Skip to main content

The Lively Lives of Two Localities

ISSUE:  Summer 1977
Richmond: The Story of a City. By Virginius Dabney. Doubleday, $12.95.
Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727—1976. By John Hammond Moore. Virginia, $15.00.

Aew years ago many people were disposed to regard local history as an anachronism. Those who disputed Arnold Toynbee’s thesis of challenge and response in the rise and fall of civilizations still were obliged to accept his demonstration that even national history could no longer be written as an entity. And galactic exploration seemed to diminish the significance of determining the original boundaries of a given township. Nevertheless local history has not only survived; it is flourishing as it has not before in this century.

In the United States, much of the boom is attributable to the influence of the American Revolutionary Bicentennial, which has inspired a host of publications in the genre, ranging from the most chauvinistic boosterism to works of scholarly merit and lasting value. But throughout the Western world local history has recently enjoyed a resurgence independent of anniversaries, topicality, or the meretricious devices of local pride. That monumental mosaic of local histories, Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, has made both European and American scholars aware that even details of the life of herdsmen in an Alpine hamlet or fishermen in a Greek village can be important to the picture of a civilization in transition. And much of the great and growing tradition of local historiography owes its inspiration to our time’s increased concern with culture as a slow accretion of the activities of ordinary people as well as a product of the catalyzing influences of extraordinary individuals. Some of today’s writers of local history, men and women who have turned to miniatures after working on wide canvases, are the intellectual descendants of Johan Huizinga who turned from sweeping studies of Indian civilization to prove that a history of medieval Haarlem, including the work and play of simple burghers, could illuminate an age in Western Europe.

Two recently published histories of Virginia communities, Richmond, the Story of a City by Virginius Dabney and Albermarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727—1976 by John Hammond Moore, are in this tradition. Mr. Dabney and Mr. Moore have each brought to the chronicling of a locality’s life the enriching experience of dealing with larger themes. In Liberalism in the South, Below the Potomac, and Virginia the New Dominion, Mr. Dabney dealt with the regional and statewide contexts of some of the specific events which he writes about in telling Richmond’s story. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he not only analyzed many of the events of recent decades at the time of their occurrence but also evaluated the impact on his city of national and international movements. Mr. Moore not only knows Albemarle County as a former resident and an alumnus of the University of Virginia but has been an interpreter of broad aspects of American history to university students in other states and in Australia.

Unusual interest and significance attach to the new Dabney and Moore books because of the authors’ combinations of intimate knowledge and intellectual sophistication. The interest is heightened by a topical consideration: these books provide keen insights into two of the most influential communities in Southern cultural history at a time when the South promises to become, after years of near colonialism, the economic and political bellwether of the nation. Furthermore, both communities have played decisive roles in the development of Virginia, the Southern state with the greatest national traditions and one now standing athwart Northern and Southern cultures at a time of melding and accelerated transition.

This reviewer, in an article in the May 1960 issue of American Mercury entitled “The South Has Lessons to Teach,” argued that the very fact that the South had not been completely in the mainstream of American development, that it was “an agrarian, tradition-minded and aristocratic region in a nation that is increasingly urban, scornful of tradition and self-consciously egalitarian,” offered differences of perspective that could enrich the life of the nation. Admitting that post-Civil War poverty and remnants of feudalism with concomitant ills might have helped preserve some of the South’s non-materialistic values, I nevertheless maintained that some of these values deserved cultivation—throughout the United States. Among these I stressed courtesy, which a team of Scandinavian observers had reported to be more characteristic of all classes in the South than in any other region of the country. Another characteristic was pride based on human qualities rather than external possessions, a lesson learned painfully by the only part of the United States with direct experience of defeat and conquest. Important, too, was the sense of continuity with the past in an age of rootlessness. And, closely allied with this disaster-bred consciousness, was faith in the human capacity for survival, eloquently voiced not only in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Address of 1950 but also in a vast volume of Southern writings ranging from the late Douglas Southall Freeman’s erudite scholarship to the swift-paced fiction of Margaret Mitchell. Also a vital part of the Southern character in an assembly-line age was an individualism sometimes carried to the point of eccentricity,

Now, with the South enjoying a great resurgence of economic and political power and an accompanying gain in cultural influence, the region is in danger of forgetting some of its own lessons while it is busy learning new ones necessary to survival in its position of leadership. At least for the next decade or so, a great many words of historic importance to the nation and the world are going to be spoken in Southern accents. Southerners will soon have a chance to prove that their much prized non-materialistic virtues are not merely the involuntary results of poverty and impotence. If Southerners are consciously to select elements of their heritage for preservation, they must review the record of what they have become—not only through great spotlighted events on the national stage but also in the many communities representative of the diverse Souths to which we apply one inclusive label.

The new books by Mr. Dabney and Professdr Moore should be a considerable aid to self-discovery by Virginians and other Southerners, too. In each there are reliable narrative history, thoughtful analysis, and a wealth of anecdotes that, besides being entertaining, are an integral part of the presentation of an ethos.

Mr. Dabney’s book on Richmond is a happy conjunction of writer and subject. Though born at the University of Virginia, where his father was a distinguished member of the faculty, he has lived and worked in the city for 56 years and since the death of Dr. Freeman has come nearer than anyone else to being recognized as “Mr. Richmond.” Despite this intimate involvement with the community, which has conferred upon him a peculiar gift of understanding, he has maintained an objectivity that enables him to chronicle with usually gentle but sometimes acerbic humor those occasions on which the city has been “dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.”

Most readers, however, will be impressed with the economic and cultural vitality of Richmond in this century. In an obituary editorial on Ellen Glasgow in 1945, the New York Herald Tribune described the capital of Virginia as also “the capital of Southern culture.” Though Atlanta might now dispute that title, Richmond’s credentials are still impressive, Mr. Dabney lists the seven Richmonders who have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes since 1935 and successfully demonstrates that even this showing gives only a faint idea of the literary accomplishments of his fellow citizens. He calls attention to the 37 present or former staff members of the News Leader or Times-Dispatch who have won critical acclaim for volumes of fiction or non-fiction. He concludes, “It would be difficult to name any two papers of comparable size in the United States with so impressive a list.”

Lively anecdotes are told about such literary luminaries as Dr. Freeman, James Branch Cabell, Ellen Glasgow, and Mary Johnston. Some readers not familiar with stories passed down by word of mouth may be surprised to learn that both Miss Glasgow and Miss Johnston were quite active in the movement for women’s rights and that Cabell’s literary career was shaped by the traumatic experience of being linked in gossip with a murder of which he was completely innocent. Some will be startled by the information that Miss Glasgow was offended when the noted Richmond surgeon who operated on her dog submitted his bill as “Services for dog” rather than “Services for Mr. Jeremy Glasgow.” Mr. Dabney, who knew Miss Glasgow well and praised her in an obituary editorial as “the greatest woman in Virginia,” says, “It seems probable that the death of Jeremy crushed her more completely than the passing of any member of her family.” The author tells, too, of Miss Glasgow’s breaking of her engagement to Henry W. Anderson, a prominent Richmond attorney, because of the strength of his friendship with beauteous Queen Marie of Rumania. Revealing is the fact that, while Miss Glasgow and Cabell both satirized Richmonders’ absorption with their origins, she devoted her career to producing in fiction a “social history of the Old Dominion,” and he spent years compiling his family history.

Mr. Dabney shows Richmond’s 20th-century literary efflorescence as part of the 19th-century tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and the Southern Literary Messenger. Besides discussing his creative genius, Mr. Dabney writes understandingly of Poe’s tragic life with his beloved 14-year-old bride and quite properly points out that the poet’s record of intoxication has been greatly exaggerated,

The author does not neglect the economic foundations of Richmond’s cultural achievements in the days when the great tobacco fortunes were being built or now when art and music find ready patrons in a city that is the financial capital of five states.

Some of Mr. Dabney’s most interesting passages describe the growing contributions of black talents. It is interesting to note how often the city’s Negroes, while revolting against ancient injustices, have worked to preserve hallowed traditions of a community they love.

Also highly interesting is Mr. Dabney’s discussion of the artistic and scholarly achievements of Richmonders whose vocations were business, law, or medicine. While pursuing the old 18th-century Virginia ideal of the well-rounded man, many—including a half dozen in recent decades—have earned national reputations in their avocations.

Richmond concludes in philosophical vein:

This capital of the Commonwealth has known tragedy and defeat, but it has risen above the killing and maiming of its sons in the Civil War and the ruin of its ousiness district, and has reentered the mainstream of American life. Yet as it moves forward into the new age, it must, above all, be zealous to guard and preserve those qualities that have set it apart, qualities that, once lost, can never be recovered.

It is very difficult to find fault with this excellent book. Whether Mr. Dabney is revealing Dr. Freeman’s ignoring of heart pains in an effort to finish his George Washington but thoughtfully penning a note to absolve his doctors of any charge of negligence in his death, or leaping back across the centuries to make it known that Colonel William Byrd II was only extremely reluctantly the father of Richmond, he writes always as one personally acquainted with the great and colorful figures associated with his city. At times, in the text but more especially in the pictures, one senses a little straining for topicality. But even this characteristic may not be a fault if it gains wider readership for a volume that certainly deserves it. And some of the illustrations are remarkably eloquent, for example, the photograph of four generations of the Branch family, three of whom were presidents of the Merchants National Bank—a perfect portrait of Victorian solidity and complacence.

Events covered in Professor Moore’s Albemarle take place within the same Virginian and Southern context as those described in Mr. Dabney’s volume, and indeed some of the same personalities appear in the stories of both communities, so that the reader will often be fascinated alike by the similarities and the significant nuances of difference.

The jacket of Professor Moore’s book, with the title Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727—1976 and a color photograph of Monticello, might lead the prospective reader to suspect a narrower range, to assume that the work deals chiefly with memoirs and memorials of the county’s most distinguished son. The subtitle may have been selected to cash in on popular interest in Thomas Jefferson, intensified as it is by the Bicentennial. Nevertheless, the title is not without pertinence. The reader of Albemarle should gain in understanding of the environment that produced the celebrated statesman and polymath as well as in an appreciation of the lengthened shadow of one who, as President Taft observed, is still referred to in the Charlottesville area as “Mr. Jefferson, as though he were in the next room.”

Many unusual characters besides Jefferson are given extended treatment in the book. Though the life of that mythical creature, the average citizen, is given due attention statistically and otherwise, a whole chapter sometimes applies the name of a single person to a particular period, much as was done in Hemphill, Schlegel, and Engelberg’s Cavalier Commonwealth. Thus we have “Thomas Walker’s Albemarle,” “The World of Judith Rives,” “Tom Martin’s Albemarle,” and “Bill Hildreth’s Charlottesville.” A notable characteristic of most of the people discussed is individuality. It was demonstrated by the determined crusading of the University’s first president, Dr. Edwin A. Alderman, who bluntly informed a mass meeting of protesters that he “apologized if he had not tipped his hat often enough, but the truth was he had worn out seven derbies during the past two years.” It was evidenced more flamboyantly by John Armstrong Chaloner, certified sane inside the Old Dominion but insane outside it, who contributed heavily of his wealth to the university and the poor of Albemarle and worked hard for inter-racial cooperation but who did not hesitate to imprison visitors in his private theater so that he would have an audience for his impersonations of historical figures. Also, recurring over and over again like a leitmotif through the story of Albemarle’s changing fortunes is a fierce pride. It was manifested by the Scotch-Irish pioneers, by the transplanted aristocrats from Tidewater, by the newly poor planters of Reconstruction, and by George Monroe, a native black who had a memorable confrontation with Theodore Roosevelt. While staying at his own lodge in Albemarle, the President sought to borrow Monroe’s hunting dogs and was refused. Thinking that he was not recognized, Roosevelt patiently explained that he was President of the United States.”I don’t give a damn if you’re Booker T. Washington,” Monroe said, “You can’t borrow my dogs!”

In a vein reminiscent of Mr. Dabney’s summation of Richmond’s history, Professor Moore closes the account of Albemarle:

Albemarle’s story is hardly one of constant growth and unrivaled success, . . . Water transport, early turnpikes, railroads, and superhighways have, in turn, both given birth to and smashed the dreams of thousands. One community, because it became the seat of county government early in the drama and enjoyed a central location, has managed to weather all these vicissitudes of change. . . . In 1796 Isaac Weld wrote of Albemarle that “many persons. . . even consider it to be the garden of the United States.” Nearly two centuries later, despite substantial change on every hand, these words of praise seem as enduring and as true as when first written.

There, you have it, in Professor Moore’s Albemarle as in Mr. Dabney’s Richmond, a story of individualism and pride, of continuity and endurance. The story can help Virginians— can help all Southerners, for that matter—to know themselves. And it can help people in other parts of the United States to understand a region old in history but revivified in hope as it flexes its muscles in preparation for bearing the heaviest load of national responsibility that it has known in more than a century.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading