In the intense blossoming of American literary talent between the World Wars, T.S. Stribling took his place with Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and other members of his generation with the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his bestselling novel The Store. In Laughing Stock, Stribling’s autobiography, the gifted writer reflects with humor, irony, and passion on his trajectory from a remote southern town to the literary heights of Paris and New York.
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The Posthumous Autobiography of T.S. Stribling
By T.S. Stribling, Randy K. Cross, John T. McMillan
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
In which the author claims kin with the reader
We Southerners rake up kin. We graft our family trees to that of almost any stranger we meet, and we lasso with our ancestral lines the illustrious dead. Old Commodore Cornelius Stribling of the Union Navy was one of these illustrious dead. I have to be very careful along here because there was also a Captain Stribling in the Confederate Navy, and I wouldn't want, at this late date, to get the two navies mixed up again.
The Commodore seems to be the only Stribling who lifted himself to such eminence as to be visible to all the other members of our clan. No person outside of the family ever heard of our Commodore. His deeds do not appear in any history that I ever read. Very probably he was a cautious old sea dog and reached his comparatively high rank by keeping out of the enemy's fire, and so arrived at his eminence by seniority. But no matter how he did it, he rose higher in life than any other member of our gens and has done more to weld the Striblings of America into one proud, happy, backward-pointing family than any other Stribling who ever lived. I place the Commodore first not only because of his rank, but through certain private designs on the reader whom I mean presently to induct into our charmed circle, and maybe, who knows, sell him this history as a true account of at least one twig of our family tree.
However, I must be honest. All of us Striblings are not commodores. I mentioned Cornelius for window dressing—to put our family's best foot forward. It has other feet. Only a week ago here in Marianna, Florida, where I am writing this autobiography, I was talking to a member of the CCC camp. He had a Stribling grandmother and he told me his life's story. He had worked as a salmon guard up in Washington State to keep hijackers from stealing salmon out of the company's runways. He said that he received good wages from the company itself and from thirty to forty dollars a day from the hijackers. He justified this dual wage by saying that if he didn't sell out the salmon owners to the thieves, the next man would, and that if he resisted, the robbers would shoot him and get the salmon anyway. In that case, he said, not a single honest man would benefit by the deal. The set-up struck me as a peculiarly Stribling attitude. It held the high moral philosophic tone of our family strain, and yet it was practical too, very practical. I invited my distant cousin to have lunch with me, but he declined; he said that the Marianna restaurants were not up to CCC fare.
My idea of an autobiography is that it should tell precisely what one remembers about oneself and nothing more. Hearsay evidence, logically, should be ruled out of autobiographies just as it is ruled out of murder trials, because if you have to inquire about yourself, that phase of your life forms no part of your conscious existence and should be omitted. I intend to follow this rule strictly. For example, I cannot remember my birth, so I do not feel at liberty to put down the amazing and completely justified portents that accompanied my entrance into a waiting world. I will not tell how, when I was born in Clifton, Tennessee, a neighbor girl asked my mother what object she should first place into my hand. That was important, because the first thing a baby touches, it will work with all the rest of its life. My mother didn't know what to put in my hand, but she said the Bible. The neighbor girl, however, in glancing around the bedroom, could not find the Bible but saw a pen. So she put the pen into my hand, and that fact has always colored my output of fiction. Then, as a kind of great seal assuring the fulfillment of the prophecy, this neighbor girl, later in life, went crazy.
Moreover, the date of my birth was portentous, March 4th, 1881, the day James A. Garfield was inaugurated. My mother, at the time, said that she thought this was very fortunate because it would help future students of history to remember the exact day President Garfield took his office. But as I say, I do not remember these incidents of my own self, and that is why I omit them from these pages.
The first thing I distinctly remember is crossing a plank walkway between the log kitchen and the log house on my grandfather James Waits' place in North Alabama. A cousin of mine, Leslie Hewitt, a big boy, wearing a grotesque mask, leaped from under the walkway crying, "Boo!" In all my subsequent life I have never received so horrible a fright. It seemed to strike me all over in one shattering blow. The fact that my cousin immediately took off his false face and assured me that it was only he and no bugaboo made no difference at all in my hysterical fear. There was something about it profound, fundamental, a horror welling up from the uttermost depths of life. My cousin and his gargoyle mask were mere detonators to touch off my psychic explosion. I sit here now, sixty-odd years distant from that dreadful moment and wonder about it. Why was I so frightened? I knew nothing of monsters or ambuscades or sudden sorties fraught with death; that is, during my brief life in my small body I knew nothing of these things. But before the mystery of my birth, I had existed disparately among men and women for some odd-millions of years, and before them I had existed in extreme diffusion among mammals, among vertebrates and invertebrates. What my cousin really did was to arouse in me prenatal memories of ancient assaults and flights where some strain in me had fled in mortal fear from mortal foes. His jest had lit a lamp within my childish brain that reillumined for an awful instant memories mercifully obscured by endless lives and deaths.
Now, why do I expand this simple incident of a false face and a childish fright? Nothing depends on it save this: I am endeavoring to insinuate myself as undoubtedly his kinsman from an antiquity which even the most credulous D.A.R. would hardly expect to find recorded in the genealogical libraries in Washington. True enough, I am not admitting the reader into the arcanum of the actual Stribling family, but into the pre-Striblings, out of which that remarkable lineage sprang. That is the most I can do under the circumstances and, in common charity, also the very least.CHAPTER 2
In which the writer hestitates between Tennessee and Alabama and finally dumps the reader on the boundry line
During my earliest youth, I summered in Alabama and wintered in Tennessee. I hardly know in which of these states to make a start. Tennessee was gregarious, practical, hard-bitten; Alabama lonely, dreamy, and poetic. In the winter, I lived in Clifton, Tennessee, one of five children. Or to speak more exactly, I was in sequence, one of two, then one of three, and finally one of five children, playing, fighting, cajoling for favors, avoiding chores, leading a busy, harassed, skirmishing sort of life. In Alabama, I lived with my aunt Martha Waits on my grandfather's isolated farm. We had two servants, Mat, a grown Negro girl, and George, her half-brother.
These two were not precisely servants. They were children of my grandfather's slaves and thus were the Negro side of our family. Their surname was Waits. They did both the servants' work and the farm work, too. They received no money as wages, but my aunt Martha, whom we children called Aunt Mon, set aside some land for George and Mat to raise a cotton crop. Whatever this little patch raised belonged to them. I recall, once in early autumn, helping George and Mat pick their cotton. I had a small cotton sack which I dragged between the rows. If I worked more than one morning, I don't remember it. But when George and Mat sold their cotton, they had an extra nickel which they could not divide between them, so they gave it to me for my labor. That was the second money I ever made. My first was a dime, which my father gave me for reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade" before the Masons in the upper story of the old Clifton Masonic Academy.
But to return to George and Mat. George had his great toe cut off of his right foot, and so, to that extent, he was a cripple. He lost it by placing his foot on a chopping block at the woodpile and "dursting" Mat to chop it off with the axe, and Mat had chopped it off.
Mat would "durst" anything. She was a large, gloomy, brownish-black girl, part Indian. In all my summer visits to my aunt's, I never do remember her playing with me except one time, and that was a very treacherous play. The fence around our double log house was a rail fence, ten rails high. I was small enough for Mat to place me on the top rail, then entertain me by upsetting me backwards and catching me as I fell. She did this several times, and it was a very exciting and pleasant game. Finally, she pulled me backwards and let me fall to the ground onto my head and shoulders. That was what she had been nerving herself to do all the time. The fall could easily have broken my neck. I raised a great outcry and rushed to my aunt. When my aunt learned what had happened she threatened Mat with punishment, but there was really nothing she could do. Mat was a big, strong girl, and my aunt was a thin, old woman. The reason that Mat had wanted to hurt me was that she did not like any of the Waits family. She was always gloomy and morose, on account, we thought, of her Indian blood. Her grandfather, an Indian in the North Alabama woods, had gotten to one of my grandfather's slave women working in the fields. The red man's resentment and hatred for the whites had resulted in Mat's flinging me headlong from the rail fence. So I look upon myself as the very last causalty of General Jackson's Seminole Indian War.
I have not as yet taken the reader inside my grandfather's house. It was a poor, two-room log house chinked with clay and whitewashed inside and out, with tiny windows like portholes cut high in the walls. It had an attic above the two lower rooms, and this attic had in it a single small square window like a porthole. In fact, that is what the windows were, portholes, a heritage from Indian days. Naturally, I did not know these things when I lived in the house. It was then simply my grandfather's home set in a yard quite bare save for two or three gaunt blackjack trees, and beyond lay the poor rolling clay fields thrusting up scrawny black cotton stalks. I am sure that I must have seen the fields green in the summertime, but my memory always shows me a fading autumn picture, brown and black and dead.
My grandfather's house did not face the public road that ran past the place. It turned its side to the road as if, notwithstanding its poverty, it were haughty and indifferent to all comers and goers. This was because my grandfather James Waits came from South Carolina, and in Charleston all the houses do so stand, facing each other's backs with gables lifted in disdain for the passerby. And so James Waits built his.
My thoughts keep moving thus around and about the outside of the old log building because to enter it renews a childish solemnity, if not gloom. The living room on the left of the boxlike hall that separates it from the company room is, as I have intimated, dark and bare with a great stone fireplace at its end. In my memory, in front of this dark, cavernous fireplace is drawn up a bed, an old corded bed, on which, under a sheet, a motionless figure lies. The figure is always there, night and day, without sound or movement, save, when awake, the batting of its eyes. It is my grandfather James Waits, paralyzed even to his finger tips, unable to utter a sound to let his wants be known.
My aunt Martha was his constant attendant summer and winter, because she was the unmarried woman among his children and so came to this lonely unending vigil with a gloomy black girl as her help. But I wonder what my grandfather himself thought, a bleached old man looking fixedly at one point in the low smoky ceiling just above his head.
In his days of movement, my grandfather was a man of consequence for his neighbors, if not for himself. He was a neighborhood politician, a writer of deeds, mortgages, and wills for his less-literate neighbors, all done free of charge, out of pioneering neighborliness.
He was a boisterous, storming, disputatious man with secession arguments on his tongue's end and almost the whole of the Bible committed to memory, not for practice certainly, but for religious debate. He rode all over the countryside arguing religion and politics, canvassing for his candidate, whomsoever he might be, and never ran for any office himself. He had a queer habit of never allowing a meal to catch him at home. When mealtime came, he arose, went to the big front gate where his mare, Old Mag, stood always hitched and ready, and rode away. In vain did my grandmother, my aunt Martha, my mother, or any of my uncles and aunts (there were twelve of them in all) rush out of the house yelling "Pap! Pap! Come back, dinner is ready!" or "Supper is ready!" He rode persistently away through some deep anti-prandial instinct, and hours later, when the meal was all over, he would return home and eat. And odd to say, my brother to this very day is touched somewhat by this meal-avoiding instinct. And my sister-in-law, his wife, will look at me across the table in Tennessee and say, "Why won't he come to his meals?" And I answer, "His grandfather never would."
My grandmother Waits I do not remember at all, although I know that I have seen her. Strange to say, she was a Yankee, but I can relate this surprising fact more poignantly by describing how her two sons, my uncle Shelton Waits and my uncle Leonidas Waits, joined the Confederate Army.
These two boys slept in the attic in the same bed where I slept when I visited my aunt Mon. The Civil War had been going on a short while when my uncle Lee, who was nearly sixteen years old, wanted to join the army. Both his parents objected on account of his age. At last, he heard that a Confederate force was operating up near the Tennessee border. So one day he brought two plow lines up to the attic. My uncle Shelt, who was fourteen years old, asked what he was going to do with them. My uncle Lee said he was going to overhaul them. Uncle Lee never in his life, so far as anyone knew, overhauled anything except the horn with which he went fox hunting, certainly not a plow line. Uncle Shelt made no comment on what Uncle Lee told him, but that night went to bed in the attic and apparently went to sleep. In due course, my uncle Lee moved very gently and by slow degrees got himself out of bed. He tied his lines together, fastened one end inside, and dropped the other through the porthole window. Then, he muscled himself up and lowered himself outside, because if he had walked down the creaky steps he would surely have been heard and stopped. Once on the ground, he tiptoed away among the somber blackjacks in my grandfather's yard and started up the clay road, North, a Confederate soldier.
As my uncle Lee walked along the lonely road with I know not what thoughts in his mind, he was suddenly startled at a step behind him. He caught his breath. Someone was coming to restrain him; he peered back through the dim moonlight on the verge of flight when he saw a small figure following him. He was amazed and outdone. He called back, "Shelt! Shelt! What are you doing here?"
And my uncle Shelt returned in the flat, colorless argument of a small brother, "What are you doing here?" And Uncle Lee said, "I'm going to join the army." And Uncle Shelt said, "I'm going to join the army with you." And Uncle Lee said, "You're going to do no such thing. You are too little. You go back home."
At this, Uncle Shelt quit arguing and simply stood at about thirty steps from Uncle Lee and looked at him. Uncle Lee repeated for him to go back home, and then started on himself. Uncle Shelt came on, too. Uncle Lee turned and walked rapidly toward Uncle Shelt, who also turned and walked rapidly, keeping about thirty paces distant. When Uncle Lee stopped, Uncle Shelt stopped. One's small brother and one's dog are just alike; there is no way to stop his following without killing him. Finally, in desperation Uncle Lee demanded, "What do you want to go to the army for anyway?" And Uncle Shelt cried out, "I want to shoot a Yankee." So my uncle Shelt and my uncle Lee walked on together toward Appomattox.
Excerpted from Laughing Stock by T.S. Stribling, Randy K. Cross, John T. McMillan. Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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