Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 24-26
A Southern Life, Letters of Paul Green, 1916-1981, edited by Laurence G. Avery (University of North Carolina Press, 1994, 735 pages).
I confess that I often feel that the best have gone on, have left the rest of us mired in stagnating and smelly marshes of mediocrity and venality which these days run from art to politics. Is that bit of gloom but the crankiness of a load of years? Perhaps.
But I do remember women and men, Southerners strong among them, whose like I see few of now. They were persons of great and fulfilled talents. They were more than that too. They looked for the enlargement, not the denial, of liberal democracy. They worked for and taught generosity of personal spirit. They did not cheapen public affairs, did not offer us excuses for being violent or for holding down our brothers and sisters. They called on us, here in the South and in the nation, to act like a civilized people. Here in our marsh, pulled down as we are by the mean likes of Helms, Gingrich, Farrakhan, Edwin Edwards, North, and Falwell and Robertson, we have almost forgotten there can be such.
The publication of Paul Green’s letters testifies that there can be.
Paul Green was, first of all, a writer. Asked once if he would be a candidate to succeed Frederick Koch as head of the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina (where Green had an identification, as student, faculty member, and neighbor, from when he enrolled in 1916 until his death in 1981), he declined: “It happens that I am irrevocably bitten by the writing bug.” A list of his writings is appended to the book, and it is truly impressive: Broadway plays, outdoor dramas (he liked to call them—The Lost Colony, The Common Glory, Wilderness Road, and yet more—”symphonic dramas”), film scripts, novels, essays. For his In Abraham’s Bosom, he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1927.
These letters which Laurence Avery has collected and selected—and to which he has given a fine and exemplary introduction and annotations—give much insight into the process, vicissitudes, and triumphs of Green’s writing. They include some fascinating correspondence with Jesse Helms—six months before Green’s death at age 87 he was urging the Senator to speak out for American-Russian “cooperative” disarmament—and patches of comedy, such as a really funny spoof of Samuel Beckett and his Waiting for Godot. The letters are full too of family and friends; some are old love letters to his Elizabeth. I’ll have to leave all that for another.
Green was also and at all times engaged with public affairs.
Green’s life was of a piece, and the concern of his plays were his social concerns as well. In the 1920s his racial views were, to say the least, uncommon. Having accepted the humanity of blacks as a child, a perception not prevalent in his locale [Harnett County, N.C.] or even his family, he was one of the few white southerners in the 1920s who could envision integration. When he voiced his outlook, of course, he precipitated a storm. In 1927 he wrote an introduction for Congaree Sketches: Scenes from Negro Life in the Swamps of the Congaree, a collection of black folk tales by E.C.L. Adams, and in it he called for an American social order in which race doesn’t count. He supported W.E.B Dubois’s crusade for full equality for blacks and concluded by saying he could “see no sense in the talk of segregation, back to Africa, and the like…. It all seems beside the point.”
The letters have been given the title A Southern Life, and that is apt. Green was time and again running off to New York or Hollywood for work and to other places around the country and world, but always returned to Chapel Hill, and was always a bleeding-heart, liberal North Carolinian and Southerner. He seems, on the evidence of these letters, to have been consistently alert to where he was and what he could do to move the region forward. In 1925, for example, he took over as editor of a literary magazine, The Reviewer (which collapsed for
want of funds after four issues). He immediately asked the Negro writer and scholar Benjamin Brawley for an article, suggesting one on growing up in the South, which Brawley—with dignity—declined to do in favor of a piece of literary criticism of Robert Browning. (Brawley did later write the autobiographical piece, and his writing appeared in three of the magazine’s four issues.)
A third of a century later, in 1962, his fellow Southern Regional Council member, Winston-Salem attorney Irving E. Carlyle, wrote to Green worriedly about the segregationist statements of the University’s recently retired professor of anatomy, W.C. George. Green wrote back that he was less concerned with what “weak fellows like George” can do to the University, than what a possibly liberal-minded but timid and mindless faculty and administration could do to it.
A first large racial scrap for him had been the “Scottsboro Boys” case, that of the nine black men accused in Alabama of raping two white women. Green angrily rejected an appeal for a financial contribution that came from Theodore Dreiser—”Mr. Dreiser, I also have written, agonized, talked and prayed over the Scottsboro case just as you have.” Green blamed the tactics of the leftist group handling the defense for each day bringing “these boys twenty-four hours nearer death.” Resignedly, four months later, he yielded up some money in response to Sherwood Anderson of the same committee, and gave more two months later, to an appeal signed by John Dos Passos. Neither then nor throughout his career did Green like those he perceived as enthralled by Stalinist dogma. So there was a decidedly more friendly, more comfortable tone to his reply, with check, to Langston Hughes’ solicitation a year later: “If these Scottsboro boys are allowed to be offered up as a sacrifice to bigotry and perverted racial feeling, then we as Southern people have no right to boast of either democracy or liberty. We shall have participated in a shameful deed.”
The accused men escaped execution, but not much else that was bad. No social cause held Green’s commitment more steadily and closely than did the abolition of capital punishment. The first letter about that concern in this volume, May 1934, says that he is not “entirely against” execution but is “absolutely opposed” to it as carried out in North Carolina. No subsequent letter has any such qualifier, and there are at least ten that refer to capitol punishment. They and the editor’s footnotes reveal unstinted activity—interventions with governors, speeches, letters-to-the-editor, prison visits, consultations with lawyers, legislative lobbying; his wife was an ally. By 1945, he would write to Governor Cherry, “To kill a man in judicial cold blood is but to deny any possible development and amelioration in that man’s character. —I am opposed to capital punishment on any ground, for it is part and parcel of the old Mosaic law and of a perverse and pessimistic philosophy of mankind.” He did not for the rest of his life waver from that conviction (although the latest item here is 1967, his opposition never lessened).
Green didn’t like killing, or violence generally. In 1959, at Harold Fleming’s request, he evaluated a motion picture script about strife over school desegregation in Clinton, Tennessee for possible Southern Regional Council distribution: “too much peckerwood violence and rush and wash and go of mobbery throughout. And…there is no purgation out of this bleeding and sound and fury.” Nor, after serving dutifully in World War I, did he like war. A highlight of this book is an extraordinary letter he wrote in 1967 to Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
I have just been looking at a picture of President Johnson holding up his little grandson, his face alight with love and pride. But this love and pride become a mockery to me as I recollect that at the same moment he holds his little grandson aloft he is through our obedient young war pilots blowing other little sons to quivering morsel bits there in Vietnam. Of course the little Asiatic babies are of a different color, and according to
you, their fathers and brothers are a threat to the security of this mighty nation. No sir!
This country was meant for better things than this!
I Know the sharp reply could be a pleading of the cause, the cause, the cause! Namely, the threat to our security. This is the way it always goes, always a cause for killing people whether armed or helpless.
But the true cause is the cause of man himself. Is it not that? Take any young man we are helping to murder in Vietnam. Is there any cause greater than the sanctity of his own life?
About three years later, after the Raleigh News Observer had published the Greens’ and the Jonathan Daniels’ exchange of Christmas cards, Green having penned on theirs a comment about the Pentagon “hogs” and Daniels having told him to “pack up your pessimism,” Green wrote to Daniels, that his cause
. . . is the cause which the rubber-lipped trumpet-mouth politicians of today betray when above the cross-studded graves of the rotting young men they howl forth the old cliche-refrain that they did not die in vain for they died to keep America Free.
Nuts to the nutty! And oh the dark blood on the ground!
Yes, it is the Cause of Life, of Life creative, more abundant, the Good life—and the good life means the true, the beautiful and the useful life—the heart beating life.
My main quarrel is and ever will be with such men as those now occupying the Pentagon and the Kremlin—bad men, evil men, blind men—along with their tribal head-hunters in the CIA. They spell damnation to you and me and our children’s children, and Dick Nixon—spells the same.
Yes suh, my bosom friend of these many years and many more I trust, I keep singing my song of hope and dedicated effort—singing even louder when the head conductor exchanges his baton for a rifle and calls the death march toward oblivion—my loudness being then no longer singing but a cry and an about face in the march and hollering for others to turn likewise.
Executive director of the Southern Regional Council from 1961-1965, Leslie Dunbar now lives and writes in Durham, North Carolina.