The Secret Lives of Used Books (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, by Allan Gurganus)

Jon Zobenica
4 min readJan 7, 2022


Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, by Allan Gurganus (New York: Knopf, 1989)

Nancy Sinclair, with her hummingbird bookplate, was presumably the original owner of this first edition of Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But without knowing her middle name, and without any other clues about, say, her age, her race, her location, I’m faced with an entire internet’s worth of Nancy Sinclairs, and forced to backwards engineer mere guesses as to who she really may be or have been.

For instance, someone by that name enrolled in nursing school at Vanderbilt in 1989, which establishes two gossamer-thin connections: Gurganus’s book came out in 1989, and Vanderbilt puts Sinclair in a state (Tennessee) that neighbors Gurganus’s North Carolina. Also for what it’s worth, Gurganus is gay, and a post on the same Sinclair’s Facebook page has a rainbow-flag design, so at the very least she wouldn’t seem -phobic in that regard; perhaps even -philic. (Is there anything thinner than gossamer?) Finally, the very same Sinclair migrated to Stanford, not too far up the road from where I found this copy, at a secondhand store near Monterey, California. Short of calling all Nancy Sinclairs, that’s the best I can do.

But enough about her — let’s talk about Allan and me. In late 2004, while on staff at The Atlantic Monthly, I was given the task of editing a small contribution by Gurganus. During my years at the magazine, I had a hand in editing quite a few people of renown (historians, humorists, once even a hot-headed A-list Hollywood director), but in straight literary terms, Gurganus might have been the most consequential among them — a novelist with a historian’s command and a humorist’s brio, whose narrative filigree not only holds up under but holds up, period, the cinematic expanse of this, his debut novel. (That widow really does tell all.)

The piece of his I was asked to edit was as small as the book is big. Yet the undertaking stretched over two months’ time (from November 2004 to January 2005) and generated thousands of words’ worth of email correspondence, and however many words on the phone. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at how much tedium the magazine’s editorial process inflicted on the writer of an 800-word sidebar. But I’m also positively delighted — in this case — that it did.

Our correspondence started out appropriately formal, but soon loosened up, as Gurganus and I began the mutual seduction that marks the best author-editor relationships. My opening move was to extend a rather flat-footed, Confederate Widow–inspired apology for the cuts I’d had to make to his draft, cuts I likened to Sherman’s March to the Sea in their ruthlessness. But he rescued me from my pedestrianism with a nimble, disarming image of him in drag, saying that where word-count restrictions were concerned, he could wear a girdle if he had to.

Wriggling out of rhetorical constraints altogether, he and I then settled into a frolicsome kind of food talk, dusted with whatever entendre seemed fun at the time. Buttermilk pie was a motif, and our exchange became like a six-course meal in which every course was dessert (to me, anyway). In early December, while pleading unavailability owing to a story he was working on for All Things Considered, he offered this benediction: “Hope buttermilk pie has come and got into bed with you. What a friend.” Later that month, when I confessed to being a Christmastime gourmand, he assured me that sins of the flesh didn’t count, and ordered me “back to the table!” At one point, I called him a peach (for having been so patient), and at the end of it all he addressed me simply as “buttermilk.”

I was working in wintry, grouchy Boston at the time, and am a northerner by upbringing. But like Gurganus, I’m a Tar Heel by birth, and something about his oleander-scented Southernness and easygoing charm tapped into a terroir I didn’t even know I had. He’s part of a distinguished line of Southern gentlemen, a line that would include everyone from the Percys (of Mississippi and Louisiana) to Johnny Mercer (of Savannah) to bandleader Kay Kyser, who — mere months before Gurganus was born — had a number-one hit with “Ole Buttermilk Sky.” I picture a pregnant Mrs. Gurganus, in heels and an apron, perhaps with a damp dish towel in hand, turning on the Bakelite radio of an evening and swaying to the song in the family living room, with whatever subliminal effect on prenatal Allan.

Kyser was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the eventual birthplace of none other than Allan Gurganus.