There are stories, and then there are stories within stories. This is one of the latter.
In 1981, upon the publication of Robert Drake’s The Home Place, I wrote a review of it for Modern Age (Fall 1981) which I entitled “A Concelebration of Verities.” I suppose that title captured some element of the book, but as I look back now after forty years, it strikes me as awfully pretentious. Well, I was a young college professor feeling his oats—what more needs to be said?
Anyway, Mr. Drake was favorably impressed with the review—it was indeed highly laudatory—and he wrote me a very nice thank-you note. (At the time he was teaching at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; I was at McNeese State University in Louisiana.) For whatever reason, I did not answer his letter, a most un-Southern thing to do as I later reflected. Was I “too busy”? Hardly an excuse. And at this late date I cannot rightly remember what was behind my lack of graciousness.
A couple of years ago, anyway, I came across a reference to a new edition of the book, a reissue with corrected text, published by Mercer University Press in 1998 and ordered it. (As a young author, Mr. Drake had run a bit afoul of the publishing process in the first edition and in this version he wanted to set things right.) When the book arrived, I could not help noticing an excerpt from my review on a page also containing comments by others. Among these others were Robert Penn Warren, Tom Wolfe, and Cleanth Brooks (to whom we will return). I sez to myself, ‘Now this here is some pretty high cotton; what am I doing here?’ You just never know.
In any event, as I re-read The Home Place in the new edition, I saw again what had impressed me in the first place: a respect, even reverence, for the past and an acknowledgement of its living presence; the importance of an extended family rooted in “one dear perpetual place”; and, not least, the wonderful stories members of the family told and retold, the medium of keeping the past fresh and alive. And it was a medium not wasted on Drake as writer. Unsurprisingly, the book has held up well over these four decades.
Regarding the importance of the past and history, Drake has some valuable insights to share. He cites early on the example of this grandfather, called “Pa,” who was a veteran of the Late Unpleasantness (1861-1865). He was for Drake and the rest of the family “the living embodiment of the past—literally resident in the house” (The Homeplace, xiv). History for the Drakes was a given which helped to define and give meaning and identity to their lives in the present, from year to year. But their sense of history and their history in particular were not provincial in a narrow sense. They had in Allen Tates’s understanding a source of rootedness in this time, this place, which gave them by extension a healthy regard for other—and others’—times and places. They are not “locked into the present,” as is Tate’s typical provincial.
Along with this relationship to the past and a particular place, came as well a piety toward them. The word “piety” because of overuse and abuse may not quite capture what Drake means here. Closer to it is the Latin pietas as used to denote the reverential attitude of Aeneas toward his gods and ancestors. But unlike Aeneas, their religion was shaped by the Christian revelation, which bound the extended family even more closely together in worship and service and tied them as well to the larger community through the Methodist Church of Ripley, Tennessee.
For Drake as a boy, however, the past was not particularly interesting or attractive. If anything it was something to be free of, to escape. His parents were older than those of his peers, a fact by which he was mildly embarrassed. His uncles and aunts were also old. It took time and a new perspective, gained in part by education away from home, for him to get beyond this narrow view of such things.
Eventually, his family—who they were and what they stood for—became for him incalculably precious. It is not that they were important in the world or had achieved a great deal as measured by wealth or fame. And they certainly had their flaws and foibles. But they were filled with joy, goodness, and most of all love—for each other and for those around them as well. They experienced at times sorrow and grief, like any family; they saw evil for what it was; but they believed all along in the providential care of their heavenly Father.
But in any family over time, change takes its toll; people die off, and the good times are preserved in memory if at all. In the case of the Drake family, along with so many others, major changes were in the works in the 1930’s and 1940’s: the decline of the small-scale farm economy, the advent of the T.V.A., better roads and better cars, and so on. All of these developments, which fall under the heading of Progress, work against the continuity of families living in one place. As if death were not enough in itself.
“Things reveal themselves passing away,” Yeats wrote. One of the great ironies about the past and our relation to it is that sometimes it can only be appreciated when it is gone, when changes have in fact either modified it or diminished it to such an extent that it can live only in memory, only in stories that preserve and hand down its richness.
For Drake, one of the notable ways the family honored both the past and their lives together was through stories, told and retold. His father and his mother, as well as other family members, were great talkers and raconteurs, if with contrasting styles. Following is a passage which speaks eloquently to that gift:
I began to realize [as I got older] something of what the Drakes had in their past, in the old tales, the old times. And even now after all these years it’s hard to set down exactly what it was. But I think it was some sort of consciousness on their part that the most valuable thing they had been given in their lives was the love and affection of the family; it defined the in time and place, and it stabilized them there. . . . So why not continually commemorate and celebrate (as they did in their tales) this great gift they had been given? The old tales were not being told because they were new but because they were good (158).
Through growing up in such a family environment, through experience and education beyond his hometown—at Vanderbilt for one—Drake himself developed and honed the art of storytelling. He became, as part of his identity, one of the expert raconteurs whose performances he had listened to for many years as a boy:
And I know now that it’s why, more and more, as I get older myself, I realize that my function must be that of the rememberer, the celebrator of the pieties of time and place—the past that I came out of but was not a part of, the town, the county which own me—and will own me—all the days of my life. It’s finally the reason I write what I do and as I do—the old times, the old tales, of both sorrow and joy, with the present knowledge and blessing they continually confer (106).
From the several stories and anecdotes he relates in this collection, three stand out for me for various reasons. The first may be particularly fascinating to those whose education has centered around things literary. Brother Cleanth Brooks was his parents’ beloved Methodist minister for years and in fact married them. Drake was told later that he himself had been baptized by Brother Brooks. But that account is a bit leaky given the fact that Brooks had moved on to a pastorate in Louisiana by the time Drake was to be christened. It’s a good story, though; and that should count for something (at least to Southern readers). Years later, in any event, who should Drake have as a professor of English at Yale but the son of Brother Brooks who had the same name as his father, one more widely known in some circles at least. This is the same Cleanth Brooks who collaborated with Robert Penn Warren in founding The Southern Review in 1935 and edited it—both of them—until 1942, as well as a number of textbooks that advanced the New Criticism closely associated with them.
Traditionalist Southerners at least will also relish a second story Drake relates, this one about his grandfather, the Civil War veteran who had been at Appomattox on the fateful April day in 1865. He begins by mentioning a photograph he still has of “Pa” Drake, a Mr. Buchanan, and “Uncle Jack” (who was black), taken at the local depot as the three of them set out by train to a veterans reunion in Memphis. Uncle Jack had been the elder Drake’s body servant back in the day. When they got to the dormitory where they were to lodge, some official objected to Uncle Jack’s staying in the same room as the others. In short order, Pa Drake made it clear that if Uncle Jack could not stay neither would the other two. And that settled the matter without another word. Drake adds that when Uncle Jack died, he had one of the largest black funerals ever put on in their town and that the deceased’s coffin, covered with a Confederate flag, was processed downtown around the square. Some of Drake’s friends outside the South have difficulty processing this account. As someone probably has said—Faulkner’s Quentin Compson?—you have to have been born there.
A third story is both a story and a reflection about his mother in her declining years, the focus of which is a “Christmas Visit” by the author at the senior living facility where she spent her last days. She suffers from dementia and physical ailments as well. It is a story that those who have had aging parents, fallen prey to the ravages of time, will find only too familiar. It resonates, perhaps, because we sense that we ourselves may someday be where they are. But now one goes as visitor. One goes out of love and filial duty. But it is a far cry from the joy-filled Christmas- dinner visits Drake had earlier described that took place in happier, heathier times. Drake captures the experience about as well as anyone could: the sadness over a parent’s decline, the sense of helplessness in the face of mortality, the sharp contrast between who his mother once was and who she is today, and perhaps a twinge of guilt over not being able to care for her yourself. It’s all there.
This account, the last story in the collection, is moving but unsentimental. The same can be said as well of the rest of the stories. Drake writes from the heart but he does so as one who has mastered his craft as rememberer and keeper of the pieties. It is also as deeply a Southern book as one can hope to find in any time.
As I have reflected over the years and more recently as well, it has occurred to me that Robert Drake and I share a number of incidental commonalities: we are both Tennesseans, he west, I east; the Methodist Church was an important part of our early lives; and we both have a grandfather who was a Confederate veteran. Also incidentally, while Cleanth Brooks was not a friend of mine, I did meet him once over lunch at Yale, have read his work, and in fact knew one of his nieces at our church in St. Louis. (The world is not a small place, but connections abound if we can only see them.)
Finally, Robert Drake is the kind of writer, and person, one would have liked to have known in person. And I wonder even today if I missed the opportunity to establish a closer relationship by not answering his cordial thank-you note. I will, of course, never know. What I do know is that we all can benefit from what he has given us by reading this and other collections of his non-fictional and fictional work. For my part, this little tribute is meant to compensate by ever so much for my lapse in practicing my Southern manners some forty years ago.
Ave atque vale.