CORINTH INFORMATION DATABASE Version 1.3 © 1995 Milton Sandy, Jr.

XHome | Home | Email Contact

         When a writer is labeled a "Southerner," he is given an identity;
    he is linked to his region in a way that the Northerner or Easterner or
    Westerner is not.  Flannery O'Conner once said that Southern writers
    are "stuck with" being Southern.  If so, then the fact of Southern
    history that they're stuck with is slavery.  When Frances Gaither
    published DOUBLE MUSCADINE in 1949 she remarked, "I've been in slavery
    ten yairs."  She was referring to the decade spent in completing the
    three novels DOUBLE MUSCADINE, THE RED COCK CROWS (1944), and FOLLOW
    THE DRINKING GOURD (1940), a trilogy of sorts dealing with slavery.
    "The lot of Negroes has always affected me poignantly," Mrs. Gaither
    says.  "Slavery, of course, was a great moral wrong.  I think it's very
    hard for people now to believe that decent people could permit it--and
    permit it to last."

         In her novels, however, Mrs. Gaither confronts not just the
    immorality of slavery, but the mystery that surrounds the whole
    subject.  In one interview she observed:  "The lot of Negroes in this
    country has always touched me.  I have lived among them all my life;
    but for a long time the whole subject of our effect on one another
    seemed to me so painful, so obscure, that I did not dare broach it.  I
    used to wonder if a white person could ever really know how a Negro
    felt.  I still wonder."  Ultimately it is the lack of understanding
    between white and blacks, and the tragic consequences of this
    ignorance, that is the real subject of her three major novels.

         Frances Ormond Jones, the daughter of Paul Tudor and Annie
    Walker Smith Jones, was born 21 May 1889 in Somerville, Tennessee. Her
    maternal grandfather was a native of Maine, while her paternal
    grandfather was a cotton planter and slaveowner in Tennessee. Mrs.
    Gaither attributed her deep concern with the plight of Negroes, at
    least in part, to this mixture of "raw Yankee and slave-holding
    Southern."  Early in her childhood the family moved to Corinth,
    Mississippi.  She received a B.A. degree in 1909 from the Industrial
    Institute and College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women)
    and in 1912 married Rice Gaither, a newspaperman.  After living
    briefly in Mobile and Fairhope, Alabama, the Gaithers eventually
    settled in New York City where Mr. Gaither worked on the staff of the
    New York Times for many years.                           

         From 1918 until her death on 28 October 1955, Mrs. Gaither
    produced, in addition to numerous reviews and short stories, several
    masques and pageants and a total of seven books, including a biography
    of La Salle and three children's novels, all dealing with various
    aspects of Southern history.  Indeed, history was her main field of
    interest, and each of her books is obviously a product of careful and
    exhaustive historical research.  Her main concern was the historian's
    concern:  to understand and interpret the meaning of the past.  And for
    Mrs. Gaither, understanding the institution of slavery in the
    antebellum South meant, first of all, debunking numerous myths, in
    particular the myth that plantation life in Mississippi and Alabama was
    all a matter of juleps, white columns, coquettes in frilly dresses and
    contented darkies singing in the cotton fields.  In FOLLOW THE
    DRINKING GOURD she describes life on an Alabama plantation in no such
    romantic terms.  John Austen, a Georgia planter, is forced to move his
    family of slaves to a new location on Alabama after the old Georgia
    farmland has ceased to be productive and driven him into debt.  But the
    project is ill-fated.  Austen has to deal with an endless succession of
    problems:  disease, unpredictable weather, incompetent overseers,
    lonesomeness and homesickness among the slaves, and a Yankee
    abolitionist who only increases their discontent with his talk about
    "freedom."  There is certainly no mansion with white columns on the
    plantation, just a cluster of rude log cabins.  As for Southern belles,
    Lura, the bride-to-be of one of the overseers, with her bare feet,
    drab, dirty dress, and flapping sunbonnet, and Miss Maggie, the whore
    with "bright yellow hair" and "raddled old cheeks" who comes from a
    nearby town to marry another overseer, can hardly qualify as types of
    feminine pulchritude.

         The popular romanticized view of the Old South, false as it
    is, has not, however, been imposed on the past by later generations,
    as one might think.  According to Mrs. Gaither, the myth was very much
    alive in the minds of many white Southerners before the Civil War.  And
    this is the important point.  Many members of the planter aristocracy
    deluded themselves into believing in what amounted to a false code of
    chivalry that blinded them to unpleasant realities, which they could
    not or would not face.  This is the realizastion that Adam Fiske comes
    to in THE RED COCK CROWS. Fiske is a Yankee school teacher who has come
    South to teach but who is banished when his mischievous ideas threaten
    to bring about a slave insurrection.  In a crucial scene in the novel,
    Fiske unburdens himself to Fannie Dalton, whom he has been escorting
    since his arrival.  Fannie "in her piled curls and crimped flounces"
    prefers "dreams to reality, believing all men chivalrous --all white
    men, all Southerners":

         The knightliest code, { Salus populi suprema lex }.  It is all
         done, really, to safeguard the purity of Southern womanhood,
         which, it goes without saying, is the purest on earth.  It is
         really for your protection, Fannie, that I am banished.  Just
         like a page out of Sir Walter.  I may not write you a letter.
         They told me they would take it out of the Scott's Bluff Post
         Office and burn it.  If I should come back, they'd hang me.
         They wouldn't really do it?  Oh, yes, they would.  Why not?
         They are above the law.  Or rather they make their own law.
         And if they but build the wall high enough they can keep
         their women pure and their faithful darkies innocent and

         But the reader learns, as Fiske has learned, that the darkies are
    not "innocent and childlike" and, as the undercurrent of unrest among
    the slaves proves, they are not "faithful" either.  In effect, the
    Blacks and whites, who maintain such close daily contact, really live
    in totally separate worlds.  Most of the whites have no understanding
    of the blacks as they really are. Scofield, the black headman of the
    Dalton plantation, for example, is the "real boss," according to Mr.
    Dalton.  Dalton relies on his judgment much more than he does on his
    white overseer's.  Scofield has learned to play the role that his
    master expects him to play, but is has nothing to do with the real role
    that he sees himself assuming one day--that of a modern-day Moses who
    will lead his captive people out of bondage and into the promised land.

         Mrs. Gaither's last novel, DOUBLE MUSCADINE, is the most
    carefully constructed and suspenseful of all her novels. Perhaps this
    fact accounts for its being chosen a Book-of-the-Month Club selection
    in 1949.  More importantly, however, the novel is Mrs. Gaither's most
    telling indictment of slavery.  The reader witnesses not the economic
    decline of the plantation, as in  FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD, not the
    threat of a slave rebellion, as in THE RED COCK CROWS, but the collapse
    of a family's inner life.  Both Blacks and whites are portrayed
    objectively.  The reader is forced not to make the easy assumption that
    either group is "responsible" for the deaths and the suffering that
    occur.  The real villain is the system of slavery, the code that the
    white community blindly accepts and that perverts the best qualities of
    its members.

         One character in DOUBLE MUSCADINE observes that it is the
    "debasing," the "undervaluing, of the individual that is the very root
    and core of the evil of slavery."  Ultimately this is Mrs. Gaither's
    position too.  She implies that a society's real strength, its
    foundation, is its humanity.  Without this humanity, this respect for
    the individual, the society is doomed.  Slavery was a denial, or at
    least an evasion, of this simple reality.  It was a lie and, as such,
    it could do nothing but alienate and isolate the whites, not only from
    the Blacks but from themselves.

                                                 Ronald L. Davis

         DOUBLE MUSCADINE. New York:  The Macmillan Co., 1949.
             Holt and Co., 1931.
         FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD. New York:  The Macmillan Co., 1940.
         LITTLE MISS CAPPO. New York:  The Macmillan Co., 1937.
              OF WORDS, WRITTEN FOR THE CLASS OF 1915. [Columbus,
              Mississippi]: n.p., 1915.
         THE PAINTED ARROW. New York:  The Macmillan Co., 1931.
         THE RED COCK CROWS. New York:  The Macmillan Co., 1944.
         THE SCARLET COAT. New York:  The Macmillan Co., 1934.
              FIRST, NINETEEN HUNDRED TWENTY-ONE.  Charlottesville,
              Virginia: Surber Arundale Co., Inc., 1921.
              Charlottesville, Viarginia:  By the Author, 1919.

    Source:  James B. Lloyd, Editor.  LIVES OF MISSISSIPPI AUTHORS,
             1817-1967, p.186-187.  Jackson:  University Press of
             Mississippi, 1981.

    Data transcription by: Cheryl Hurley, Kossuth High School
                           October 24, 1992.

XHome | Home | Email Contact

Last Update: April 9, 1996
Webmaster: Jackey Wall
© copyright 1995 CrossRoads Access, Inc.