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Invitation to Reminiscence


ISSUE:  Winter 1942

The Springs of Virginia. By Perceval Reniers. The University of North Carolina Press. $4.00.

Here is a social history to fit the widest fancy— whether of dowager, debutante, or learning’s doctor. For the one it holds an invitation to nostalgic reminiscence; for the next, an interesting and compelling reminder of her elders and betters; and for the last, among other things, a documented caution that Virginians could take their politics and presidents—and could leave them alone.

Perceval Reniers’s “The Springs of Virginia” is an entertaining book, and at the same time a valuable contribution to the history of the Commonwealth. In short, Mr. Reniers has done a workmanlike job—or, since he does not create an uncomfortable consciousness of work, the word masterful may be better. He chats and sometimes chides his sources, yet does not tamper with their moods. He moves pleasantly and confidently through an exacting scene without an undignified show of tongue in the cheek, and without too much inappropriate wrinkling of the brow. Mr.

Reniers would have been welcome at the Springs, and, conceivably, to a second glass of wine at Mr. Calwell’s.

The book takes as its theme Captain Marryat’s lines written in 1839: “Watering places all over the world are much alike—a general muster, under the banner of folly, to drive care and common sense out of the field.” Mr. Reniers then proceeds deftly to convey that the Springs of Virginia were as unique in their restraints and their fervors as all that is truly of Virginia must ever be. It is tradition that this should be so; tradition that the White Sulphur, where the goddess Hygeia reigned supreme, should have had worse food, more pigs under the porch, and more corn-cobs per pallet than the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians across the mountain. It was tradition that the serenaded belles should make no sign or show of their enrapt attention; that the beaux should give Pink Germans (pink to the icing of the cakes), but sleep within easy scent of the stables, when they had lost more than they could afford to the “Tiger” on the hill. Even the points of entrance and egress were traditional, though once within this charmed and charming circle (“lop-sided, diamond-shaped kite,” Mr. Reniers calls it), some latitude in choice was allowed from a countless chain of cures, which bubbled, burst, or steamed from the neighboring hillsides. “Much alike” indeed, Captain Marryat? Did not the physician, John Bell, proclaim, “we may safely challenge any district of country of the same extent in the world to produce the same number and variety of valuable waters”?

And the span of this natural and social phenomenon will come as a complete surprise to most of us, who have not hitherto visualized our first President, at the age of twenty-nine, soaking his rheumatic fever in Warm Spring—which was to be named “Bath” in 1775, and which was to welcome “The American Company of Comedians” for a six-weeks stand in 1784. And then, three-quarters of a century later, we will tread softly with Mr. Reniers as we approach General Lee at the White, in 1867, kissing the cheeks of his confused and lonely young kinswomen, and making his courtly bows for the beaux, his men, who will not be coming that way again. Or move more gingerly as we pass the Britishers, who have come to overlook the Bostonians, the Philadelphians, and the rest, who have come to overlook the Virginians, and have found themselves sighting up the bridges of aquiline South Carolina noses—while the Virginians, all unconscious, have gone off to watch the tournaments at Fauquier.

All in all it is a splendid, a valuable, and an accurate piece of work that Mr. Reniers has done, and one must be grateful to him for an enjoyable literary and historical experience. And grateful, too, to Mrs. Reniers, who has contributed five of the best of the fascinating illustrations, as well as the orienting end-sheets.

Go to the Springs of Virginia, my brethren—our system requires ordering and our spleen is withering away.

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