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Thomas Nelson Page’s Red Rock

Thomas Nelson Page [1]

Thomas Nelson Page

2,641 words

The great American race novel currently does not even have a Wiki page.

Indeed, Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction [2] by Thomas Nelson Page has generally been out of print since its publication in 1898 and is available these days only through publishers who specialize in reproducing historical works—or second-hand through online auction websites such as eBay. Thomas Nelson Page is one of the great lost American authors, and it behooves any race-realist today to read him and understand him. Page certainly tells it like it is, and his novel Red Rockis just as relevant now as it was over a century ago.

Any cursory research on Page will reveal the obvious reason why he is no longer read in mainstream 21st-century America. He was a white man who wrote unflinchingly about race. Known in his day as one of the most prominent supporters of the Lost Cause mythology, Page portrayed the antebellum South with great nostalgia and sympathy. Old fashioned even in Page’s time, his noble and aristocratic characters cared deeply about ideals such as tradition, chivalry, and honor as they worked tirelessly for their families and their country. Is this how the antebellum South really was? Or, as with James Whistler’s foggy London, is this how we envision the old South today thanks to evocative writers such as Page?

Tenets central to Page’s work include the idea that slavery of Negro Americans—when implemented correctly—was not necessarily bad, and that after the Civil War, the North maliciously enfranchised the Negro population and disenfranchised the white in an act of social engineering which was as foolish as it was grotesque. Underlying all of this is the bedrock assumption that black is inferior—morally and intellectually—to white. In 1899, Red Rock was the number five bestseller in the country.

The story opens with the idyllic Gray plantation, vaguely situated in a peaceful and leafy pocket of the Old South. There, rivers flow through gorgeous green low grounds, and hills roll towards the distant blue mountains to the trombone notes of grazing cows and the sweet songs of birds in ancient trees. At Red Rock, master and slave got along just fine. Early in the novel the wise patrician Dr. Cary asks his beloved slave Tarquin if he wishes to be free.

“Lawd Gawd!” exclaimed Tarquin, stopping quite still and gazing in amazement. “Me! Free?”

“If you do I will set you free, and give you money enough to live in Philadelphia.”

“No, suh; Marster, you know I don’ wan’ be free,” said Tarquin.

On everyone’s lips however is the topic of secession which almost all upstanding citizens in the county support—should the Republican nominee from Illinois be elected president. They know for certain that a Lincoln presidency would mean the end of slavery, and, by extension, the end to their freedom and way of life. “To them war was only an episode: a pageant: a threshold to glory,” writes Page. Young Jacqueline Gray and his cousin Steve Allen swiftly get caught up in the fervor.

Attempting to stem this martial tide is Dr. Cary. He’s seen war and wants no part of it. However, when war becomes inevitable he makes a prescient announcement which sets the tone for the novel (and, one could say, the 20th and 21st centuries): “We are at war now—with the greatest power on earth: the power of universal progress.”

After the war, the residents of Red Rock and its surrounding townships begin to realize the true price of defeat. With Jacqueline injured in a northern hospital and his father dead, Steve Allen returns home to start a law practice. But he must contend with threats from without and within. The underhanded Red Rock overseer, a scallywag named Hiram Still, plots the illegal takeover of the plantation. Meanwhile, a northern opportunist, with the Dickensian moniker of Jonadab Leech, arrives in town with his carpet bag to establish his Freedman’s Bureau: an organization designed to overturn the traditional hierarchy of the district and place all local political power in the hands of Negroes.

Of course, Still and Leech join forces to make life excruciating for the good folks of Red Rock. It falls on Steve Allen, a recently-returned Jacquelin, and a pair of sympathetic Yankee officers to lead the struggle against this unnatural and insidious occupation.

So politically astute is this novel that the lines of conflict as outlined by Page bear a striking resemblance to the political struggles of today. On one side you have those who promote freedom and prosperity at the expense of a traditional power structure, the inherent inequality of which mirrors the manifest inequality among the races. On the other side you have those who wish to usurp this natural power structure to uphold some ideological standard (as well as to satisfy a corrupt self-interest) at the expense of freedom and prosperity.

Does this passage not describe the Democratic Party as it has been since the Great Depression?

“The credit of the state!” Leech exclaimed. “What is the credit of the state to us? As long as the bonds sell she has credit, hasn’t she?”

This argument was unanswerable.

“But how will you pay these bonds?” urged Mr. Haskelton.

“I will tell you how we will repay them; we will pay them by taxes,” replied Leech.

“Ay-yi! Dat’s it!” shouted the dusky throng about him.

“Someone has to pay those taxes.”

“Yes, but who?” Leech turned to his associates who were hanging on his words. “Do you pay them?”

“Nor, dat we don’t,” shouted Nicholas Ash.

“No, the white people pay them—and we mean to make them pay them,” declared Leech.

This declaration was received with an outburst of applause, not unmingled with laughter, for his audience had some appreciation of humor.

“Lands will only stand so much tax,” insisted his interlocutor; “if you raise taxes beyond this point you will defeat your own purpose, for the lands will be forfeited. We cannot pay them. We are already flat on our backs.”

“That’s where we want you,” retorted Leech, and there was a roar of approval.

Another telling moment is when Jacqueline Gray finally returns to Red Rock and sees how the county has changed since the conclusion of the war.

It was a great blow to Jacqueline to find on his return what extraordinary changes had taken place in the county: Still, occupying not only his own home, but Dr. Cary’s; Leech the supreme power in all public matters in the county; Nicholas Ash driving a carriage, with money that must have been stolen; and almost the entire gentry of the State either turned out of their homes or just holding on, while those he had left half-amused children playing at the game of freedmen, were parading around the country in all the bravery and insolence of an armed mob.

How can this sense of isolation, this outsider-looking-in perspective not resonate with the modern race-realist? This is our position today: knowing the truth about race, but because we speak openly about it, we are pushed to the sidelines of mainstream life and refused credibility. All we can do is watch with bemused sadness as a great race which built a great civilization commits blunder after blunder. Many of the main characters have this very experience in Red Rock.

Of course, there is much more to Red Rock than race. The first edition is 584 pages long, so Page creates ample room for a complex nexus of subplots and competing themes. In this regard, Page more closely resembles Trollope and other Victorian authors than he does someone like his contemporary Thomas Dixon, author of the more race-focused The Clansman, which was adapted into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation in 1915.

Aside from chronicling the political fortunes of the inhabitants of the Red Rock district, Page also tells the love story between Jacqueline and Dr. Cary’s stubborn and beautiful daughter Blair. Page has no illusions about how hard it is to win the heart of proud Southern Belle, and it is almost comic how he puts poor Jacqueline through his paces chapter after chapter in order for this to happen. Humor also rises to the fore with the two Yankee officers who lead the occupying military forces in Red Rock. Sure, they despise Leech and sympathize with Dr. Cary, Jacqueline, and Steve Allen. But who will sympathize with them: two young, healthy men surrounded by beautiful Southern women who want no part of them on account of their being, well, Yankees?

Page was also an attorney before he became a bestselling novelist, and his law expertise makes several noteworthy contributions to the story. This, of course, makes sense given that the story takes place during Reconstruction, a time in which what’s legal and illegal was constantly in flux and hotly contested. In fact, Page uses a finer point of law as an ingenious plot device to help wrap the story up during its conclusion.

Page’s use of language also deserves mention. Given the time period, it seems perfectly natural that characters and narrator alike drop classical and biblical references where appropriate (“Syria is confederate with Ephraim,” Dr. Cary announces, bemoaning the dismal state of the Leech-controlled Red Rock district). Yet it is Page’s handling of dialect that is most noteworthy. I believe his skill in this regard rivals Mark Twain’s. By the time Red Rock saw print, Page was already known for his mastery of Negro vernacular. His first short story collection In Ole Virginia, published in 1887, consisted of nothing but. It was immensely popular and established Page as an author, despite his publisher’s reservations that his Negro narrators would not be easily understood by white readers. Such delightful vernacular is on full display in Red Rock.

Just as importantly Page doesn’t leave out the white characters. The gentry, as one would expect, never stray far from the King’s English, but the seedier characters often treat the reader to such peculiar turns of phrase that Page’s mastery of the vernacular becomes clear. For example, when Hiram Still mistakes a gentleman’s daughter for his wife, he declares:

“Ah! I thought she was a leetle young for you, Colonel; but sometimes we old fellows get a chance at a fresh covey and we most always try to pick a young bird.”

Of course, I understand that ‘bird’ in this instance means girl and am familiar with the term ‘covey’. But using ‘covey’ to describe a group of girls was a new one for me.

Another element of Red Rock that cannot escape a reviewer’s scrutiny is Page’s treatment of the Ku Klux Klan. At one point Steven Allen joins the Klan in a midnight ride to disarm the Negro soldiers who had been bullying and harassing the whites in the Red Rock district. The raid sent a message throughout the county and momentarily loosened Still and Leech’s grip on power. However, the militant and secretive nature of the Klan grows problematic for the protagonists and soon they distance themselves from the organization. Later in the story the Klan actually impedes the intentions of Jacquelin and Steve Allen, and they must execute a daring rescue of someone the Klan is holding hostage. Steve Allen’s brief membership with the Klan further complicates the story’s conclusion which involves, naturally, a trial.

Despite his antipathy towards the Ku Klux Klan (which he explains in great detail in his excellent essay The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem), Page shows great respect, if not love, for some of the Negroes in the story. To be sure, he portrays the ones who embrace Leech and his vindictive policies as childish and opportunistic. Some, like Nicholas Ash, are downright cynical in the way they sway the passions of the other Negroes. In no instance is there a truly bright or intelligent Negro in Red Rock. In fact, Page introduces in the character Moses one of the first brutish Negro villains in literature. Moses at one point attempts to rape a white woman and later commits a murder in cold blood. At the novel’s end it is revealed that this character had been lynched in a neighboring state for another heinous crime. Page shows remarkably little concern for Moses’ fate and paints his lynching as nothing more than just desserts.

This being said, Page’s treatment of the honest, hardworking, and—most importantly—loyal Negroes in his story could not be more compassionate. By the time Red Rock was published, Page had already been known for immortalizing the “good old darkie” stereotype of cheerful slaves who worked hard and loved their masters. This can be seen clearly in his In Ole Virginia collection. However, in Red Rock, the sheer competence and indispensability of Negroes comes to the fore. Old Gideon is an example whose keen skill with horses and unflinching devotion at one point saved Dr. Cary’s wife Bessie from great injury.

One of the most striking scenes in the novel occurs when Dr. Cary offers his former slave Mammy Krenda her wages for the first time. Ubiquitous in the Cary household and bigger than life, Krenda is dearly loved by the entire family. She also wields paramount authority in the kitchen. But when Dr. Cary musters up the courage to offer her her wages for the week, she recoils. Mammy is family. One does not pay family.

“You see, I promised the Federal officer at the courthouse to pay everyone wages,” he began with an effort, looking at the old woman.

“How much does you pay Miss Bessie?”

“How much what?”

Wages.” He had no idea one word could convey so much contempt.

“Why, nothing—of course—”

Old Krenda lifted her head.

“I’m gwine ‘way.”

After Dr. Cary offers her the money again, she declares “I ain’ gwine tetch it!” The doctor later finds Krenda in the arms of his wife and daughter; all three women a mess of tears with Krenda proclaiming that she never once served the family for wages.

You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by such a scene.

For all its fine literary quality, Red Rock at its core depicts a struggle between powerful and antithetical forces which vied for the future of Western Civilization in the years following the Civil War and continue to do so today. Modern political struggle between left and right in America is essentially Red Rock writ large. This is not a psychological novel. There is no anti-hero on a tortured quest for redemption.

Protagonists and Antagonists alike in Red Rock are fully grown men and women, and we can assume their minds function as they should. The point lies in how well these people can fight for the right to shape society. Should our laws and customs reflect biological truth or ideological purity? I’m sure most of us wouldn’t mind the latter so much if just didn’t so emphatically deny the former. Our current leadership in both parties commits this fearful blunder repeatedly. It seems they are taking their cue from the villains in Red Rock.

At one point, one of the Yankee commanders argues with another Yankee, a well-meaning lady activist, who has come to the South to enlighten the white Southerners and uplift the Negroes. He’s a little irked because she disapproves of him as a match for her daughter, so revenges himself by jabbing her in the face with the truth. On the whole, he says, the Negro slaves were treated humanely. Furthermore, because Southern whites had more experience with Negroes and understand them better, Southern whites were best qualified to determine how to deal with them. Of course, the good lady was scandalized. Such statements were considered heretical even then. A novel such as Red Rock gives us hope that one day in the future they won’t be.