Thomas Nelson Page
IN Mr. Henry James’s recently published book entitled The American Scene, the chapters on Richmond and Charleston are especially noteworthy. The restless analyst visited these cities with every desire to be romantically affected by “any small inkling (a mere specimen scrap would do) of the sense of the ‘South before the War.’” Scratching for romance throughout the country, he calculated most fondly on the vivid images, mainly beautiful and sad, which he hoped would survive in the South. He was not altogether disappointed in Charleston, to which the author of Lady Baltimore was his guide; but he found Richmond “simply blank and void” — nowhere the Southern character or the backward reference, scarcely a suggestion of the old Southern mansions with their wide verandas and the “rank sweet gardens.” Sadder still was the fact that there was no record of that life, as if legend would have nothing to say to these people. The collapse of the old order, the humiliation of defeat, the bereavement and bankruptcy involved, represented, with its obscure miseries and tragedies, a “social revolution the most unrecorded and undepicted, in proportion to its magnitude, that ever was.” Only the statue of Washington with its mid-century air, and the statue of Lee with its commmonplace surroundings, typified the high note of the old régime. The Confederate museum with its “ sorry objects ” but added to the impression of the void. An old Confederate soldier, talking volubly of the epic age; the lady who presided over the museum, — “soft-voiced, gracious, mellifluous,” — with her thoroughly “sectional” good manners; and a handsome young Virginian, “for all the world like the hero of a famous novel,” — these alone suggested “the social tone of the South that had been.”
One cannot but wish that Mr. James had been as fortunate in his Richmond guide as in his Charleston, for if “the handsome young Virginian” had been Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, the latter would have revealed to him, at least a few miles from Richmond, some of the relics of old, unhappy far-off things, and related to him with the real Virginia accent stories that would have given the very form and pressure of the olden times. Nearly thirty years ago Mr. Page, then a young lawyer in Richmond, felt something of the void so felicitously described by Mr. James: he somewhat wistfully yearned towards the old plantation life. Now and then, even in Richmond, however, he would accost the Old Gentleman of the Black Stock in the antique section of the city, or a country carriage, “antiquated and high-swung and shackling, but driven by an old gray-headed darkey and full of fresh young country girls.” Immediately he was back among the overgrown fence-rows and fields of his own country home. Endeavoring faithfully to follow the law as a profession, he felt more and more the stirring of the artistic impulse and the ideal of preserving in some sort “a picture of a civilization which, once having sweetened the life of the South, has since then wellnigh perished from the earth.” One day a letter — like one of those sorry objects that Mr. James found in the Confederate museum — fell into his hands. Written in an illiterate hand on coarse blue Confederate paper, by a young girl in Georgia to her sweetheart in the Confederate army, it had been found upon one of the battlefields around Richmond. The love story and its tragedy, transferred to a more aristocratic setting, was the basis of his first story, Marse Chan, which, after being held by a magazine for three years, met with an instant response from the people of both sections. No one would claim that Mr. Page has written of ante-bellum life or of the tragedy of the Civil War in the grand style, — it will be perhaps a long time before any one does; but that legend has not entirely turned its back upon the South, that the section is not “utterly disinherited of letters,” — I use Mr. James’s words, — is evidenced in his own stories and in those of his fellow authors who have since 1876 written of Southern life.
Some of these writers had already interpreted various abnormal aspects of Southern life, generally the picturesque life of the negro, the “cracker,”the mountaineer, and the creole. While there was in all of them the suggestion of the life before the war, it was reserved for Mr. Page to portray in short story, novel, and essay, Southern ante-bellum civilization with some degree of fullness. Using the negro as the medium of expression, he yet left the impression in all his works of the oldtime mansion seated amid the immemorial trees, and of the gentlemen and gentlewomen who lived and loved and died, always animated by what now seem to be certain old-fashioned ideals. It is true that the life of which Mr. Page writes is almost altogether that of the Virginia plantation, and so not representative of the lower South,— and yet this is the tradition of Southern life that has been everywhere cherished by Southerners as the ideal towards which all Southern society moved. The Scotch-Irish element in Southern life, as well as others, has been subordinated in the popular mind to this tradition of cavalier Virginia, which in turn has always been greatly influenced by the traditions of cavalier England.
In this sense, therefore, Mr. Page is, as is no other Southern writer, the interpreter of a state of society that has always seemed remote to Northerners, and that, amid the swift changes now taking place in the South, has become largely a memory even there. The present seems a particularly opportune time for the publication of a complete edition of his writings — especially for so noteworthy an edition as the Plantation Edition, with every possible mechanical device to make it attractive and beautiful.1 There will assuredly not be lacking many readers, North and South, who will take this opportunity of learning from a genuine story-teller the main elements of a civilization which seems to his somewhat partial eyes to be “ the sweetest, purest and most beautiful ever lived.” The author boasts that he belongs to the new order of Southern life, he feels “a thrill of new energy fill his heart,” he “gives loyal and enthusiastic adherence to the present, with all its fresh and glorious possibilities,” and yet his imagination has found its home in the picturesque civilization of old Virginia. In the new glitter he has not forgotten the old radiance.
Mr, Page, by inheritance, environment, and temperament, is preëminently qualified for the rôle here suggested. In his veins flows the blood of several generations of Virginia gentlemen and gentlewomen. Robert E. Lee himself was not more genuinely aristocratic. The Nelsons and the Pages were among the Cavaliers who came to America during the reign of the Puritans in England and settled in fine estates on the York River. In his essays on “Life in Colonial Virginia”and “Two Old Colonial Places,” Mr. Page describes with vividness and charm these ancestral places — Rosewell and Yorktown — and recalls with pride the part played by their owners in the social and political life of colonial and revolutionary times. The most distinguished of these was Thomas Nelson, the war governor of Virginia, and John Page, the first governor of the new commonwealth — both of them sacrificing their large fortunes for the good of their country, and leaving behind traditions of patriotism, honor, and social prestige. The many allusions in their descendant’s stories to old furniture, old silver, and old portraits are suggestive of his pride in the precious heirlooms of his family—some of them associated with Charles I. While his immediate ancestors lacked the wealth and influence of the earlier ones, they were characterized by the same highmindedness and refinement.
Mr. Page was brought up at Oakland in Hanover County, with which readers of Two Little Confederates and Among the Camps are familiar. A plain weatherboard building “set on a hill in a grove of primeval oaks and hickories . . . spreading their long arms about it, sheltering nearly a half acre apiece; the orchard beyond which peeped the ample barns and stables; and the flower garden — roses around the yard and in the garden, of every hue and delicate refinement of perfume,” —these are among the images he has cherished most. This home has figured largely in all Mr. Page’s stories, although in some of them the mansion is finer and the estate vaster. Most that he has written is in the nature of reminiscence. When the war broke out he was eight years old, old enough to have seen with boyish eyes the social life which was so soon to pass away. If in later years he often impresses one as idealizing the past, it must be borne in mind that the imagination of childhood is particularly strong. The war was no hearsay with him. He was within sound of the guns of battle in three great campaigns. His uncle and his father, although — like all of his heroes — they had been opposed to secession, cast in their lot with their commonwealth; and Oakland became at once a parade ground and a depot of war supplies. The women and the children and the slaves kept in vivid touch with the stirring events of those times, for Oakland was situated between the two roads that led to Richmond, and all during the war the Confederate or Federal armies were passing through the plantation. It was indeed the heroic age to an eager-hearted imaginative boy, who with his companions, black and white, hunted in the forests, played at war, carried food and clothing to the Confederate soldiers, captured deserters, and even watched from a hilltop a skirmish between the opposing forces. He felt too the privations that thickened as the war progressed, and shared the universal desolation that was left in the track of the armies. He knew the wrongs of a later time, when fine gentlemen were in the power of newly enfranchised slaves and renegade white men, and when refined women were subjected to the coarsest insults.
While to a large degree these great and tragic times were his real education, he yet had the privilege of being prepared for college by his father, who in the dedication of Santa Claus’s Partner is referred to as one “who among all men the writer knew in his youth was the most familiar with books.” The mellow Elzevirs and Lintots, including the classics, Latin and English, were typical of Southern libraries. His collegiate training was of such a nature as to accentuate his intimate knowledge of Southern life, for he went to the college which was endowed by George Washington and was at that time presided over by Robert E. Lee,—the men whom he always considered the flower of the civilization that he loved. Later he studied law at the University of Virginia, which, in its beautiful lawn and its stately columns, as well as in its traditions of honor and of scholarship, has always been the pride of conservative Southerners. In Richmond — the abiding place of so many people who were intimately connected with the Confederacy — he followed the profession of law, the ideals of which were incarnated in the old Virginia lawyer about whom he was to write with such genuine charm. His first wife was Miss Anne Seddon Bruce, the niece of the former Attorney-General of the Confederate government; she brought to him at once the stories of a great Virginia plantation and the most sympathetic appreciation of his early literary work.
When we add to all these influences, hereditary and contemporary, his own temperament, — for to those who know Mr. Page, his genial sympathy, his fine breeding, and his innate courtliness mark him as a typical Virginia gentleman, — we can see readily that Hawthorne was not better adapted to the delineation of New England Puritanism, or Scott to the setting forth of the age of chivalry, than was Mr. Page to the description and interpretation of ante-bellum life.
He has therefore not had to work up “local color” to write about the master of the big plantation or the young heir apparent. The type of the Virginia gentleman varies all the way from the blustering high-strung colonel in Polly, — for all the world like Squire Western with his “damme’s,” — or the fiery General Legaie in Red Rock, to the dignified and masterful Dr. Cary or General Keith. There is a family likeness in them all, however. “To be a Virginia gentleman was the first duty; it embraced being a Christian and all the virtues. He lived as one; he left it as a heritage to his children. Out on the long verandas in the dusk of the summer night, with his wide fields stretching away into the gloom and the woods bounding the horizon, his thoughts dwelt upon serious things; he pondered causes and consequences.” There is the inevitable comparison with the eighteenth-century squire: “Sir Charles Grandison could not have been more elegant nor Sir Roger more generous.” Admirable as he was in prosperity or in war, he commands our sympathy most in adversity, — as, for instance, Dr. Cary living in his cabin and greeting with old-time hospitality a Northern family. “The thoughtful, selfcontained face, the high-bred air, the slightly aquiline nose, the deep eyes, and the calm mouth and the pointed beard, made a perfect Vandyke portrait. Even the unstarched, loose collar and turnedback cuffs added to the impression. Ruth seemed to have been suddenly carried back over two hundred years to find herself in the presence of an old patrician.”
The younger men were gayer and more light-hearted, much given to selfindulgence. They threw themselves almost recklessly into the festivities and dueling of that era; and yet, when war came they proved to be “the most dashing and indomitable soldiery of modern times;” and in the reconstruction period young men like Steve Allen somehow saved the white man’s civilization.
The knights of the middle ages or the Cavaliers of the seventeenth century were not more chivalric to women than these Southern gentlemen. It is as if the age of chivalry had lingered here long after Burke had lamented its passing from Europe. It is easy to see that Mr. Page idealizes his heroines, but that is a fault scarcely to be wondered at. One is apt to smile at his “lily-fingered, pinkfaced, laughing girl, with teeth like pearls and eyes like stars,” or at his creatures of “peach-bloom and snow, languid, delicate, saucy.” And yet who can resist the charm of Polly, the light-hearted, tender creature, or of “Miss Charlotte” coming down the grand stairway looking like “she done come down right from de top o’ de blue sky and bring a piece on it wid her,” or Meh Lady, in her bridal dress, “white as snow from her head to way back down on de flo’ behind her, an’ her veil done fall roun’ her like white mist, an’ some roses in her hair,” or Margaret Landon, dressed in a curious, rich old flowered silk which she had found in one of her grandmother’s trunks, “looking as if she had just stepped out of an old picture” ? Here, then, we have the inexpressible Southern girl, “with her fine grain, silken hair, her satin skin, her musical speech,” — alas, too little of her musical speech!
She in time became the dignified matron of the plantation, “the gentle, classic, serious mother among her tall sons and radiant daughters.” “She was mistress, manager, doctor, nurse, counselor, seamstress, teacher, housekeeper, slave, all at once — the keystone of the domestic economy which bound all the rest of the structure and gave it its strength and beauty.” Face to face with the hardships and privations of war, she was patriotic, resourceful, courageous. One of Mr. Page’s best sketches, though it is not so well known, is “My Cousin Fanny,” in which there is portrayed one who played a large part in the author’s life. There is a culture about her only too rare among Mr. Page’s heroines. “I recollect particularly once when she was singing an old French love song with the light of the evening sky on her face.... I have even seen Horace read to her as she sat in the old rocking-chair after one of her headaches, with her eyes bandaged, and her head swathed in veils and shawls, and she would turn it into not only proper English, but English with a glow and color and rhythm that gave the very life of the odes.. . . She would sit at the piano looking either up or right straight ahead of her or, often, with her eyes closed, and the sound used to rise from under her long thin fingers. . . . Then we boys wanted to go forth in the world on fiery black chargers, like the olden knights, and fight giants and rescue beautiful ladies and poor women. . . . Sometimes she suddenly began to sing. For instance, she sang old songs, English or French. . . . Her voice was as velvety and mellow as a bell far off, and the old ballads and chansons used to fill the twilight.”
These then, with the younger boys and girls and innumerable kinspeople, participated in the fox hunts, tournaments, weddings, harvest festivals, and, above all, the Christinas celebrations that have made Virginia social life famous throughout the world. In Unc’ Edinburg’s Drowndin' and in Social Life Before the War we hear “the infectious music of the banjos, the laughter of dancers, the festive noise and merriment of the cabin and the mansion.” Good cheer and hospitality, fun and merriment, reigned in those times. I wonder if the automobiles that rush here and there throughout the country are as full of happy people as the old country carriages piled up outside and in with those returning from college or from distant plantations to spend Christmas in the old home; or if the country clubs know the joy that reigned in the polished halls and on the moonlit verandas of the old Southern houses; or if in our modern zeal for scholarship we have found any substitute for the amenities and graces of the better type of Southern gentleman. Indifferentism is scarcely so admirable as enthusiasm, and the intellectual analysis of modern realism does not take the place of the healthy sentiment of romance, Somehow, as one reads In Ole Virginia, one sees its characters and incidents against the background of American contemporary life, not always to the advantage of the latter. And the Southerner, be he never so progressive, cannot but now and then sigh, amid some of the raw expressions of the new South, for the charm and leisure of the old.
The medium through which Mr. Page conveys this life is the old-time negro. Sometimes he tells the story himself, as in the Burial of the Guns and the Old Gentleman of the Black Stock, but he is most successful when the old negro tells in picturesque language of the life which seemed so wonderful to his childlike mind. Mr. Page has realized, with Irwin Russell and Joel Chandler Harris, the literary capabilities of the negro — with a difference, however. He never strikes the deeper and more original notes of the negro character, that we have in the folk-lore of Mr. Harris, or in the impassioned melody of the old slave songs. The negro is always an accessory to the white man; through the illusive haze of memory he “sees the social pageant pass by, till the day when the trumpet sounded and he rode to the wars, by his master’s side.” It is almost the irony of fate — at least from the standpoint of the old abolitionist — that the traditions of splendor and supreme distinction of the old régime should be handed down by those upon whose labor it was founded, and for whose sake it was annihilated. It is futile to deny that the great majority of negroes on the best Virginia plantations were supremely happy in their bondage, or that even now some of them survive, unable to adjust themselves to new conditions. Mr. Page has adequately realized the full meaning of this picturesque survival, whose dialect, imagery, humor, and pathos he has so felicitously reproduced. One may feel that the dialect story has been greatly overdone in the past few years, and yet be full of sympathy with stories that are the key to a vanished world.
It is difficult for a Southerner of this day to realize the intimate tie that bound together the household slaves and those who lived in the Big House. At birth the young boy was given over to one who was to be his companion in play and at school, who was his valet at college, his confidant in love, his comrade in war, and who at his death wrapped about him the flag of his country. “Wherever you see Marse George, dyah Edinburg sho’, jes’ like he shadow.” More than one of Mr. Page’s heroes risks his life to save a slave. “Oh! oh! nothin’ warn’ too good for niggers dem times,” says Uncle Sam. “Dem wuz good old times, Marster — de best Sam ever see ! Dey wuz, in fact! Niggers didn’ hed nothin”t all to do — . . . an’ when dey wuz sick, dey had things sont’m out de house, an’ de same doctor come to see ’em whar ’ten’ to de white folks when dey was po’ly. Dyar warn’ no trouble nor nothin’.” If there is a story in which the negro, not the white man, is the hero, it is Meh Lady, Uncle Billy was guide, counselor, and friend to his mistress and her daughter in the trying times of war and of distressing poverty. He hid their silver for them, defied the Yankees, prayed the last prayer with his dying mistress, comforted her lonely daughter, and finally gave her away in marriage. There is scarcely a finer passage in American fiction than that in which the old gentleman, after the events of the marriage day are over, muses in front of his cabin door of the days that are no more:
“An’ dat night when de preacher was gone wid he wife, an’ Hannah done drapt off to sleep, I wuz settin’ in de do’ wid meh pipe, an’ I heah ’em setting dyah on de front steps, dee voices soun’in’ low like bees, an’de moon sort o’ meltin’ over de yard, an’ I sort o’ got to studyin’, an’ hit ’pear like de plantation’ ’live once mo’, an’ de ain’ no mo’ scufflin’, an’ de ole times done come back ag’in an’ I heah meh kerridge-horses stomping in de stall, an’ de place all cleared up agin, an’ fence all roun’ de pahsture, an’ I smell de wet clover blossoms right good, and Marse Phil an’ Meh Lady done come back, an’ runnin all roun’ me, climbing up on meh knees, calling me Unc’ Billy, an’ pestering me to go fishing, while somehow Meh Lady and de Cun’l, setting dyah on de steps wid dee voices hummin’ low like water runnin’ in the dark,”
The question inevitably arises as to whether the picture of Southern life, as given by the old negro or in Mr. Page’s essays, is true. As has already been suggested, if it is true at all it is true not of the entire South, but of the aristocratic life of Virginia — for there could be no greater contrast than that between Virginia and Georgia, for instance. But is it true of Virginia ? The question suggests, by way of contrast, the letters of travel written by Olmsted and Godkin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the observations of Fanny Kemble and Harriet Martineau, the historical and social studies made by Southern scholars, and the “Autobiography of a Southerner ” recently printed in the Atlentic Monthly. Such studies reveal the darker sides of slavery — the old master’s extravagance and overbearing haughtiness, the young gentleman’s reckless dissipation, the young woman’s lack of modern culture, the hopeless degradation of the poorer whites, the slaves in their dirty cabins, bullied by overseer or frightened by the fear of being transferred to the lower South. The most authoritative balancing of conflicting evidence is found in the first volume of Mr. James Ford Rhodes’s monumental history. He discriminates between the South as a whole and “the little aristocracy whose nucleus was less than eight thousand large slave-holders,”among whom we find “the best society that existed in America.” In society and conversation they appeared to the best advantage; they were cultured, educated men of the world. He agrees with the almost universal verdict of cultivated Englishmen that in all that constitutes good manners the palm must be awarded the slave-holding community. Now it is this class of people that Mr. Page has written about; the trouble is, however, that in his essays he has not been careful to make the discrimination which Mr. Rhodes does. Consequently they, as well as his stories, must be read with caution; for in his zeal to clear up misconceptions of the South — and they are most provoking — he has gone to the other extreme, — that, of magnifying the life of the old South.
Whatever one may say as to Mr. Page’s picture of ante-bellum life, there can be no doubt of the fidelity with which he has depicted the heroism of Southern men and Southern women in the Civil War, and the masterfulness with which they met the problems of Reconstruction—“War’s bastard offspring.” Red Rock as a novel is not equal to his best short stories, — in plot and often in incident it is not satisfying,— but that it is a successful historical romance and the most faithful reproduction of that stormy period is open to little doubt. It is accurate, fair, restrained. The author’s discrimination between various types of Northerners, Southerners, and negroes is worthy of the highest praise. It stands out in striking contrast with the melodramatic and sensational novels that have been recently written on that period. There is naught of malice in it.
And that leads me to say that in all his interpretation of the South Mr. Page has never struck a sectional note. There is provincialism, — the healthy provincialism of Burns and Whittier, — but he is right in claiming in the introduction to the Plantation Edition, that he has “never wittingly written a line which he did not hope might tend to bring about a better understanding between the North and South, and finally lead to a more perfect Union.” In his stories,.when the passion of prejudice is at its height, human nature asserts itself. The two Little Confederates bury in their garden the body of the Federal soldier; the heroine of Meh Lady, after a long and passionate conflict between love and patriotism, yields to the northern colonel; and the hero of Red Rock—dashing soldier and Ku Klux leader — is united with a Northern girl. Mr. Page has been one of the prime forces in revealing the South to the nation and the nation to the South, thus furthering one of the most important tasks of the present generation — the promotion of a real national spirit.
- Novels, Stories, Sketches and Poems. By THOMAS NELSON PAGE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906. 12 vols.↩