Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Frances Gaither (1918 – 1955)

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 October 28, 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 childlike.

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.

Selected Bibliography

The Fatal River: The Life and Death of LaSalle (nonfiction), 1931
The Painted Arrow (fiction), 1931
Follow the Drinking Gourd (fiction), 1940
The Red Cock Crows (fiction), 1944
Double Muscadine (fiction), 1949

Selected Links

Frances Gaither’s page at the Corinth Information Database:

Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History: