Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Charles Gayarre and Grace King: Letters of a Louisiana Friendship

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Charles Gayarre and Grace King: Letters of a Louisiana Friendship

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1867 Grace King was invited to visit Charles Gayarre and his wife at their Louisiana country home "Roncal." A girl of fifteen, she and her sister May met their father's close friend at the railroad station in New Orleans, from which he would accompany them to his plantation a few miles south of the Mississippi border village of Osyka.

At the time Gayarre (1805-1895) was perhaps the most distinguished of Creole citizens: he had served the city and the state for many years as public official, and he enjoyed some national reputation for his various writings, especially his four-volume History of Louisiana (1851-1866). He had been elected to the United States Senate in 1835, but resigned for reasons of health and spent the years that followed in Paris. This gave him a cosmopolitan air that would fascinate the young Grace King. Looking back more than sixty years, she remembered him as "majestic, in his high satin stock that held his head inflexibly erect. He was dressed in a long black broadcloth coat and tall top hat. His beard was clipped close, to a point, beneath his chin." (1) This was her first impression of the man who was to influence her writing of history in the years to come. The friendship was to be a symbolic one: Gayarre the Creole, repository of much of the cultural history of the state, passing his knowledge on to the newer American civilization that Grace King represented.

The country house was disappointingly small to her. She had expected a mansion and found a small brown plaster cottage adorned with galleries, standing in a park with tall trees. But it was the interior that provided the revelation: it had the foreignness she had been expecting, the furniture, paintings and candelabra that indicated Paris as cultural home rather than London, or Boston, or New York. Gayarre's way of life, with his Presbyterian wife, was in part continental. Most important, he inspired a new kind of exchange of ideas. Grace King wrote in retrospect: "It was the first time my sister and I realized what conversation was; how it differed from talk, the family talk we knew. Could anyone converse better than the Judge? ... His talk was enchantment pure and simple to his auditors, and he must have been enchanted by the rapt attention paid to him by the brown-eyed young girls looking at him with naive admiration and appreciation." (2)

Roncal became a frequent retreat for Grace King during the 1870s. Her many conversations with Gayarre imbued her with a love of history and prepared her for the time when she would write her own historical works. On his part, the childless Gayarre cultivated the King sisters with paternal affection. In 1875, when Grace King volunteered to come to Roncal to nurse Mrs. Gayarre through a dangerous illness, the Judge wrote her mother that "Grace's generous offer has moved me to tears. My heart overflows with gratitude and never shall I be able to repay the debt. Had I retained my fortune, it would have been my daily wish to have such a daughter, and to make her as happy as it is possible to be in this miserable world." (3)

The world of Reconstruction was indeed miserable for Gayarre, especially because of the loss of almost all of his $400,000 fortune as a result of the war. His friendship with the Kings, and especially with their elder daughter Grace, brought him considerable pleasure in his later years. If there was a tendency for him to resort to melancholy during these times, the "merry Kings," as Mrs. Gayarre described them, gave him joy. In Grace King's letters home from her visits to Roncal there are many references to laughter, to pleasant outings in the country, to music and conversation, in which the Judge participated with his usual dignity. The correspondence between the two friends is not extensive because of the frequency of their exchange of visits at Roncal and in New Orleans. There are at least sixteen letters from Gayarre to Grace King and a few to other members of the King family. …

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