Byrom Dickens

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322

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)

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[In Bright Metal and Teeftallow] Stribling depicts with an objectivity unusual in our Southern novelists the hillman's animosity toward the outside world, his distrust of the law, his cruel violence when aroused and, pervading all, his Calvinistic religion.

Innate is the hillman's dislike for the outside world. It thinks him inferior. It is wealthy, fashionable, and, as a corollary, wicked. Hence he delights in stories of city people who have been duped by the clever dishonesty of rural magnates such as "Railroad Jones" of Teeftallow. Hence it is that he guffaws with amusement when the local constable tricks an urbanite into speeding and then drags him before the magistrate to be fined, as in Bright Metal. (pp. 343-44)

[It] is in his picture of the hillman's religion that Stribling departs farthest from the traditional novel of the hill country. Theirs is a Calvinistic fundamentalism which condemns all pleasure as being evil, a religion which is concerned with a bloody, cruel God who is capable of playing off one sinner against another…. Verses from the Bible are quoted to justify almost any desired course of action; it matters not if these verses happen to be irrelevant. (pp. 344-45)

If we contrast one of the church services as portrayed by [Mary Noailles] Murfree with one of those portrayed by Stribling, we get a very good idea of how far he has departed from the traditional novel of the hillman. Whereas she tends to soften the tones in order to show a simple people, fundamentally good, he reveals the violent, stern nature which is the hillman's even in his religion, a religion of which the very cornerstone is the fear of being horribly damned to a hell of fire and brimstone. But to say, as does Mr. Robert Penn Warren in The American Review for February, 1934 [see excerpt above], that Stribling considers religion abnormal is to be unjust to Stribling. He is anti-fundamentalist, but not anti-religious. In Unfinished Cathedral Stribling makes Jerry Catlin as much his mouthpiece as any other character in the book; and in the conclusion of this novel Jerry insists upon the necessity of God in the lives and hearts of humanity today.

Few writers have surpassed the bitter irony with which Stribling portrays the life of hilltown. Its cruel gossip, its ostracization of the unfortunate, and the hypocrisy and sadistic inhumanity of its mobs he depicts excellently. Yet he offers no remedy, presents no solution for the evils portrayed. He merely presents characters and conditions as he sees them, glozing over nothing. (p. 345)

The Forge treats the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Old man Jimmie Vaiden, "meat-eating Baptist", with three sets of children, including the Negro girl Gracie, is a slave-owner and cotton farmer on a small scale residing near Florence, Alabama. The Lacefields, representing a more aristocratic South, reside on a plantation nearby. Stribling shows us their leisurely courtliness, their pleasant unhurried lives, and their charming hospitality. He thrills us with the gallant courage of the heroes who ride away to defend the South. He portrays their heroic struggle in the battle of Shiloh. He reveals their suffering during the days of Reconstruction. But Stribling does not ignore the other side of the picture; he recognizes the suffering of the Negroes who support the landed aristocracy. It is in this respect that he differs most from the older Southern novelists. (pp. 345-46)

[Stribling] indicates how the leisurely life of the plantation gentlemen was destroyed by the War; how they were forced to become traders, landlords, and business men. His character Miltiades Vaiden recognized the revolution which the War had effected. Miltiades concluded that since the Negroes had become free legal agents, the man who bought and sold for them would in all probability finally receive their earnings. This man would have to be different from the slave owner; he would be a man who could get along with Negroes, but who would not be too scrupulous in his business methods. The reins of power in the South would pass into the hands of such people. The landed aristocrat would be supplanted by the tradesman, by the shopkeeper. In this prophecy Stribling foreshadows his treatment of the South of twenty years later in The Store. (pp. 346-47)

Both The Store and Birthright indicate that the Civil War may have freed the Negro legally, but it did not elevate him to the position of a responsible human being as far as the South is concerned. Even Miltiades, who had a reputation among the Negroes themselves for treating them justly, did not treat his black tenants as people with rights but rather as children who could be set about anywhere and anyway. He and the rest of the White population thought of the Negroes as ineducable; and when some of them did show proficiency, he mused that they were probably like parrots which memorized things without understanding their meaning. When in Birthright Peter Siner, the Negro graduate of Harvard, is swindled, the White people of Hooker's Bend conclude that the whole affair simply proves what they have known all along; you cannot educate a Negro. (p. 347)

Mr. Stribling offers no solution to the race problem just as he offers no solution to the problem of the hillman. But he traces the tragic irony in both. Nor does he imply that injustice to the Negro is confined to the South. In Unfinished Cathedral we learn that a young Negro, Denison, won a competitive fellowship to study in a research laboratory at Schenectady, only to lose it when it was learned that he was a Negro. But there are relatively few Negroes in the North; it is in the South that the problem is most acute, and it is with Southern conditions that Stribling is concerned. As a portrayer of these conditions, his objectivity makes him one of the best of our Southern novelists. The very fact that he has no pat solution, that he has no ax to grind,… is to his credit as a novelist.

Mr. Stribling's work has been very uneven in merit. His trilogy is much superior to his other works; and in the trilogy itself the last novel hardly equals the first two. This disparity is primarily a matter of characterization. Stribling has always shown a good sense of story value; he knows how to spin a good plot. But he has not always been successful in creating characters. Too frequently he does violence to a character in order to secure an ironic effect. Even his trilogy is not altogether free from this defect. Witness, in Unfinished Cathedral, Marsan's surrender to Red McLaughlin which is hardly consistent with the character of Marsan as developed later in the novel. In the trilogy as a unit, however, Stribling has succeeded in creating convincing characters…. All of Mr. Stribling's work is interesting in its portrayal of the South; but with the exception of the trilogy it will probably not survive. The trilogy will live as a definite contribution to Southern literature; and the characters of Miltiades and Gracie will not be forgotten. (pp. 348-49)

Byrom Dickens, "T. S. Stribling and the South," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor and The University of the South), Vol. 42, July-September, 1934, pp. 341-49.

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