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Back-Country Novels

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Bright Skin. By Julia Peterkin. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Mcrrill Company. $2.50. Amber Satyr. By Roy Flannagan. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.00. The Weather Tree. By Maristan Chapman. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. Tobacco Road. By Erskinc Caldwell. New York: Charles Scribncr’s Son/.. $2.50, Call Home the Heart, By Fielding Burke. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $2.50.

If ever some sour-mouth paraphrased the long discarded British taunt, “Who reads an American book?” to “Who reads a Southern book?” the phrase would now be pointless. Southern writers may be listed by the hundred.

An uneasy suspicion begins to stir that these books of the South and by the South are not for the South. The younger novelists for the most part are not writing what Southern readers admire or enjoy. They appear to consider duly what the publishers think more readers—who are not Southern—will buy. If there is a battle of tastes, the South is losing, and for the same reason that it has lost other battles: numbers are against it. There is a new South in fiction that may be the child of Grady’s New South but that would not be acknowledged by it as a legitimate offspring. Its inhabitants are the Negro, the mountaineer, the poor-white, and the degenerate.

How did the change come? Even the spirit of irony in Ellen Glasgow’s work or of satire, as with Cabell, Francis Newman, and Isa Glenn, had its relation to the glamorous past-worship of Thomas Nelson Page and Mary Johnston. Reaction in kind is familiar in literary history. Later Roark Bradford’s John Henry, Odum’s Black Ulysses, and DuBose Heyward’s darkies have the distilled honey of the Old South sweet in their mouths. Romance has grown to saga. John Henry and Black Ulysses are universal, are folk-creatures, as Uncle Remus was. But the newest writers to arrive in the land of the magnolia, the jessamine, and the julep show no such kinship to its literary tradition. There are exceptions. Caroline Gordon belongs in the group, but she is conscious of the past. In Stark Young the South has just missed its great novelist. The defeat of the Old South is all the more pervading in his novels because of his sympathy with the defeated. The gentle, cultured tones linger more mellowly in “River House” and the others than elsewhere, but they are novels written by one formed by nature, or himself, to be an essayist; and the art of the essayist does not construct great novels, as witness II. M. Tomlinson, for one among many. Such exceptions as Miss Gordon and Mr. Young heighten by contrast my point as to the others. They write of a South that is less the product of a political Reconstruction than of a Reconstruction of “industrial progress” and a public school system. Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Maristan Chapman, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Evelyn Scott, T. S. Stribling, Paul Green, Fielding Burke, Erskine Caldwell, Roy Flannagan: these ten, all Southerners of diverse gifts, will represent an emergent regionalism different from anything Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, or Virginia has been accustomed to hail at meetings, whether D. A. R., Rotary, or literary.

The fact is, I think, that when Julia Peterkin released her starkly beautiful “Scarlet Sister Mary,” it was as inevitable that her subject material would be borrowed without her genius for beauty as it was that William Faulkner’s degenerates would reappear between book-covers without his name —or his genius for technique. Mrs. Peterkin’s book was publicly burned by some sweet lady in a library in South Carolina and Faulkner’s “Mosquitoes” was banned in Boston: new eras are fittingly proclaimed by bonfires and boycotts. And there was Mr. Stribling, too, as early as 1926.

“Bright Skin,” Julia Peterkin’s newest novel, more than any novel I ever read reduces white men to less than phantoms, except that a nameless one was necessary to the birth of the light-skinned young girl, Cricket, who shares with her cousin and one-time husband, Blue, the central interest. “Scarlet Sister Mary,” with more of the clean poetic sweep of an arrow, shot straight to its shining goal. It had a more startling beauty. “Bright Skin” has more variety, more rich, vivid, black-skinned human nature, more mellowed, homely philosophy. It took the maturer, more experienced novelist to interweave her incidents into the absorbing story of “Bright Skin.” These Negroes live. They are not set in motion to enact a plot or to dramatize representative episodes of a twentieth-century South Carolina plantation. Yet every phase of their life is there. It is her power as a creative artist that makes Mrs. Peterkin’s realism beautiful. Her novels grow like organic things out of the figures that move, always true to their own natures, to the fulfillment of those natures. She has, too, the artist’s power not only to choose for her characters those that have a beauty of character but also to make that beauty appear, no matter how weak or even sordid the outward behavior may be. DuBose Heyward’s poetic “Porgy” is to me the most beautiful book about a Negro. “Bright Skin” is the truest and fullest picture of Negro life, just as, at its best, it is, that I know in all literature.

It would be unfair to the younger writer to compare Roy Flannagan’s “Amber Satyr” to “Bright Skin,” though theme and contrasting treatment invite the method. The story traces the destruction of a young “bronze giant,” who claims Indian blood, through the indirect means of a “poor-white” woman from whose advances, like Joseph, he flees. Mr. Flannagan has worked out his story cleverly and at times shows that he might become a real artist if he could forget his conscious journalism and his desire for melodramatic effects in the guise of realism. The novel is more ambitious than his earlier book, “The Whipping,” but the slighter book was in some respects more true in characterization. In making easy use of material suggested by recent “racial integrity” bills, the effect is produced of newspaper stories parodied. The two related themes that underlie this novel of racial relations are legitimate material for art only when the truth is treated with the austerity of the artist. There are details in “Amber Satyr” that are deftly finished. As a whole its use of a timely topic is painfully apparent.

Maristan Chapman’s “The Weather Tree” shows the defeat of “industrial progress,” in the rather inexpert person of Lynn Clayton, by Tennessee mountaineers. It is a delightful story, entertaining to read and written in a quaint folk-language that is surprisingly clear and consistent. The atmosphere is satisfying and in a measure most of the people have their own reality, but the “aliveness” is that of a book rather than of a real Glen Hazard. The people behave like real people who are acting imaginary events rather than living their natural lives. Clayton’s “mine properties” are as unreal as a card-house model and burn as flimsily, though the fire forms the climax of the story. Yet the dew and the laurel and sumac of the mountains and the tones of the mountain people are true. “The Weather Tree” is not fine art, though there is art in the telling and life in the subject matter. It is perhaps that art and life have been mixed with the mechanics of a plot that is conventional and uncon-vincing.

In this respect another contrast is suggested with Erskine Caldwell’s unsavory “Tobacco Road.” So little plot is used in the relating of this story of Georgia crackers that a semblance of force is secured by the very lack of art. Not even if some future young man attempts to “novelize” the entire life of the critters under a rock could living in the South be presented on a lower level than here. It has neither the surprising experimentation of Faulkner’s studies in degeneration to recommend it, nor the shocking fulness of detail of naturalism. There is nothing that I can honestly find to commend about this book except a sort of drab sincerity of narration which suggests that the author might tell a really significant life story, if he knows one, with the powerful restraint of unemotional honesty.

The first hundred pages of “Call Home the Heart” march with the sure stride of a novel that might almost form the beginning of a great book. Then the story passes out of the mountains to the cotton mills and becomes mixed with propaganda for the mill workers and birth control and anti-lynching. Fielding Burke has created in her heroine, Ish-malee Waycaster, a character as full-blooded and honest as some of the best of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Sussex women. Most of the book is written with tenderness and charm, and much of it with power. It is a notable novel even with its imperfections. That part which is laid in the North Carolina mill town becomes tedious with its too-apparent humanitarian brief. The author has the courage to break away from the temptation to end her book with a false solution of her labor and race tangled problem and calls home her wanderer to her native mountains. Whenever the story touches the hills, life and beauty unfold themselves like small things growing in gentle and subtle ways. The characters of the book—nearly all of them and there are many—are real and interesting people. Not often has mountain life been portrayed with such depth and sincerity as in the earlier and closing pages of “Call Home the Heart.” For the delicacy, tenderness, homely raciness, and wisdom of its mountain people, it can be forgiven a few stuffed figures that pass as cotton barons, a tediously prolonged acquaintance with an idealistic young doctor in a mill town on strike, and a Ku Klux lynching that neither the lynchers nor the novelist could bring off.

The latest development of realism in the South has its most individual exponents in Julia Peterkin, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner. Of the group of novels that I have been discussing, “Bright Skin” and “Call Home the Heart” are written of Negroes and “hill billies,” cabins with pillow-stuffed windows and shanties foul with pig-wallow. Yet they are pleasant stories. The charm of the writing, the art of the modeling, the richness and variety of human interest; in short, the art of the writers, take from the material its sordidness without lessening its truth to fact. “Bright Skin” is almost perfect in the sublimation of unpleasant detail by technical skill. Every character in the book is black. There is a particularly loathsome murder. There are orgies of dance and religion. Birth, work, marriage, and death are here as the farmhand Negro experiences them. The resultant story, with its laughing, working, sinning, intensely living black people, leaves no unpleasant associations. Instead it can be remembered as clean and beautiful because of its expression, its form, and its spirit.


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