story by Shelby Foote and photography by Nell Dickerson
reviewed by Erin Z. Bass
The concept behind “Gone” is a Southern architecture fan’s dream. In fact, when I first opened up this book, I though I’d skim the text and really just bask in the photos for this review. It didn’t take long for Shelby Foote’s story “Pillar of Fire” to pull me in though. Told from the point of view of a Union soldier whose job it is during the Civil War to tell Southern homeowners their house is about to be burned to the ground, the story is both heartbreaking for how this act affected people already beaten down by war, and how it affected once magnificent historic structures.
Expertly woven throughout the late Foote’s story, the photos were taken by historic preservationist and Mississippi native Nell Dickerson. And her haunting images are hard to fathom. Can we really be getting a glimpse into a circa 1830s parlor in Hardeman County, Tennessee, with armchairs, books and bricks strewn about? Or take for instance the 23 Corinthian columns in Claiborne County, Mississippi – all that remain of a house called Windsor that once had 25 rooms and fireplaces.
It’s hard to know what to take away after seeing so many images of crumbling homes, porches and churches, but in his forward, author Robert Hicks provides some direction for us. “Does the American Civil War still have any value or impact as to who we are, what this nation is, good or bad?” he asks. “Are there any lessons to be learned from the war as we move forward?”
His answer: “It would seem that the Civil War matters at this time in our history as much as it ever has, if not more. And if the past does matter, as I believe it does, then all of us owe a debt of thanks to Nell Dickerson.”
Hicks goes on to describe Dickerson’s trek through dark woods, tall grass and ultimately ruins to capture these photos. While certainly a book every Southerner should have on their coffee table, the real purpose of “Gone” is to get us thinking about preserving those places that matter to us. Whether it’s the family home, neighborhood church or simply an heirloom passed down from generation to generation, if we don’t cherish these things, they’re going to end up like the structures in this book.
Eluded to earlier in the text, this message is driven home in Dickerson’s forward at the end of the book.
Here, she tells us her preservation creed: “Honor your past, protect your history, respect your ancestors and preserve your own culture.” She also tells us about The Burrus House, an 1850s survivor in Greenivlle, Mississippi. After a brief stint of fame as the house used in Tennessee Williams’ 1956 movie “Baby Doll,” the house began to decline, and no one in the family wanted to live in it or could afford to restore it. Dickerson reports that last year, the house was fully restored by descendants of the original owner, and today its white columns and wide front porch present a picture of its former glory in Bolivar County.
The reveal is a fitting, and hopeful, ending, especially as the South commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War over the course of the next four years.