Program examines turn-of-century courtship, what might have been

Published 8:35 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Southern Literary Trail continues its Trailfest 2013 celebration in Demopolis on Thursday, March 14 with a recognition of Women’s History Month and a look back at a regional romance that could have changed the course of America’s cultural history.

The free program begins at 5:30 p.m. at Gaineswood with presenters whose specialties include Women’s History, Southern Literature and the American Theatre.

The event will conclude with a champagne reception in the garden of the antebellum mansion. It is sponsored by the Southern Literary Trail, Gaineswood, the Friends of Gaineswood, and the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Tennessee Williams called his mother Edwina Dakin, “the prettiest girl in Mississippi.” Gaius Whitfield of Demopolis agreed with the playwright. He courted Edwina in her hometown of Columbus at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and attempted to impress her with a postcard of Gaineswood that he mailed to her on August 7, 1905, from Demopolis.

On the photo side of the card, Gaius inscribed “am having a big old time at home” and “am sorry I didn’t get to see you again before I left” within the margins. At the time, the United States Postal Service did not permit handwritten messages on the address side of a postcard. Nevertheless, the notations suggest that Gaius represented Gaineswood as “home” to Edwina. Gaius could claim a family link to the mansion but he was not an occupant.

If Gaius’s romantic pursuit of Edwina had proven successful, the Columbus debutante would not have married Cornelius Williams of Knoxville, Tenn., and become the mother of a playwright who wrote “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Unhappy in her marriage, Edwina inspired characters in her son’s plays, most notably the domineering mother Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Tennessee Williams suffered conflicted attitudes over his mother Edwina Williams. On Jan. 15, 1946, he wrote his agent Audrey Wood and said: “As for Mother, she embodies all the errors and mistakes and misunderstandings that her time and background could produce, she is so full of them that she is virtually a monument of them, nor has she out-grown a single one of them.”

A decade later in 1956, Williams wrote another friend during a surprise visit from Edwina and confessed, “I love her and feel sorry for her, but she drives me somewhat crazy.”

While conducting research on Edwina Dakin and her famous son, Mississippi University for Women Professor Stephen Pieschel discovered Edwina’s diary entries that revealed her courtship by Gaius Whitfield, a great nephew of General Nathan Bryan Whitfield who built the Greek Revival mansion Gaineswood in Demopolis. Pieschel’s research led to archives of the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas in Austin, which contains the original postcard of Gaius to Edwina. Pieschel’s discoveries inspired this program on March 14.

For the event at Gaineswood, Stephen Pieschel will be joined by Professor Donna Meester of the Department of Theatre at The University of Alabama and by Professor Lisa Dorr of the University’s History Department. From her experience as a costume design professor and costume designer for theatres across the country, Meester will deliver a visual presentation of the clothing styles worn by a couple in courtship during the 1900 era of Edwina and Gaius.

University of Alabama history professor Lisa Dorr will speak about the rules of dating and marriage in effect during the era, especially for women. This panel of distinguished professors from both Alabama and Mississippi will be moderated by Demopolis native Bert Hitchcock, a retired professor of American Literature at Auburn University, with his commentary on literary works celebrating Southern romances. The program and reception are open to the entire community.

For additional information, call Gaineswood at (334) 289-4846 or visit the calendar of events for Demopolis on the website of the Southern Literary Trail at