The Foxes of Harrow not worth digging out

Steven Fox arrives in New Orleans in 1825, broke and friendless.

By his gambling and his good looks, he makes a fortune and buys land, working along side his slaves to make it prosper.


The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby

Dial Press, 1946. 408 p. 1946 bestseller #6. My grade: C-.


Before long Harrow is the greatest plantation in Louisiana, its manor house a gem on the Mississippi.

Steven marries Odalie Orceneaux by whom he has two children.

After her death he marries her sister, Aurore.

And on the side he has a quadroon mistress.

As Harrow grows more prosperous and influential, the South prepares for war. Steven lays aside his anti-secession principles to fight for the South.

In the introduction to The Foxes of Harrow, Frank Yerby makes the glory and ruin of Harrow Plantation almost palpable, but the story never lives up to its setting.

Yerby starts out writing about people in the pre-Civil War South, and ends up writing an historical novel about the South.

The characters, too, are not consistent.

Initially conniving, thieving, self-centered, and cruel, Steven magically becomes loyal, generous, and statesmanlike by the book’s end.

The best thing to be said for The Foxes of Harrow is that it’s better than its sequels.

But it’s no Gone With the Wind.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Clansman: Racisim writ large, romance writ small

In his forward to The Clansman, Thomas Dixon says his novel shows how the Klu Klux Klan “against overwhelming odds…saved the life of a people.”

Readers can judge that for themselves.


The Clansman by Thomas Dixon

An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Illus.with scenes from photo-play The Birth of a Nation.
Grossett & Dunlap, 1905. 374 pages. Project Gutenberg EBook #26240.
1905 bestseller #4. My grade: C.


The novel opens April 10, 1865. Having won the war, Lincoln intends to win the peace by helping the South to recover.

Lincoln’s opposition includes Austin Stoneman, the power behind Congress.

Stoneman’s daughter and son have fallen for South Carolinians Ben and Margaret Cameron.

When Stoneman’s health requires a warm climate, Elsie and Phil select South Carolina for their father’s recuperation.

Quicker than you can butter a biscuit, Elsie and Phil turn Southern.

Ben Cameron organizes the Clan.

Stoneman recuperates in time to try to defeat the Clan.

You can guess the rest.

Stockman is the only interesting character in this dumb story, yet Dixon suggests no plausible explanation of Stoneman’s hatred of the South.

As a novel, The Clansman is a dud.

As a cultural and historical phenomenon, it’s dynamite.

I can’t recall a novel that gives a better sense of the nation’s emotional response to the Lincoln assassination, nor think of a better illustration of how Civil War mythology perpetuates itself in the South.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Lion Is in the Streets. Look for it.

Thanks to Adria Locke Langley’s decision to let Verity Martin tell the story of her charismatic husband’s political career, A Lion Is in the Streets is a political novel that can be enjoyed by folks who don’t like political novels.

As the book opens, Hank Martin is dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet. As Verity listens to a reporter tell the story of Hank’s life, she recalls the events as she saw them.


A Lion Is in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley

Blakiston, 1945. 345 pages. 1945 bestseller #6. My Grade: A-.


cover of "A Lion is in the Streets" is solid gray with title in silver
Don’t judge this book by its cover. It’s not a boring novel.

A Yankee schoolteacher, Verity fell for a southern peddler with dreams of being governor.

While he was out organizing a political machine, she stayed home in a little share-cropper cottage.

Almost from the first, Verity knew Hank’s sex appeal was a potential threat to her marriage.

It took her years to realize Hank’s lust for power is even more destructive than his sex drive, not only for their family but also for the whole state.

Langley does a superb job of making these people seem real. They are complicated bundles of inexplicable contradictions.

In some ways, each character knows the others better than they know themselves.

Like politics, much of the plot has to be grasped from innuendo. You’ll need to read slowly, picturing the scenes, or you’ll miss the point.

The effort is worth it.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Characters in The Deliverance Grow Up

Tobacco field in Stanford, KY
Tobacco field in the American South

Ellen Glasgow’s sets The Deliverance, a tale of repressed sexual passion and hatred, in the tobacco fields of Reconstruction-era Virginia.

When the Confederacy lost the war, the Blakes lost their slaves and money. Former overseer Bill Fletcher bought their plantation for $7000.

The remnants of the Blake family were forced to move to what had been the overseer’s house where they keep the truth of their economic situation from blind old Mrs. Blake.

Young Christopher Blake hates Fletcher with a passion. When opportunity comes to get back at Fletcher by turning his grandson against him, Chris takes it.

Fletcher’s granddaughter, Maria, arouses Chris’s passions, too. Fortunately she marries and goes to Europe before his rage turns to rape.

Though Glasgow could have taken the story in any of several directions from there, she sticks to the promise of her subtitle and produces a romance.

The printed Southern dialect is annoying, but there’s not much of it past the first few chapters.

In the intensity of its characters’ loves and hatreds, The Deliverance reminds me of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In Glasgow’s novel, however, the main characters seem to outgrow their hatred rather than spending their passion. Even Glasgow’s minor characters mature in ways that are both surprising and realistic.

The Deliverance; A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields
by Ellen Glasgow
Project Gutenberg ebook #2384
1904 bestseller #2
My grade: B

Photo credit: Tobacco Field by carterboy

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Outrageous man makes The Store worth revisiting

This is another of my occasional reviews of notable vintage novels that did not make the bestseller lists when they were published.  The Store won novelist T. S. Stribling a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1933. A two-page illustrated biography of the author in pdf format is available from the Tennessee Literary Project.

Cotton Plant
Natural Cotton

Before the Civil War, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden was comfortably well off. Then he lost a year’s income when J. Handback declared bankruptcy the day Vaiden assigned him his cotton crop.

Vaiden’s fortunes haven’t recovered yet in 1884 when he learns Handback keeps a mistress, a former Vaiden slave named Gracie. Vaiden uses that knowledge to blackmail Handback into giving him a job in his store.

When Handback puts Vaiden in charge of the cotton bales, Vaiden sells them and pockets the proceeds, which he insists Handback owes him.

Though forced to return part of the money, Vaiden has enough to start his own store, invest in property, and think of himself as a Southern planter again.

Vaiden doesn’t realize the South’s future lies with shopkeepers not planters.  And he certainly doesn’t see that children of former slaves like Gracie’s son, Touissant, are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Although T. S. Stribling hangs his hangs together on a string of coincidences, they are plausible coincidences. Even Vaiden’s descent into crime is more happenstance than choice.

But interesting as the historical portrait is, it can’t compete with the fascination of Vaiden himself. He is, as his one-time fiancée says, “an outrageous man” who “stick[s] at nothing and regret[s] little.”

Miltiades Vaiden doesn’t just invent his own facts; he believes every word he fabricates.

Look for The Store.

You won’t begrudge the time you spend there.

The Store
by T[homas] S[igismund] Stribling
Original publication 1932 by Doubleday, Doran
Republished 1985 by The University of Alabama Press
with an introduction by Randy K. Cross
571 pages

Photo credit: Natural Cotton 22 by robertz65

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nuanced picture of race relations keeps Strange Fruit contemporary

Interracial couple closeup in monochrome.
Strange Fruit is a simple love story in a setting where nothing is simple.

The girl is Nonnie Anderson, tall, lovely, college-educated. Her family can’t understand why she stays in her dead-end town working as caregiver for a retarded child.

The reason is Tracy Deen, an aimless college drop-out seething with resentment because his mother liked his sister best.

When Nonnie tells Tracy she’s pregnant, his response is predictable: He doesn’t want to think about it.

None of this would be more than mildly interesting except that Nonnie is black, Tracy is white, and they live in 1940s’ Georgia. The sun beats mercilessly, humidity rises, people get edgy, and sounds of a tent evangelist call white sinners to immunity within the church.

Lillian Smith, who lived most of her life in Georgia, knows all the nuances of race relations in the South. She shows us that race is only one factor in race relations. Poverty, education, anti-Yankee sentiment, and religion all play a role.

But the most important factor is human choice.

Our society still hasn’t come to grips with the issues Smith raises in Strange Fruit— all the more reason to read this marvelous 1944 novel today.

Strange Fruit
By Lillian Smith
Harcourt, Brace, 1944
250 pages
1944 Bestseller #1
My grade = A

Photo credit: Black ‘n White Uploaded by alfredo-9

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Benton’s Row Is Uneven and Unoriginal

If I were asked whether Frank Yerby’s Benton’s Row is

a) a typical Yerby novel
b) better than the typical Yerby novel
c) worse than the typical Yerby novel
d) all of the above

I’d choose D.

Benton’s Row is in three parts. The first is standard Yerby: Tom Benton, an ambitious poor boy, irresistible to women, achieves fame and fortune in America’s South before the Civil War.

Part two, set during during Reconstruction, focuses on Tom’s widow, Sarah, remarried to the local doctor, and the extended family of Tom Benton’s legitimate and bastard children.

Yerby, who usually uses paper dolls for his female characters, does a surprisingly good job portraying Sarah.

In this middle section, Yerby also surprises with his depiction of plantations of the interior South as an unpainted log homes and the planters as not substantially better off financially than their slaves.

Unfortunately, Yerby destroys the impact of his original elements by ending the middle section with an incident distressingly similar to a scene from Zane Grey’s  To the Last Man.

The third part of Benton’s Row is a hodgepodge of stories about Tom Benton’s progeny and grandchildren during and after World War I. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who — and even harder to care.

Benton’s Row
by Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1954
280 pages
1954 bestseller #10
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The View from Pompey’s Head shows South and self

Cover of The View from Pompey's Head

The View from Pompey’s Head by Hamilton Basso is a novel about  New York City lawyer Anson Page whose work takes him back to his southern home.

Anson’s task is to determine whether a recently deceased editor for a publishing house embezzled a client’s royalties.

Anson’s law firm and their client assume his local connections will make it easy for him to find out why Mrs. Garvin Wales is sure Phillip Greene stole her husband’s royalties.

Anson assumes his local connections will make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to find out the truth.

Basso explores not only the murky process of growing up, but the Southern mindset, which Anson calls “Southern Shintoism.”

Basso takes his time telling the story, letting Anson delve into his memories of how things appeared to him more than 15 years before.

Anson’s memories are still vivid, some painfully so, but his understanding of their meaning has changed as he matured. Anson finally finds the solution to the mystery of the re-directed royalties through his adult understanding of Southern culture.

Though the novel moves with Southern summer speed, Basso keeps it moving without any extraneous elements. Without exerting himself to entertain, he keeps readers engaged, leading them effortlessly to understand the value of the South’s myths.

The View from Pompey’s Head
By Hamilton Basso
© 1954 by Hamilton Basso
Introduction by John W. Aldridge © 1985
Arbor House, 1985  [paper]
409 pages
1954 bestseller #8
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Laughs overlay nostalgia in The Reivers

black antique car
Antique Car

The Reivers is a zany tale of a none-too-innocent rural Mississippi childhood related by Lucius Priest to his grandson.

At age 11, Lucius and two pals who work at the family’s freight business borrow his grandfather’s automobile and drive up to Memphis from Jefferson, Mississippi, no mean feat in 1905.

While Boon and Lucius eat supper at a brothel where Boon’s girl friend works, Ned trades the car for a horse. Ned plans to race the horse, bet heavily, collect a pile, and get the car back when the horse wins.

Unfortunately, the horse hates to run unless there’s another horse ahead of him.

Ned has to enlist Boon and Lucius to help.

William Faulkner’s narrator tells the story in a wheezy, cracker barrel manner, letting readers deduce what actually happened—if that is possible.  The yarn may be only a few facts embroidered by an old man’s fancy, the characters might be just enhanced wisps of Lucius’ memory.

The charm of the story is believing there was once a time when people who cared about one another might have had exciting adventures together and never come to any harm.

The Reivers: A Reminiscence
William Faulkner
Random House, 1962
305 pages
1962 Bestseller #10
My grade: B
 © 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Black Antique car uploaded by Still

Scarlet Sister Mary: Memorable Black Single Mom

In Scarlet Sister Mary, Julia Peterkin writes a deceptively shallow story of the post-Civil War South that focuses on a black woman.

Mary is a pretty, spirited teenager raised by Maum Hannah, a pillar of the Quarters church that calls the teen  “Sister Mary.”

Pregnant, Mary weds July, who promptly deserts her. The church that would have rallied around a deserted wife has little sympathy for a girl who had premarital sex, a scarlet sin.

Mary  keeps the roof patched and food on the table by field work. July’s twin brother, June, long in love with Mary, is close at hand.

Before Mary is much more than 30, she has five children by different fathers and two of her grandchildren to raise as well.

When July comes back, she kicks him out.

Mary is a proud woman. She’s also getting old. What’s she to do with a passel of kids to raise?

Peterkin deftly shows how one woman copes as a single parent. Mary’s choices may not be good ones, but Peterkin makes them appear plausible. Similarly, she makes believable Mary’s easy acceptance of both organized Christianity and black magic.

You may not side with Mary, but when you’ve finished Scarlet Sister Mary, you’ll feel you understand her.

Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
Bobbs-Merrill. 1928
345 pages
1929 # 9
My grade B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni