Tall Tales of the Kentucky Mountains. By Percy MacKaye. New York: George H. Doran Company. $2.50.
Lonesome Road. By Paul Green. New York: Robert M. McBryde and Company. $2.00.
Singing Rawhide: a Book of Western Ballads. By Harold Hersey. New York: George H. Doran Company. $1.50.
The local color interest of the moment is not in the mere picturesqueness dominant a generation ago but in faithful studies of queer folk survivals, in realistic analyses of the matters formerly belonging to high romance, and in the distinctive songs, real or pretended, of a social group.
In “Tall Tales of the Kentucky Mountains” Percy MacKaye presents in one volume the stories, already given magazine publication, which he gathered during his stay in the remote ranges where there “is a Nowadays contemporary with Noah, a zodiac obedient to Ptolemy, a modernity in which the machine of industrial civilization is unknown.” The plan of the book is conventional, ascribing the dozen legends to a single story-teller who relates them chiefly for the delight of children. Though the fables are reminiscent of universal folk-memories, the material sharply reflects the personality of the people whose property it has become; the volume conforms thus to the literary method of a Chaucer or a Harris in that the pattern of the narrative is given completeness and color by the characters who speak or act.
The recording of the life reflected is done with the certainty of observation that belongs to the scholar and the sympathy of comprehension that is the poet’s. Accurate and suggestive in detail yet not so full as to seem documented, the stories develop the essential qualities of this inaccessible life, the remote quietness of log cabins where the long-ago has not passed, where the traditions of dead centuries survive, the leisure is untroubled by the fever called progress, the imaginative life is real and rich if naive, and the spirit of man lives in undisturbed intimacy with nature in its power. Woven into these chronicles are many trifles of the domestic routine from the modes of eating and sleeping to conflict with fleas and accuracy in spitting; something of the economic order, precarious yet always affording the means of life, largely through the resourcefulness and fecundity of the razorback, “arrayed, beyond pork-flesh, in the glamour of poetry”; and much of the strong religion compounded of antique theology and superstition. Authentic and vivid as are the sketches, the author’s apprehension of his matter is matched by his affection for it. Nowhere does the treatment approach ridicule. Basically the life is solid and fine.
Mr. MacKaye has carefully noted the dialect and speech modes of the mountain people. The thoroughness of his transcription does not make for easy reading but it repays such effort as is required. In this language many individual words have historical interest, as “clerk” for “student,” and others have a strong flavor of locality, as “skun” for “skinned” and “hantsy” for “haunted”; but the major charm is derived from the peculiar twist given parts of speech, as “outleg” (“out-run”) and “quick-leggeder,” from such combinations as “quilt-kiwer,” and from vigorous phrases like “goll-fired ole-dead-fish-tasty.”
“Lonesome Road” by Paul Green is the work of a dramatist favorably known through such work for the Carolina Playmakers as “The Last of the Lowries.” The half a dozen plays here collected deal with negro life of eastern North Carolina. The author’s familiarity with his material would establish the merit of his work but more importantly this volume typifies the spirit of honest realism, with frequent implications of tragedy, which contemporary writers bring to more or less conventional materials.
For while the figures of Green’s dramas are neither the faithful retainers of the Uncle Remus mold nor the Sambo men of comedy, there is much use of the elements long employed for the interpretation of negro character. Here is the unreality, even the menace, of negro religion, an amalgam of emotionalism and sensuality; the play of negro superstition, fearful alike of the note of the whip-poor-will and of the aged crone’s curse; the customary easy virtue of the negro girl when the white man is concerned; the manifold bodily ache; the love for pretentious vocabulary, tinged with ecclesiasticism; the lightness of marriage ties; the fondness for color in costume or in flower; the invincible laziness of the average black; the caste feeling as witnessed by the light girl’s contempt for the darker “nigger”; the sweep of negro song, including the religious wailing cry for release, the lyric of labor, and the jazz-like melody of a social life, too often transmogrified to “debauchery and drinking.”
Mr. Green has gone beyond the standardized matters, however, and has dramatized the pathos, the helplessness, the brooding terror of negro life. However giddy or ludicrous the phase of the moment may be, the ending is despair. Minor themes of pain, as the mother’s agonizing effort to make her children respectable, in “The Prayer Meeting,” and the negro’s nameless fear of the white man’s law and lawlessness of “In Abraham’s Bosom” are introduced effectively. Supreme tragedy, however, turns upon two major themes. One of these is the destiny of the near-white, a personality in whom the white blood makes for sensibility and ambition but for whom the black blood constitutes social damnation. Specially moving is the fate of the girl whose beauty makes her the desire, as her social inferiority makes her the prey, of the white man’s lust. Further complications of horror result, as in “White Dresses,” from the fact that both girl and man are children of one father. The subject is not new in our literature; it was in Hildreth’s “Archy Moore” of the 30’s, ir* Ingraham’s “The Quadroon” of the 40’s, and it has been in hundreds of stories since; but Mr. Green gives it a freshness of treatment that carries conviction. The other major theme is the tragedy of the negro who aspires. “In Abraham’s Bosom” concludes powerfully with a mocking laughter, a revelation of the bitterness that underlies the negro’s philosophy of acceptance.
Mr. Green has not written primarily social documents. He carries no thesis and outlines no programme. He does not pretend that his work is representative. His interest is in the human tragedy, not the sociological system, in the immutable social forces and the weakness of man which together work woe. The negro’s cruelty and lack of resistance, not less than the conduct of the white man, determine disaster. But in a portrayal of the suffering that is the result of the limitations of environment and the frailty of man, the dramatist sounds a kind of universal note.
“Singing Rawhide,” a collection of ballads dealing with the themes and the moods of the West in its earlier days, is not made up of folk songs but is the work of an individual author, Harold Hersey, introduced by his publishers in sufficiently definitive manner as “an American Robert W. Service.” The subjects include the great figures of the western tradition, as Custer, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid, as well as the genial habits of a civilization that threw into emphasis poker, two-gun expertness, and hazing of the greenhorns. The author commands well the vernacular of his characters and develops his narratives in a bold, swinging rhythm appropriate to the movement of his plots. People who like the western matter of romance will enjoy this book.