The Store. By T. S. Stribling. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.
The books credited to Mr. T. S. Stribling by his publishers numbered ten before the printing of “The Store.” Among them have been such successes as “Birthright,” “Bright Metal,” and “Teeftallow.” Reviewers of recent novels about the South have given to him a primacy in turning to the starker actualities of Negro and mountaineer life. His new book is already, in publishers’ terms, a success. Mr. Stribling is a social critic whose interpretations form for many people their impressions about life in the contemporary South; he deserves a full and careful study by some informed critic for the estimation of his significance as an artist and the accuracy with which he presents his people and their backgrounds. This review must concern itself with his newest novel considered independently of his other writings.
The scene in which the transactions that are narrated in “The Store” occur is Florence, Alabama, the small town which also staged certain of Mr. Stribling’s own student days. Its life is represented as compact of sordid and unrelieved drabness. The period is that of Grover Cleveland’s first administration. The characters are mainly poor-white and Negro. Such compositional unity as the story has is given it by Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, son of an overseer, who won and cherishes some reputation for bravery in the Confederate army and has a tenuous hold upon a standard of honesty learned from the old order. Two loosely-knit themes give a semblance of organization to the story through the tangled relations of Colonel Vaiden with business and women. In the days following the defeat of the South, the Vaiden family had been swindled out of their cotton crop by the po’ white, J. Handback, who has become the sharp-dealing merchant and land-owner of Florence and incidentally the pillar of the Methodist church and keeper of Grade, one-time slave girl of the Vaidens. Colonel Vaiden pays himself back by acting as Handback’s agent in disposing of his cotton and so robbing him of forty-eight thousand dollars, precipitating a series of events that lead to Handback’s downfall and suicide. The death of the first wife of Vaiden is incidental upon circumstances resulting from his theft, and his marriage to the young girl, Sydna, daughter to the sweetheart of his youth, is the outcome of the dubious position which he wins through it. Involved in all these affairs through economic and blood relationships, and victimized at almost every turn of events, are the Negroes and mixed breeds who alone are presented in a spirit of sympathy or compassion. Gracie, yellow mistress to Handback, secretes the money stolen from him by her old master’s son, and feels that she can no longer honorably stay in the house he owns. She and her son are established by Colonel Vaiden in the crumbling mansion of one of the former aristocratic families and they become the objects of persecution at the hands of the ousted tenant, Cady. A thread of irony is woven into this element of the story: Colonel Vaiden does not learn that he is the father of Grade’s son until after the latter has met his death as the result of the actions and inaction of the Colonel. For a novel that apparently aims to be starkly naturalistic, there is curiously a suggestion of the symbolic at the close when the Negro, innocent of all except a desire to live his own life, is strung up on a tree, between two thieves. The figure of the lonely Republican postmaster, almost grotesquely comic in parts of the book, is used to give a tinge of pathos and compassion to the last paragraph when it is learned that he died in an effort to save the Negro’s life. The novel is more varied in characters and circumstantial details than this summary will suggest: indeed, the fullness of incident becomes wearisome at times, and yet contributes to a sense of richness and force that the book gives, as well as of formlessness.
Here are not a few but many phases of the poor-white, the hill-billy, and the Negro.
For all its force and interest the book lacks beauty of form or expression, or the flashes of insight that come from the subtler understanding of human character and its sufferings. A reader might guess that it was composed in a spirit of propaganda as intense as that which for its generation filled the pages of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But if that is so, it makes its point less clearly and fails to evoke a throbbing sympathy for the human victims entangled in a tragic situation. On the one hand it lacks the convincing candor of unvarnished realism and on the other it does not have the passionate vigor of unblushing partisanship.
It would be a mistake, however, to infer that “The Store” is in any sense a weak or a dull novel. It is far superior to the average of the many novels that have to do with degenerate whites and shiftless Negroes in the South. If Mr. Stribling lacks the fusing power of an artistic imagination, his invention never fails. His pages are full of action and he achieves a sustained suspense that in the main keeps his readers’ interest from flagging. His style never grows commonplace or mechanical. He writes with vigor and an assured mastery of the words that will say what he means. He knows how to assemble a variety of details in such a manner as to leave upon the memory an accumulated effect of perspective and distances. His characters are not always convincing, yet the reader has a definite sense of the personality of most of his people. Drusilla Crowninshield is the one of his creations that for the space allowed her most completely comes alive. The Vaiden brothers lapse sometimes into types, “flat characters,” but most of the time they breathe. Several of the minor characters, including most of the Negroes, are living people. Whatever one may feel about the spirit of the novel, whether it lacks sympathy or betrays bitterness, it is evident that the mind back of it is serious and sincere. There is nowhere apparent a shallow adaptation of ideas to the solicitations of a lucrative market: a characteristic so frequently obvious in current American novels.
In technique, “The Store” is in some respects clumsy. Thougn the center of interest is clearly Colonel Vaiden, the author changes the point of view without warning to the reader and tells us the inmost thoughts of characters with whom we feel no intimacy. The result is disturbing to a reader’s continuity of interest. There are inconsistencies in the characterization. Part of the time the Colonel is a man of some dignity, thought, and sensibility; at other times he is almost an ill-bred clown. So with the Negro woman, Gracie. Sometimes she impresses one as a woman of breeding and wisdom; sometimes she is an ignorant servant girl. These clashes in characterization are not of the sort that bring out the essentially incongruous in human nature, but are the outcome of discrepancies in the management of the conversation and plotting.
“The Store” throws a pitiless light upon some of the grosser phases of Southern life of the post-Reconstruction period. Taken as a community, there may be on the map somewhere such a place as the Florence, Alabama, of Mr. Stribling’s novel, but this reviewer has never visited it.