The Southern Literary Journal 38.2 (2006) 145-149
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Challenging the Canon:
Other Southern Literary Lives
In a time when scholars seem to prefer expending their energies on illuminating the life stories and works of canonical southern writers—Poe, Twain, Faulkner, O'Connor, McCullers, and Percy, among others—two recent biographies of largely forgotten twentieth-century southern literary figures, Kenneth W. Vickers's T. S. Stribling: A Life of the Tennessee Novelist and Ashby Bland Crowder's Wakeful Anguish: A Literary Biography of William Humphrey, are welcome additions to southern literary studies. Vickers and Crowder fill a scholarly void in featuring two prolific and dedicated writers: the versatile T. S. Stribling, a pioneer in the southern literary renascence, and William Humphrey, whose principal subject matter was pain and tragic suffering.
In an essay in the American Review in 1934—the same year Stribling published Unfinished Cathedral, the third volume in his trilogy of the South—Robert Penn Warren, who viewed Stribling as a propagandist, consigned him to a "paragraph in the development, or conceivably the decline...of critical realism." (463). Warren's death knell for T. S. Stribling, however, proved to be premature. Two critical studies on Stribling—Wilton E. Eckley's T. S. Stribling, a monograph in the Twayne United States Authors Series, and my T. S. Stribling: Pioneer Realist in [End Page 145] Modern Southern Literature, which examines Stribling's serious southern social novels of the 1920s and the 1930s—appeared in 1975 and 1988, respectively. Also, in the 1980s, Stribling's autobiography, Laughing Stock, was posthumously published; new editions of The Forge, The Store, and Unfinished Cathedral, the novels comprising Stribling's Alabama trilogy and his most significant contribution to modern southern letters were reprinted; and Birthright (1922), Stribling's first novel on southern race relations and one of the first American novels to treat the African American realistically, was reprinted. Now, with the publication of Vickers's T. S. Stribling, we have the first comprehensive biography of the prolific Tennessee writer.
Vickers's biography is a sympathetic, meticulously researched treatment of Stribling's life and work. Drawing on archival collections, including, most importantly, the Stribling papers at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and at the University of North Alabama, as well as published and unpublished correspondence, Vickers forges a compelling story of Stribling's relationships with many of his contemporaries. Some of the most illuminating new material incorporated into the book is Stribling's correspondence with George E. Haynes, an African American scholar and a member of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. Haynes and Stribling became friends and developed a business partnership, a joint real-estate venture in New York City. Haynes also encouraged Stribling, who was considering the idea of composing a trilogy on the African American experience with Birthright as the first volume,to explore black life in urban areas, both in the South and the North. In commenting on the significance of the Haynes-Stribling relationship, Vickers observes that "Stribling, as a white man, held the key to establishing a new white perception of African Americans. Haynes appreciated that the Tennessean did not see the African American as 'a burnt-cork white man,' but as an individual with 'objectives and complexes of his own.'" Haynes likewise praised Birthright as "an accurate portrayal" of black life "for a white author." As Vickers further indicates, other African American critics and writers, including Charles W. Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larson, offered laudatory appraisals of Birthright.
Vickers also uses Stribling's correspondence to show his relationship with various publishers and editors who were instrumental in promoting and publishing his work. Harry E. Maule, an editor with Doubleday, Page, who had worked previously with revolt-from-the-village iconoclast...