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Kat Bergeron: 'Golden Coast' was a final frontier

By Kat Bergeron

Harnett T. Kane's"The Golden Coast" was published in 1959.
Harnett T. Kane's"The Golden Coast" was published in 1959.

Do we live on The Golden Coast?

The descriptive name used by writers, poets and proud denizens of this region tends to have a short shelf life, then resurfaces and the cycle begins again. Who first coined the nickname is unknown, though it well could be some European observer hundreds of years ago.

Golden in many ways

One mid-20th century writer explains it this way:

"It is a land golden in several ways: brightly splashed for much of the year by a possessive sun; golden, too, in a tapestry of history and incident more highly colored than that of any other part of North America, and also in a vast wealth that is only beginning to pour out to the world."

These words by Harnett T. Kane are excerpted from his popular 1959 book titled "The Golden Coast." Published by Bonanza Books of New York, its 212 pages are illustrated with black and white photography of James Ricau, who traveled the coastline from Key West, Fla., to Brownsville, Texas.

The Kane book was in my collection of vintage local books that the Katrina mermaids claimed for their personal libraries. Paul Jermyn, a Coast native and voracious collector of local history, lent me an extra copy recently, and I've decided to excerpt it today as food for thought.

The Kane file

The late Kane, a New Orleans native who first visited the Mississippi Coast at age 6, authored at least 20 books. Many were on Louisiana history and culture, with others on Deep South traditions. By today's standards his writings might seem a bit romantic, wistful even, but his books record an attitude and a history that help us understand the inner thoughts of the Deep South.

His words are fodder for contemplation, to help us remember what was and what is today -- whether real or imagined. This Sunday, we'll read what he had to say about the five-state Golden Coast, and next week, we'll hone in on the Mississippi section.

'A natural treasure'

"The Gulf Coast of the United States reaches in an irregular crescent from the last island tip of Florida, past the sand beaches of Alabama and Mississippi and the marshy edges of Louisiana to the long, down-thrust shore of Texas. Here is the America first discovered by Europeans a hundred years before the pilgrims went to Massachusetts, and here the serene skies witnessed some of the bloodiest clashes that fixed the continent's destiny.

"But this coast is, at the same time a frontier -- America's final one. For centuries, men passed over the wide arc as an isolated waste. Today the surging blue of the Gulf of Mexico draws millions of people who help to open it as a great new region with an incalculable future, a natural treasure as yet largely untapped.

"In another fashion the coast is entering the nation's consciousness. A farspread playground has come into being a series of play areas of haunting beauty of lake and island and vivid bloomings. ...Tens of thousands arrive here regularly to relax, then to return to settle as new residents.

"It is the South, but not precisely of the South. In some parts lines of columned houses extend for miles, with high galleries like those of Charleston or Natchez or New Orleans' Garden District, but in many respects the Gulf Coast is a foreign area of America, occupied by people of a warmer, more vivid culture than that of the Anglo-Saxons.

"The region touches closely upon the Latin lands, is dominated here and there by a French civilization, and spotted by other Southern and Central European additions.

"As a result, it seems a place of a relaxed spirit, the calm assumption of any joys or cares that the day will bring. Its people know bright excitements, happy hours that they enjoy to the fullest, but they are well adjusted to life as they find it ....

"Only a short distance inland, at various points, men lead far different existences, more solemn, oriented to their immediate neighborhood. By contrast the coast has maritime flavoring. Through the generations the coasters have sailed the Gulf for pleasure or for their support, and also looked toward the world beyond them."

A few high points

There's not space enough to repeat all of Kane's observations on the Gulf region, but here are a few high points:

-- "To a greater degree than any other section of North America, these shores have become a place of ceremonies, parades and general festivities."

-- "The place has known priests and outlaws, martyrs and rascals, picaroons, swindlers and plain eccentrics, and like the tolerant land that it is, it has taken each on his own terms."

-- "Through its story runs a thread of smuggling and related doings. Nature made the unending, tattered coast an inevitable scene of such operations."

-- "Over the years, to fight other opponents as well as pirates, the various nations have given the Gulf forts that altered American history."

-- "In this area have occurred some of the great disasters of America. The hurricane threat has not yet been defeated, still despite setbacks, the Gulf population is learning how to cope with it...

"The modern ways arrive, and the coasters accept them on their own terms and go on being much the same as they always were."

Next week: Harnett Kane's observations on the Mississippi Coast.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-45667.

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