T(homas) S(igismund) Stribling

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William T. Going

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As Stribling himself has stated, his aim in the novels [of The Vaiden Trilogy] was historical: "Each generation quickly and completely forgets its forebears. I was filled with a profound sense of tragedy that my own family, my neighbors, the whole South surrounding me would be utterly lost in the onrushing flood of years…."

To achieve so large a tapestry Stribling resorts to a heavily plotted novel. There are at least three separate, ingeniously dovetailed, struggles in The Store [the second novel in the trilogy]. (p. 17)

Stribling has always been skillful in designing and interweaving patterns of struggle. His long interest in adventure and detective fiction is evident. Even in his serious novels that preceded The Store Stribling uses many of the features dear to nineteenth-century novelists: withholding of relevant information until a more dramatic moment, designing "teasers" to entice the reader to the next chapter, and straining probability in the attempt to enmesh plot within plot. Such devices usually succeed with a first reading, but for the second they impede as well as reveal other weaknesses.

The chief of these—often the fault of all but the best historical fiction—is the lack of character motivation. Despite the numerous characters in The Store, only two are well drawn, Miltiades and Gracie. The others are interesting, at times vivid and picturesque, pathetic or amusing, but they are painted paper and cannot be turned sideways, cannot be questioned…. Though they seem living people whose problems can be vicariously shared, their motives for action are not always clear. (pp. 18-19)

Perhaps his concern with the complexities of action also betrays Stribling in the realm of ideas just as it does in his character motivation…. [For example, Robert Penn Warren points out that] Stribling always brings "into collusion a noble Negro, or rather a mixed-breed, and a white society considerably less than noble" [see excerpt above]. This is the theme of Birthright, dealing with a Harvard-educated Negro who returns to his native Tennessee, and it is a theme of The Store, dealing with Gracie, Toussaint, and Lucy.

There is nothing wrong with the thematic idea—it is surely a valid one—but Stribling in isolating it for examination glosses over the basic historical situation in the South of 1884: the real problems of how to handle the franchise, how to solve the shift in the labor scene, or how to replace the social pattern of the plantation. It is true that The Store touches on these issues, but always to the same purpose: except for a brutality and stupidity peculiar to the Southern white man, Stribling would have us believe that all these problems would have been solved long ago…. In Stribling's pantheon there are no equitable Southern white men. (pp. 20-1)

[Stribling] reflects too unquestioningly the prevailing attitude of American liberalism of the 1920's.

Two additional traits combine in The Store to make it seem brittle and superficial. The point of view is nowhere artistically useful, and the style is often a kind of hasty journalese. Basically the omniscient perspective controls his narrative, but Stribling's delight in the short paragraph and pointed dialogue plunges the reader into an immediacy that is jarringly broken with regularity. (p. 21)

The trouble with Stribling's use of the perspective is that he wants the best of the two worlds of god-like omniscience and of first-person immediacy both at the same time.

Despite these faults that doubtless seem more obvious today than in the rather lean literary years of the early 1930's, The Store has a certain enduring vitality…. [The] novel has many moments that preserve the way of small-town life in Alabama and at the same time explicate a thematic concept. (p. 22)

William T. Going, "'Store' and 'Mockingbird': Two Pulitzer Novels about Alabama," in his Essays on Alabama Literature (copyright © 1975 by The University of Alabama Press), University of Alabama Press, 1975, pp. 9-31.∗

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