George J. Becker

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881

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 merely sneered at domestic altars; he has overturned them, ripping up a few retouched family portraits for good measure. (pp. 204-05)

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[Stribling's] Southern novels are all laid in unstoried, unromantic sections: Arkansas for Backwater, Tennessee for Birthright, Teeftallow, and Bright Metal, and the region of Florence, Alabama, for the Vaiden trilogy. This author pictures the village South, relatively static in its institutions, predictable in its frustrations, below average in its achievements and aspirations. He is careful to avoid economic extremes—the unrepresentative life of plantations in the rich deltas or the violent struggle for survival in suddenly industrialized areas. Likewise he has chosen a region without a past …, without high-sounding legend and storied names whose evocation obscures vision in a mist of tears. (p. 205)

[Isolation is] the fundamental charge that Stribling levels at the South. It is morally isolated by the historical fact of slavery and its equivocal "solution" of the Negro problem, both of which have involved a double standard which has effectively vitiated public morality. It is intellectually isolated by adherence to what amounts to a cult of unreason, buttressed by habitual resort to violence. The whole criticism which these seven novels make is reducible to these terms, and each of the books in its way contributes evidence in support of these propositions.

Because of its scope and because it is the least superficially polemic in nature, Stribling's trilogy is the proper starting point in analyzing these ideas, even though it comes last among the novels on the South. The Forge (1931), The Store (1932), and The Unfinished Cathedral (1934) constitute a historical panorama which attempts to show the origins and development of the evils he attacks. The time span involved is from the outbreak of the Civil War until a somewhat indeterminate date in the 1920's. The successive novels indicate three stages in the economy and social life of the modern South, as symbolized by the titles themselves. (pp. 205-06)

Acutely aware of the influence of the economic matrix on social patterns and attitudes, the author develops this groundwork carefully. The first novel shows the relatively integrated and self-sufficient slave economy and its disruption by the war, culminating in the recognition that the whole tempo of economic life will slow down once the actual physical labor of the Negro belongs to himself. In the second novel we see the first efforts of the new system, which requires a different type of man from the slaveowner, one who can get along with the Negroes and who is not too scrupulous about his business methods. The Negroes are worked under mortgages instead of simple chattel slavery. Proprietorship in land shifts from the manor to the store. Intricate and obscurantist bookkeeping makes certain that beyond what is necessary for bare subsistence everything the Negro earns shall go to the white man. The third book shows the flowering of this system under the aegis of credit manipulation and outright speculation. (p. 206)

Out of the rich, complex, and frequently ironic narrative which accompanies this analysis, it is not difficult to disengage the author's first stricture against the South, that it is suffering from schizophrenia, which undermines it morally as it does physically. Putting it another way, the white and the black halves of the society are a natural unity—mutually interdependent though implacably estranged—and nothing but frustration and self-diminution can come from the frantic expenditure of energy to keep them apart. (pp. 206-07)

There can be no question that [Stribling] presents an oversimplified picture and frequently a grotesque one. His heroes are almost always Northerners or Negroes, and the latter are invariably almost white. Where he does show white Southerners in conflict with their environment, they are men like old Captain Renfrew [in Birthright,] enmeshed in dreams of a bygone order in which authoritative leadership was the possession of the few and subservience was the lot of the many. Stribling is as convinced as they of the need of dignity and urbanity, but he knows that to follow that gleam entails crawling through the swamp of the present, not falling back on the illusory shore of the past. In his hatred of the stereotyped thinking and behavior which animate his contemporaries, he has created other stereotypes as a cracked mirror to their ugliness. Perhaps his theory is that only when the one destroys the other can the South be truly free. (pp. 212-13)

George J. Becker, "T. S. Stribling: Pattern in Black and White," in American Quarterly (copyright, Fall, 1952, copyright renewed © 1980, Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania), Vol. IV, No. 3, Fall, 1952, pp. 203-13.

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