains of them needs to be documented for present and future generations. Our self-understanding as Americans, she believes, hinges on it.
Dickerson is no stranger to such documentation. After growing up in Memphis, she trained in ethnographic photography as an anthropology undergraduate. She’s earned further degrees in film, photography, and architecture and worked in set design in California. She’s currently based in Denver, working for the Department of the Interior and specializing in historic preservation.
Her photographs of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Memphis magazine’s May 2006 issue demonstrated her skill at capturing the stark reality of buildings hit by natural disaster. Gone shows us more: her artistry at capturing the visual power of ruins, indeed their poetry — whether it’s the exterior shot of a wood cabin protected by a stand of trees in Henry County, Tennessee; the bold surface patterns of an attic in Fayette County, Tennessee; or the twin ghosts that mark the fireplaces on the exterior of a house in Yazoo County, Mississippi.
Some of these nineteenth-century structures were in wood and grandly neoclassical, with ornament to match; some were churches that still display skilled brickwork and a classicist’s understanding of proportion and composition. Others are so overgrown with vines that it’s a wonder they haven’t returned to earth entirely.
Attic, circa 1850s, Fayette County, Tennessee
That was the case with Solitaire, the plantation house described by Foote in “Pillar of Fire,” a story that traces the fortunes and misfortunes of the fictional Isaac Jameson, who carved his way through the virgin forests and swamplands of the Delta in Mississippi in the nineteenth century and who rose to prominence as a landowner. Jameson’s ultimate misfortune, however: to watch, a man ruined himself by old age, as Solitaire is put to the torch under the direction of a Union colonel during the Civil War. The story, which is beautifully told, also appears in full in the pages of Gone, the perfect complement to Dickerson’s striking and, yes, heartbreaking images.
To assemble those images, the photographer traveled from Missouri, down the Delta of Mississippi, north to Mississippi’s hill country, up into West Tennessee. All told: five years’ worth of work and 3,000 photos. After which: time for Dickerson to locate an agent, who turned out to be another native Memphian, Anna Olswanger, who works today in New York City. Turns out, it was Olswanger who contacted the photographer. She’d seen Dickerson’s Memphis magazine photo essay and her picture on that issue’s contributors’ page — a photo that shows Dickerson dressed, on a movie set, in a gorilla suit and in the company of a latex monster and a skeleton. Olswanger wanted to reach Dickerson about possibly doing a children’s book. But it was Olswanger, Dickerson says, who steered Gone into a marketable position.
A fine-art photography book? “Anna said that won’t sell,” Dickerson recalls. “She said, ‘Your market is Civil War buffs, preservation people, people who love Shelby Foote. Go for a more general readership.”
But first Dickerson and Olswanger had to locate a publisher — no easy task. After a series of rejections, however, that task was made easier by yet another Memphian, Debra Dixon of BelleBooks, a publishing house founded by a group of veteran Southern authors and with offices in Atlanta and Memphis. Didn’t hurt either that Dixon was already a friend of Dickerson’s.
“She nursed me through this whole process,” Dickerson says of Dixon. “She said we have to do this now.”
Sound advice. This is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War. This is also a year when it was announced that Shelby Foote’s personal library, papers, and a number of his artifacts will be housed at Rhodes College. And this past March, an estate sale was conducted out of Foote’s home on East Parkway — a house that Dickerson knows well. Her mother and Foote’s widow, Gwyn, are first cousins.
Dickerson remembers Foote as a “dark, mysterious person” not to be disturbed while he was writing his three-volume Civil War history. After Ken Burns’ documentary on the war, which prominently featured Foote’s commentary, “Uncle Shelby” was pulled out of obscurity and became, in Dickerson’s words, “the greatest person in the world to know”:
House, circa 1854, Yazoo County, Mississippi
“We’d sit at his feet and listen to his stories. And with this project of mine, I had something to engage him. He took a keen interest. I asked him where I could find more of these houses that survived the war, every county that did not get burned. I should start, he said, with Washington County in Mississippi, where he’s from.”
So that’s where Dickerson went, on a kind of anthropology project all its own: to find the person who “knew where the bodies were buried,” to find out who was related to whom, to find where she might find unrecorded remnants of the past. As she says:
“It became a spider web — hub and spoke. We’re all related here in the South. One thing leads to another. Uncle Shelby’s ancestral home in Lake Washington? I brought him back one of the bricks. His great-grandfather lost that house in a poker match.”
Lost not entirely: the buildings, what remains of them, that Dickerson records in Gone.
“These sentinels of the South are casualties not of war but of progress,” Dickerson says, and she wanted to emphasize the point.
In her photographs, she makes that very same point equally eloquently.
You can view some of those pictures at David Lusk Gallery’s auxiliary space until mid-May. You can be on hand for the book’s launch at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on May 7th. But to linger on those images, to read Shelby Foote’s fine words in “Pillar of Fire,” go to Gone.