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Southern Fiction Catches Up

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

The Ladies. By Stanley Hopkins. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00. Look Back to Glory. By Herbert Ravenel Sass. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.00. Lamb in His Bosom. By Caroline Miller. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00. Worth Remembering. By Rhys James. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $2.00. Kingdom Coming. By Roark Bradford. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50. The Woods Colt. By Thames Williamson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

Six of our new novels range the South from Virginia to Louisiana and Arkansas, from 1840 till 1933. Most of them are sufficiently modern in their interest, as vivid as a movie. They are full of fornication and obstetrics. They deal mainly with illiterate, dialect-speaking people whom neither their creators nor the people who read about them would be likely to ask in for dinner. They imply for the most part that the people one might ask in for dinner are probably worse in general than the people one would not.

“The Ladies,” by Stanley Hopkins, tells about life in a village of Piedmont Virginia from 1880 or so, till around 1930. The village is dilapidated and frowzy; the people, ineffectual, tortured by poverty and by sex-repression or by a glut of offspring. Perhaps the two worst characters are men—one a product of Jefferson’s Charlottesville, the other of Lee’s Lexington. Elsewhere the world is set forth as bad too. The imported Yankee school teacher, shoddily half-educated, becomes the mistress of a male slut. The one indigenous character who is able to get along in the world, comes home after years in the North to demonstrate that only by being a fake may one escape being a failure. The characters one is called upon to admire are a bastard, the mother of a bastard, and a woman who knowingly marries her inferior and who takes into her house, on a footing with her family, a loose-living servant and her illegitimate offspring. If the author suspects that anything beautiful and true and good wisped through his Virginia village in the space of fifty years, he keeps his suspicion to himself. For he is writing social satire, and it is taught even in Southern high schools, in our time, that unity-of-effect is too great a prize to be lost in an effort to seize truth—truth that may be, may not be, what it seems. For the sort of thing it is, the book is well written, a competent development of the thesis that life in a Virginia village is not merely brutal and vulgar, as it is fashionable in literature to represent village life in America, but stupid, sluggish, futile, and fraudulent.

“Look Back to Glory,” by Herbert Ravenel Sass, deals with very different people. They are gracious, effective, noble Civil War Charlestonians—but it is a pity that the men are so queer, losing their heads utterly over a woman whose beauty and charm are said to be indescribable, but whose mentality is so plainly warped. The social history in the book is excellent, particularly in the descriptions of the great dinner, the ball, the tournament. Better still are the nature descriptions and the description of the war-time shelling of Charleston; into these, the author somehow injects a passion for Carolina that enters the reader’s mind and leaves him sure that the writer is perforce a Somebody. He is again a Somebody in his political implications. For these, fostered long ago by Calhoun, and now dug out from the attic, appear novel, and interesting again, provoking question as to whether the taste which outmoded them was not in truth mere fad and whimsy—as to whether, pointedly, the South has not been ever realistic, New England, doctrinaire. This question is a grand theme indeed. One must be proud that the author has hit upon it as a proper element for a high romantic novel. Perhaps he can develop it later, in another book, as the fixed faith of persons less bizarre in their love affairs.

“Lamb in his Bosom,” by Caroline Miller, has to do with southeast Georgia from 1840 through 1865—a frontier portion of the state called the Wiregrass—and with the pioneers who inhabited it, homesick for the settlements they had left. The chief character is a woman, and the ups and downs of her life—largely downs, in childbed—constitute the main interest of the plot. But the plot is not the main interest of the novel. The author is a distinguished stylist. She establishes the “feel” of the region she writes about—flat, often watery lowlands; dark pines; wide skies. She is able to corral rattlesnakes, panthers, burns, scalds, fights, axe-cloven feet, dog-torn faces, church revivals, not to mention other terrors, and to parade all of them before the reader with quietness and grace, in a deliciously fresh idiom. She is also skilled in portraying character. All along, her heroine, ignorant in the conventional sense, and very simple to the end, moves palpably through the pages till at the last she is learned indeed in the matters that she must deal with, and wise with the basic soil-y wisdom of dependability and sweetness.

When and where the innumerable events of “Worth Remembering,” by Rhys James, came about is not disclosed. Apparently in our times, in a smallish city and in a summer colony. Most likely in Mississippi—though nearly any guess would do as well. The jacket of the book offers assurance that it is a novel for adults only, that a number of notable people find the book fascinating. “Say,” one of these enthusiasts confides, “Where’s your brass band? Where are your banners to sweep out in windows from Fifth Avenue? Where’s your confetti? Don’t you know you’ve got a mighty swell book in Worth Remembering?” The object of so much proposed confetti-throwing is a zestfully written 423-page chronicle of the doings of three obstreperous, sub-adolescent children. It tells how they were thwarted where it was possible to thwart them by their widower father (rich enough to strow money to walk on all the way to New Orleans), by their very lively black mammy, and by any onlookers who had stout hearts. Now the young savages are turning over the rain barrel, now throwing the cat down the well, now lashing one of their own band—a solitary but aggressively boyish sister—flat to a tree; always they are aping mammy’s torrential proverbs, her torrential manner. And so on and on from early summer till the coming of blessed autumn, which takes them off to school and ends the story. Some of the characters are hazily drawn, but the father and the black mammy and the little girl are admirably clear. The dialect is amusing and, except for the constant use of oncet for wunst, generally accurate. The book is too long.

“Kingdom Coming,” by Roark Bradford, concerns the lower Mississippi valley and New Orleans in the years immediately preceding and during the Civil War. All of the important characters except one, a plantation overseer, are Negroes. The dialect is excellent; the atmospheric undertone, or overtone—whatever it may be—admirably developed. Before the War, there is much talk of farming and of the underground railway and of miscegenation and love-making; later, there is talk of a Negro refugee-camp in New Orleans and of voodoo practices; throughout, there is talk of Freedom, whether it will really come, whether, come, it will amount to very much after all. The author apparently thinks it will not amount to as much as is expected of it— surely not for a long time. An old emancipated Negress, Aunt Free, keeps saying so, like a solemn chorus—”Naw, chile, not this side of sweet Jesus’ lap.” The hero, Gram (whom the author, in his desire to have him lovable, turns into something like a model of Victorian domesticity), gets, with his freedom, his death before a Federal firing-squad. The author does not comment on the primacy of Negro freedom as a war objective of the Northerners. He gives it to be understood that though they worked toward that objective in the most helpful spirit at their command, they undertook to do quickly what had better be done slowly. He is evidently of the conviction that though the Negro race may have benefited from the process, many a lorn nigger went down under it, crushed, unacclimatized in Canaan.

“The Woods Colt,” by Thames Williamson, deals with the Arkansas Ozarks, now. The characters are almost all mountaineers. The outsiders introduced are represented as a bad lot. Their sins are neither less numerous nor less vile than those of the mountaineers; they are only different. The hero is infatuated with a mountain girl who goes from bad to worse, from hankering after store-bought clothes, to attending church with the hero’s rival, down at last to betraying the hero to outside law. The hero’s rival buys liquor wholesale from the mountaineers and cuts it before selling it, and that is reason enough for the mountaineers to despise him and his gal and his gal’s pappy. The Woods Colt snubs his gal and fights his rival and is arrested. He escapes and kills an officer, but the mountaineers do all they can to keep him hidden, free. At last, more through the girl’s fault than through his own, he cohabits prior to marriage with his young cousin who had come to him in his hiding place. Then he is pursued by his own people as well as by the furriners, and when in the end he is about to be captured he persuades his cousin-paramour to shoot him. The story is set forth sensibly, if never most movingly, in an artful dialect that always suggests the spirit of the scene without proving unconscionably difficult for the reader.

All of this proves that the South has at last caught up with the great world, and learned a thing or two for its own self. A thing or two. Just as many things as folks have learned where folks are smartest. Our up-to-date authors know the trick too, that they are to discard as evil everything that they cannot by analysis prove good. But even in buying apples it is well to remember that somehow, perversely, the whole does still manage to exceed the sum of its parts. It is better yet to remember this in one’s contacts with mankind, and with life, indeed—this pleasing, anxious being—which, suspected as the source of as much sorrow as of happiness, people—even authors—do not with complacency unanimously resign.


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