Unfinished Cathedral. By T. S. Stribling. Garden City: Doubleday Doran and Company. $2.50. So Red the Rose. By Stark Young. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.
The Southern plantation as it existed before the Civil War stopped short of the mountains. It did not indeed reach far into the Piedmont. The uplanders owned few or no slaves, and they had little use for people unlike themselves who either owned slaves or any other property worth talking about. During the war they were almost uniformly uninterested in the Southern cause, and at times actual belligerents against it. Since the war they have been generally Republican in their politics and violently anti-Negro in their social relations. Within the memory of the generation reputed lost, it was possible to see in an occasional Southern town that was in political alignment with Thaddeus Stevens, signs warning Negroes not to be caught in those precincts come sun-down. It is a good thing, then, in any consideration of white-and-black adjustments in the South, to ask which particular South in under discussion, the freak South of Thaddeus Stevens or the more conventional South of Jefferson Davis.
If it is not by now hopelessly old fashioned to assume a scale of values in the universe, there is little risk in saying that the Davis South has been more important to the world than the other South—whether in ideals or in practicalities. But the Stevens South has had its importance too, and if for reasons of his own T. S. Stribling chooses to write with that South consistently in his mind, that, surely, is his own business—just as it is Stark Young’s business if he prefers to regard primarily the South of Davis.
Mr. Young’s “So Red the Rose” has to do with Natchez from about 1860 to 1865; Mr. Stribling’s “Unfinished Cathedral,” with the 1920’s in a town which he decided to call Florence, Alabama. This Florence is a wretched place. The new and ugly hurly-burly of booming industrialism has obliterated whatever dignity remained there from a past era; and even that dignity, it turns out, was a preposterous pose of feudalism based on a malign idea of racial integrity—an idea universally upheld in public pronouncement, universally violated in private action. The old spirit was an abomination, the new spirit is perhaps a worse abomination—and the cure recommended, so far as one can make out, is more and more of the new spirit. Less and less of the spirit of the South, where people are habitually maddened by orgiastic revival-meetings, more and more of the chaste spirit of Akron or Passaic where, apparently, people spend their time in the toniest of horse-back riding.
Mr. Young also is analytical. Hardly anything actually is, or was, wholly good; but the thing to be fled quite consistently as least good, is something appallingly like what Mr. Stribling seems to believe a nostrum.
The jacket to Mr. Stribling’s book announces it the last unit in “the most tremendous trilogy of our times” and tells the triumphant progress it has made in the wake of its predecessors, “The Forge” and “The Store.” “The Forge” is recounted to have been the first American novel chosen by the English Book Society; “The Store” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; both “The Store” and “Unfinished Cathedral” were selected by the Literary Guild.
The author of such books is manifestly a considerable personage, and the consciousness of his eminence seems to have weighed upon him in his last effort. Essentially, Mr. Strib-ling is of this immediate time; meticulous and fact-passionate, his book is topical (Scottsboro, fugitive-from-chain-gang); thrill-splashing (lynching, seduction, assassination); and brightly up-to-date (Freud, Marx, marriage-is-usually-evil). Yet there has somehow, apparently, been wafted down upon him from a long discredited heaven the notion that he is a seer, under the seer’s responsibility to (1) sweeten manners, (2) exhibit timeless wisdom, (3) utter the Large Truth that, once stated, leaves all future peoples wondering why it seemed, ever, hidden.
For (1), he calls attention to the superiority of the elegant “How do ye do” in social introductions to the boorish “Glad to meet you”; for (2), he intimates that religion (all the way from Catholic to fanatically evangelical) has at times perhaps slightly justified itself; for (3), he makes it known once and for all, plainly, how to tell a Northerner from a Southerner: the Northern visitor “stops” at a certain address—the Southerner does something else, something not told, but something surely not “stopping.”
“So Red the Rose” is not journalistic even, in one regard, in the better sense of being journalistic; it is a little confusing. So many uncles and aunts and cousins, dead and alive, move through its pages, so many grand houses show white through the magnolias, that frequently, till the reader is fairly deep in his work, it is troublesome for him to remember just where he is, just whom he is hearing about. But the actual circumstances were hardly less confusing than the novel—one would swear the book faithful—and the reward for the pains of disentangling the various kin one from another is very ample.
Specifically, it is possible to quarrel with Mr. Young’s permitting his characters to have rice for breakfast (unless it was “milk-rice”), with his attributing Sut Lovingood to Georgia, with his giving Alexander Stephens an “S” for a middle initial. Such quarrels would be specific indeed, and they hardly deserve mention, lost as they are in the grand sweep of life wisely and tenderly presented in this book. The reader is not once called upon to serve as midwife; no central character suffers either plague, famine, rape, sudden death, or, to push the series on, one single Freudian complex. That is the sort of book it is negatively.
Positively, it concerns itself mostly with noble figures moving against an heroic background which the author well understands, and which becomes, by his treatment, a sort of humanized destiny. The characters, reminiscent of those in “Heaven Trees,” are naturally instinct with Mr. Young’s own conclusions: it is not what we are or do or have that marks us, but what we wish to be and do and have; it is not logic that determines courses, but the subtle, imponderable falling out of things; it is not the energetic disposition to examine carefully and judge conscientiously that guarantees worth and distinction to many of us—most of us, simply, have not brains enough for judgment; it is not that, then, but the disposition to act—unreasonably and blindly, if we must —within a code, after a highly conceived pattern that it would be blasphemy to question.