Thomas Nelson Page, the elder son of a Virginia aristocrat living on a gracious plantation, could watch with pride as his father rode out in bright uniform and flowing cape to defend the Confederacy. Yet in later years, he would remember his father’s homecoming even better than his grand departure. What was most vivid to his memory was the image of “his hand over his face, and his groan, “I never expected to come home so.” “Out of such recollections, out of his sense of the discontinuity in memories of life before and after the Civil War, Page was to fashion for the South a definitive version of the dream of Arcady.
The cornerstone of Page’s vision would be his dual focus of pride and loss; the strength of his fictional recreations of the Old South as Arcady would rest primarily in his ability to balance his belief in his idealizations with his awareness of threat and inevitable doom facing them. Nostalgia might win out over fatalism, yet the feeling that this golden world cast its glow from the center of impending peril is what makes its charm effective.
Growing up during the Civil War on a Virginia plantation, Page was quite naturally drawn to evaluating the quality of life before and after the war. That he would idealize the past was an inevitable consequence of the experiences which made up the most impressionable years of his life. Before the war he was the proud son of a slaveowning planter, taught by conservative parents to respect the old and suspect the new. His childhood was, by all accounts, remarkably carefree until the war intervened. He seems to have been provided with the opportunity to know all the pleasures of rural life while avoiding its hardships.
Page’s fictionalized account of his own youthful adventures during the Civil War, recorded in the popular boys’ book, Two Little Confederates, provides an intriguing glimpse of the atmosphere that was to mold Page’s later concerns as a writer. The tale deals with the exploits of two youngsters who, like Thomas Nelson Page and his younger brother, Roseswell, lived out the Civil War on a Tidewater plantation. From idyllic pursuits of fishing, possum hunting, and squirrel shooting, the boys’ energies are turned during the war to searching for deserters, hiding family heirlooms and Confederate officers from the Yankees, and, finally, to aiding their mother in the matter of sheer day-to-day survival as food supplies diminish and the defeat of the glorious Confederacy becomes an inevitability.
Page, in this nostalgic review of the war years that changed his own life so drastically, shows the two little confederates’ romantic acceptance of the war as a kind of play world offering adventure and fame. Still, the effects of the defeat are not glossed over. Page recalls again his father’s return from service after the fall of Richmond: “It seemed like a funeral. The boys were near the steps, and their mother stood on the portico with her forehead resting against a pillar. . . . It was a funeral—the Confederacy was dead.” The father’s final gesture in this scene is worth special note. He turns to his last remaining slave, his body-servant Ralph, gives him his last dollar, and tells him he is free; “Ralph stood where he was for some minutes without moving a muscle. His eyes blinked mechanically. Then he looked at the door and at the windows above him. Suddenly he seemed to come to himself. Turning slowly, he walked solemnly out of the yard.”
From what we learn of Page’s early experiences in Two Little Confederates, we can grasp the artistic potential of his situation; he was in a very sensitive position to measure the impact of the destruction of the old world and the violent advent of the new. His imagination was steeped in experiences that he had shared or had heard recounted by old soldiers and old slaves. Yet without the pressure of upheaval that was provided by the war, it is doubtful that Page would have had the impetus to produce what has become the classic fictional account of the plantation myth. The war and its aftermath emphasized for Page the values of the old world just at the moment that they were disappearing, leaving him with a sense that the regime destroyed had a tragic grandeur and his childhood memories a special importance that should be captured for posterity.
After the war, Page was poor, not as poor as many in the South, but poor enough to lack the privileges and comforts to which he felt that he and his family were entitled. His ancestors had been wealthy and prominent men, and although Page’s own father was never very prosperous, Page had a pride of class causing him to attach great importance to his forebears’ accomplishments. Money was more important than lineage in many social circles after the war, and Page, who had so much of the latter and so little of the former, came to see his ancestors, perhaps somewhat defensively, as heroic embodiments of a golden age. In several of Page’s essays on life in Virginia before the war, he included remarks on the status and honors accorded to Pages and Nelsons of earlier generations. This was a mechanism by which he connected himself to his past and made himself a part of the glories which seemed unavailable in the present.
Lacking the funds to go to law school, Page became a tutor for cousins in Kentucky after attending Washington College for a short time, and he finally earned enough money there to enable him to return to studies at the University of Virginia. In November 1874, he successfully passed examinations entitling him to practice law, the traditionally favored profession for Southern gentlemen. He also began, around this time, to write, In April 1877, his first important piece, a Negro dialect poem, was published.”Uncle Gabe’s White Folks” depicted an old black servant recalling the glories of his master’s life before the war. It was ten years later, with the publication of In Ole Virginia in 1887, that Page was established as an influential authority on the Old South.
His first book was his masterpiece, an achievement never closely matched by his later works, which seldom sustain the unique blend of nostalgia, romance, and local color that is the highlight of the stories of In Ole Virginia. Yet the works which followed his masterpiece continued to gain a large and fairly sympathetic audience. In a collection of essays entitled The Old South, Page wrote an eloquent if also chauvinistic “history” of plantation civilization as it could be viewed only through the eyes of a Virginia aristocrat. When he turned to the novel form, he dealt best with cavalier heroes who had to make the transition to the modern world but who survived actually because they remained attached to the old values. During the last ten years of his life, Page devoted himself almost completely to public life, notably as United States ambassador to Italy, but his major achievement remained his early fictional evocations of the special world that was the South in enchanted times “befo” de wah.”
The three aspects of the antebellum world which Page turned into staples of his Arcadia were the plantation locale itself with the great house at the center; the image of the Southern gentleman; and most important, the “old time” Negro, the slave or “servant” as Page calls him, through whose voice the Old South achieves mythic status. Taking up these points as they appear in Page’s major works, we begin, as almost all of his descriptions of plantation life begin, with the planter’s home, which was for Page the hub of the universe. It is of interest to note that most of Page’s stories and novels, and the essays dealing with Southern culture as well, contain, near their beginning, a fairly thorough account of the home occupied by the hero or heroine, and at any time in the stories the threat of the loss of that home portends a tragedy of major proportions.
One of Page’s most lyrical panegyrics to the Old South is entitled “Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War.” The essay begins with a description of Oakland, his own boyhood home. With few alterations, Oakland could serve as the setting for almost all of Page’s plantation stories. The striking quality of his description of the house is his orderly arrangement of the picturesque scene into a composite that contains all the elements which he cherished about the Old South. “Oakland” is notable for the plainness of its construction; there is a quaintness in its design, a “manliness” about its offices and quarters, a special dignity in the way it is set among historic oaks, and an ineffable grace showing through the orchards and gardens that flourish on the grounds. When Page called -again on his memories of Oakland to provide the setting for Two Little Confederates, his description emphasized two qualities: an excellence based on simplicity and a beauty based on older and, by implication, surer standards: “It was not a handsome place, as modern ideas go, but down in Old Virginia, where the standard was different from the later one, it passed in the old times as one of the best plantations in all that region.”
When we read any of Page’s stories of the Old South, we are made aware that his locales are charged with special significance. Every story contains reference, often extended, to the homes of the leading characters. And it is through these descriptions that Page is establishing the credentials of his heroes—if they come from a fine plantation, they are almost invariably of high moral quality and deserve universal admiration. A study of the stories in Page’s first volume, In Ole Virginia, reveals that the plantation homes described are uniformly designed to be outward and visible signs of the spirit of the people who settled the Southern region and created an aristocratic Utopia out of a wilderness. In these early stories, the preservation of the old estates represents for those involved in it an effort to maintain the nation’s only remaining stronghold of non-material values.
In Page’s first story, “Marse Chan,” the white narrator, a stranger to the Southern locale he is visiting, is struck immediately by the atmosphere surrounding the “once splendid mansions” which seem to him, in their “proud seclusion,” to indicate that “Distance was nothing to this people; time was of no consequence to them. They desired but a level path in life, and that they had, though the way was longer, and the outer world strode by them as they dreamed.” The outer world is always somewhere beyond the settings that Page uses for the stories in In Ole Virginia. The pertinent action in most of them takes place before the Civil War, so that the serenity of the scene is not disturbed, although the sense of impending destruction is always present. It is of this world that Page’s most famous narrative spokesman, the venerable Unc’ Sam of “Marse Chan,” says: “Dem wuz good ole times, marster—de bes’ Sam ever see!” (p.10).
In the story “Meh Lady,” the sense of place is the strong motivating force by which a young Virginia belle and her faithful retainers struggle to maintain a home constantly threatened by Yankees or carpetbaggers. To leave the plantation, it is implied, would be death. After the war Meh Lady’s estate stands as a small, embattled island where the old values and sense of pride are being defended against the rude forces of change.
The story in In Ole Virginia which least meets with Page’s idea of normal conditions of plantation life is “No Haid Pawn,” The plantation with the weird name “No Haid Pawn” is the antithesis of Oakland and the estates described in Page’s other stories. Page wants to show here what happens to the plantation ideal when unworthy beings attempt to imitate its concepts. No Haid Pawn was built by strangers to the area, men of Creole blood who “never made it their permanent home. Thus, no ties either of blood or friendship were formed with their neighbors, who were certainly open-hearted enough to overcome anything but the most persistent unneighborliness” (166).
Because they are not Anglo-Saxons reared in the Virginia manner, the owners of No Haid Pawn build a mansion totally out of keeping with what was expected from the true plantation house. An unhealthy atmosphere surrounds the place from the very beginning, and eventually, in what was probably an attempt to copy the fate of Poe’s House of Usher, Page allows nature to reclaim what the evil Creoles forfeited by their lack of morality and their disdain for the customs of the community. In this respect, the story offers some interesting parallels to Faulkner’s treatment of “Sutpen’s Hundred” in Absalom, Absalom! In “No Haid Pawn,” Page experimented with a new kind of atmosphere and setting, yet he ended by re-emphasizing a cardinal principle applied to all his plantations; that is, the place reflects its owner and thus the true plantation will symbolize and proclaim the ethical superiority of its inhabitants.
Page’s most successful novel, Red Rock, contains an interesting treatment of the kind of values that the plantation represented for him.”Red Rock” is the name of a Southern estate which, like Page’s own Oakland, is full of the history, memories, and the pride of its owners. In Red Rock, Page tells the standard Southern version of Reconstruction as he chronicles his heroes’ loss of their homes to scalawags and carpet-baggers. Thrown into a world in which money is the new standard of power and influence, the Southern gentry are almost completely helpless. Their plantations, Page would have us believe, were never operated for profit but only for the purpose of upholding the lifestyle of the gentlemen who maintained them. The plot of Red Rock tells how several old Virginia plantations were lost after the Civil War through the virtuous naivety of their owners, and how eventually right conquers might, so that the plantations are restored to the only people who deserve them.
The real threat to Red Rock and other places like it is defined by Page’s chief spokesman in the novel, Dr. Gary, who points out that the enemy is not just the Yankee.”We are at war now,” Dr. Gary tells the townspeople, “with the greatest power on earth: the power of universal progress. It is not the North we shall have to fight, but the world.” Dr. Gary announces the South’s last stand but recognizes the battle is a hopeless one.”From having been one of the most quiet, peaceful and conservative corners of the universe,” Red Rock’s county becomes, at the mere rumor of hostilities, a scene of “almost metropolitan activity” (42), and the old world can never be the same again,
Gordon Keith (1903) appeared five years after Red Rock and was Page’s rambling attempt to juxtapose and compare in fiction the environments of the plantation South and the urban North. The novel contrasts three different settings representing opposing value systems. Page opens, as usual, with a vignette of plantation life. From here the hero, young Gordon Keith, moves on to areas beyond the ideal world of his youth, first to a small mining town in the mountains. After this “initiation” into life organized around purely materialistic motives, he faces the ultimate test of his moral fibre, the city of New York.
Gordon Keith is naturally superior to the alien society that he must meet beyond the friendly boundaries of the plantation. His first and only true home supplies the only credible setting of the three dealt with by Page in the novel. The Keiths’ plantation, Elphinstone, is of the same type as Red Rock: “Elphinstone was, indeed, a world to itself; a long, rambling house, set on a hill, with the white pillared verandahs, closed on the side toward the evening sun by green Venetian blinds, and on the other side looking away through the lawn trees over wide fields, brown with fallow, or green with cattle-dotted pasture-land and waving grain, to the dark rim of woods beyond.”
In Gordon Keith, industrialism is shown as having corrupted a whole society, and Keith himself has to make repeated returns to the country in order to keep from yielding to the temptations that the “glitter and gayety” of the city make so attractive. Page endows his pastoral environment with the only moral force present in the novel as he describes how Keith conquers the urge to become like his city acquaintances:
When the temptation grew too overpowering he left his office and went down into the country. It always did him good to go there. . . . He had been so long in the turmoil and strife of the struggle for success—for wealth; had been so wholly surrounded by those who strove, tearing and trampling and rending those who were in their way, that he had almost lost sight of the life that lay outside of the dust and din of that arena. He had almost forgotten that life held other rewards than riches. He had forgotten the calm and tranquil region that stretched beyond the moil and anguish of the strife for gain.(515)
The plantation, for Page, was the breeding ground for heroes. It provided the cornerstone “of a civilization so pure, so noble, that the world to-day holds nothing equal to it.” All of Page’s major characters exhibit the traits of feudal lords, and all of them are involved in a crusade to preserve an ideal way of life against the forces of inevitable change. Their threatened plantation homes are a symbol of their struggle, and perhaps of its futility. In any case, Page’s plantation settings provide much more than mere scenery; they supply motivation and meaning for the works as a whole and are at the center of Page’s design.
The Southern plantation owner’s attitude toward his home resembles that of a feudal lord toward his domain. Two things are of utmost importance to this figure as Page presents him— his land and his honor. Both are sacred, and both are the exclusive possessions of a particular kind of human being whom Page names reverently “the Virginia gentleman.” It is a title which he does not lightly bestow, for it belongs only to his small group of embattled chivalric heroes who try to maintain the virtues of the Old South while the rest of the nation and even much of the South itself are given over to materialism. In his home state before the war, Page declared, “To be a Virginia gentleman was the first duty.”
In Old Virginia, Red Rock, and Gordon Keith contain many representatives of the “gentleman” figure. Among the heroes that are portrayed in these works, there are two types: the old gentlemen who are conservative fathers, often stubborn authoritarians, gracious to ladies and guests but unbending in their opposition to anything that threatens the status quo, and the young gentlemen who must meet new challenges posed by a changing technological society.
In the stories that make up In Old Virginia, there is not too much distinction made between what is expected of the young and of the old; fathers and sons alike are involved simply and wholeheartedly in exemplifying the charm and chivalry that characterized life in the Old South. Because few of the stories deal with the question of what behavior should be in a defeated “new” South, the gentlemen both old and young in the stories of Page’s first collection live out their roles in a kind of King Arthur’s Court that has many intriguing aspects but that does not often try to treat the problems facing different generations of “gentlemen” after the Civil War.
Dr. Gary in Red Rock, and General Keith, the hero’s father in Gordon Keith, are patrician types whom Page uses to proclaim his philosophy of gentlemen in postbellum situations. They are allowed to survive the war in order to show the great disparity between the Old and New Souths and to emphasize how much has been lost. In Red Rock, Dr. Gary speaks always for propriety and good manners. Money means nothing to him; name and honor, everything. The war takes everything from him except his knowledge of an abiding faith in who he is. To his nearly destitute family he says, “We have each other . . .and we have the land. It’s as much as our forefathers began with” (59). His struggle to deal with a new breed of businessmen according to the old code of gentlemen makes him pathetic but no less proud, and in his death it seems to his community that “the foundations were falling out—as though the old life had passed away with him” (557).
General Keith, in Gordon Keith, is in many ways a more satisfying creation than Dr. Gary, largely because Page does not even try to make him seem real. Dr. Gary is far too good to be true as he goes through life doing his innumerable acts of selfless charity. General Keith, on the other hand, appears more as the spirit of gentlemanly behavior than as a real person. Page tells us at the beginning that “He knew the Past and lived in it; the Present he did not understand, and the Future he did not know.” After the war, General Keith watches the end come to a whole way of life, yet he manages to remain himself “unchanged, unmoved, unmarred, an antique memorial of the life of which he was a relic” (3). We are given no real picture of his personal tragedy, so he takes on the status of a pure symbol of the permanence of certain values inherent in the Old South.
Page’s young aristocrats differ from their elders in breadth of experience but not in substance. From Marse Chan to Gordon Keith, they form a neat chain of similar young heroes waiting to put the code they have been taught to the tests that will prove them true Virginia gentlemen. In the plantation stories of In Ole Virginia, the young man usually dies in the course of performing some act connected with the ritual of earning this title. He will be remembered by a former slave who was his childhood companion and who sees “young master’s” death as a blessing which saved the hero from having to cope with the postbellum world.
In Red Rock, the youthful heroes are not spared the trauma of facing life in a new kind of world. It is their task to rebuild the South as nearly in the same image of the old as is possible. Yet one episode in Red Rock provides a particularly interesting idea of Page’s real ideal of a gentleman farmer. It occurs when Steven Alien attempts to do his part to keep Red Rock going by working in the fields himself. Page tells us that Alien has been “moved by the grassy appearance of the once beautifully cultivated fields” of Red Rock to take up his “bucolic operations” (93). His idea of the romance of such labors comes to an end, however, when he is mocked for his agrarian employment by Red Rock’s former overseer. His reaction: “That’s the last time I’ll ever touch a hoe as long as I live. I’ve brains enough to make my living by them, and if I haven’t I mean to starve” (95). There is no stronger proof than this that the pastoral world so cherished by the Grays and Carys and Page’s other aristocrats depended for its continuance on the labor force that was freed at the end of the war. The code of the Southern gentry held such menial tasks to be degrading, and while he loved basking in the atmosphere of simplicity that plantation life afforded, the Southern gentleman as conceived by Page is incapable of participating in that life at its most elemental level. He might “commune” with Nature, but it is his slaves who work in it to maintain his paradise.
In Red Rock, the superiority of the type represented by Jacquelin Gray and Steven Allen is never questioned, even by their many enemies, who envy their status in society even more than their possessions. In Gordon Keith, the young hero has to prove this superiority to an alien world and is, in fact, immediately rejected by the mother of his first love. Although he comes from “the best blood of two continents,” the girl’s mother disapproves of him because he cannot afford to give her daughter the “best advantages.” When pressed to say if, by “best advantages,” she means money, the lady replies, “Why, not in the way in which you put it; but what money stands for—comforts, luxuries, position” (115).
Gordon Keith’s task throughout the novel is to show that the things “money stands for” are worthless when compared to the values of his region. It is up to him to prove by getting a fortune that fortunes without honor are worthless. In the course of converting his Northern materialist friends to his point of view, he delivers numerous sermons like the following: “. . .fashion is a temporary shifting thing, sometimes caused by accident and sometimes made by tradesmen, but . . . good manners are the same to-day that they were hundreds of years ago, . . .the basis is always the same, being kindness and gentility” (122). Adhering to such principles is what enables Keith to defeat unscrupulous businessmen and to come to the financial aid of unfortunate friends. In the end, a sophisticated city slicker pays him the highest tribute by saying, “He made you live in Arthur’s court, because he lived there himself” (236).
Page argues in Gordon Keith that the 20th-century urban society, as represented in the novel by New York City, is “the most corroding life on earth,” and money the most sordid kind of wealth. His hero reaffirms the ideal world from which he came by using its values to beat modern materialists at their own game. The trouble with the novel’s tactics, however, is that its hero, while professing great disdain for money, must even so depend on it to get where he wants to be in life.
Page had great difficulty in making any of his young aristocratic Southerners believable. While characterizing them as the worthy representatives of all that the Old South stood for, he still wanted to be able to show that they could function successfully as heroes in a materialistic age. Part of his problem, particularly in his novels, was that he was preaching a “creed outworn” to a generation increasingly interested in other things, but his inability to produce believable characters in much of his fiction was due to more than this. What we get in his gentlemanly protrayals in his novels are products of an environment rather than people with individual emotions or spontaneous ideas. Marse Chan and Marse George, in the stories of In Ole Virginia, generate a great deal more interest than Page’s later heroes. However, this is not really because they are portrayed with more flexibility, but because they are seen through the eyes of Page’s Negro narrators, who speak with much greater originality and emotion than does the stiff, omniscient gentleman-narrator of the novels.
The Negroes of In Ole Virginia are the most important figures that Page produced in his fiction. Not only are they more lifelike than the white heroes he created, but also they carry the chief responsibility for making and proving his arguments about the benevolence of race relations in the Old South. This is not to say that the Negro as Page presents him is not a stereotype, but only that Page, in conceptualizing the Old South darky, felt free to be more imaginative and less dogmatic than he was with his Old South gentlemen, and the result is that his black men usually have much greater appeal than his whites. Page lost some of his inhibitions when he used the voice of the Negro to tell his tales. They still preach his personal philosophy, but they do so in a way that enlarges and to some degree changes our vision of the world that he wanted us to see.
Sam, the old black freedman who was companion and servant to Page’s Marse Chan, expresses the crux of Southern race relations in refreshing terms; speaking to his master’s dog, he says, “Yo’ so sp’ilt yo’ kyahn hardly walk. . . . Jus’ like white folks—think ‘cus you’s white and I’s black, I got to wait on yo’ all de time” (3). The old servant’s pointed remark, however, is meant to be more of a joke on himself than a criticism of white attitudes, as his subsequent actions show. The dog is treated with all the respect and favor due a monarch, simply because he once belonged, as did Sam himself, to the beloved Marse Chan. The fact that Sam was, by the sheer fact of his black skin, a slave, does not bother him at all. Actually he longs pitifully for the time when “Niggers didn’ hed nothin’ ‘t all to do—jes’ hed to ‘ten to de feedin’ an’ cleanin’ de hosses, an’ doin’ what marster tell ‘em to do.”
Page’s fiction was designed to dramatize his racial views, and his stories became in fact his most effective tool for displaying what he felt was the true case concerning the relationship between whites and blacks which had once existed and could again exist in the South. Francis Pendleton Gaines points out that Page’s Negroes feel a “not incongruous dignity” at being included as members of the plantation family. Page’s argument was that the slave enjoyed a secure place in life and a certain sense of status through his bondage. Only by being a slave could he participate in the exclusive world of the planter, yet his gratitude for the opportunity was nevertheless unbounded.
Such is the case with Sam when he is given to his young master in “Marse Chan.” Sam relates with pride what was for him the greatest moment in his life, when “ole marster” singled him out: “An den he sez: ‘Now Sam, from dis time you belong to yo’ young Marse Channin’; I want you to tek keer on im ez long ez he lives. You are to be his boy from dis time. . . .” An from dat time I was tooken in de house to be Marse Channin’s body servant” (6).
Page was trying to make the point in “Marse Chan” that it would have been better for Sam if slavery had never ended, but for the modern reader Sam’s description of all the wonders of the old time cannot disguise the fact that his present misery is the direct result of his having been made, at birth, totally dependent on a way of life which could not save either him or itself from destruction. Of course, Sam sees nothing of this, and his account of his existence before the war is meant to be an uncritical defense of the old regime, one that would put to rout the image left by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. This it managed to do more effectively than even Page could have hoped, as witnessed by the reported spectacle of the abolitionist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, weeping over Sam’s description of Marse Chan’s untimely death.
There is more pathos in Marse Chan’s death than simply the fact that it keeps him from being reconciled with his true love. He dies in a war that he opposed in order to defend a system already doomed. And in spite of his brotherly regard for Sam, and Sam’s undying loyalty to him, he is unable to provide for his slave’s future. The result is a pathetic figure whom Page devised in order to praise the Old South, but who also reveals, all unconsciously, the plantation’s inherent weaknesses.
The situation of Unc’ Billy in “Meh Lady” is not as pathetic as that of the other Negro narrators in In Ole Virginia. For him, the old world manages to be retained on his plantation through the auspices of a former Northern soldier (with Virginia ancestors, Page hastens to inform us) who returns after the war to win the hand of Meh Lady and restore her home to its earlier elegance. Viewing the reconciled pair of lovers, who represented for Page’s readers an idyllic reunion of North and South, Unc Billy sits with “de moon sort o’ meltin’ over de yard,” and thinks “hit ‘pear like de plantation ‘live once mo’, an’ de ain’ no mo scufflin’, an’ de ole times done come back agin” (138).
It is fitting that, at the wedding of Meh Lady and her lover, Billy takes the responsibility unasked when the minister requests someone to give the bride away. His reasoning is simple and yet full of dignity: “an” I don’ know huccome ‘twuz, but I think ‘bout Marse Jeems an’ Mistis when he ax me dat, an’ Marse Phil, whar all dead, an’ all de scufflin’ we done been th’oo, an’ how de chile ain’ got nobody to teck her part now ‘sep’ jes’ me; an’ . . . I ‘bleeged to speak up, I jes’ step for’ard an’ say: ‘Old Billy’ “(138), Although Billy achieves a great deal of stature in this scene, his explanation nevertheless borders on being an apology for his presumption, and Page is quick to put him back in his place as simple darky.
There is one story in In Ole Virginia which differs from the rest in its focus and its message. Although not told from a Negro’s point of view, the central character is a Negro whose tragic situation is not minimized by any of Page’s usual propaganda of white benevolence.”Ole’Stracted,” in the story of that title, is a former slave who had been sold many years before to help to pay off his master’s debts, His wife and child were sold elsewhere, and the old black man lives only to be reunited with his master, who had promised to buy him back with his family, Though he has no memory of anything that has happened to him since the sale, he has made his way back to his plantation, which is now in ruins and is owned by “po” white trash.” The old man’s only identity is bound up in his belief that his master is coming for him. Thus he spends his time dreaming “of a great plantation, and fine carriages and horses, and a house with his wife and the boy” (154).
Ole ‘Stracted’s hopeless fantasy is matched by the far more compelling dream of a young neighbor who turns out to be the old black man’s son. Ephraim is a freedman trying with dignity against impossible odds to make a good living for his wife and family. In spite of the new sort of potential here, there are still some of the standard biases. It is a poor white and certainly not a Southern gentleman who victimizes Ephraim, and Ole ’ Stracted never considers freedom a favorable alternative to the idyllic conditions he knew as a slave—the point is never made that the plantation system was responsible for separating him from his family in the first place. But Ephrairh is a different kind of Negro from those whom Page had treated sympathetically in his other stories.
Ephraim’s dream, like his father’s, is of a Southern Arcady, but his is based on a future which holds dignity and self-sufficiency for his family, while Ole ‘Stracted’s is based on his memories of a time when his master provided for him. Ephraim has a recurring vision “in which he saw corn stand so high and rank over his land that he could scarcely distinguish the stalk, and a stable and barn and a mule . . .and two cows which his wife would milk, and a green wagon driven by his boys. . .” (149—50), in which, in short, he would be a prosperous farmer sustaining himself and his family through his own labors on his own land.
This dream is a simple one which involves all of Ephraim’s energy and keeps his hopes alive. It is one which Page lets us feel Ephraim has every right to realize, and this is what makes “Ole ‘Stracted” so different from the other stories of his first collection. Page’s usual attitude toward the freedman is one of scorn concerning the “new issue nigger” who does not have the proper respect for the old values. He frequently advised that the freedman should turn to his master for guidance and remain dependent on the white man until some vague future time when his race might finally “deserve” to govern themselves. In this one story, however, he seems to admit the justice of a plan whereby the Negro could take his life into his own hands through owning and working his land.
Page’s story, despite the sympathy it gives to Ephraim’s dream, finally demonstrates that the young freedman’s hopes are as futile as his father’s belief that his master will find him. Ephraim and his wife do not own their land, and never in a lifetime of sweating in the fields and taking in washing could they hope to earn enough to buy it, Everything they can possibly raise goes to pay their rent to the white man who lives on the hill. Page has sympathy, but in the story, as well as in the essays he devoted to solving the “Negro Question,” he has few practical ideas as to how the Negro could maintain his self-respect and achieve his dreams in a white man’s world. Yet Page evidently could not bear the indictment of the old world that his story implied, so he got himself off the hook through a fortuitous, if improbable, coincidence of the kind that he uses to resolve most of the potentially tragic situations in his works. The money that Ole ‘Stracted has saved to buy back his wife and son goes at his death to Ephraim, who discovers just in time that the feeble-minded old man is his father. Thus he can buy his land and make his dream come true.
Page’s conclusion is not a solution but an evasion of the implications of his story. The most disturbing element about “Ole ‘Stracted” is that it appears in the same volume with “Marse Chan” and “Meh Lady,” stories in which the Negroes themselves sing the praises of the system that causes all of the suffering in “Ole ‘Stracted.” Even Ole ‘Stracted longs for the past, however; his energies have always been fixed on the idea that his master will save him, so he is incapable of doing anything to save himself.
The situation of the black man in Page’s pastoral kingdom is ambiguous at best, though it was clearly the author’s intention to depict plantation life as the ideal mode of existence for both master and slave. His black spokesmen are meant to illustrate that Negroes and whites, in the old and better world, were united in their pursuits and purposes. In taking this stand, Page carves an image of the white man as the hero of Arcady, dedicated to preserving a civilization perfect in its innocence and magnificent in its program for the good life. His Negroes, however, remain his most compelling creations, as characters lost in a new world and from their longings creating the myth of a world which fulfills their need for identity and purpose.
That Page never consciously explored the flaws of the Old South, that he failed to see the ambiguities of his own recreations of the plantation as an ideal world, is only too clear a fact. His intention was not to hide the sins of the past, for indeed, he was blind to them himself. What he hoped to accomplish was to challenge the practices of the present by comparing them in art to the customs of a simpler, more natural time. Thus his stories have the force of a pastoral rebuke, and they also have the even more compelling force of a dream. Page created out of his own deep convictions a romantic world whose charm at times overshadows the realist’s demand for a counterbalancing acknowledgement of truths based purely on fact. We return from Page’s fiction to the real world very much aware that his vision is marred, yet also aware that as dreams go, the one Page fashioned for the Old South was convincing enough to give force to a myth that has itself shaped many realities and outlasted many others.