Remembering Quentin Compson

By JAY WIENER,

More Mississippians know of a one-hit wonder, offering that, on “the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day[,] Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” than that Mississippi’s 1949 Nobel Laureate in Literature devoted one of the four chapters in “The Sound and the Fury” to June 2, 1910, on which day the fictional Quentin Compson III died.

Mississippi must respect its treasures more than its dross to achieve éclat.  Thankfully, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jimmy Robertson and Judge Michael Mills, of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, organized an outing to the Nicholas Longworth Anderson Memorial Bridge, over the Charles River, at Harvard University, from which the fictional Quentin Compson III jumped, at the end of his Sophomore Year there, in pursuit of erudition, and invited me — although, like Little Buttercup, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “I could never tell why.”  The August group included, among other leading lights, our senior senator in Washington, Roger Wicker, former state Treasurer Peyton Prospere, Dr. Philip Merideth (whose father was longtime chairman of the ways and means committee of the Mississippi House of Representatives Sonny Merideth), state Sen. Hob Bryan (who becomes the upper chamber’s longest-serving member come January) and Charles Wilson (successor to Bill Ferris as the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss).

The alpha and the omega for appreciating the pilgrimage is Dale Russakoff’s July 21, 1985 Washington Post essay, “Faulkner and the Bridge to the South.”

“Seventy-five years ago this summer, Quentin Compson III jumped to his death from a bridge near Harvard College. He was only 19, a Southern gentleman struggling to salvage a measure of family honor as the Old South crumbled. Hopelessly out of place at Harvard, he turned to reliving in his mind all the glory, guilt and doom of the Southern past.

“On June 2, 1910, he surrendered, caught between memories as sweet as honeysuckle and as dark as slavery. Flatirons tied to his feet, he plunged into the Charles River, and was swallowed by the New England night...

“In Quentin Compson, I found a compatriot for my southern loneliness. Like Quentin, I found that the ‘iron, New England dark’ made me yearn for the gentleness of the South — the friendly folk, the slower pace, the emphasis on people. Once ashamed of the South, I came to accept that in my own way, I was as Southern as Quentin.

“I met other southerners who had found their ways to Quentin, and we formed a cult of sorts, talking incessantly about Faulkner.  We came to look on Quentin as larger than southern: He was the universal outsider; he was youth clutching lost ideals in a changing world; he was anyone who felt the ground slipping beneath his feet. He was one of us.”

[Please do yourself the favor of finding the essay online and reading it in its entirety].

The odor of honeysuckle — memory of moonlight and magnolias — is poetic, and www.hottytoddy.com and Mississippi Edition, on Mississippi Public Radio, featured the pilgrimage prior to our June 2 commemoration.

The intimacy and trust that unfolded as we communicated before convening was infectious, such that numbers cannot increase when other highlights of our cultural patrimony are pursued.  Anyone envious should respect that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

People prepared papers allowing insight and scholarship that transcended what could have become the equivalent of a pregame picnic. No submission eclipsed another. Each was excellent. Everyone engaged in research and offered unique perspectives that educated other participants.

I pursued three strands of inquiry: songs about railroad travel (to experience, vicariously, the journey that Judge Mills, Sen. Bryan and Dr. Wilson took from Birmingham, to recreate Quentin Compson III’s northward trip to college, which I could not join, although invited), 1910 clothing style (an Edwardian appearance: Edward VII died the month before Quentin Compson III), and “The Experience of Southern Students at Harvard University at the Time of Quentin Compson III” (to understand the lives of Alabama family members attending Harvard University and Wellesley College then).

What I discovered astounded me: Far from being ostracized, Southern students at Ivy League schools fit well: Harvard University had long association with slaveholders and people profiteering from the peculiar institution. Early presidents and professors owned slaves, who lived on campus, and donors derived fortunes flowing from bondage.  An abolitionist was more likely than a slaveholder to be ostracized at antebellum Harvard. Southerners enjoyed significant social success: Class meant more than ideology or region. [Please see “Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History,” accessible online.]

My most useful document was an ancestor’s diary of his 1907 junior year at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Far from being an outcast, his existence was charmed:  tobogganing and ice skating, attending plays, silent movies, Vaudeville, and balls, learning photography and to play the mandolin and traveling to Niagara Falls, Canada and Washington (where he socialized with congressional representatives from Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi). His college years were idyllic.

One concluded that the fictional Quentin Compson III suffered mental illness, which is more easily diagnosed and treated today.  Our evening ended on the bridge from which Quentin Compson III fictionally leapt, with a moment of silence and, afterwards, remembrance of family and friends who are victims of the silent — and avoidable — tragedy that is suicide. [The National Suicide Prevention Hotline telephone number is 800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day].

The plaque on the Nicholas Longworth Anderson Memorial Bridge remembering  “Quentin Compson III  — June 2, 1910  —  Drowned in the Fading of Honeysuckle” is attached on the Harvard side of the Charles River, near the riverbank beside the Weld Boathouse. A visit is a worthy detour honoring the heritage, which is the birthright of Mississippians, as heirs to countless cultural treasures, and anyone enamored with America’s literary canon.

Jay Wiener is a Northsider.

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