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The South in Its Fiction

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

Long Bondage. By Donald Joseph. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. $2.50. As I Lay Dying. By William Faulkner. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50. Acres of Sky. By Charles Morrow Wilson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.00. Some Trust in Chariots. By Fis-wocde Tarleton. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh, The Dial Press. $2.00. Gentlemen All. By William Fitzgerald, Jr. New York: Longmans, Green an.d Company. $2.00. By Reason of Strength. By Gerald W. Johnson. New York: Minton, Balch and Company. $2.00. The Tides of Malvern. By Francis Griswold. New York: William Morrow and Company. $2.50.

With the exception of Mr. Joseph’s “Long Bondage,” which is itself set apparently in Mississippi or Louisiana, all of these novels consciously occupy themselves with the South—with a section, that is, as the real protagonist overtopping all other characters whatever.

For all its author does to place it, the events of “Long Bondage” might well have happened in nearly any half-rural community that had passed the first crudeness of its origin. There is a young girl who is about to marry, and quite by accident she meets a man who is not her betrothed. They scarcely have time to speak, but they know that they were made for each other from the beginning of time; and they, cherish that knowledge with all the propriety incident upon complete separation, for the lady lives in the still somewhat raw West, the gentleman in the mellowed and sophisticated civilization of Charlotte, North Carolina. The lady’s life, which one follows in detail, moves in subjective wretchedness through the long years of her married life, past the death of everybody she can care for—and she can care for few, so fine she is. At last her widowhood with gratifying alacrity presents her to the gentleman from Charlotte, who has lived meanwhile, one would swear, faithful to his Vision.

Mr. Joseph’s heroine has the advantages of affluence and beauty and abundant health, and there is really no great justification beyond that common to most of us for the infinite bother she makes. She is a sensitive soul in a brash world, and her mentor calls on all sensitive souls who are not in that predicament to have pity upon her.

And when he calls, he calls well, a good lawyer for a poor client—and sometimes more than a good lawyer, a sort of philosopher as well, who, except for his client’s troubles, does not by a long shot swallow the world whole. If he had talked more of all that, he would have written a book more truly representative of himself, less reminiscent of those books (too many in times past) which confined themselves to sentiment but had not hardihood at the end to refrain from a totally, neat and practical adjustment.

“As I Lay Dying,” “Acres of Sky,” and “Some Trust in Chariots” deal with persons of our own times in Mississippi, in Arkansas, and in Kentucky—mountaineers—or, in the case of Mississippi, with people who would have been mountaineers if there had been mountains available.

Regarding the three books, noting the superior “softness” of the Mississippians, one is set topsy-turvy by a realization of the perilously close kinship between their softness and the most thorough-going aspects of degeneracy.

It is difficult indeed to find anywhere a more horrible pageant of degeneracy than Mr. Faulkner sets forth. His characters are all incompetents, morons, idiots, and he presents them with the relentless faithfulness of the great Russians who probe so carefully into all that normal people in America (perhaps ever so wickedly) have been so consistently bent to ignore. There is a woman dying to the tap-tap of a hammer at work upon her coffin, a woman— the same, a little later—through whose dead face crashes a slipping auger, a woman—still the same—over whose sloppy funeral cortege insistent buzzards come circling, circling. And worse.

Yet, what Mr. Faulkner does, he does with great skill and great force, with Art, indeed, as great, likely, as anybody has achieved who has set out from a standard West-European background of respectability to identify himself with hopeless squalor and hopeless misery and hopeless impotence.

The Arkansas mountaineers, like those of Kentucky, are made the vehicles of a lesson, and, if such a thing may be, of a worthy lesson. Whoever knows these people through Mr. Wilson’s or Mr. Tarleton’s book is bound to recognize that many of their traits, as supercilious as we may be about them, are in fact more admirable than the traits branded ours, at least passing for ours, which our political and ecclesiastical agents offer those people as ideals—or, what is worse, impose upon these people, however ineffectually, as laws.

Mr. Wilson is so persuaded of the virtue of his characters that he cannot, when all is done and said, bring himself to indicate that their civilization should yield rapidly before another civilization that may so likely be worse.

Mr. Tarleton, while maintaining his identity with the mountaineers, is more conventional. There is romantic love budding in his pages, and one feels on finishing them that soon all will be well in Appalachia. For is not Daniel Boone —the inheritor, if belatedly, of the spirit of the Great Daniel Boone—about to go to the Legislature? And is it not simply, unthinkable that he and the beauteous and erudite and wise Miss Fanton of Cleveland, Ohio, will not soon be marrying? And who knows but that little Fanton Boone, if one may look so far ahead, may turn out a new Lincoln, and so put to rights again the whole broad stretch of America?

“Gentlemen All,” “By Reason of Strength,” and “The Tides of Malvern” have to do with Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The Virginians and the Charles-tonians here portrayed are of the order traditional in Southern novels — elegant if not idle. Perhaps appropriately, the North Carolina book concerns itself more with the middle class than with the aristocracy; but, dealing in the main with the first half of the nineteenth century, it is possible for it to talk mostly of people who, though farmers, were in comfortable circumstances. Somehow, all of these books offer some commentary at least upon the present South; not one of them suggests very definitely what we are to do about it, or even sets the note clearly—other than a note of wistfulness—for what we are to think about it.

Mr. Fitzgerald is interested in the fate of the aristocratic way of life in Virginia under the peaceable inroads made upon it in late years by rich Northerners, intent upon a holiday. He tells a good story, vividly. The old high tradition, he seems to make out, is destined to dwindle in some luxurious but quite ineffective Keeley Cure, maintained by checks from its lately acquired, very rich, and somewhat obsequious kinsmen-in-law. Praying fervently that his prophecy is wrong, one must needs recognize the force of the picture, and curse in particular the blind vanity of all Mrs. Colfax Pendletons, and the weak amiableness of their husbands. And by implication one is driven to curse, in general, as a holy duty, the brigandage of certain forces in this government that have made farming in America an industry that is uniquely unremunerative in proportion to the capital necessary to launch it and to operate it. For in that brigandage is the source of that grand tradition’s mortal misery.

Mr. Gerald Johnson recounts the story of Grandmaa Whyte, born Catherine Campbell in Scotland (“and let me tell you, my boy, it was something to be a Campbell of Rose-neath in those days”), married to the Presbyterian evangelist, Donald Whyte, an immigrant with him to North Carolina around 1800, mother, widow, matriarch, and, as it were (if her worldly capability does not disqualify her), saint. The point of the matter is that with courage and intelligence and bravery and strength and a dash of humor, one may get along pretty well nearly anywhere, unless indeed one is made a party to an essentially indefensible social adjustment (in Grandmaa’s case, negro slavery,) and unless one lives in a world where other people, actuated more by passion than by reason, drag one, for all one’s resistance, smack into the disaster of war. One can be reconciled, Mr. Johnson implies, to haphazard pain and weakness and death— those we must endure—let us not talk of them; but organized and deliberate barbarism is not to be borne silently; it should be attended to. Mr. Johnson writes most sensibly, most engagingly, and at times (as in the ever mounting roster of Grandmaa’s dead descendants during the Civil War, as in her welcome to her sole surviving descendant from the war, whom she had thought dead like the rest) most movingly.

But if great writing must hint always at the basic discrepancy between what most men are and what they would have to be to endure at once blithely and comprehendingly this scene of all their actions—in that case, in this book Mr. Johnson has not written with the whole virtue that is in him; and that virtue must, before many of us can rest properly, be set down for our ready reference in time of need.

The central figure in the last of these books is not a person but a splendid dwelling-house, Malvern, built near Charleston in the 1730’s and consecrated to the high deities of a certain family—only to be de-consecrated in 1930, when all the fitful ways of life and death tricked at last those deities, and smote down their last acolyte. Smote them, not because they were partizans of a narrow principle, or because they followed this trade or that, or because here or there they erred or behaved virtuously, but for no better reason, apparently, than that they were human creatures.

It has been said that Mr. Griswold in writing this book chose too ambitious a theme, both for his space and for his experience. That is perhaps true; there is no room for the running play of irony, little room for developing the complexities of character that probably exist even in Charleston —and while one need not haggle over the display of vicious morals mainly in Indian savages and in ladies, the author’s desperate need for simplification stands out somewhat obviously in his limiting viciousness in ladies to people who were not of the Malvern connection.

But the total effect of a book is, after all, the test of its worthiness. And the total effect of Mr. Griswold’s book touches something very close to magnificence. It is a grand sweep—those two hundred-odd years—and as for irony and the implication of cosmic tragedy, while they, are too frequently not apparent, they are apparent before Mr. Gris-wold has left off, very broodingly, with complete ominous-ness. Even a hardened reader of novels, if he undertook to read aloud the closing chapters of this book, would doubtless find his throat untrustworthy and his eyes bleared rep-rehensibly, and his heart sullen with love and anger. And among the many ends a novel has in being, among the first, certainly, is the creation of all those pleasantly unhappy states.


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