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The Southern States in Fiction

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

None Shall Look Back. By Caroline Gordon. New York: Charles Scrib-ner’s Sons. $2.75. Bugles Blow No More. By Clifford Dowdey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.50. Children of Strangers. By Lyle Saxon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50.

There is significance in the success in all parts of the United States of two war novels of the South so dissimilar as “So Red the Rose” and “Gone with the Wind.” Stark Young, with a gift for expressing beautifully in English what he knows, puts into his novels something of the South that I find in no other books, but Margaret Mitchell awoke the memories of all the stories of the war that middle-age had listened to in childhood and the look in the eyes of the people who told them. There was one quality in common: neither book was written in gentle consideration of a public with feelings to be hurt. Each was an honest book, written by a Southerner as it would have been written if only Southerners were to read it; “So Red the Rose” lovingly partisan, “Gone with the Wind” almost sternly uncompromising. The time had at last come when the South could speak as the South and yet as a part of the nation.

The armies of the South once on the march again in fiction, the bugles have been blowing on many battlefronts. But happily the succession of novels has not been of books cut to a fashion as the “local-color” novels of an earlier period were. The differences in the aims and methods of the novelists have been more important than the shifts in the staging of the battles. Caroline Gordon in “None Shall Look Back” places her scenes in Tennessee, with fleeting glimpses of Georgia. She tells of the fall of Fort Donel-son and the Battle of Chickamauga and brings alive the heroic figure of General Forrest as he moves in and out of her narrative. The chief story is of the Allards and their fortunes from the outbreak of the war to the death of Rives Allard, who was one of Forrest’s scouts. And the war is seen as a private sees it and as his wife and mother feel it. “The private soldier never knows where he is going next or why.” It is war as a personal experience, not as a pageant. The implications of the passing of a way of life, of something humanly precious, are there but they are not baldly pointed out. Miss Gordon has written more than a novel of the Civil War. She has made an interpretation of life in terms of a certain place and time so feelingly that it has significance for the understanding of life at any time. The prose is fresh and moving and personal. The characters are sympathetic and are individualized, yet they have a universality for the reader who feels that their experiences were humanly representative of their people. The price for this may be that the individual characters become merged in the general effect. The weakness of the novel is that the main persons of the story do not remain more vividly than they do in the mind. We live the lives of the individuals but recall the tragedy of a people. Yet that is only relatively true, for each scene of the story and each character is vivid and satisfying while the book is being read. “None Shall Look Back,” with Caroline Gordon’s other novels, “Pen-hally” and “Aleck Maury, Sportsman,” belongs among the important authentic literature of the South.

Clifford Dowdey’s “Bugles Blow No More” is a story of love in a war-distracted city. Mildred Wade meets Brose Kirby during the excitement of the first war days and breaks the laws of her clan to give herself to him. There runs as a minor thread the story of a youth of the old aristocracy who loves Brose’s sister. Richmond is the scene; the time, from Secession Night to Appomattox; and the thesis, that Virginia was sacrificed for the other Southern states and that the war was lost through the mismanagement of the Confederate Government. Mr. Dowdey is a vivid writer. Every phase of life in the city in war-time is portrayed in color. The details are massed with panoramic completeness. No research has been spared to fill in the picture to the minutest touch. It is as though a reporter had gone through the four years with a note-book and had then based upon it a magnificent piece of reporting. The two love stories are well-contrived and the many shifts of scene that give graphically the progress of the war have sustained interest. The main characters of the story act as people in real life act, but they do not live with their own life-lines in the palm of the hands: they are novel-characters and suggest a family likeness to other characters one commonly meets in other novels. Many of the minor characters are truly reported and achieve a picturesque identity. The total effect of the book is impressive. The war-ravaged city lives in the memory. We see the harm wrought on the South—or rather on Virginia—by herself more than by the invading armies. And we see war impersonated less as an army terrible with banners than as a horde horrible with flames and plunderers. Mr. Dowdey has written one of the best novels of the year and depicted successfully the Richmond of the Secession years. It is more important for what it has done with history than for what it has done with life.

“Children of Strangers,” by Lyle Saxon, seems, like Caroline Gordon’s novels, to be something grown on the land and gathered from it by loving hands. It is the story of a mulatto girl and her effort to give her son by a white man the place of a white man in the world. The background of this story is a Louisiana plantation and its environs, where white people are white and Negroes are black and mulattoes have a half-caste of their own, with its pride and its traditions. An honest story of a very real group of people, it has an emotional effect and beauty that Mr. Saxon has given it by his manner of telling it.

It is interesting to consider “Children of Strangers” in relation to “Porgy” and “Scarlet Sister Mary.” Earlier writers, like Page and Harris, had depicted the Negro as a servitor to white men, humanly and lovingly but as seen from “the great house.” DuBose Hey ward and Julia Pe-terkin placed their central characters in relation to their own black race and told the stories of individual Negroes. Mr. Saxon differs from Mr. Heyward and Mrs. Peterkin in that he has given his story the setting of a complex of races. It is clearly the picture of a region. One of the characters in the novel speaks of the writers who talk him to death. “They were divided,” he says, “into two classes: one saw everything as symbolical—whatever they meant by that I don’t know—and found everything quaint: they saw the surface, and it was just as picturesque as hell. They talked about folklore and all that sort of bunk. The other group talked about the plight of the share-croppers. God! As though I wouldn’t get rid of the share-croppers if I could. It’s a rotten system, but what am I going to do about it. , . . I’m sick of the whole business. . . . I belong here and the land belongs to me. I couldn’t live anywhere else.” Like Peterkin and Heyward, Lyle Saxon has blended the realistic and the poetic in his method of writing his novel, but he is realistic himself in offering no solution for a problem of race and economics.

The novel has one inartistic feature, the visitors from the North who form a sort of chorus and give to the close of the book a touch of irony. That is forced; the rest of the book is as natural as good art always is. The lights glint on the water and the colors change over the fields. Smells and sounds reach our senses. A locality like a little cosmos grows palpitant, with features clear as those of a familiar face. More than these things, Famie, the pretty mulatto girl who betrayed her people for the love of her son and paid the price of his passing one color line by herself passing another, is a real creation. She is not unworthy of being remembered with Porgy and Scarlet Sister Mary,


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