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Forever and Ever, Amen

ISSUE:  Winter 1943

There is a limit to high explosion. In the summer of 1940, when Belgian forts were blown apart and dive bombers and panzer divisions were taking France, the dissipations of trinitrotoluol seemed to have no end. We know better now. The slayers who think they slay are faced everywhere with resurrection. The will to live and be free multiplies against attack. The spirit of man carries on. Guns can’t shatter it, submarines can’t sink it or dictators order it down. In the end it will conquer merely by existing.

The sense of things that do not die is a comfort and a spur. It comes more by what we feel than by what we know, by what we remember than by what we perceive, more from childhood’s pure impression than maturity’s complex. In my part of America, which is sophisticated about temporal things and naive about eternal ones, the belligerence which has been advertised as “The Fighting South” derives in part, I think, from these native returnings, from circumstances that take Southerners back to childhood when great events occur, and from an atmosphere about the childhood of many Southern men now in prime that was at once faithful and fighting.

Southerners carry through their lives more remainders from childhood than most people do, I believe. It makes them silly about some things, magnificent about others. The childhood of Southerners of the middle and upper classes whose attitudes still dominate the South had for its climate the rules, devotions, acceptances, and eternities of Queen Victoria, Robert E. Lee, and the Lord God Almighty. Form ruled the world, and faith. They can be killing things when the form is worn out and the faith has no basis. But unless there is some form there is no container for living. And unless faith in something exists, the driving powers of democracy grow as feeble as ours did in sick years before this war. When Descartes said the mind of a new-born child has nothing written upon it but that its blank sheet does and must have ruled lines for writings to come, he said a thing too many of us forgot in the anarchies that were considered maturities before the war.

When I was a boy in College Park, Georgia, at the century’s turn it was a time for the South of what W. J. Cash has called “easing tensions and quiet years.” The Populist revolt was dead. The aristocrats who had killed it were giving way to the “little foxes,” hardboiled descendants of Scarlett O’Hara who were going to win at any price. Industrialism was on the way, born of a cheap labor which didn’t seem cheap by the standards of the agrarian South. Half in hope of what this industrial development would mean, half in disillusion because of agrarian hopes that had died, the Southern masses were patient in their colonial lots again. Tom Watson, the Georgia Populist, was giving up statesmanship as a thing that didn’t work, turning to embittered bigotry. The problems which industry was bringing and which were destined to rank Number One in the nation were not yet distinct. A company house to live in and fifty cents a day for wages were tokens of something that had vaguely to do with progress, relating to Henry Grady’s vision of a “New South,” but the changes that were coming were for the time being a tide “too full for sound or foam.” Indeed, good feeling, or, rather, absence of bad feeling, covered the whole country, with imperial fervors of the Spanish-American War adding to the good will. By 1907 my father, who had some rank in Democratic Party councils, attended a big one at Chattanooga and proposed to William Jennings Bryan that he inaugurate an era of political amity by withdrawing from the Presidential race in favor of the Republican war hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who had made as many noise3 against “the corporate interest” as Bryan had. Bryan was very nice about it, insisted on letting my father make his speech after lieutenants had tried to censor it. But he wasn’t interested. He said “not as at present advised.” One of the Atlanta papers picked up the expression for a cartoon in which a number of unlikely things were given the same phrase. “Will New Orleans win the pennant? Not as at present advised!” (It was last in the Southern League.) “Will cotton hit twenty cents ? Not as at present advised!” (It was eleven cents.)

In those days my younger brothers and I would sometimes climb the big chinaberry tree outside the pantry window and make illegal entry to steal shredded wheat biscuit. Often in our thieving I would be troubled by the legend on the box— “Tell Me What You Eat and I’ll Tell You What You Are!” I couldn’t tell him what I ate because I ate everything. The question suggested vaguely a set of problems, a series of differentials, discriminations, inequalities and introspections that troubled me. It was my first contact with the stomachaches of the civilization in which I was going to grow up.

We were dependent on our own inventions and fancies then. From that same chinaberry tree, I remember, we built a home-made railway with wooden two-by-fours for rails and with flat-cars whose flanged wheels were cotton mill spools cut in half. There were switches and sidings and graded curves. Railroading was the most fascinating of all things for us and we intended to be locomotive engineers when we grew up.

Is it a sin to be remembering your childhood in days of war and economics and fearful maturity? I think not. And so much can be remembered. The games we played there in College Park, my brothers and sisters, the McCrory and Willingham children and I. “Stealing Sticks,” “Anthony Over,” “Run, Sheep, Run,” “Leapfrog,” “Pop the Whip,” “Hop Scotch,” and many a home-invented one without a name. We played a game with marbles called “Knucks Down,” and wrapped the agates in grease to get the nicks out. There was “shinny” with clubs made of the root and lower part of a hickory sapling. We had a game of throwing tops to split other tops with the sharpened point or to “null” chewing tobacco tags. Sling shots, kites, bows and arrows, acting poles—we had them all and all were made at home. And string “telephones” rigged with paper-bottomed tin cans and a waxed cord. And the things we did on our bicycles. I can still hear the wondrous “zoon” of a rubber band stretched between the handlebars as I rode at top speed in the wind. We saved soap coupons for a prize, and the shiny tin tags from chewing tobacco, and photographs from cigarette packages, and the bird pictures that came in soda boxes, and stamps, and butterflies. Putting straws in doodle-bug holes, lightning bugs in bottles, June-bugs on a string. Going to school with a tin lunch box and your books strapped together. Whistles and blowguns made of hickory bark or reeds from the canebrake. The thrilling sophistication of smoking rabbit tobacco or dried corn silks or plain string. And that fateful, fascinating book “Slovenly Peter” in which appalling things happened to those who were mean to animals or failed to wash their necks. The pain and thrill of beginning to go barefooted each April, and of putting on shoes again in October. Sometimes we would want to go before it turned warm enough for us to change from long underwear and my father would say we could do it if we would wash our feet and legs in cold water on the morning of the proposed release—a bargain we were likely to consider too hard because bathing in cold water was an atrocity in those days.

Once I had a hand printing press and published a little weekly paper called “The College Park News,” with my sister Laura for society editress and my brother DeGraffen-reid down as “circulating manager.” He ran the errands. Then there was the era of magic lanterns and scroll saws. And dabbling in electricity, feeling Edisonian in science when I learned to wrap wire around a core to make a magnet.

There were the adventures in photography, with “Brownie kodaks,” developing in a dark room by a mystic red lantern, the “hypo fixing solution,” then printing the negatives on “solio” paper by day or “velox” by night. There was a game called “Greenie” which my sisters played. You had to have something green in your possession always and display it when commanded by your opponent. It went on for weeks. They were always cutting out paper dolls, too, Laura and “little Anne.” And having candy pullings, play-houses, mud pies. They cooked little flour wafers on a charcoal burner. They would make music with tissue paper folded over a comb. They had parties and were grown-up ladies. They made clover chains, hats and aprons of leaves pinned with twigs, crowns of plaited clover. They read “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” “Diddie, Dumps and Tot,” “Little Women,” and so did I, but the book I liked best was about a faithful, hard-fighting sheep dog. It was called “Bob, Son of Battle.”

My father’s father, General James Porterfield Graves, and my mother’s mother lived with us. She was twenty years younger than he but he considered her an old lady. Every day before midday dinner they played backgammon and resumed the game after the meal. They would play, too, at other hours. That more or less eternal backgammon game, with the sound of the cups clicking the dice down, my grandfather reciting his throw aloud and calling threes “trays” and twos “deuces,” my grandmother saying “your move, General” rather sharply when he would be slow, was one of the enduring undercurrents of time, as much a fixture as the flowered porcelain clock on the mantlepiece. The competition was sharp but strictly formal. Each of them felt enough younger than the other to make allowances. Grandmother considered herself old enough, and seemed to want to be. It was just that she thought the General so very much older. She wore her hair parted straight in the middle. She was always making things, clothes, cakes, needlework, knitting.

Her lemon pies were a tradition. They were supposed to be wonderful and I suppose they were. I never questioned it, but I have not liked lemon pies since I grew up and it must be that subconsciously I didn’t care for grandma’s. She had some of the literary gifts of her brother, Major Charles E. Smith (who had written for the Atlanta Constitution under the name “Bill Arp”), and her wondrously inflammatory stories of her days as a young mother in Rome, Georgia, when the Yankees occupied the town during the Civil War were the first dramas I knew. Grandfather was less communicative. He loved to work about the place with a hoe or a rake in the mornings. All afternoon he would doze in his room or sit in a big chair by the window and look at the girls on the campus of Cox College across the road. My father bought him a telescope to see them better, for he was quite fond of them and they made a pet of him. He believed my father to be the greatest man alive. Once when he went into Atlanta to attend a banquet in my father’s honor he drank too much. He told me sorrowfully the next morning that he was “the degenerate sire of an illustrious son.” But he had his toddy every night before supper all his life, and lived to be ninety-six.

The McCrorys next door were like members of our family. Malcolm McCrory and I were the same age and did everything together, including fighting. The fighting was generally with rocks. One day as we were slowly retiring from a rock battle, throwing as we went, his hit the ground in front of me, bounced up and broke two of my front teeth. There was a frightful two-family commotion. Mother was overcome. My beauty was spoiled for life. As she weepingly ministered to my cut lips Mr. McCrory brought Malcolm into our back yard and whipped him conspicuously with a cane, hoping that would make mother feel better. But we always felt that the McCrorys whipped too hard. In our family only mother ever did any whipping, and she used a little peachtree switch which was more humiliating than painful.

Another member of the family was Uncle Steve. He was black with the matured blackness that seems aged in wood. Everything that had to be done out of doors about the place —the barn, the garden, the grass, repairs, chickens, woodcutting, driving, errand-going—he did. He worked for us always. His only vice was getting drunk once a week and that was understood and provided for. I remember him best for his coming in on dark winter mornings before dawn to make the fires, especially when something eaten or read had’ upset my imagination and I would have been lying awake a long time sensing lions at the window, burglars under the bed, nameless “things” behind the big chair, or a dreadful man on horseback riding around the backyard. Then would come the soothingly definite sound of Uncle Steve at the door with his coal scuttle and kerosene-soaked kindlings, the first little flare of light from the fire-place outlining him squatting there to put the heavier wood and coal on; then his calm departure, and the flames of the fire coming more and more alive, making comfortable flickers and shadows on the wall, making the world kind and safe, with the man on horseback a million miles away.

I remember Uncle Steve, too, for the way he would turn up around the corner of the house with an axe on his shoulder on occasions when my father was away on lecture trips and passing tramps to whom mother had given food “became impudent.” Uncle Steve wouldn’t be threatening white men with an axe, of course. But there he was, just happening by on his way to the woodpile.

There were bad Negroes but we children didn’t know anything about them. All the wickedness we knew was white— tramps, burglars, horse-beaters, and the villains in books we read. The Negroes in College Park lived in a section called Darktown. In September, 1906, there were race riots in Atlanta after a series of criminal attacks on white women by Negroes. Much blood was shed. There were stories of Negroes thrown headlong from the high viaduct on Whitehall Street who would jump up and run away as soon as they hit the ground. Wild rumors went around, and out in College Park we didn’t know what might happen. Sunday afternoon, while my father was in Atlanta writing his Monday editorials and mother and I were sitting on the long front porch, we saw a group of Negroes approaching the far edge of the big lawn around our place. Mother was very much disturbed and sent me in to get the repeater shot-gun Uncle Charlie had given us “in case of trouble.” But when I came out with it, she was laughing. The group had come near enough for the beaver hat the leader was wearing to be distinguishable. Negroes didn’t wear beaver hats for trouble. That hat meant a formal occasion. Formally the Negroes of Darktown, led by their Baptist preacher in the hat, had come to tell my father that they considered him the best friend the colored people had in the country and to put themselves in his hands for advice and protection. Because he was editor of The Atlanta News, which had printed the criminal attack stories on its front pages, New York papers were holding him partly responsible for the riots. John D. Wade repeated the charge in his sketch in the Dictionary of American Biography and it was mentioned in some books about the South later. But the colored people of Darktown didn’t think so.

No one was very rich in College Park, but no one was seriously poor either. Our nearest contact with poverty was Miss Kitty Dukes. Miss Kitty was a little, dried-up, humpbacked old maid with a sharp tongue. She would come hopping along into our backyard every now and then for an interview with mother which had to do with “gittin’ some vittles.” Where she lived I never knew, but we were told that she was “very poor” and had to be provided with food and old clothes. We children were afraid of her. Because of the independent way she talked we thought of her as a superior rather than an inferior person. Her poverty was something on which we had no judgment. It appealed only as a vague and interesting condition, like having a baby or being a hundred years old. I believe she felt that way about it herself.

Family singing was a feature of our lives in College Park. Mother played the piano beautifully, and in time my sister Laura learned too. After supper at night we would all sing, but my father would fall out early as he couldn’t carry a tune very well. The music in him was for words. He would always call for a song called “Absent.” Mother taught Laura and me to sing a duet, “Nearest and Dearest,” but the songs I liked best were “A Warrior Bold” and “Only an Armour Bearer.” Not until I grew up did I learn that it was “armour bearer.” I sang it “Only an army barrel, proudly I stand” and “Surely my captain will depend on me—Though but an army barrel I may be.” The sense of something faithful to the point of inanimation was enhanced by the mistake. But it was to the “Warrior Bold with Spurs of Gold” that I thrilled most. The brave knight in armour bright who went so gaily to the fray, fought the fight but before night his “soul had passed away.” And the “plighted ring he wore” and the way he remembered as he died his love who was so “bright and fair” and had such golden hair!

A girl with golden hair and blue eyes and very ethereal appearance (her name was Frieda Ashe) lived next door to us. I was desperately and nobly in love with her several times a day, but she never knew about it. I exercised the emotion from a distance and always in warrior-bold armour.

Because my father was a famous Southern orator and I was his oldest son, he wanted me to be one some day, too. He made me read “Beacon Lights of History” in summer vacations, and memorize poetry. It was always heroic poetry. I loved to “speak” it when I could be far enough away from people to feel unobserved. My favorite place was the top of a ladder. I would stand there and shout “Marmion”—

And darst thou then to beard the lion in his den, The Douglas in his hall!

There was a tragic one called “Allen Bayne,” too, which began: “They’re taking me to the gallows, mother, they mean to hang me high, they’re going to gather ‘round me there and watch me ‘til I die. . . .” But the poems that counted most were those in favor of Robert E. Lee and the Lost Cause. “In vain the Tennessean set—his breast against the bayonet”—I loved to put a sing-song passion into that final “et.” And “The Sword of Lee”—

Forth from its scabbard, high in air Beneath Virginia’s sky— And they who saw it gleaming there And knew who bore it, knelt to swear That where that sword led they would dare To follow—and to die. . . .

I was always at my most sing-song when my father would listen. I could see that he feared I would never amount to anything, but he loved me anyhow. And the heroic belligerencies of the verses were in me, anyhow, even if their meters bound me too close. The enemy varied but it was usually the Yankees. I didn’t really hate the Yankees; they were just a target, I think. But the Lost Cause was something in all my imaginings. The fact of being lost was not an end to it but an extra quality, a something pitiful and proud without which it would not have been so alive. Even when the Spanish-American War provided more official and tangible enemies I never could feel that they amounted to much in comparison with the Yankees. There was a diversion, though, when I read Conan Doyle’s “The White Company.” We organized one of our own to do noble and dangerous deeds, with a tree house for headquarters. The only approach was by a hanging rope that had to be climbed handover-hand. There was a countersign, too.

Next to Robert E. Lee was the Lord God Almighty. God was not a white-haired old man or anything like that but He was real, and always to be reckoned with. On Sundays we went to Sunday School at nine, church at eleven and Prayer Meeting at night. There was Wednesday night Prayer Meeting, too, and the Earnest Workers Society. And “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” prayers at bedtime, and blessings before each meal. We were allowed to look at the pictures in Dante’s “Inferno” and “Paradiso” on Sunday, but never the funny papers. The Katzenjammer Kids,. Happy Hooligan, and Little Nemo had to wait for Monday morning. My sense of relationship with God was confused at times because of the way Brother Martin prayed in church. Telfair Martin was an insurance man on weekdays, but on Sunday mornings when Dr. Mack, our minister, would call on him to lead in prayer he was God’s best and most understanding friend. An enormous man with much blood in his face and vivid black hair, he would stand with head thrown backward in a sweating exaltation while torrents of variegated sound poured from him. Every now and then he would extend both arms heavenward in graceful appeal while his great voice rolled on. He undertook the whole gamut of relations with the Deity, and had an inflection for each. Now he would thunder as the ally of an Almighty God. Now he would whine a way to the ear of a Tyrant God. Now wheedle a favor from a strangely Gullible God. He would befriend against his fellowman’s neglect a Lonely God, sing adoration to a Sentimental God, patronize a God-Who-Was-Doing-His-Best, and trumpet a victory over evil for a Napoleonic God whose heaviest artillery, surely, must boom with sounds like Brother Martin’s. My grandmother, who considered us Presbyterians different, didn’t care for Brother Martin’s praying. She said he sounded like a Baptist.

In addition to my other religious activities, I pumped the organ which mother played in church. It was a small organ with a foot pump where the pedals are on a piano. I would stand there beside her and sing as I pumped, sometimes enjoying my singing so much I would leave the pipes without enough air at a critical moment. Brother Woods White had to speak to me about it.

But my deepest contacts with God were when the sun would set in summer evening glory behind Cox College across the road from our home. My grandfather would be looking at the college girls through the telescope my father had given him but, lacking his maturities, I would be looking at God in majestic red, blue, and gold, in seashores of pink ranked shells the sunset clouds would make, in lines of radiance from below the horizon. That was where God was, and he wasn’t a white-haired old man and he wasn’t Brother Martin’s Best Friend and he wasn’t a member of the Earnest Workers Society or even a Presbyterian. He was a Glory. He was a terrible, eternal, righteous Beauty. He was the Form into which all of life was fitted. He was all the things in the world that didn’t die. He was yourself all swelled to infinity and dealt around the universe. He was the Impossible that was possible. And most of all He was the winner in a noble battle with the Yankees, the Spaniards, and the Devil.

There are measures in which my boyhood was not typical of Southern ones at the century’s turn. There are measures in which it was typical not only of the South but of all America. What is very typical of the South, it seems to me, is my joy in remembering it and the extent to which it conditions my mental and spiritual reflexes today. Youth is a pure-hearted time. Those who carry its stamp and are subject to its call through all their other years—as so many Southerners are—will be giving their hearts in toto on great occasion, no matter how halting and half-measured their ordinary ways may be. And if there were Lost Causes and Robert E. Lees and God Almightys and Yankees and Men on Horseback and rock battles and White Companies in youth—and a home so loved and full of love that any threat-to-home gives defense mechanism an automatic start—the response is more certain.

Why do Southerners remember their childhoods so lovingly? They have no monopoly on big families or youthful joy. Perhaps it is for the contrast those childhoods make with adult days, with the greater hardship and less return of economic life in the South. Perhaps it is the Southern poverty of which so much is said. But it is something else, too, I think. It is the conservatism and formality of the South reacting to a world of appalling change in which the sin of breaking the rules to win is the sin of all mankind, with Hitler only the ranking sinner. That Victorian Southern world of my childhood was a stable one for me, with affirmations and acceptances, plus signs, faith, law, things eternal. It was all wrong in a million ways, of course, and I remember that Woodrow Wilson was the one who let me know. The burden of his presidential address to my freshman class at Princeton in 1910 was that this is “a dynamic, not a static” universe and that things move on.

But I remember, too, that in my senior year the British poet, Alfred Noyes, who was visiting professor, talked much of what he called “putting the temporal into relation with the eternal.” As often as he would recite for us his favorite “Come Down to Kew in Lilac Time,” he would tell us about putting the temporal into relation with the eternal. It was the secret of literature and of life, he said, and I believed him. I felt that Woodrow Wilson would believe him too.

We who have called ourselves liberals through the anarchies of America’s 1920’s and the denials of her 1930’s, who are determined to move men forward and make them free, may have to go in for more of the eternities with our temporals when this war is over and a world is being put together. We may have to save our spiritual and mental health and our driving power with a psychology that has acceptances as well as refusals, plus signs with the minuses. We may have to make men free not only by changing lives and chances but by restoring arenas and rules of the game, senses of adventure in the play, things eternal as the play goes on. We may have to find it in our hearts to say again, as long ago: “Forever and Ever, Amenl”


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