Ernest Sutherland Bates

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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." Naturally, the book was attacked by both races, who entered a common plea of "Not guilty."… It cannot be denied that Mr. Stribling exhibits the white man's prejudice in the preference, throughout his works, for mulatto or quadroon over the pure black, but, further than this, the criticism does not seem to apply. There is no particular point in denying that moral laxity is more common among the Negroes and moral hypocrisy more common among the whites; whether this is due to heredity or environment is a question for biologists, not literary critics to decide; and whether laxity or hypocrisy is the less desirable seems to be largely a matter of personal taste. Mr. Stribling, in common with most artists, would certainly regard laxity as the slighter evil. For this reason, and still more because of his hatred of cruelty and injustice, he writes more sympathetically of his Negro characters than of his southern whites, even the best of whom appear as unconscious tyrants over the weaker race.

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Birthright, of course, was not a best-seller, and Mr. Stribling turned back to his ever present help in time of trouble, the potboiler; beginning with Fombombo (1922) a series of Venezuelan adventure novels, including Red Sand (1923), and Strange Moon (1929) (written in a month and a half), as well as a volume of short mystery and detective stories, Clues of the Caribbees (1929)…. [These] fugitive pieces are rattling good tales of their type, abounding in swift adventure and political intrigue, with many a sly thrust at the ubiquitous American salesman, thrusts so sharp, indeed, that only the author's prudence prevented some of the stories from turning into satires on our methods of foreign trade. But melodrama and sentiment predominate, on the whole so easily, as to suggest that perhaps these pot-boilers, in addition to their utilitarian function, may have served as a kind of katharsis for tendencies in Mr. Stribling himself—as if recognizing the ineradicable romanticism in every southerner, he has chosen to express it where it can do least harm…. (pp. 92-4)

In Teeftallow Mr. Stribling did for the hill country of Tennessee what Sinclair Lewis did for the Middle Western small town. His satire is more subtle and less pervasive than Mr. Lewis', there are longer passages of pure realism, but the net result is similar. The mountaineers of Mary N. Murfree have been forevermore debunked by Mr. Stribling. Instead of a set of nature's noblemen exulting in their freedom, cherishing tender sentiments deep in their rugged breasts, loyal to kindred unto death, we are shown a group of nature's slaves, tied to hateful labor, bound by tribal superstitions, imprisoned in dull and sordid lives unrelieved save by the transient emotional excitements of drunkenness, lust, lynchings, and religious revivals….

Religion might, just conceivably, have done something to humanize the hillmen, but as a matter of fact the Methodist and Baptist creeds with which they are familiar have degraded them the more by teaching them "to associate wickedness with everything pleasant, graceful, or beautiful." (p. 95)

Mr. Stribling's ironic implication is clear—that only in half-intelligible stammerings or the maunderings of intoxication is it possible to tell the truth in the South. He himself is saved from extreme social radicalism only by his defeatism…. His next two serious novels, Bright Metal (1928) and Backwater (1930), were inferior performances, both love stories, the one dealing with the disastrous devotion of a modern California girl to a hulking, benighted Tennessean, the other with the equally disastrous love of the son of an Arkansas bootlegger for a girl a little higher in the social scale. Each was considerably better than the average novel, but both were quite unworthy of the author of Teeftallow…. Mr. Stribling seemed already to belong to the past when he suddenly re-emerged with the first volume of a trilogy that has been compared, not altogether to its disadvantage, to the Forsyte Sage of John Galsworthy.

[In The Vaiden Trilogy] Mr. Stribling has returned to his proper métier, the study of groups and larger social movements. The setting is Alabama, a center of southern civilization, in contrast with its semibarbarous Tennessean fringe. But the differences between semibarbarism and civilization turn out to be superficial, a matter of better roads and larger houses, rather than of any alteration of the spirit. In the first and weakest of the three volumes, The Forge (1931), we are shown plantation life on the eve of the Civil War and its subsequent destruction by northern armies and Reconstruction politicians. As one would expect from Mr. Stribling, the picture is not idealized. Plantation life appears, as it was, a series of local despotisms, beneficent or tyrannical according to the economic security and individual temperament of the landowners. In its successor, The Store (1932), we pass on into the era when the benefits of the war were gathered, not by the Negro, but by the lower middle class of petty tradesmen and small farmers, the former "white trash," who have given us our bellowing Heflins and Huey Longs. Unfinished Cathedral (1934), which should surely have been called "The Bank" …, carries the story into the period of contemporary capitalism. While no single volume is quite equal to Teeftallow, the whole, of course, bulks much larger. (pp. 98-9)

In the humorous-pathetic figure of Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, the Civil War hero who recoups his fallen fortunes by a single gigantic swindle without in the least affecting his verbal ideals of honor, Mr. Stribling has portrayed a by no means entirely unattractive illustration of the ghostly life of later southern chivalry. And the rationally minded daughter of Miltiades in the last volume seems to offer some faint hope for southern gains through education.

But, on the whole, the grinding of the economic mills proceeds inexorably from generation to generation, and its continuous victim is the Negro. It is only when writing of the Negroes that Mr. Stribling's pen attains its full power. They afford both the humor in his stories and their most intensely poignant moments. (p. 99)

It is true, Mr. Stribling is a great writer only at long intervals. The limitations of his work are manifest. His humor is less robust than that of [Erskine] Caldwell, his characterization less sure than that of [Thomas] Wolfe, he lacks entirely the poetry and atmosphere of [William] Faulkner. In style, he is inferior to each of them. He is superior to them all in moral sanity and intelligence, but these qualities make less for great literature than school teachers like to suppose. One is almost tempted to say that Mr. Stribling is greater as a man than as a writer, for though his pen often falters, he himself is always courageous, always humane, a pleasant and inspiring companion throughout his novels. But then one is halted in this vain gesture of trying to separate the inseparable, an author and his works, by remembering that Mr. Stribling has written five books that will probably endure—and that certainly deserve to endure—Birthright, Teeftallow, and the trilogy. That surely is enough for any man. (pp. 99-100)

Ernest Sutherland Bates, "Thomas Sigismund Stribling," in English Journal (copyright © 1953 by The National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. XXIV, No. 2, February, 1935, pp. 91-100.

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