James E. Rocks

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

[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.

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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 set of stereotypes, among the worst of which were Stribling's. In Birthright, for example, he tends to accept the old clichés of Negro inferiority, indolence and sexual promiscuity—so much so, in fact, that he was called a racist writer by more than one early reviewer. But for all the faults in his handling of the Negro character, Stribling deserves and has received recognition for his forthright and often corrosive portrayals of Southern life in the twentieth century, showing particularly the effect of old black-white fears and suspicions on the modern Southerner.

Stribling was important enough to evoke the praise of critics who liked his liberal sociology and the displeasure of critics who thought him a propagandist without historical sense. The most famous of these disgruntled critics was probably Robert Penn Warren [see excerpt above], who found in Stribling's works the very characteristics of abstractionism that he and the other Agrarian writers detested in art….

[Stribling's most important work, The Vaiden Trilogy,] is a moral history of the South and characterizes the decline of the aristocratic planter class of the Old South and the rise of the bourgeois commercial class of the New South. Stribling's view of Southern history is therefore largely socio-economic, for he sees the movement of history in terms of alternating periods of wealth and poverty, of boom and bust. Stribling believes that the acquisition of money is necessary in order primarily that an individual and a society see themselves as successful…. [For] many Southerners of the New South the accumulation of money became a compulsive need to reassert their lost dignity, authority and self-respect. (p. 222)

Stribling's interpretation of the function of money in a society owes something to Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, which he considered one of the greatest series of novels he had ever read. In their works both Galsworthy and Stribling describe the history of a family as representative of the history of a culture; both portray that society in transition and both focus on one strong individual around whom the family moves…. There is a truth in Stribling's complex handling of the idea of the family in his trilogy that is missing from all but the very best modern Southern writers.

If The Forsyte Saga is analogous to Stribling's trilogy in its themes and structure, it is also similar in its technique of naturalism, its simple reportorial style and its dual vision that both praises and satirizes the world it views. (p. 223)

In the craft of his fiction Stribling shows that he knows rather well what he is doing. His techniques are neither original nor subtle but they do serve him satisfactorily in his attempt to document the theme of social change. Stribling, like many of his contemporaries in the thirties—Dos Passos, Farrell and Steinbeck—used naturalism as the technique best suited to the study of man and his milieu. (p. 224)

Stribling's trilogy, like some of Faulkner's novels, dramatizes the burden of Southern man's moral and spiritual inheritance and the workings out of Southern white man's guilt over black slavery. As Stribling shows, history shapes man, and he is largely powerless as an individual to shape history in turn; he is what the past has determined he shall be. (p. 225)

James E. Rocks, "T. S. Stribling's Burden of Southern History: 'The Vaiden Trilogy'," in The Southern Humanities Review (copyright 1972 by Auburn University), Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 221-32.

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