Recounted after more than forty years by the aging Nat Ramsey, a former Memphis cotton broker and socialite who has since enjoyed a successful career in college teaching, “The Old Forest” recalls one harrowing week in December, 1937, when Nat, about to marry the debutante Caroline Braxley, found both his engagement and his future jeopardized by the aftermath of a freak auto accident and by the unaccountable behavior of the young woman who happened to be riding with him at the time.
Steeped in nostalgia tinged with irony, Nat’s recollections evoke in detail a long-vanished way of life, of a self-styled, self-appointed southern aristocracy that had somehow managed to stave off not only the effects of social change but also those of the Great Depression. Nat’s parents and their friends live in large houses and drive expensive cars, both fully staffed by faithful black “retainers” who minister to their employers’ every need. Nat and his young male friends, just beginning their business careers under the supervision of their fathers, are expected to marry within their own “class,” choosing one of the debutantes prepared for them by years of dancing lessons and finishing school. In the meantime, however, Nat and the other young men-about-town have begun to go out with women of a different sort—the adventurous, assertive “career girls” who staff offices. By Nat’s own wry admission, the career girls are almost invariably better educated, hence better conversationalists, than their sheltered debutante counterparts, with serious interests in books, art, and music. To a woman, however, they are less concerned with where they came from than with where they might be going; to them, the country-club snobbery of Nat and his fellows appears quaint, even laughable. The young men, in turn, “know” that they can never marry such girls, much as they might enjoy their company, and have come to refer to them by the French pejorative “demimondaines,” inevitably corrupted to “demimondames.”
Nat’s crisis is precipitated only one week before his planned marriage to Caroline, when, motoring through Overton Park with Lee Ann Deehart, perhaps his favorite among the “demimondames,” he fails to avoid an approaching pickup...
(The entire section is 923 words.)