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THE NEW NOTE IN SOUTHERN LITERATURE
By DuBose Heyward
T has been said that good taste is an outstanding characteristic of southern letters, and that this in itself constitutes no mean contribution to contemporary American art. That such is the case is undeniable. The southern writer has applied himself with energy and ability to his task, and he has produced a literature that has reflected certain aspects of his environment with fidelity and feeling. Most important of all, he accepted the trust imposed in him by his audience, respected its taboos, and so produced literature that was characterized by "good taste".
In many ways he was fortunate. The audience was already cultivated; it was rooted deep in Anglo-Saxon tradition. It knew and demanded good English in what it read. It was conservative, and was uninterested in sensational filth. But now came the fatal flaw. This audience also demanded strict adherence to its code of good taste, and the code which it prescribed was that of the Victorian drawing room not art. There were, therefore, certain aspects of the life of the region that the writer must see only in part. Occasionally a daring spirit would ignore the signs. The case of George Cable has been pointed out to more than one aspiring southern, writer as a horrible example of the retribution of an outraged society. He had broken the "code of manners", and he was hanged in chains that others might see and profit.
To illustrate how this false standard could inhibit, even pervert artistic energy, one has only to look upon the
Negro in literature during the period following the Civil War. In the well bred southern drawing room of a decade ago, the "Negro problem" was never mentioned. A discussion of the economic and spiritual strivings of the race would have implied that such a problem existed; that in turn would have been disturbing, and accordingly "bad taste". This attitude was transmitted, simply by the weight of public opinion, to the writer. He knew that the raw stuff of human drama was there to his hand. But then there was George Cable. And so the authors who undertook to interpret Negro life divided themselves into two general classes: those who dealt altogether delightfully with the Negro of the past; and those who took the Negro's sense of humor as a keynote, caricatured it beyond recognition, and produced a comedian so detached from life that he could be laughed at heartily without the least disloyalty to the taboo.
Now the task that confronts the south today is simply this: to readjust its standards of good taste. Good taste in manners, if you will. But for art, its own code of good taste, based upon a fearless and veracious molding of the raw human material that lies beneath its hand.
That an increasing number from the audience are realizing this, there can be no doubt. And in this fact lies the encouragement and hope for southern letters of the future. No longer isolated by geographical detachment, the southern audience is eager for light,
and, possessing a congenial feeling for literature, it needs only to be made familiar with the new symbols to recognize the authentic in modern art.
Poetry societies which are enjoying flourishing existences in five southern states bring to their members each year a number of America's leading poets and critics in lectures and readings. Newspaper subscribers to the circulation of 300,000 scattered from Texas to Virginia read each week the excellent syndicated column edited by Addison Hibbard under the name of Telfair, Jr., with its trenchant and interesting comments. Book pages are today part of almost every paper of importance, and are read with eagerness and intelligence. Then there are "The Reviewer", "The Southwest Review", "The Sewanee Review", several other quarterlies, and "The Double Dealer", all seeking eagerly for the young writer with something to say. The fact that these publications are entirely uncommercial in intention or appeal renders their editorial policy unfettered.
Subjected to these and other similar influences, the prejudices of the audience are dissolving. It is beginning to concede that, after all, an artist may be permitted to see the whole of his subject and still not be a public menace.
Already, encouraged by this change in attitude, there has come a new note in southern literature. There need be no fear of open license. Good taste still holds good. But there is a new method of approach, and a new and daring handling of old material that promises much vitality for the new school. Within a surprisingly short time several writers have appeared who have forsworn the shackles of their immediate predecessors, and are observing and recording with honesty and fearlessness.
It is not the purpose of this article to
cover the general field of southern literature; that has been done most admirably by Professor Richard Burton in his recent survey in this magazine. It is merely my intention to indicate this new quality, not yet discernible from the lecture platform, and to offer a few examples which will make clear its actual existence. Some of the names I shall mention may thus far have escaped the notice of all but a discriminating few, but they are destined to be heard from in the immediate future, for they have evidenced qualities that have already laid the foundation for a new phase of southern letters.
Let us take first the drama, in which there occur more manifestations of the quality to which I refer than in either poetry or fiction. Consider the plays of the Carolina mountains that have enjoyed such a vogue in New York. In "Sun-up" and "The Shame Woman" Lula Vollmer, of North Carolina, has given us a cross section of the lives of these dwellers in the southern Appalachians as illuminatingly and poignantly true as life itself. And Hatcher Hughes, a native of South Carolina, in "Hell-Bent Fer Heaven" has taken the effect of religious fanaticism on the same repressed and isolated people, and shown it as a deadly instrument of evil and destruction. At least two of these plays would have trod upon the toes of certain conventions of a decade ago, and yet there they are. Now turn to "Roseanne", by Nan Bagby Stephens of Atlanta, which, although praised by critics, did not receive the popular attention that it deserved. Confronted by insurmountable mechanical difficulties, this playwright nevertheless presented in her drama, for the first time on the American stage, a psychologically true serious picture of contemporary southern Negro life. In this demonstration
she was gallantly backed by Mary Kirkpatrick of Alabama, who allowed the play to close only after experience had proved that it is as impossible for the southern black to be portrayed by the Harlem Negro as by a northern white, plus grease paint.
Then, of course, there is Laurence Stallings, of Georgia, not dealing with southern material it is true, but displaying, in "What Price Glory?", an artistic ideal rather than a Victorian good taste of manners which would have been imposed upon him, I do not doubt, by his forebears, and which would have forbidden the employment of his agonizing realism, thus destroying the masterpiece created by Maxwell Anderson and himself.
In the south, which is hampered by the lack of a professional producing theatre, the little theatre has spoken clearly and fearlessly. At the University of North Carolina, Frederick H. Koch, with his own student playwrights, the most distinguished of whom is Paul Green, has presented and published folk plays of a high quality, and these have not hesitated to touch upon the evils of tenant farming and religious fanaticism.
Those who attended the little theatre tournament in New York last spring will not soon forget the dynamic play, "Judge Lynch", carried on by Oliver Hinsdale, director of the Dallas Theatre, to capture the national trophy for the year. Written by J. W. Rogers, Jr., of Dallas, and produced in the heart of the south, this one act play struck with the full power of its emotional and artistic force at the root of the lynching evil. Out of an overlong and rather appalling silence, it spoke clearly for a vast and enlightened number throughout the south. And has Mr. Rogers been hanged in chains at Galveston Bar? On the contrary, he has
since been made an associate editor of the reorganized "Southwest Review". This would not have happened even five years ago. It did not happen to the pioneer, George Cable.
Two books by South Carolinians cannot be passed without comment, each being in its way an innovation in its approach to the Negro in the south. In "The Black Border", Ambrose E. Gonzales has combined the talents of a philologist, psychologist, and narrator in an authentic and priceless record of the fast disappearing Gulla Negro of the Carolina Low Country. While it is true that his sketches accent the humorous aspect of his subject, they differ from the comic Negro fiction in that they do not exaggerate the racial characteristics. His people are essentially human beings.
"Green Thursday", the second of the books that I have in mind, is by Julia Peterkin, and presents a number of portraits done with an intense, but sympathetic, analysis. Her Negro is still the primitive, living close to the soil. She has watched him at his tasks, and about his home, and what she has seen she has recorded, with neither a conscious nor unconscious superiority but with a strict economy of means, and an effect of stark veracity.
It may be said that both of these books give only the rural Negro, and that the authentic word has yet to be spoken for the Negro of education who is striving to adjust himself to the civilization about him. Unfortunately, this is so. "The Fire in the Flint", by Walter White, a book by a Negro, doubtless the advance guard of a long procession of novels of protest by members of the race, fails to convince, just as the comic fiction Negro type failed to convince, and from much the same cause. Here we have an author who sees the grave and not the gay, and with
good reason; but the material has been subjected to such excessive exaggeration that the illusion of truth cannot survive. The book appeals only by reason of its sensational content. It is the cry of the propagandist rather than the voice of art. This is a pity. It is high time that the Negro produced his own literature showing lights and shadows in their true value.
Turning from fiction to poetry, I will cite but a single case. Not because it stands alone as an example of excellence, but because in "Chills and Fever", by John Crowe Ransom, published last autumn, I find this new note most evident. In fact, I know of nothing quite like it in American poetry. It is highly intellectual, and possessed of an almost diabolically humorous quality. Unlike the drama, and fiction, it does not turn inward upon its environment for inspiration, but is in
clined to be metaphysical. Christopher Morley has liked it for what he described as its "pretty and intricate savagery".
Among critics, and writers of special articles for the magazines, the names of Gerald W. Johnson, Frances Newman, and Howard W. Odum stand out for their courageous, and not invariably popular, utterances upon matters vital to the south.
And so, I believe that we are due for a new phase of southern letters. The skies may not be as blue, nor the women as universally beautiful, as when yesterday was at its high noon. Its good taste may be questioned when the standard of the Victorian drawing room is applied, but it will at least have the virtues of honesty and simplicity, and it will attempt to leave an authentic record of the period that produced it.
HOW TO STAY OUT OF THE MOVIES
By James Ashmore Creelman
II: PLOTS AND COUNTER PLOTS
F you read the last article and did
If you re work conscientiously, you
will remember that it concerned itself with the movie story the original, unadapted, simon pure scenario. day we shall take up, in a serious way, the adaptation: that is, the screen dramatization of the original author's work, whether play, novel, short story or synopsis. Already you have been shown the gilded hells where prosperous novelists and famous scenario editors talk turkey à la King. Now let us slum for a while in the continuity department, the slave quarters where the boys who do the dirty work toil and sweat and plot revolutions and sometimes, when the warder nods, devour some weaker brother. By way of compelling attention at the start, let it be stated that work in this field pays better than any other form of professional writing. But, of course, it costs more to live, in the exact sense of the word.
In the dark days, when the movies had not yet reached the age of consent, they called it "the idea". About eight o'clock of a summer morning in 1908, almost any budding director might be seen rolling up the highways and byways of Old Hollywood to somebody's converted car barn, lately rechristened the Titanic Studios, with a used automobile and some more or less unused actors. His producer would allow him one reel of precious film and a camera man, with some such casual remark as, "Good weather for westerns, Joe. Get yourself a real snappy
idea and have it cleaned up by five o'clock, positive!" Whereat the director, if worth his fifty dollars a week, mentally measured off an idea for a screen drama (probably about the sheriff who loved the sinless dance hall girl) exactly one thousand feet long, and presently returned not later than six o'clock with the same complete in celluloid form. Those were days when such gay pastels as "Ten Pounds of Limburger" might be filmed impromptu, under God's blue skies, and this nonsense about dramatic technique, closeups, pantomimic art, and the like had not yet contaminated a simple, primitive people.
Celluloid grew cheaper and pictures grew longer. Presently the more radical directors began to sketch out their ideas on a cuff or envelope. You can see how intricate art becomes. That was the first scenario. Very soon it became convenient to employ underlings for these literary labors.
Now nobody with any business sense is going to let a job simplify itself. On the contrary, the scenario form speedily became complicated beyond the comprehension of any except trained minds. Salaries went up and trade mysteries developed apace. "The idea" became "the story" a thing apart from the scenario.
Soon everyone was using this word "scenario". It became vulgarized – laymen could pronounce it perfectly. The professional element took up a new expression, "the continuity". It