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“The Southerner”

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

The Training of an American: The Earlier Life and Letters of Walter H. Page. By Burton J. Hendrick. Boston and New York: The Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00.

The massive literary monument erected by Mr. Hendrick in memory of Walter Hines Page is completed with this volume, which really should be counted the first of the complete set. It is conceivable that Page is to attain in the future a position not unlike Cheops’, who is remembered for his monument alone; at all events, Mr. Hendrick’s work is colossal, yet so smooth and so neatly fitted together that it repays study and is likely to be studied, if not so long as the pyramid, yet for a long time.

The new volume is of particular interest to southerners inasmuch as it deals with Page’s career prior to the ambassadorship, and much of it concerns his life and labors in the South. This is a poignant drama of defeat. Mr. Hendrick admits the fact quite honestly, but makes no particularly earnest effort to uncover the causes of the defeat. The ignorance, indolence and mental inertia of the South he recognizes plainly enough, but he shuts his eyes to the essential lightness of Page. The man was the prince of Go-Getters. He demanded Results, and he demanded ‘em right now. This was all very well in a newspaper correspondent, in a salvager of wrecked magazines, in the founder of a new publishing house; but in a social reformer undertaking a real social reform, it was a fatal handicap.

At the age of twenty-eight, after he had done good newspaper work in the Middle West and in New York, young Page sallied out for his tilt with the windmills. He went down to Raleigh, North Carolina, and assumed control of the Chronicle, a moribund newspaper with which he proposed to work the regeneration of the South. He lasted barely two years, and then threw up the job in disgust. Fortunately, though, he was not the whole show in that vicinity. Others, some of whom were associated with him, refused to quit and continued to plug along after Page had fled to New York. They have continued to plug, in fact, for forty years, and now, at last, they are beginning—such of them as have survived—to see the harvest rapidly ripening. At that it has been a remarkably swift job, as every student of society knows. The fact is, Page simply had no idea of what he was tackling. He was as far removed from contact with reality then as he was in 1917, when he demanded that Josephus Daniels send 400 destroyers to English waters at once, happily oblivious of the fact that there were hardly that many destroyers in the combined navies of the world.

Yet if men at twenty-eight were capable of estimating correctly the difficulty of the tasks they set themselves, not much would be accomplished in the world. A young man can survive an astonishing number of follies if they are splendid follies; and there is no denying the fact that Page was moved by sheer patriotic devotion in his ill-starred crusade. Even when, smarting under his defeat, he wrote the famous Mummy Letters, he was striking, not at the South, as many of his neighbors believed, but at the shackles that bound the South. The Mummy Letters are reprinted in this volume, and the sober fact is that there is much truth in them yet. North Carolina today is by no means controlled as completely by mummies as she was when Page wrote, but the dead hand still lies altogether too heavily on her intellectual life, even in 1928.

The notion, at one time widespread, that Page was an enemy of his native State is simply a measure of the colossal imbecility with which intelligent Southerners of the last generation had to contend and with which, in many sections, they are still contending. If there were nothing else—and there is a great deal else—to recommend it, this book would be valuable as an encouragement to men who find themselves now in the position which Page occupied in 1885. For mental somnolence still exists, and the weight of inertia still breaks the backs of men who are giving all they have and are to the work which Page essayed to do. And stupidity still insists that they are traitors to the country they strive to serve. But things are not as bad as they were in 1885. There is the great consolation, there the inspiration to continued efforts. Page was knocked out in the first round, but he hit as hard as he was able. Charles D. Mclver and Charles B. Aycock lasted longer, but they were battered to death in the end. Yet the fight goes on. Always someone has stepped in to take the places of the wounded and the slain, and now it is plain to the dullest that the whole line moves forward.

It is pleasant to remember that Page lived to see it. Moreover, it must never be forgotten that if he was not quite up to the rough work in the trenches, he remained always a valuable man behind the lines. From the outside he contributed heavily in time, energy and money to the general advancement of education in the South. This was a sort of work to which he was eminently well fitted, and if he is not entitled to rank among the heroes of the fight for civilization in the South, he remains certainly a valuable auxiliary.


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