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Remember Thomas Nelson Page

4,734 words [1]

Shortly after the Civil War, the American South found itself in ruins. Much has been written about the devastation of the war and the indignities and strife which followed during Reconstruction. Beyond the poverty and oppression and the rapid demise of the old regime with its “outdated” culture of honor, loyalty, and heroism, the inheritors of the former Confederacy found themselves without defense in the national and international courts of moral opinion. They were a defeated people who had taken up arms against a tolerant and progressive government in order to cling to outmoded ways of life, including (most offensively to some) the ancient practice of slavery.

That the slaves were not of the same race as the slaveholders made the practice even more galling to the Northern abolitionists whose outrage provided much of the impetus for the war. To these abolitionists, their vanquished enemies were guilty not only of keeping fellow humans in bondage but of doing so because of their race – because of blasphemous ideas about the racial superiority of whites over blacks. The fact that the South sacrificed a quarter million of its own people before relinquishing the practice gave much of the civilized world the impression that the American South had never been anything more than an “ignorant, illiterate, cruel, semi-barbarous section of the American people.”

Those who recognized this as the basest slander and who also loved the South and pined for its days of greatness needed a defender, a champion. During the postbellum period, Thomas Nelson Page was that champion. As an author, poet, essayist, and later, a diplomat, Page’s fame and popularity became so widespread that many of his contemporaries believed he played a singular role in reversing the harm done by anti-Southern literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and resuscitating the image of the South in the American mind.

Sadly, the revival of gritty realism in Southern literature during the twentieth century caused a backlash against the sentimental romanticism found in much of Page’s fiction. Page’s influence declined rapidly after his death in 1922, and he is still mostly forgotten today. Remember that hideous grandmother character in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find [2]? Remember how she insisted on proper manners while laughing at half-naked pickaninnies? Remember how her pig-headed tradition-worship got her entire family murdered? This was a gross caricature of the kind of characters Thomas Nelson Page utterly revered in his writing. And his readership revered them, too.

Page loved the South – never to the point of hating the Union, of course – but enough to become its leading chauvinist and most eloquent advocate. Throughout his entire career, he defended its traditions, its culture, and, most importantly for the Alt Right today, its race realism. Decades before Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard were penning scientific treatises on race and eugenics, Thomas Nelson Page was writing essays clearly delineating and defending the hierarchical Southern attitudes on race. For this, along with some of his best fiction, Thomas Nelson Page should always be remembered.

Born in Hanover County, Virginia on April 23, 1853, Page grew up on a small plantation on which his father owned some sixty slaves. He inherited his unrelenting conservatism from his parents, who instilled a strict religious faith in the boy. According to his critic and biographer [3], Theodore Gross, Page’s mother “insisted on prayer three times a day – but also a deep suspicion that political or social change meant an inevitable decline in moral values.” Page was a tolerable, if uninterested, student, but swallowed up Tennyson’s poetry [4] and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels [5] at an early age. In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense in light of the high romance of his bestselling fiction. As with many Southerners at the time, the Civil War impoverished his family. As a young adult, he had to scrape by until he could secure a law degree. From 1874 to 1893, law was Page’s primary profession, although he began serious writing during this time; his early stories and essays were almost always well-received. Also during this time, he married Anne Seldon Bruce, who was clearly the Southern belle archetype upon which many of Page’s heroines were based. The poor thing died of a throat hemorrhage a year and a half after their wedding day. She was twenty years old.

Page’s first great success was with his short story “Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia,” which was published in 1884. Because of this, along with similar stories such as “Unc’ Edinburg’s Drowndin’,” “Meh Lady,” and “Ole ‘Stracted,” as well as countless narrative sketches, Page became part of a “local color” movement then happening in the South. In 1887, his best stories to date, including the above four, were published in one volume entitled In Ole Virginia [6]. At the time, people were hungry for antebellum reminiscences, and Page was only too happy to oblige.

His most famous pieces at that time were told almost entirely in Negro dialect. Without direct experience with uneducated Negroes of the day or without encountering their dialect in fiction (such as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom’s Cabin), much of the narration of these stories would seem like a foreign language. It was so thick and the omission and truncation of words so frequent that a translation note was included in the 1991 edition of In Ole Virginia, which warns the reader that “the elision is so constant that it is impossible to produce the exact sound, and in some cases it has been found necessary to subordinate the phonetic arrangement to intelligibility.” The note even provides “rules” such as rarely sounding the last consonant of a word, and rolling the letter r only when substituting for th. In case you were wondering, “Marse Chan” refers to Master Channing, the narrator’s former owner and the object of his undying affection.

Here’s one of the more intelligible passages from “Marse Chan,” if you want to give it a try.

I ‘clar, marster, I didn’ know ‘twuz Marse Chan’s voice tell I look at ‘im right good. Well, she wouldn’ let ‘im go wid her. She jes’ wrap’ her cloak ‘roun’ her shoulders, an’ wen’ ‘long back by herse’f, widout doin’ more’n jes’ look up once at Marse Chan leanin’ dyah ‘g’inst de gate-pos’ in he sodger clo’s, wid he eyes on de groun’. She said ‘Good-by’ sort of sorf, an’ Marse Chan, widout lookin’ up, shake han’s wid her, an’ she wuz done gone down de road.

Honor, loyalty, courtesy, chivalry, heroism, and sacrifice are themes which flow like blood through these early stories. In nearly every case, his white characters are perfectly idealized. They are exactly what Southern ladies and gentlemen were supposed to be as they thrived in their Edenic plantations and lived up to the strict cultural codes of their ancestors. And the Negroes, who shared the race realism of their masters and happily accepted their servile condition, watched them do it with pride. It is clear that these white characters, like their author, take the time-honored Southern traditions in deadly earnest. Yet, by presenting this through a Negro lens, Page effects a degree of separation between himself and his principals. What we get is not so much Page’s idealized vision of the South, but the slave’s, with all of his voluble idiosyncrasies and idiomatic language intact. Only Thomas Nelson Page could have given us this, which is one reason why these stories are so powerful.

In “Marse Chan,” Master Channing harbors feelings for Anne Chamberlain, the daughter of his father’s political rival. After an insult, Channing challenges Anne’s father to a duel but refrains from killing him when given the chance. Afterwards, Anne spurns him, even after he fights for the Confederacy as an officer (as depicted in the scene above). Only shortly before Channing engages in a particularly gruesome battle (with his faithful slave and narrator by his side, of course) does Anne finally relent. As one would expect, bad timing like this in such a romantic setting cannot possibly end well. But with Page’s deft handling, “Marse Chan” builds up to one of the most poignant endings in all of American literature.

My personal favorite in In Ole Virginia, however, is “Meh Lady.” This time, the lovers are an unnamed Southern belle and a Union officer named Wilton. One does not need a subtle pen to describe the difficulties these two would face during and after the war. Superficially speaking, the story offers little more than stock characters and stock situations. Yet again, from the perspective of the faithful Negro, we catch glimpses of these characters only at their noblest moments. And it is the self-articulated love the Negro has for his former owners that makes “Meh Lady” such a sweet read.

This story goes beyond “Marse Chan,” however, in that the tenacity and stubbornness of the Southern belle comes more to the fore. Meh Lady is certainly a lady, but she is also tough, which perhaps makes her more likable and well-rounded than Miss Anne in “Marse Chan.” Page also explores a theme in “Meh Lady” which will become important in his later writing: that of reconciliation between North and South. As Page wrote in the Preface to his Collected Works, he had “never wittingly written a line which he did not hope might tend to bring about a better understanding between the North and the South, and finally lead to a more perfect Union.”

Another aspect of these stories which will not escape the notice of modern readers (especially Alt Right readers) is a yearning for the past. Russell Kirk tells us that “[c]onservatism cannot exist anywhere without reverence for dead generations.” But in the early stories of Thomas Nelson Page, it’s not just the generations that are dead but their civilization along with them. That is the real tragedy behind “Marse Chan” and these other stories. Something beautiful is gone forever and completely misunderstood in its remembrance. Now, who on the Alt Right hasn’t thought the same way about our formerly white homelands? Who on the Alt Right hasn’t pined for years past when we didn’t have to share our nations with other races? Page may have lacked the hope for rebirth that today’s Alt Right holds. But for someone who could defend the past, namely Pax Caucasica as realized in plantation life and the aristocratic oasis that was the antebellum South, we could do no better than Thomas Nelson Page. And make no mistake: his past is our past.

Until he quit his law career in 1893, Page wrote many short stories and many more narrative sketches. Although popular, they never quite attained the level of transcendence achieved in his earliest stories, according to Theodore Gross. Some, like his Pastime Stories [7], were merely anecdotes which Gross claims “would be better appreciated through oral delivery.” Others, such as Two Little Confederates [8], simply rehashed earlier themes or pandered to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Most, however, failed to rise above Page’s habit of using stock characters in stock situations, and they all indulged in sentiment in one way or another. Still, as with the fractious father-son relationship in his 1891 novella On Newfound River [9], Page manages complex portrayals of his characters while balancing lofty themes, such as the moral quandary in which slavery placed many Southern whites before the war. It seems that in this period we may appreciate some of Page’s work despite their limitations, whereas during his “Marse Chan” days, such limitations were actually part of his (or his characters’) appeal.

Page’s next foray into fiction occurred in 1898, when he published Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction [10]. It is perhaps the most successful and expansive fictional account of the Reconstruction period ever written. It was the number-five bestselling book that year and made Page a literary star. Many of Page’s go-to themes present themselves in Red Rock, of course, but the author had broadened his canvas considerably. Along with his honorable slaves, he deals with good-for-nothing slaves, evil slaves, and slaves who don’t want to be slaves. We meet actual scalawags and carpetbaggers and well-meaning Yankees and not-so-well-meaning Klansmen and others who buck thematic trends in the Pagean world. Despite evocative language, colorful characters, and a tight, suspenseful plot, Red Rock remains slightly wanting as highbrow literature, given Page’s fealty to his archetypal Southern characters and his refusal to take his thumb off the scale of moral conflict in the story. However, as a political novel, Red Rock is second to none. You know how, in classic science fiction, many readers will forgive predictable plot twists and stereotypical characters as long as the technological and scientific ideas stand out? It’s like that with political ideas in Red Rock, except that Page’s political conflicts have not become outmoded since they are still raging today wherever you have white people dealing with non-whites and their enablers who wish to crowd whites out of their own lands.

This is effectively what many of the white characters have to deal with in Red Rock. And the racial identity these whites feel, along with their reverence for the past, is something that will ring urgently true with anyone on the Alt Right today. As I wrote in an earlier review [11]:

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.

The elderly Southern gentleman, Dr. Cary, truly a fount of wisdom in Red Rock, describes the conflict even more succinctly. “We are at war now – with the greatest power on earth: the power of universal progress.”

Page himself deliberated over the political nature of Red Rock during the five-year period it took for him to complete the novel. He seemed to have stumbled into it and recognized how politics evinces an aesthetic separate from the ones typically associated with novels and other works of art. As he explains in a letter with typical self-effacing candor:

It may interest you to know that when I first undertook to write “Red Rock,” after having written a third or more of the novel I discovered that I had drifted into the production of a political tract. I bodily discarded what I had written, and going back beyond the War, in order to secure a background and a point of departure which would enable me to take a more serene path, I rewrote it entirely. I had discovered that the real facts in the Reconstruction period were so terrible that I was unable to describe them fully. The story of this period of National madness will doubtless be written some time and if any man will steep himself as I did, myself, in such records as the “Ku Klux Reports” issued by the Government in 1872, and, “A Voice from South Carolina,” published in Charleston in 1879; “The Prostrate State,” and the newspapers of the reconstruction period I think he will agree with me in feeling that we are too near the time to be able to present the facts with true art.

As Page grew accustomed to success, he eventually remarried and moved away from the South, spending much time in Washington, DC and Maine. His political interests shifted to the national level, with his vocal support for Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 and initial opposition to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Page was a well-known celebrity, and his opinion on political affairs certainly did matter. From 1913 to 1919 he served as the United States’ ambassador to Italy, gaining the love and respect of the Italians during the First World War. As one would expect, Page published a memoir about it entitled Italy and the World War [12] in 1920.

In any event, Page had left home for good. His later novels seemed to reflect this as he explored themes beyond the crumbling plantations of his earlier fiction. Ironically, by addressing the complaint that he too often recycled his own material, he revealed his limitations as a fiction writer. With Page’s later novels Gordon Keith [13](1903) and John Marvel, Assistant [14] (1909), Gross refers to him as a “local colorist who has forsaken local color.” Perhaps in writing about the “vanity of wealth” in stories set in Northern cities churning with poverty and political change, Page expanded his canvas a bit too far. The Southern identity, of course, never left his writing, but according to some contemporaneous critical accounts, Page was trying a little too hard to keep up with the times, relying more on other writers (Theodore Dreiser, for example) rather than his own experience for many of his ideas. As a result, during the first decade of the twentieth century, Page’s work became more derivative, and his influence and popularity began to wane.

One idea that seemed to always stick with Page, however, was the aristocratic notion of blood. For him, true aristocrats are born, not made. Wealth is not the only measure of a man, since wealth can be acquired through cunning or dishonest means. Gentlemanly qualities, however, such as chivalry, loyalty, hospitality, bravery, and the other elements of the Southern code are what great civilizations are built upon. Such qualities are concomitant with the stock of men comprising these civilizations. When lacking enough of such men, as many on the Alt Right are pointing out today, civilizations fall . . . with all their riches plummeting down along with them.

Page makes this point quite often in Gordon Keith, but makes it most eloquently during this period in a remarkable short story entitled “Bred in the Bone [15],” which was published in 1901. In it, we see a return to the Negro dialect found in “Marse Chan.” Here we have an old Negro horse trainer who spars entertainingly in verbal combat with the black children who hang around the horse stables. This is “Colonel Theodoric Johnston’s Robin,” a man who reveres his former owner and, like Page himself, constantly waxes poetic about his antebellum youth. Robin greets Johnston’s grandson, who plans to race a horse from back home in an upcoming race. The horse seems haggard, but after close inspection, Robin realizes the animal has the genetics to be a champion. And that’s what matters most. The narrative, however, continues with much of the same formula one would expect from a Page story (in this case, a chivalrous gentleman rider impressing a young lady as if in a Sir Walter Scott novel), but hinges upon a truly inspired plot twist which takes the story to its unexpected and exhilarating finish. In the end, Colonel Theodoric Johnston’s grandson represents his family and his Southern heritage admirably and wins the respect of the beautiful young girl. This kind of regional home cookin’ may seem fatuous or vain in the hands of any other author, but with Page, whom we know means every word of it, it comes off as nothing less than inspiring. Thomas Nelson Page may have fallen out of literary favor fairly quickly after his death, but he was popular for a reason, and this was it. Only he could take a story that is pure corn pone and spin it into gold.

Even more relevant to today’s political strife, however, are Page’s essays dealing with race. Indeed, on the strength of two collections, The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem [16] (1904) and The Old Dominion: The Making and Her Manners [17] (1907), as well as his delightful 1897 memoir Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War [18], Thomas Nelson Page belongs alongside Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard as one of the twentieth century’s great spokesmen for the white race. And you will discover from these essays that the man’s insight, logic, research, and outright class were nothing less than impeccable.

In Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, Page recounts the glories of his plantation youth. He admits outright that he was motivated by “sheer affection” for the Old South, as well as a desire to correct the record on Southerners who were being depicted in postbellum America with the odious stereotypes still in use today. As Page puts it quite humorously:

Quite a large crop of so-called Southern plays, or at least plays in which Southerners have figured, has of late been introduced on the stage, and the supposititious Southerner is as absurd a creation as the wit of ignorance ever devised. The Southern girl is usually an underbred little provincial, whose chief characteristic is to say “reckon” and “real,” with strong emphasis, in every other sentence. And the Southern gentlemen is a sloven whose linen has never known starch; who clips the endings of his words; says “Sah” at the end of every sentence, and never uses an “r” except in the last syllable of “nigger.”

What follows is a meticulous account of an incredibly rich and thriving plantation life, which Page assures us was commonplace before the war. It was rife with chivalrous and honorable gentlemen who believed first and foremost in God, their wives, and their blood, most likely in that order. The plantation’s mistress was universally “exquisite, fine, beautiful; a creature of peach-blossom and snow . . .” As Page tells us, “She was not versed in the ways of the world, but she had no need to be; she was better than that; she was well-bred.”

And, of course, the Negroes were uniformly happy with their inferior status and utterly devoted to their white masters. And why wouldn’t they be? Southern whites, according to Page,

christianized the negro race in a little over two centuries, impressed upon it regard for order, and gave it the only civilization it has ever possessed since the dawn of history.

Politically incorrect notions, to be sure, even in Page’s day. But, as with most of his essays, factually undeniable.

Page admits there were negative and seedy aspects of the antebellum South, yet refuses to elucidate further on that account. If his idyllic representation of the Old South seems unbelievable, that’s because it would be in the hands of any other writer. But Page provides such detail, with such exuberance, that his love for his subject matter, if you will forgive the trite expression, shines through with every word. It seems that hokey clichés take on a new life even in the non-fiction of Thomas Nelson Page.

He ends his essay powerfully by asserting the racial identity and dominance of whites and crediting the Old South as having been the chief standard-bearer of this noble cause. He states unequivocally that Southern whites:

maintained the supremacy of the Caucasian race, upon which all civilization seems now to depend. It produced a people whose heroic fight against the forces of the world has enriched the annals of the human race – a people whose fortitude in defeat has been even more splendid than their valor in war. It made men noble, gentle, and brave, and women tender and pure and true.

Page expounds upon many of the ideas in Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War in his voluminous The Old Dominion: The Making and Her Manners. Much of it deals with the history of the white race in the New World, explaining exactly how whites, through their genius, bravery, and heroism, rebuilt Western Civilization in a savage land. He also discusses the history and evolution of fashion and manners in the Anglo-Saxon world. As one would expect, Page likewise devotes much time to the history of Virginia, his beloved home state.

Of course, race never falls far from the author’s consciousness in these essays. Throughout his life, Thomas Nelson Page never abandoned his race realism and never wavered from his understanding of how important honest race relations are to a healthy society. Close to the end of The Old Dominion, Page recounts the horrors of Reconstruction, with all its corruption and debauchery. Compared to the revisionist and nigh-socialist interpretations of this period by historians Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner, Page’s one-chapter account feels like a breath of fresh air (again, a cliché, but we’re discussing Thomas Nelson Page). Unlike these scholars and his politically correct biographer Theodore Gross, Page understands the Negro. He’s not afraid to admit to and describe the Negro’s manifest inferiority to whites while extolling their not-insignificant virtues when operating firmly within the milieu of Pax Caucasica. As such, Page explains in clear language the folly of Reconstruction and how it attempted to, in Gross’ terms, “legislate [the Negro] into a state of equality.” For, as Page explains, “the races themselves are inherently unequal.”

This becomes almost uncomfortably explicit in Page’s The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem, which, along with Red Rock and the “Marse Chan” stories, has proven to be one of Page’s most enduring works. Anyone who endeavors to study race from a race realist perspective should have a copy of this out-of-print book on his bookshelf. Since it predates our understanding of modern genetics and psychometrics, The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem lacks the imprimatur of science that is found in later works such as The Bell Curve [19] by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, Race, Evolution, and Behavior [20] by J. Phillipe Rushton, and Why Race Matters [21] by Michael Levin. At the same time, however (and with no disrespect to the previously-mentioned authors), Page’s work also lacks the dense and sometimes tedious technical language found in scientific tomes. Essentially it is common sense, clearly presented and forcefully argued. As a non-scholarly yet comprehensive dissertation on race, I believe it is truly one of a kind.

I intend to write a proper review of this indispensable book in the near future. However, for now, a very brief summary may suffice. Page describes slavery as he did in Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War and makes the point that coming into contact with whites and living under their auspices was the best thing that had ever happened to the Negro. Yet beyond the paternalistic control of whites, the Negro quickly reverts to his more savage (and natural) state. This was essentially the impact of Reconstruction. Page accuses Northern abolitionists of not only failing to understand this, but also dealing with the Negro more in theory than in fact:

Then came the period and process of Reconstruction, with its teachings. Among these was the teaching that the Negro was the equal of the white, that the white was his enemy, and that he must assert his equality. The growth of the idea was a gradual one in the Negro’s mind. This was followed by a number of cases where members of the Negro militia ravished white women; in some instances in the presence of their families.

Indeed, “ravishings” is a recurring theme in the book, and Page explains quite convincingly that it is this and other examples of black misbehavior and malfeasance which prompted the Jim Crow backlash of the late nineteenth century. To support his conclusions and defend his region’s treatment of the Negro, Page presents as much evidence and as many statistics as were available back then. In all, it is a devastating indictment of the cultural egalitarianism which was threatening to cloud our understanding of race back in Page’s day and which still casts a heavy pall over it today. It is certainly a shame that a grand slam like The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem and its arguments are as forgotten today as its author.

I never intended to do justice to the career of Thomas Nelson Page in such a short essay. There was so much more to him than what is presented here and so little recent scholarship to draw upon. I can only hope that by reintroducing him to the public and offering an idea of what he was like as a man, as an author, and as a public figure, that twenty-first century whites will eventually remember what their twentieth-century counterparts ultimately neglected, that we should never forget Thomas Nelson Page.


Bibliographical Note

Other than the works themselves, I drew upon the two following sources in writing this essay:

Theodore L. Gross, Thomas Nelson Page [3]  (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967).

Clyde N. Wilson, “Introduction” in Thomas Nelson Page, In Ole Virginia [6] (Lanham, Md.: J. S. Sanders & Co., 1991).