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T. S. Stribling

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Birthright A Novel


By T. S. Stribling
Novel

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Thomas Sigismund Stribling

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Thomas Sigismund Stribling (b. March 4, 1881, Clifton, Tennessee; d. July 8, 1965, Clifton, Tennessee) was an American writer and lawyer.

Stribling was a relentless writer, starting his professional career at the early age of 12 with a ghost story that was printed in the local grocery store pamphlet. After separating himself from the will of his parents (they wanted him to go to law school), Stribling was able to give his full attention to his craft of writing, producing what Stribling estimates to be well over 10,000 short stories, novels, articles and other works, printed in various forms. With the publication of his second novel Birthright, Stribling had success and encouragement, with the financial means to go further in both his scope of writing as well as with his subjects.

Born March 4, 1881, in Clifton, TN, a small town off of the Tennessee River, Thomas Sigismund Stribling, who signs his name, T. S. Stribling, was the first child of lawyer, Christopher Columbus Stribling and his wife, Amelia Annie (Waits) Stribling. Christopher Stribling had been a soldier in the Union Army, while the Waits family had fought in the Confederacy. Thomas Stribling would later say this resulted in him being a “doubter and a questioner” (Bain, 433). He would go on to use the stories of his parents, grand-parents and extended family on both sides to create the realistic depth of his Southern Reconstruction novels.

Stribling completed his high school education at the age of seventeen, at Huntingdon Southern Normal University in 1899, in the nearby town of Huntingdon, TN. By this time Stribling was convinced that he was meant to be a writer, having already sold his first story at the age of 12 for five dollars; Stribling was ready to get started with his future in literature. With that in mind, Stribling became the editor of a small weekly newspaper called the Clifton News. Stribling was hoping to use the Clifton News as a launching pad for his writing career, unfortunately Stribling was only there for about a year before his parents convinced him to return to school and complete his education. In the fall of 1902, Stribling graduated from the Florence Normal School, what is now recognized as the University of North Alabama, in Florence, AL. There, Stribling was able to earn his teaching certification in one year.

In 1903, Stribling moved to Tuscaloosa, AL to teach at the Tuscaloosa High School. He taught both mathematics and physical education. He actually only taught at the school for one year, having “no idea whatever of discipline.” (Kunitz, 1359) before departing, preferring instead to continue his own education. In 1905, Stribling completed his law degree at the University of Alabama School of Law. Yet again he only used his newly earned education for a brief time, moving quickly from law office to law office: The Florence law office of George Jones, serving as clerk, the Florence law office of Governor Emmett O’Neal, where Stribling worked (again) briefly as a practicing lawyer, as well as the Law Office of John Ashcraft, also as a practicing lawyer. Stribling went through three law offices in less than two years. It turns out that instead of working diligently on client cases, Stribling was in fact using the office supplies and typewriter, and paid hours, to perfect his writing craft. Under the advice of his fellow lawyers, Stribling gave up practicing law in 1907.

Moving to Nashville, TN in 1907, Stribling picked up a job at the Taylor- Trotwood Magazine, as a writer and salesmen of ads and subscriptions, and as “a sort of sublimated office boy.” (Kunitz, 1359) It was at the magazine that Stribling had two works of fiction published: “The Imitator” and “The Thrall of the Green”, both reflecting the social themes he would later become well known for.

Repeating his pattern and encouraged by his small success, Stribling left the magazine in 1908. He then moved to New Orleans were he produced “Sunday-school stories at the phenomenal rate of seven per day; many of these stories were eventually published by denominational publishing houses.” (Martine, 73) Stribling went on to write many more Sunday-school stories as well as adventure stories for boys that were printed in various pulp magazines such as: American Boy, Holland’s Magazine, Youth’s Companion, Adventure, and Everybody’s Magazine; it was these writings that afforded Stribling to, for the first time, live off the profits of his creative ability.

In 1917, The Cruise of the Dry Dock was published in a limited print run of 250 copies. This was Stribling’s first effort at a novel. It most likely was heavily influenced by his boy-like adventure writings for his various pulp magazines. It was a World War I sea born adventure story set in the German infested waters of the Sargasso Sea, where the American crew tries to escape capture and certain death by the hands of the evil axis members. “A potboiler, The Cruise of the Dry Dock is neither in its style nor its choice of subject matter particularly original or impressive.” (Martine, 73)

Serialized in seven parts in Century Magazine, Birthright was collected into novel form in 1922. This is considered to be Stribling’s first serious novel as well as being the work that introduces to the world his ability to reconstruct not only the landscape of the South, but the heartache as well. Birthright was highly praised by critics in both the black and white communities. Birthright is the story of a young African American (mulatto) man, Peter Siner, who returns home after completing his education at Harvard; he is hoping to effect some changes and to heal racial rifts in his small southern home town of Hooker’s Bend, TN. He fails to heal the social rift of the community because of the wide and dividing prejudices of both the white and black man. In defeat, Peter ends up moving to another small town just north of the Dixie Line.

Birthright was a major departure from the pulp adventure stories that Stribling was thus far characteristically known. Birthright is a serious social critique of not only the social practices of the South, but all of America—its social rules, taboos and even laws such as the Jim Crow Law or The Tennessee Initiated Segregation Seating Act for Railroad Cars in 1881, which paved the way for other states and the creation other related laws. This novel also reflects historical populace movements such as “The Great Migration”. WWI had broken out in Europe, and although America was not yet fighting in the war, we were supplying goods for the war; in response, the Northern manufacturers recruited Southern black workers to fill the demand for factory workers. “From 1910 to 1930 between 1.5 million and 2 million African Americans left the South for the industrial cities of the North.” (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2003) It is from these times that the South, as well as America, is trying to heal the social fault; it may be this America that Peter Siner is supposed to embody.

It is when Siner leaves the South that the reader sees the true critique of the Southern social condition. Siner is of mixed blood, he is the representation of both the black and white communities, he is the incarnate of peace between two peoples, he is the educated man, he is what the two races should look up to with respect and wanting Yet both races are only able to view him with suspicion and mistrust. All Siner can do is leave the people in their pits of muck and mire.

During the time that Stribling was writing his adventure stories for the various pulp magazines, he is also doing some world travel, going through Europe, Cuba and Venezuela. It was in Venezuela that Stribling formed the inspiration for the novels Fombombo (1923), Red Sands (1924), and Strange Moon (1929). All three are set in Venezuela, and all three focus on the different class levels of Venezuela, with a touch of a love and adventure thrown into the stories. All three are considered to be the lighter, “fun” reading of Stribling’s works.

Teeftallow (1926) and Brightmetal (1928) are both novels returning to what Stribling would eventually be well known for: the social satire of middle Tennessee. Both novels are set in middle Tennessee and even share some of the same characters. These novels approach the problems of the South through the eyes of the middle class and the poor of the local white people. Neither won any high critical praise, but both were well received by the reading community.

Contents

The Vaiden Trilogy

1930 was a highly significant year for Stribling. It was the year he produced his eleventh novel, The Forge (1931), the first book of his trilogy following the Vaiden family. Further, the same year he married his wife Lou Ella Kloss, a music teacher and hometown friend.

Set in Florence, Alabama, this trilogy follows three generations of the Vaiden family. “Through not great literary art, Stribling’s trilogy is, nevertheless, historically significant; for in The Forge, The Store, and Unfinished Cathedral, Stribling introduced a subject matter, themes, plot elements, and character types which parallel and at the same time anticipate those that William Faulkner, who owned copies of this trilogy, would treat in Absalom, Absalom! and in the Snopes trilogy.” (Martine, 76) These three novels represent the best of Stribling and his ability to call forth the Southern landscapes, as well as the Southern heartaches during the period of the Civil War restoration.

The Forge follows the story of Miltiades Vaiden who served in the Civil War and has now retuned to his homeland in hopes of picking up again his family’s yeoman tradition and rebuilding the now destroyed south that he remembers with longing. Finding work, Vaiden soon also finds the woman that he wishes to marry, not out of love or even lust, but as a means to reach his dreams. The girl rejects him, instead choosing to marry a richer man with political ambitions. Vaiden does not miss a beat; he instead marries another girl, middle-class Ponny BeShears, who he does not find especially attractive, but she will gain a nice inheritance when her father passes away, which he hopes will be enough to move him into the middle-class.

Stribling’s most famous novel, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Store (1932), is the second book in The Vaiden Trilogy. Returning to the story of Miltiades Vaiden, several years have passed since the closing of The Forge, who has since risen from his position of poor white boy to a respectful middle-class position. Where the first novel opened up at the beginning of the Civil War and ended with the abolishment of slavery, The Store, picks up with the South establishing a new economic order. Vaiden and his wife own a profitable store in the small Florence town where Vaiden has no qualms creating an artificial friendship with some of the newly free local blacks, or even the now economically desperate whites, cheating them out of their money to insure his own success. Vaiden uses loose book keeping practices and heavy loan rates to insure that he gains land from the unknowing blacks. Slowing Vaiden is building a larger estate and bankroll to the loss of Florence and to the loss of social trust between the peoples.

Meanwhile Vaiden has raped a young black girl working on his land, Gracie. Gracie becomes pregnant with a girl. The Gracie is kept quiet by allowing their daughter to work in the home and get some schooling. Vaiden and his wife have a son about the same time that his mulatto daughter is being born.

The final book in the trilogy is The Unfinished Cathedral (1934). Again set in Florence, Al, now in the 1920’s and focusing still on the Vaiden family. President Hoover has enacted the Tennessee Valley Authority works in order to supply electricity to the nearby towns. This has caused a real estate boom in the small Alabama town, where the now well aged Vaiden wants to take full advantage of this boom. Anyone who can read already knows about the coming dam and the coming housing boom, so the people that have even a little money go after the people that are left out of the loop, the local blacks. The local whites offer these uneducated black people sums of money they can’t refuse, or simply run them off their land, or find other means to cheat them out of their land.

Repeating the cycle of his father, the younger Vaiden son has repeated his father’s acts by raping the mulatto girl that works in their house…not knowing that the girl is actually his half sister, getting her pregnant with a son. The girl and her son run off north in hopes of finding something better for themselves. The boy then ends up in jail, where his Vaiden grandfather has to come rescue him.

Meanwhile, the town pastor has also gotten caught up in the fever of all the materialism around town. This is reflected in his ignoring the spiritual needs of the townspeople and instead putting his focus on building a great cathedral.

Stribling’s last two novels are set far away from the rural south in New York City and in Washington, D.C. The Sound Wagon (1935), a political novel set in both cities, is a look at America’s political system and ideals. Like The Vaiden Trilogy, the novel is a satire. The main character is a young lawyer named Henry Caridius who goes to Washington, D.C. in hopes of making great changes and fails, very similar to the plot of Birthright.

These Bars of Flesh (1938), Stribling’s last book, is set in New York City. This novel may have been a reaction to Stribling’s own time teaching English at Columbia University in 1935. The novel is set in a NYC university with Andrew Barnett attending from Georgia hoping to attain his degree. Stribling takes a satiric look at campus politics, professor tenure and education, and the amount of the students’ lack of awareness.

After his last novel, Stribling continued to write mysteries for various magazines. These were eventually collected: The Best of Dr. Poggioli, 1934- 1940 (1975).

After returning to his hometown of Clifton, TN, Stribling died on July 8, 1965; he was then buried in his hometown. Today there is a small museum and library devoted to this early Southern social rural realist, Thomas S. Stribling in Clifton, TN.

References

  • Bain, Robert, comp. and ed. Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State Press, 1979. 433.
  • Kunitz, Stanley, ed. Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1942. 1359.
  • Martine, James J., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume Nine, American Novelist, 1910-1945, Part 3: Mari Sandoz-Stark Young. Detroit, MI: 1981. 72

Works

Novels

  • The Cruise of the Dry Dock (1917)
  • Birthright (1921), First published as a serial in Century Magazine in 1921, then as a novel in 1922, later adapted into a film under the same title in 1924 and 1939.
  • Fombombo (1922)
  • Red Sand (1923)
  • Teeftallow (1926)
  • Bright Metal (1928)
  • East is East (1922)
  • Strange Moon (1929)
  • Backwater (1930)
  • The Forge (1931)
  • The Store (1932), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1933)
  • Unfinished Cathedral (1933)
  • The Sound Wagon (1935)
  • These Bars of Flesh (1938)
  • "Apology To Florence", June 1934, an article in Wings Magazine.
  • Coauthor (with David Wallace) of Rope, a dramatization of Teeftallow, produced on Broadway (1928)

Short fiction

  • Clues of the Caribbees: Being Certain Criminal Investigations of Henry Poggioli, Ph. D. (1929)
  • Best Dr. Poggioli Detective Stories (1975)

Poetry

  • Design on Darkness

Non-fiction

  • Laughing Stock: The Posthumous Autobiography of T.S. Stribling (1982)


This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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