Ferrol Sams and Run With the Horsemen

ferrol sams

Do men read fiction anymore?

In my youth I remember visiting other boys’ homes and finding novels from their fathers – you know, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming. In my own family there were no books, and I can confidently state that not one of my forebears had read even 50 books, fiction or nonfiction, not even with those of the Bible counted separately. I think that nowadays men read novels primarily to become a part of the unstated writers’ guild run by the New York publishing houses. If you don’t think that scribblers like W.G. Sebald, W.H. Gass, J.M. Coetzee, or T.R. Pynchon are hot stuff, you can’t be in the club. – And that’s just the male lineup. If you’re a female writer and don’t have an LGBT theme, you face a steep climb to publication. The modern fiction writer, to have any real success, must be a member of a guild that writes out of obedience to a small coterie of opinion-makers, not out of any cultural tradition. Why? Because “culture” means “long-shared values,” and the current social disintegration means that no values are recognized as long-term, that all values are in a war for ascendancy.

Nevertheless, there is a recognized Southern literature that should be part of the heritage that we defend. I distinguish two great parts of this literature: What is commonly called “Southern Gothic,” as typified in writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty; and, on the other hand, those who try to put the Southern experience in the larger context of the West, as typified in writers like W.A. Percy, Walker Percy, the Southern Agrarians, Harper Lee, William Styron, Tom Wolfe… — and the wrongly neglected Ferrol Sams.

“Southern Gothic” I define as the use of characters made mawkish or grotesque under the postwar pressure of extreme poverty and extreme religiosity. The writers of the great tradition I define as those who start – consciously or unconsciously – with the central theme of C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History: That the Southern tradition enters the greater Western tradition through its knowledge of heroism in a great war, of defeat in that war, and of postwar suffering.

Because all values are in a war for ascendancy, those who write out of, and to perpetuate, a long tradition are not going to be favored by the New York publishing houses. William Styron and Tom Wolfe, although steeped in a greater tradition, gained access by making sure to write positively on liberal themes. Access for writers like Ferrol Sams was firmly closed. Judge for yourself why I think this by reading this long opening passage to Run with the Horsemen:

In the beginning was the land. Shortly thereafter was the father. The boy knew this with certainty. It was knowledge that was in his marrow. It predated memory and conscious thought as surely as hunger and thirst. He could not have explained it, but he knew it.

The father owned the land. He plowed it, harvested it, timbered it, and hunted over it. It was his. Before that it had been the land of his father and his father’s father. Before that it had belonged to the Indians, who since Creation had held it by God’s will in trust for the family, just waiting until it could be claimed by its rightful owners.

The boy knew all this. No one told him. He also knew that in turn the land owned his father. Everything the father did eventually revolved around nurture of the land. Without the land there would be no family. The ungodly were not so and lived in town. They were like chaff which the wind bloweth away. Their feet were not rooted in the soil, and they were therefore of little consequence in the scheme of things.

With this opening, Sams not only tells how important is the land to every Southerner, but tells how the Southerner knows this without thinking about it. He goes on to tell many episodes of the boy’s – Porter Osborne’s – life, from plowing – including all the details and names of the hardware to hitch a plow – to all the many processes of bringing cotton to harvest, to the design and perils of an outhouse, to riding a horse down the central draft hall of a tall-ceilinged frame house, to clearing the nostrils country style, to dove hunting, to the making of “cane buck” beer from cane syrup, to the details of slaughtering a hog (and the difference between chitterlings and “spelled” chitterlings), to the rolling of cigarettes, to the making of biscuits.

Best of all is not just Sams’ perfect ear for speech, especially that of blacks, but for his perfect understanding of the delicate social nuances between whites and blacks. – And no, hell no, never in Sams’ day or mine did we call them “blacks.” The “genteel” term was “Nigra,” as Sams spells it in order to get the pronunciation right, and “pickaninny” for their youngest ones. All of these social arrangements were as formal as anything in Louis XIV’s court of Versailles. Both races unconsciously observed the code, and it helped them get along. Did it place the blacks in a lower status? No doubt. But compare it to the present day, when all one knows is that somehow, without any guide to manners, no matter how awkwardly, you are supposed to signal that everybody’s perfectly equal in every way. As Sams puts it:

By being so conscious of the Nigra’s place, the whites locked themselves securely in their own place. The possessors became the possessed; the dancemaster also had to dance. The tune, however, was compelling. The notes were clear and simple, and the dance was ritualistic and traditional. (page 69)

You will have to read these details for yourself, I’m afraid. The hysteria on the subject of race is currently so hypersensitive that it is profitless to explain without a lengthy context that is better found in the original.

To the Southern Gothic writer, the South is populated with pellagra-ridden, pica-diseased clay eaters with rotten teeth. For these sufferings born of extreme poverty (pellagra cured by adding niacin to the diet, pica usually cured by adding iron to the diet), the white trash who are its common victims blame their own sinfulness and find solace in the most extreme Baptist fundamentalism. Yes, such people truly did exist, just as truly as the postwar South sometimes approached starvation. I don’t mind admitting that some could be found on my own family tree. For an example of the pica, I recall one aunt who, as she worked, would reach into two bowls at the end of her ironing board – one of ice and the other of charcoal – and would eat that until her ironing was done. Another relative told me about seeing ghosts, which I think were hallucinations born of being overworked and underfed. – And did I tell you about another aunt who slept with her eyes open? But I digress.

For me, these two rivers of literature represent the wholesome versus the diseased aspects of the postwar South. Possibly the most grotesque visions of the latter could be given by Euroda Welty. But Flannery O’Connor is more popular, and her most popular story, a very short one entitled “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” provides a good contrast to Ferrol Sams.

In this story a family starts out on a trip by car from Atlanta to Tennessee. A prim and genteel Southern grandmother rides in the back with two obnoxious children and a baby, with the parents in the front seat. She points out important landmarks like Stone Mountain while the children read comic books. She laments how manners have deteriorated, and the rude kids give plenty of illustration of her point. She has her son take a detour to visit a plantation home, and on the dirt road to it, the car turns over. Though shaken, no one is seriously hurt. However, three murderers traveling the same way stop their car and approach them. Two of them take all but the grandmother into the woods and shoot them. Alone with the third, very appropriately named The Misfit, the grandmother tells him that he is really a good man, and counsels him to pray to Jesus. The Misfit replies:

Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead […] and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.

He pumps three pistol rounds into the grandmother’s chest and the story ends with The Misfit saying, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The story fails for me for several reasons, those mainly being its beggaring of plausibility and its wooden allegory. But I’ll leave you with your own reasons for liking it or disliking it. I mention it for contrast.

Far superior in my judgment is O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” which tells the story of two poor whites taking their first train ride to visit the city for the first time. The older one, Mr. Head, pretends to know more than the other, named Nelson, and it’s hilarious to read all of the techniques he employs to hide his own stupidity and to bedazzle the younger one. They get lost in the city, or rather in one of its suburbs. In a desperate panic, Mr. Head asks a man walking his two bulldogs for help, lest they miss their train home. The man directs him to a nearby train station. Nelson witnesses his guide’s admission of stupidity, and both realize how lost and inferior they both are. Then they both see in the front yard of one home a plaster cast of a negro eating a watermelon – which most of you have probably seen yourselves in your younger days, usually in cast iron. To that Mr. Head remarks, “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.” Instead of laughing, they both have a spiritual experience of God’s mercy, covering the shame of their ignorance and of their poverty of spirit. The meaning of the story is not just to say, as every poor white could say in those days, “at least I’m better than them,” but to further state that the black was a symbol of their own spiritual suffering, from which Scripture could provide ready deliverance.

Some have claimed that Ferrol Sams is the Southern equal to Mark Twain. I wouldn’t go that far. His great failing is that there is no plot and that the hero of Run With the Horsemen, Porter Osborne, Jr., is just himself thinly disguised. Sams is quoted as admitting as much, I think, in the New York Times obituary of February 2, 2013, where he said that he wrote only for himself. The quasi-autobiographical episodes aren’t transformed in the artifice of imagination. In any case, his work perfectly captures the simplicity of an age when people of all races would never even have thought of looking to Washington D.C. for a “solution” to problems that just don’t have an easy solution, other than compassion and acceptance of the situation where all frail and limited human beings always find themselves. This truth should also be a part of the “burden of Southern history.”

More than that, Sams’ work transcends being a mere archive of the past – it’s his own profound “heritage defense” of traditions that are under daily assault. It’s a testimonial to habits of life that gave dignity and meaning to those who observed their unwritten rules, and by doing so created personalities stronger than any privation of poverty; personalities enduring beyond any fashion; personalities rooted in faith, patriarchy, the land, and all things everlasting. Those who love the South will find an uncle, a grandfather, or a father – or aunt, grandmother, or mother – in the pages of his work, and will realize what paltry, feeble, half-formed people despise what the South truly represents.

The title of Sams’ book is taken from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah chapter 12, where Jeremiah asks the Lord, “Why has the way of the wicked prospered?” To which the Lord replies, “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses?” That is to say, you could not do well in a time of peace, and now you find yourself unready for the great trial that I send you. The Lord continues, “The whole land has been made desolate, because no man lays it to heart. […] For a sword of the Lord is devouring from one end of the land even to the other.” But after this great trial, each shall be given his due inheritance in that land.

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