T(homas) S(igismund) Stribling Essay - Critical Essays

Stribling, T(homas) S(igismund)


T(homas) S(igismund) Stribling 1881–1965

American novelist.

Stribling wrote during the early decades of the twentieth century. His importance derives from his early sympathetic portrayals of Negroes in the post-Civil War South. The sociological realism of his fiction provides a severe critique of the narrow-minded morality of the South at that time and contrasts sharply with the romantic idealism of the Agrarians. To present his historical panoramas Stribling relied on heavily contrived plots, thereby weakening his characterizations. Later critics especially protested his negative stereotyping of blacks. Stribling won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for The Store, the second novel in his Vaiden Trilogy.

(See also Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)

The Dial

The theme [of Birthright] is the anomalous position of the educated mulatto who desires to make the black race alive to its problems and its potentialities, in a Southern nigger-town. The treatment is simple, straightforward, "photographic" writing, but photography—especially the work of the moving-picture camera—is not to be dismissed lightly when it handles scenes we prefer to forget. Mr. Stribling, who, as a Southerner, knows his Hooker's Bend as Mr. Lewis knows his Gopher Prairie, has been as ruthless, and almost as patient, as the recorder of the life of Main Street. If his novel is not quite as competently done, the lack is due, it would seem, to a more pressing interest in analysis…. On the other hand, there are some excellent genre pictures in Birthright, and, save for the author's tendency to think aloud, a feeling for continuity, for actuality….

"Briefer Mention: 'Birthright'," in The Dial, Vol. 72, No. 6, June, 1922, p. 648.

William Stanley Braithwaite

["Birthright"] is the most significant novel on the Negro written by a white American, and this in spite of its totally false conception of the character of Peter Siner. Mr. Stribling's book broke new ground for a white author in giving us a Negro hero and heroine. He found in the Race a material for artistic treatment which was worthy of an artist's respect. His failure was in limiting, unconscious as it was on the part of the author, the capacity of the hero to assimilate culture, and in forcing his rapid reversion to the level of his origin after a perfect Harvard training. On the other hand, no author has presented so severe an indictment as Mr. Stribling in his painting of the Southern conditions which brought about the disintegration of his hero's dreams and ideals. (p. 206)

William Stanley Braithwaite, "The Negro in Literature," in The Crisis, Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, September, 1924, pp. 204-10.∗


Mr. Stribling's "Birthright" some years ago was a real contribution to Southern literature, chiefly in that it was the first attempt by a novelist to weave the story of an intelligent, educated negro into a tragic social fabric, and to discard the threadbare character of burlesque stage and fiction. That tale exhibited a passion for truth, an ardent intuitive sympathy which selected with sureness the really pitiable victim of circumstances as they are. Now [in "Teeftallow"] Mr. Stribling moves east in his native state of Tennessee and essays to tell a story which, set among the people of the villages in the foothills of the mountains, will reveal these strongly individualistic folk, their character and customs.

In a larger sense Mr. Stribling has shown a journalistic spirit in both his novels. The first touched a strong current interest in the poignant theme already indicated; the second follows hard upon the Dayton cause célèbre [the Scopes Monkey Trial] which stirred the curiosity of the world concerning Tennessee's people.

"Teeftallow" will strengthen Mr. Stribling's reputation. It confirms the opinion that he is a writer of acute perception…. Mr. Stribling discloses with real success the simplicity and directness of the minds of these people, the strong hold which established social and moral sanctions have upon their thought. "Arntown's" (Irontown's) swift punishment of Abner's and Nessie's wrongdoing, its pious condemnation of the infidel Belshue who marries her, the codes and philosophies with which these folk lard their talk, are set forth with a truth which goes deeper than the surface. And the story has vividness and power, an objective honesty and clarity.

The one respect in which Mr. Stribling has not paid his full debt to truth is his failure to show the kindliness and gentleness which is an inseparable part of the nature of these folk.

Charles McD. Puckette, "A Tale of Tennessee," in The Saturday Review of Literature, No. 36, April 3, 1926, p. 682.

Robert Herrick

["The Forge" is] an honest and altogether intelligent effort to accomplish … [a] "study" of Alabama during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Every page of "The Forge" bears ample evidence to its author's preparation for his task, to his intimate knowledge of the people concerned as well as of events and issues involved; moreover, to the possession of certain qualities of humor, irony, and objectivity that have hitherto been wanting in the reactions of Southerners to their tragic inheritance. Yet the novel remains less a story than a "study," less a dramatic presentation of credible characters suffering in a coil of calamity than the informed commentary of a benevolent observer. All the necessary features of the picture are conscientiously enumerated and delineated: the aristocratic Lacefields and their baronial plantation, the ruder Vaiden yeomanry, the trader BeShears and his kind (who inherit the earth!) the negro slaves, black and mulatto, the mountain whites; also the familiar attitudes and class conflicts involved—slavery, miscegenation, emancipation, the brutality and ruthlessness of the invader, southern "chivalry" (that did not prevent license and cruelty), the Ku Klux expedient, the perplexing problem of negro readjustment not yet completed, etc., etc. There is a full assortment of parts and scenes, yet the piece fails to live and move as a mass. The characters are manipulated hither and yon to bring out the tragic and humorous implications of the subject, but—alas!—they are "manipulated" with an alien insight, not inspired of themselves. Thus the brittle structure of their lives falls apart from the commencement and the whole makes a chronicle rather than a history.

Oddly enough the detached attitude succeeds best with the negro. Mr. Stribling is happiest in his humorous, tolerant understanding of the black people about whom (nominally) the crisis arose. He is alive to the anomalies and perplexities created by their presence, both slave and free.

Mr. Stribling's animated charade of Alabama, ironically interpreted, is an interesting and intelligent version of what happened in the South seventy years ago.

Robert Herrick, "Civil War Alabama," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1931 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. VII, No. 37, April 4, 1931, p. 708.

Jonathan Daniels

With a bitter and veracious shaping of his rich material, T. S. Stribling has written in his new novel, "The Store," the story of a town and a man in the stagnation years in the South after the Civil War.

In this both mean and dreamy Alabama town which shouted happily and drunkenly for Grover Cleveland, low tariffs, and white supremacy, Mr. Stribling has found his powerful theme in no melodrama but in the essential conflict which has marked the South since the Civil War overturned a whole system of living. His drama grows out of two strangely correlated aspirations: the aspiration of the old uprooted aristocrat to rebuild his lost civilization, and the desire of the intelligent, often aristocratically blooded, Negro to advance himself in the new. Essentially the story is their conflict with the mass of ignorant and prejudiced whites around them.

"The Store" would have profited had Mr. Stribling been a little less the crusader. Nevertheless it is easy to forgive him this preoccupation with white injustice and black resignation, because of the fierce, convincing sincerity which he gives to his novel.

Jonathan Daniels, "In Alabama," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1932 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. VIII, No. 52, July 16, 1932, p. 841.

Robert Penn Warren

Stribling has never been the first by whom the new was tried; he has nothing of the experimenter in his literary constitution. Nor is he the last, precisely to lay the old aside…. Stribling is primarily interesting as the index of a fashion which he has flattered with sober conscience and profound unoriginality.

Stribling's novels will appear in the history of our literature as a paragraph in the development, or conceivably the decline, of what is generally called critical realism in fiction. (p. 463)

As the naturalistic novel, in one sense, is based on a science, biology, so the realistic novel that we now know is based on a pseudo-science, sociology. The realistic novelist, like...

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George Stevens

Mr. Stribling has set out with the intention of embalming the South in a symbolic trilogy, which ["Unfinished Cathedral"] brings to a close.

"Unfinished Cathedral" makes it evident why the attempt to symbolize the southern scene, indulged in by any writer of less than genius, inevitably results in melodrama. To begin with, any theme of conflict is most forcibly expressed in terms of violence, and southern history gives precedent in abundance for this kind of treatment. In other words, the material is treacherously obvious. Secondly, the symbolic method tends to be—and in the case of Mr. Stribling is—completely conscious and accordingly mechanical. What this author has done, in short, is to take...

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Allen Tate

[Unfinished Cathedral brings the] unhappy citizens of Florence, Alabama, to the boom days following the Great War. With the death of Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, the former overseer who rose by theft to the most eminent place in the town, the old order vanishes, no new order takes its place, and a prospect of unrelieved chaos opens up at the end of the story.

If Mr. Stribling is to be taken seriously as a novelist, the Southern trilogy is his sole claim to critical attention. Without exception the previous books, which have brought their author that sort of notoriety which is easily mistaken for fame, are inferior exercises in sensational journalism….

[Mr. Stribling] is a...

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Byrom Dickens

Mr. Stribling's Unfinished Cathedral, the third novel in his trilogy of the social history of the South, has now been published. An examination of this trilogy along with his other novels reveals that his is one of the sanest pictures of the South to be presented by a Southern novelist. He paints sympathetically the South of Civil War and Reconstruction days; yet he avoids the gushing sentimentality which is the bane of most of our novelists dealing with this period. He presents us with the hillman and in so doing avoids both the romanticized "natural" man and the equally exaggerated perverts and bastards as portrayed by William Faulkner. (p. 341)

[In Bright Metal and Teeftallow]...

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Ernest Sutherland Bates

Birthright, no doubt, was overly ambitious. It attempted to present the tragedy of the educated Negro in the South, a subject to which perhaps only an educated Negro himself could do full justice. None of them, however, has done so, and Mr. Stribling's work remains to date in possession of the field. It tells, in somewhat too episodic a style, the story of Peter Siner, a mulatto Harvard graduate, who returns to Hooker's Bend, Tennessee, determined to devote himself to uplifting his subjugated race, but who, instead, finds that he is pushed down by the intolerant whites and pulled down by the ignorant blacks until, disillusioned and utterly discouraged, he resigns himself to being just a "nigger's nigger."...

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George J. Becker

T. S. Stribling [seeks] to extract and analyze the essence of the real South, to find out through thoughtful examination what has made it what it is, and by implication at any rate, to prescribe a remedy. His limitations as a writer are serious, yet he has to a surprising extent been successful in capturing mercurial, amorphous America and containing it in recognizable form—given the will to recognition, of course. While he is a novelist of one area, his works are painfully relevant to American life generally and thus, by extension, to the world…. Stark in his outlines, cutting in irony, frequently grotesque in portraiture, Stribling has from the start been an unwelcome dweller in the Southern mansion. He has not...

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Frank Durham

It is somewhat surprising that the earliest Southern writing in the decade should lean more toward propaganda. Birthright caused quite a flurry at its appearance in 1922, not only for its subject but for the fact that it was written by a Tennesseean. In several ways it set a pattern for the novel of the "noble Negro," usually with mixed blood, who tries to better himself and his race. (p. 33)

Certainly from [a] synopsis Birthright seems unrevolutionary. But Stribling was decried by many Southerners as "a dirty bird defiling its own nest," even as he was hailed by the indubitably Southern James Southall Wilson as the leader "in turning to the starker actualities of Negro [life]." Like...

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James E. Rocks

[The] particular feature of Stribling's work—and the cause of his initial success, or perhaps notoriety—was his treatment of Negro-white relations. Stribling argued in [his fiction] that the South can never realize its human potential until the white man and the black man, dependent as they are on one another, begin to live in harmony.

Stribling is important, then, as an early realist among modern Southern writers and as a propagandist of improved racial relations…. [He] depicted in his works the character of the educated, mixed blood Negro trying to improve his condition. This new fictional concept of the black man created, as Frank Durham has recently pointed out [see excerpt above], a new...

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William T. Going

As Stribling himself has stated, his aim in the novels [of The Vaiden Trilogy] was historical: "Each generation quickly and completely forgets its forebears. I was filled with a profound sense of tragedy that my own family, my neighbors, the whole South surrounding me would be utterly lost in the onrushing flood of years…."

To achieve so large a tapestry Stribling resorts to a heavily plotted novel. There are at least three separate, ingeniously dovetailed, struggles in The Store [the second novel in the trilogy]. (p. 17)

Stribling has always been skillful in designing and interweaving patterns of struggle. His long interest in adventure and detective fiction is...

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Edward J. Piacentino

[There are a number of] striking similarities between Stribling's [Vaiden Trilogy] and Absalom, Absalom!, which incidentally was published in 1936, two years after Unfinished Cathedral, the final novel in the trilogy. This is not so much to suggest that Faulkner deliberately patterned any of his themes, characters, or plots after Stribling's, though, of course, he may have subconsciously or even unconsciously remembered them from his reading; but to demonstrate that Faulkner treated a similar subject matter and character types from an era in southern social history that Stribling treated first, and in so doing Stribling may have provided an impetus for the author of Absalom,...

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