The Tennessee riverside town of Clifton is home of author Thomas Sigismund Stribling, described accurately by reviewer Richard Moore as an “odd duck.” Stribling was the author of sixteen books, a multitude of articles, and is best known for his novel trilogy that explored political and social injustices, and included The Store, winner of the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The T.S. Stribling Museum, in Clifton, presents the story of an eclectic man, and offers an eye-opening experience into a mind that entertained the imaginations of many readers. Cluttered book upon book, the museum highlights a persona of detail and suspense, but also reminds visitors of how fortune Tennessee was to have been represented in the literary world by a man born and raised in the heart of the Volunteer State.
Stribling was born on March 4, 1881, in Clifton, and during the summers spent time with his grandparents on a Lauderdale County, Alabama, family farm, the setting of many of his stories. After graduating high school, he attended Florence Normal School—now known as the University of North Alabama. He became a lawyer and subsequently left that career to move home to Tennessee. He began a life as an author of odd consequence. He wrote for the Chattanooga News, Sunday School magazines, and a popular pulp magazine of the day. He later wrote a column for The Campfire magazine, and spun such a wide interest, readers and writers alike responded to Stribling’s pieces.
Stribling discovered the dark side of his talent and began to write novels, beginning with Cruise of the Dry Dock in 1917, and Birthright in 1922, which was eventually made into a feature film. The novel is about a racially-mixed man suffering prejudice while living in a Southern town. Later, in 1922, he published East is East. The novel Fombombo was released in 1923, followed by Red Sand the following year. His readers wanted more. Teeftalow was published in 1926, became a bestseller, and was adapted as the Broadway play, Rope.
Stribling’s odd adventure stories led to his mysteries being collected in Clues of the Carribees in 1929. Within the span of a few years, Moore commented that “Stribling had penned a new series of ‘Poggioli stories’ for Adventure, Blue Book, and Red Book and other magazines of the early 1930s,” leading to his popularity with readers and setting the stage for his trilogy and another novel, Backwater, in 1930.
Stribling married music instructor Louella Kloss while he was garnering favor with his critics on social issues in the South. He finished The Forge in 1930, the first novel of the trilogy. The Store was published in 1932, and Unfinished Cathedral hit the shelves in 1934. The trilogy was considered by some as unthinkable stories of the South during a time period in which slavery and cotton were as common as trading mules for land.
The Store received rave reviews across the United States, but some readers in the South were not as happy about its release. The novel, exploring social and political injustices in the town of Florence, caused major tensions and led some townspeople to consider legal action. Stribling was saddened, and offered his apologies. He did not return to the state of Alabama for over thirty years. He later accepted speaking engagements at the University of North Alabama, where he discussed the nature of his novels. According to the Alabama Encyclopedia, his novels became required reading for UNA freshman English classes.
After the successful trilogy, Stribling penned two more novels, Sound Wagon in 1935, and These Bars of Flesh in 1938. From 1945 through the better part of 1950 Stribling again wrote another series of “Poggioli stores” for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which found their way into the Robert Lowdndes-edited pulp, Famous Detective and Smashing Detective; the final stories were published in the Saint Detective magazine. The Kenneth Vickers biography of Stribling—Laughing Stock—states that the author’s work for pulp magazines made him feel like a “real grubstreet writer, a literary hack, a Chatterton, a Villon, an Attic Philosopher in Paris” and that writing pulp stories gave Stribling a “peculiar pleasure.”
The novelist served on the faculty of the English Department at Columbia University, and traveled extensively. He was the best-selling author of his time, and his trilogy alone sold more than 240,000 copies. Stribling died at the age of 84 in Florence, on July 8, 1965, and was buried in Clifton beside his longtime sweetheart Louella. His odd sense of story is still read today and he continues to entertain and enrapture the hearts of many.
The Cruise of the Dry Dock (novel), 1917
Birthright (novel), 1921
Fobombo (novel), 1922
East is East (novel), 1922
Red Sand (novel), 1923
Teeftallow (novel), 1926
The Forge (novel), 1930
The Store (novel), 1932
Unfinished Cathedral (novel), 1934
Laughing Stock (autobiography), 1982
T.S. Stribling profile at the University of North Alabama:
T.S. Stribling at the Encyclopedia of Alabama:
T.S. Stribling profile at the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture: