Skip to main content

V. Dabney: the Quintessential Virginian

ISSUE:  Winter 1979
Across The Years: Memories of a Virginian. By Virginius Dabney. Doubleday. $10.00.

RED Smith wrote that his brother Art would quit a newspaper job to see a circus. Virginius Dabney, who like the late Art Smith practiced journalism in the era of the itinerant newsman, nevertheless was not given to wanderlust.”From the time when I joined the Richmond News Leader as a cub reporter in 1922 at age twenty-one, I was determined to remain in Virginia,” Dabney writes in these memories.”I felt that the old Commonwealth was the place for me, the place where my forefathers had lived and where I wished to stay. . . . I have drawn strength and inspiration from the soil of Virginia.” Over to the Richmond Times-Dispatch was as far as he traveled.

The old Commonwealth and its old capital amplified young Mr. Dabney’s call for social justice. His cultivated voice was impressive for its being in Richmond, in Jeff Davis’s old base, as well as for the compassion, sense, and boldness it expressed. From the beginning of Dabney’s Times-Dispatch editorship in 1934 until the mid-fifties he decorated every list of Southern liberals. Nine years after his retirement his views on race affairs, much adjusted, continue to be explored. Lillian Smith, for example, ponders them in the opening pages of The Winner Names the Age, a just-published collection of her writings. A chapter of Morton Sosna’s In Search of the New South, which came out last year, is entitled “Virginius Dabney, Publicist for a Liberal South.” There are nine references to Dabney in The Emergence of the New South, 1913—45, by George B. Tindall, the capstone of the Louisiana State University Press’s definitive ten-volume series, A History of the South.

Yet Dabney glosses over the theme of his reputation, over the circumstances and events that made him attractive and then an enigma to Southern progressives and scholars. He thereby neglects the severest social and political crisis his state endured during his long editorship; indeed, he squeezes the bitter and complex school desegregation battles of the fifties and sixties into half a dozen pages between his recollections of some editorial joshing about breakfast grits and an account of lectures he delivered at Cambridge University in 1954.

This flimsy treatment of Virginia’s shameful response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision matches Dabney’s editorial comment of the period. He was muzzled, he now pleads, by “Publisher D. Tennant Bryan and General Manager John D. Wise . . .[and] Alan S. Donnahoe, who succeeded Wise after his retirement,” all of whom “were sincerely in favor of “massive resistance.” “

Dabney was pained. But “I recognized,” he writes, “that the owner of a newspaper has the final say as to policy, and that on critical issues he determines the paper’s editorial stand. . ., The Richmond News Leader, under the same management as the Times-Dispatch, and edited by James J. Kilpatrick, carried the ball, as it were, for massive resistance. The Times-Dispatch, under my editorship, did not attack massive resistance, although I would have liked to have done so. Neither did we espouse it actively, except perhaps in two or three editorials written by Alan Donnahoe”—written in the counting rooms!

It is true that a newspaper owner has, if he wishes to throw his weight around, the final say as to editorial policy. It is equally true that an editor has the final say as to whether he will remain with a paper whose owner dictates to him a position he cannot in good conscience accept.”The whole situation made me unhappy over a period of years, and I seriously considered resigning and going to some other paper,” Dabney writes.”Even if I had found such a publication, the very real question had to be faced whether there would be an opening for me on the editorial staff.” Art Smith, who along about then was on the Chicago Daily News, or the Pittsburgh Press, or maybe the New York Herald Tribune, could have told him how to find out.

Dabney’s review of his editorial passiveness fails to explain his connection with the “Putnam Letter,” in which Carlton Putnam, a New Englander of many parts moved to Memphis, in October 1958 protested to President Elsenhower the desegregation ruling on the contention, among others, that the “relative levels of character and intelligence” between blacks and whites argued against race-mixing. In Race and Reason, a 1961 book in which he extended his theme by undertaking to discredit a whole school of anthropologists, Putnam reported: “After dispatching [my 1958] letter to the White House, I sent a copy to Dabney. Dabney allowed three days to pass out of courtesy to the President. Then he printed it on the editorial page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and devoted his leading editorial to it. . . .[T]he editorial was unduly complimentary. It referred to my effort as “one of the most incisive and convincing discussions we have seen.”“

The divisive Putnam Letter appeared on the Times-Dispatch editorial page just when 13,000 children were being locked out of schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Warren County under Virginia’s massive resistance laws. The newspaper made reprints of it available for mass distribution at its front counter, and other papers in the state picked it up. Soon the letter was in national circulation, usually as a paid advertisement. According to Putnam, Dabney wrote him on November 4, in the week that the Virginia Education Association vainly petitioned Governor J. Lindsay Almond to reopen the schools, “The response from individuals has been truly colossal. Nothing of the sort we have published in years has caused such a sensation.”

Once the Virginia Supreme Court and lower federal courts had knocked out the massive resistance statutes in January 1959, both Richmond newspapers supported Governor Almond’s program for local-option desegregation. “Had the Times-Dispatch not done so, I would have felt impelled to resign as editor,” Dabney writes.”I had managed to go along with the policy of resistance, so long as it was legal, and so long as I was not involved in writing such editorials as had graced the columns of the News Leader.” Presumably the soil of Virginia had strengthened his stomach in the Putnam episode.

As he grew older, Dabney reflects, he became increasingly conservative; from a young man regarded “as something of a “parlor pink” “he matured into an editor more concerned with the world and its drift than with regional social issues and fashions. Blacks meanwhile had overrun his youthful wishes for them.

Dabney writes charmingly of his sheltered upbringing as the son of a University of Virginia history professor; here is the best of his book. He remembers warmly his friends in the Richmond law offices and banks, but oddly neglects the colorful old hacks and bright young fellows who passed through the Richmond city rooms of his years. A surprisingly great emphasis is placed on his rather grand travels abroad. Modestly he mentions his journalistic honors, among them the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of his 1947 editorials, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for resisting intimidation by the Virginia General Assembly in 1948, and the presidency of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1957.Similarly, he cites his authorship of numerous magazine articles and five other books, including excellent histories of Virginia and Richmond, which he spliced, for the most part, into an editorial routine that should have been exhausting enough. It is astonishing that Dabney’s energies—for sports, civic, cultural, educational, and social activities as well as journalism and scholarship—matched his great abilities. It is not pleasant to quarrel with so distinguished a colleague over a worrisome lapse in his remarkable career.

But he brought up the subject.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading