Julian Green

By January 11, 2019Blog

One summer day in Paris, France, just a year after the Great War, a former French military officer, not yet nineteen years of age was invited by his father to have a chat. Slim, handsome, and gifted, the young man knew it was time for the big talk concerning his future now that peace had returned.

To help him make a good decision, the father told the ex-officer that an uncle of his wanted to pay for his four years at the university. The young man’s father counseled Julian to accept his uncle’s generous educational offer. He was going abroad to The University, a great center of learning located in that distant land of which his beloved late mother had told him and his five sisters so many wondrous tales. Her tales seemed fabulous to this Parisian boy and the distant land his mother spoke of, sometimes in tears, became his favorite fairyland. Now he really was going there! His mother called it “the South.” He was going to attend the University, the only one with the right to an upper case U—Mr. Jefferson’s university, the University of Virginia. For the young Parisian Julian Hartridge Green, taking the journey across the wide ocean to become a student at that famous school was the beginning of a lifelong search to reclaim his heritage as a citizen of that faraway land, the American South.

The first day spent in Virginia where his ancestors had lived and where his father was born stirred young Julian profoundly. He remembers it as follows:

“The [first] morning, I woke up early and raced to the window. I will never forget that moment. On the other side of a small deserted square there had been erected a neo-classical building with a rectangular pediment, and a grand door flanked by two Doric columns. They appeared so much whiter than the walls of this edifice made of simple red brick. This building was the courthouse. A bronze cannon guarded the entrance. Dreaming of Manassas under the magnificent sycamores whose leaves were gilted with sunlight, suddenly I saw before my eyes the homeland of my mother, the South, and what she had recounted to me came back to memory after many long years…In several seconds, I understood all; Secession, the will to survive, the struggle not to become absorbed into a much vaster country.”

Seventy three years later, at the age of ninety two, Julian Hartridge Green, a member of the prestigious French Academy, is widely regarded in France as her greatest living author, the sole survivor of that illustrious generation of writers who created modern French literature during the period between the two great wars. Among this generation marked by genius were Gide, Bernanos, Mauriac, Montherlant, Cocteau, Reverdy, Michaux, Claudel, and Malraux. But the great Catholic theologian, Jacques Maritain, was to say this about the last member of this brilliant generation, “For Julian Green I have an admiration without compare. I find it marvelous that an American should be the greatest French writer of our time.”

Another literary titan of French letters, Andre Gide, could not believe that his “ami Green” should be anything but the cultivated Parisian novelist he knew. For most of his life Gide stubbornly held the notion that Julian Green was originally from Quebec.

The distinguished Nobel laureate could not be more wrong. Julian Green, or Julien Green as he is known in European letters, was born and raised in Paris; yet there was a significant difference between him and the other French schoolboys with whom he attended the renowned Lycee Janson where Mallarme once taught. Though perfectly French in culture and language, Julien’s classmates taunted him with the words that were to haunt him all his life, “You belong to a country which no longer exists.”

And yet this French boy with the strange Anglo-Saxon surname was to become one of France’s greatest writers who added to French literature a new province with deep abiding roots in the civilization of the American South.

On 6 September 1900, at ten p.m., Julian Hartridge Green was born at 4 rue Ruhmkorff, in the 12th arrondissement of the great city of Paris. He was the eighth and last child of Edward Moon Green and Man-Adelaide Hartridge Green, unreconstructed Southerners who left their native land in 1893 to establish the family in France. Having lost his fortune, Edward Green secured the position of foreign agent for a Southern cotton firm. The boy Julian was named for his mother’s father, Judge Julian Hartridge of Savannah, Georgia. At the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence Judge Hartridge joined the famed Chatham Artillery as an officer. He later became Georgia’s senator in the Confederate Congress where he was a staunch Jefferson Davis ally who placed the welfare of the fledgling Southern nation above state loyalties, something not enough Southern politicians understood the pressing need for at the time. Remembered as a man who loved states’ rights and disapproved of slavery, he was, prophetically for his grandson it now seems, an admirer of the French.

The Yankees placed a price on Judge Hartridge’s head and the Georgia senator went into hiding towards the end of the War. Curiously enough, a recurring theme in the fiction of Julian Green is the desperate attempts of his literary characters to escape their fate. From the Hartridge side of his family, Julian Green inherited the powerful sense of the divine and the supernatural which is a determining hallmark of his life and work. Shortly before Judge Hartridge died, he called aloud to his family, “Fetch me my cane, I’m going to heaven.”

Julian Green’s father, Edward Moon Green, came from a no less distinguished family. The Greens were Virginians with plantations in Prince William county. Charles Green, the family patriarch and Julian’s grandfather, was a colorful man. He amassed a large fortune in the import business and divided his time between The Lawn, his Virginia estate, and the family’s sumptuous mansion in Savannah. Charles Green had nine children and because he did not wish to show favoritism towards any one (his favorite was secretly Edward, the father of Julian) provided all of them with houses and plantations. The expansive and generous gentleman was described by his literary grandson as:

[a] picturesque grandfather, who wholeheartedly defied the Yankees during the War Between the States, bought and smuggled arms for the South until the day he was arrested by the Federals and threatened with immediate execution.

Because Charles Green had the good fortune to be a British subject, he managed to escape the death sentence the Yankees had placed upon him. Instead, the Northern authorities incarcerated Green for several months at Fort Warren where other Southern leaders such as President Jefferson Davis would later be imprisoned.

The Green Mansion built by this immensely rich bon-vivant is situated on Madison Square in the heart of historic Savannah. It is among the most famous buildings in that lovely coastal city.

Green-Meldrim House

Julian’s father was forced to sell his inheritance shortly before his family departed permanently for France. During the War, the mansion played reluctant host to General Sherman, who requisitioned the vast home for his headquarters. There are several wartime illustrations of the mansion’s ballroom and parlor in Harper’s Weekly showing them in use for Union officers’ parties. Indeed, it was in an upstairs bedroom of Julian Green’s ancestral abode on a winter day in 1864 where the Exponent of Total War wrote his famous letter to Lincoln offering him Savannah as a Christmas present. Sherman’s famous Maren to the Sea ended in the Green family house. Julian’s parents explained to him and his sisters when they were children that their grandfather Charles had offered General Sherman and his staff the use of the house in order to spare his friends from the shame of having to quarter enemy officers; as a subject of Queen Victoria, Charles Green could do at least this favor for his disheartened friends. Married to a Virginia lady and an enthusiastic adopted son of the South, he was an unwavering Confederate. His grandson would transform him into the character of Charles Jones in the two published novels of his Southern epic, Dixie.

And thus it came to pass that Edward and Mary Green moved with their ever growing family to France, never to return. Mrs. Green opted for France rather than Germany because she felt that the French would understand Southerners better since they had recently lost the Franco-Prussian War. In Paris, the Green family strove mightily to create around them an oasis of Southern culture. Mr. Green grew mint in the backyard for his juleps but because bourbon could be hard to find in France, he sometimes had to resort to French brandy. Julian’s mother, Mary Green, had been a Savannah belle, and she insisted on training the family’s French cook to prepare rice dishes in the Savannah manner. Inside the family parlor, there hung on the wall a watercolor depicting the Stars and Bars. Many years later in his book, Dans la Gueule du Temps (In the Mouth of Time), which consists of photographs and selections from his famous journal, Julian Green wrote a caption beneath a picture of the Confederate battle flag: “The Stars of the South, the only flag my mother ever recognized.”

Both the Greens and the Hartridges were related to other great families of the Old South; their cousins included the Lees and the Beauregards. The collected stories from his family’s history combined with his personal experiences in the South would provide Julian Green’s rich literary imagination with abundant source material which he would use extensively in his work.

When Walker Percy won the National Book Award in 1961 for his Remarkable first novel, The Moviegoer, reports asked him why there were so many good Southern writers. He replied, “Because we lost the War.” Julian Green has state his belief that the source of the melancholy which runs through his family can be traced to to principal sources. First there was the family’s stern tradition of Calvinist Christianity with its heavy emphasis on the fear of God, human sinfulness, and predestination. Second, there was the shattering defeat of the Southern Nation and its subsequent  elimination from history at the hands of a vengeful Northern conqueror. It is safe to say that Julian Green’s beloved mother, a high spirited former Savannah belle and Southern nationalist, never recovered from the trauma of losing her civilization. More deeply than most Southern writers, Julian Green experienced in his complex psyche the pain of the Old South’s tragic end. Mary Adelaide Hartridge Green’s son would note in a journal entry dated 3 July 1951, “My country no longer existed as a nation, history had effaced it.” Julian Green explains that this acutely painful awareness inherited from his family encircled him in an inner loneliness and isolation not apparent to the outside world.

In a recent letter I wrote to Julian Green in France, I questioned him about the third volume of his ongoing Southern trilogy. The first volume, Les Pays Lointains (translated into English as The Distant Lands), and the second, Les Etoiles du Sud (The Stars of the South [untranslated]), tell the story of several aristocratic Southern families living in Virginia and Georgia during the period 1851-1861. Volume two ends with the Confederate victory at First Manassas. I asked Julian Green how he plans to finish the final volume. Will the story end with Appomattox or will it continue into the Reconstruction era? Green graciously responded that the final volume in which he is deeply engaged at the present time, will take us through the end of 1863. The reason is quite clear. Until he was thirteen years old, Julian Green’s mother did not wish him to know that the South had lost. Faithful to the cherished memory of his unreconstructed mother, he will hold to the idea in his trilogy that the War has not ended as history would have it. It brings to mind this memorable passage from Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust:

There is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out…and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time…

Because of his great stature in European letters, Julian Green is one of few living writers to be included in the prestigious Bibliotheque de la Pleiade which has helped shape the Literary Canon, as it were, of European literature; unfortunately, his European critics often fail to appreciate his deep roots in the religious culture of the traditional South. Quick to pick up on the continental Catholicism to which Julian Green converted, the critics forget that the Southern Protestant piety of his family indelibly shaped his world view. Flannery O’Connor, who has in certain ways so much in common with Julian Green, said “the greatest drama naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.” In Julian Green’s close knit family, an outpost of the Old South in France, the Authorized Version was read aloud daily to the Green children by their mother. Julian Green learned to speak his ancestral tongue by hearing the stories from the Bible and the prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. As an adult, Julian Green mastered Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible in the original (for his daily scriptural studies he also employs the Latin Vulgate); however, he insists that emotionally, he feels that the King James Version is the only “real Bible.” The Authorized Version has played a powerful spiritual and linguistic role in the life of the Southern people; to this day, the South remains the last great bastion for Christians to whom the King James remains the undisputed word of God.

The Southern faith of Green’s ancestors is in his blood. This Catholic convert may be the only member of the French literary establishment to read the Bible daily for at least an hour. Julian Green confesses that for him, “the Bible is a living person. Other books are just books.”

His close friend, Jacques Maritain, told Julian Green that he is a writer who lives on the spiritual plane. In his fiction the deft use of the devices of realism helps plant his special imaginative world in the plausible concrete reality understood by the reader; but then as we plunge further into his world, we shift quickly into a visionary realm not quite of this earth. A good critic of Julian Green’s work, Henri Peyre, has correctly touched upon his principal themes:

The obsession with sin, with the flesh lusting against the spirit, and in the words of the Epistle to the Galatians, of the spirit lusting against the flesh, along with the emotion of panicky fear, constitutes the constant theme of Green’s powerful novels. Of the writers of fiction in our century he is one of the most original.

Since he began writing seven decades ago, Julian Green has produced some sixty volumes of novels, short stories, plays, critical essays, autobiographies, interviews, and travelogues. He is also a gifted photographer who has published many photographs of the world he has seen. Not surprisingly, the action in many of his works takes place in France. But as Bernard Doering commented in Jacques Maritain and the French Catholic Intellectuals, Julian Green not forgotten his Southern heritage. Doering writes:

The South is one of the privileged places in Green’s works. Many of his books, in whole or in part, take place in one of the Southern states, especially Virginia and Georgia: The Pilgrim on the Earth, South, Terre Lointain [The Faraway Land [untranslated]), Moira, The Distant Lands, Each in His Darkness, to say nothing of the many passages in his journal.

Other works with a Southern setting include Avarice House and the Dixie trilogy. The original of the house used as the model for Avarice House is worth relating. In several letters written by General Robert E. Lee, he mentions visiting a Virginia estate called Kinloch. That property passed on to Julian Green’s uncle, Loughborough Turner. As a student in Charlottesville, Julian took his vacations with the innumerable relatives he had in Virginia and Georgia. Quite often he stayed with his Aunt Lucy and his uncle Loughborough at Kinloch. The writer remembers his father asking him how “he could give that lovely house to a family of misers.” Julian Green said, “I didn’t know where to stick my characters, and then I was tempted by the setting.” His Aunt Lucy, mistress of Kinloch, kidded him about burning her house down at the end of Avarice House. The novel was highly regarded by the greatest German poet of this century, Rainer Rilke, who predicted a great literary future for the young novelist.

The two masterpieces of Julian Green’s mammy are Moira and Each in His Darkness. Both, not surprisingly, are set in the South. Hailed as a masterpiece when it appeared in 1950, the novel Moira presents the struggle between flesh and spirit with red hot intensity as embodied by the protagonist, a young religious fanatic named Joseph Day.

The hero, a Protestant zealot from the hills of Virginia arrives at the University unprepared for the culture shock awaiting him. Finding himself violently at odds with the worldly fraternity life in Charlottesville, he seeks refuge in biblical studies. The young student yearns to be completely spiritual, he burns with a violent love of God and a desire for a form of Calvinist sainthood. The seductive Moira, daughter of Joseph Day’s landlady is his fate; she becomes his sexual obsession whom he suffocates after a night of passion. In killing Moira, the young fanatic Joseph has tried to murder the carnal element within himself. Striving to divorce the flesh from the spirit which should be both sanctified by God, Day becomes inhuman; his subsequent war against the flesh causes him to destroy another precious human life. Joseph Day’s chief sin is in not accepting the human condition which God ordained. During the writing of Moira, Julian Green wrote in his journal; “It is only our Manicheism which prevents us from seeing.” On one occasion, he remarked, “How easy it is to pass from the Kingdom of God into the Kingdom of Satan.”

Julian Green has affirmed that all his fiction stems from his childhood. When he was six years old he once woke up in the middle of the night and cried out to his mother. As Mrs. Green came to his bedside, Julian asked her, “Mama, am I saved?” Already at an early age, he was wrestling with the questions of salvation and damnation. Flannery O’Connor has said flatly, “Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.”

Today if one were to visit Julian Green in his apartment in the heart of Paris, one would be entering an oasis of the American South. A Confederate battle flag hangs at the end of a narrow corridor. It was sewn for the family by their cousin, a daughter of General P.G.T. Beauregard. First person accounts and other documents on the War for Southern Independence fill the bookcases near the entrance. Julian Green’s personal library is richly stocked and the variety is astonishing. As you walk into the living room you will be greeted by antebellum Southern furniture brought by his father to France. To a recent visitor from the New York Times who came for an interview, Julian Green smiled and said, “This is the American South in France.” He has rendered French literature a great honor by choosing French for his literary medium. But he has a fierce loyalty to the South which he regards as his country. In his response to my questions, Julian Green said that “the South maintains for all of America a cultural weight which remains unique…and which counterbalances the materialism of the rest.” When he was a small boy, Mary Adelaide Hartridge Green told her son, “Do not forget that you are a little rebel. We are all rebels.” As a writer Julian Green has created a vivid, unforgettable universe and he has drawn deeply from the well of his Southern heritage; a faithful son of the South, he had explored time and again in haunting works of literary art that distant land of his heart’s yearning.

This article was originally published in the 3rd Quarter 1992 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.

Alphonse-Louis Vinh

Alphonse-Louis Vinh is a former Fellow of Berkeley College, Yale University and a former Professor at the Catholic University or America.

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