[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 writer of sensational melodrama. He takes certain external features of Southern life and uses them as the background of a clumsy, unmotivated plot. There are two aspects of this lack of motivation. The first is historical: the brutality of the Southern mob is presented as an instance of sheer perversity; it is a special quality of Southern mobs just because they are Southern. The second aspect is a defect of artistic insight: Mr. Stribling knows little about his people; he presents us with a clash of surfaces; and his chief moments of interest are invariably amorous passages or moments of conduct that can be referred to some sexual indiscretion. (p. 709)
There is in these novels no clearly understood social background; there is only a series of violent public events that are violently, that is to say, melodramatically, equated with the unmotivated action of his characters. If it were not for the early novels, in which the South is inherently wicked and the North inherently good, I should believe on the evidence of this last volume of the trilogy that Mr. Stribling is not a deliberate propagandist seeking to sway the sympathies, or worse, of a Northern and Eastern audience…. But in this last volume Mr. Stribling begins to doubt his old thesis: although the characters are constantly thinking about their social position—an obsession that allows the Negro only his fear and hatred of the white man—there is not that simple correlation of evil with the South that we find in "Birthright" and "Teeftallow." Mr. Stribling actually lets a Southern school teacher refute an argument by a Northern lawyer! Nor is the Colonel killed by a poor white man whom he had cheated—the poor white had cheated him! This complication of plot, in which the propagandist's allegory begins to weaken, marks a great potential improvement in richness of subject.
Its net result at present is confusion; Mr. Stribling has finished up his trilogy by being neither novelist nor propagandist. His future is in doubt. A backward South is no longer a convenient thesis if the model of forwardness must be a distracted North. Mr. Stribling will have to try to become a novelist—a hard task for him. Perhaps future literary historians will marvel that people in the North wished to think so ill of the South that they gave to Mr. Stribling $1,000 [the Pulitzer Prize] in the year 1933. (p. 710)
Allen Tate, "Books and Films: 'Unfinished Cathedral'," in The Nation (copyright 1934 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 138, No. 3598, June 20, 1934, pp. 709-10.