Caryl Johnston is a contemporary Southern writer who has so far not received as much recognition as she merits. That lack was partly corrected in 2021 when the Abbeville Press published her Stewards of History: Land and Time in the Story of a Southern Family. Then last year her fourth volume of verse, Storyteller in Times Square, appeared.
Stewards of History is a memoir that begins with the antebellum Cocke family at Bremo Bluff plantation in Virginia and moves to the Johnstons in Alabama in the tumultuous civil rights era.
In her work Caryl Johnston has given more profound attention to the meaning and nature of history than most present day historians have ever done. She sees her forebears as participant strugglers in the events of their times and their encounter with those events not a simple matter. Memory is an essential ingredient of history and of civilization. To understand it we must know and hand down something of our own folks in the past.
She describes contemporary Americans as:
“ . . . rootless, lacking in solid historical identity of their own, and as a result grasping at the cant and ideological crusades of the day to supply them with an identity. What is the first impulse of such people? To destroy—whether statues and memorials, or college courses in Western art and philosophy, or lecture platforms for speakers they don’t like.”
She presents the dilemma of growing up in the culturally disintegrating Sixties: “How could we find a sense of history, or of tradition, or of legitimate authority in the programs of Big Government and Big Business. . . . The country had been hollowed out. All that was left was politics and commerce.”
And again, “Liberalism runs the danger of taking civilization for granted . . . . The ongoing work of civilization is the lost term in the liberal syllogism.”
I love this telling bit of verse:
We Americans did first
Conceive the soul’s language as commerce
And we celebrated ever after that new learning
. . . .
No, Calvin Coolidge,
The business of America is not business.
I will reach a little too far and says this of Johnston’s understanding. The South exists because it has Memory. America does not exist because it has no Memory—its History is only slogans and ideological weapons.
I have not completely explained the depth of Johnston’s view. I will recommend From Boston to Birmingham: Selected Writings of Caryl Johnston, 1977-2001, published in 2005.
The best thing I can do to further understanding of Johnston’s work is to present John Devanny’s Preface to Stewards of History.
By John Devanny
Stewardship is little understood or appreciated in our day. The office of steward contains all that is repulsive to the elite classes, be they political, cultural, or financial. To be a steward means to supervise and to take care of things, things which are not the property of the steward. This relationship means the steward must give an account of his stewardship. A steward of history is held to account by both the past and the future.
By contrast, a false steward of history is one who sees history as a personal piece of property to be used for one’s gain or ideological agenda. Truth, understanding, and piety are the casualties of false stewardship, the past record condemns it, future generations will revile false stewardship for the violence it has done upon memory and the patrimony, and God, the final judge, will not be mocked by the children of the Father of Lies. The good steward is the possessor and practitioner of the cardinal virtues. The ethical steward is prudent knowing that the first principle of “taking care” is an understanding based upon evidence and reason, not mere emotion. Humility is crucial to resist the temptation of pronouncing the final judgment, the puritanical condemnation. The people of the past must be given their due, both the good and evil they have done, they are as deserving of justice as the living. Finally, temperance guides the steward of history away from the extremes of adulatory hagiography and self-righteous censure.
Caryl Johnston closely follows these virtues in her account of the history of her family. Her stewardship is defined by a narrative commitment to “land and history together.” For Johnston, narrative is “relation,” a telling about one’s people whose story can never be separated from the land and time, for to abstract people from place and time is to risk grotesque distortion and to fail to understand. Johnston’s work deserves understanding, for much of it concerns what she calls the “smallest community of all,” the reform-minded, liberal Southerner. This is not an easy task, for the South was and remains the most conservative region of the Union. The liberal Southerner has an uneasy and painful relationship with the people, history, and places of his country. Yet Southern many of them remain. As I read the account of Johnston’s more reform-minded kin, it called to mind liberal professors from the South who I knew from my graduate school days. Our political and social views were at great variance, but we understood each other and were able to treat each other with kindness and consideration. Interestingly, these men suffered from the inferiority complex with respect to their northern colleagues that plagues many of their kind, yet they shared a disdain and contempt for that species of self-righteous and hypocritical northerner known universally as Yankees.
Johnston’s story is unique in bridging the gap between liberals reformers, traditionalists, and conservatives in the South. The interplay between community and individualism in her story goes far to unite these distinct types. For example, Johnston’s noteworthy ancestor, General John Hartwell Cocke, was the patriarch of an important Tidewater Virginia family seated at the famous country home of Bremo. Cocke, for much of his life, was a slave holder wh1 was antislavery and devoted himself to exploring ways and means to emancipate the slaves. He considered slavery together with tobacco cultivation and the love of luxury responsible for Virginia’s failing agriculture fortunes. He also viewed the abolition of the entail partly responsible too. Later in life he eschewed emancipation for a paternalistic view of slavery centered on a covenant between the bondsmen and his master. This complexity, the “strands of contradiction,”is present throughout the lives of Johnston’s people. Joseph Forney Johnston, a veteran of the War Between the States, could certainly be described as a “redeemer” during his post-war political career. Yet, this defender of the South’s social order was hesitant to exclude Alabama’s African American citizens from the political life of the state. The ideology of “presentism” rejects these uncomfortable complexities because they do not easily admit the opportunity to indict and condemn that so delights the elites and the academics of our day.
To uncover these important complexities and contradictions Johnston courageously invites the reader into the intimate lives of her people. The struggles of John Cocke and his second wife, the religious scruples and irreligion of various family members, and the personal demons of all are laid bare. Paul Johnston, the author’s father, is a poignant example of an intelligent and sensitive man moved by the racial injustices of his society. He suffers the loss of position and standing because of his commitment to the principle that all are entitled to legal representation. Yet this liberal hero has his demons too, and he was seduced by the siren song of Freudian psychoanalysis and fell victim to Yankee opportunism. Commenting on the professional plight of Paul Johnston, family friend Virginia Durr remarked, “The Yankees have a very clear between their pocketbooks and their principles and never twain shall meet.” Liberal northerners complimented Paul Johnston for his stand on civil rights, but their business went to segregationist law firms better connected with the powers that be the Alabama state government.
Caryl Johnston’s narrative technique merits attention as well. She deftly weaves together narrative, imaginative dialogue, a keen literary sense, and an expert command of the sources of her family’s history. Most importantly, Johnston understands well the crucial importance of religion and faith in the making of the people her family. There is nothing sterile about this book, its pages brim with life and its joys, conflicts, satisfactions, its sorrows, and regrets. Most of all it brings to life “that understanding that enables to grow into the fullness of mind, soul and emotion.” Many of Johnston’s people played prominent roles in their communities, states, and in the counsels of the Union. The backdrop of slavery, the march on Birmingham and the Montgomery boycott lends depth and texture to the story. I confess some of Caryl Johnston’s liberal kin possessed a more liberal and secular world view antithetical to this anti-federalist, Catholic, son of the Chesapeake, and while on a few issues we might have made common cause, on many we may have found ourselves arrayed against each other. But because of Caryl Johnston’s book, I understand them, at least in part, and I can sympathize with their struggles, admire the cost some paid for their principles, and know that these too are my countrymen. This is what good history does, it lends itself to understanding, and why this book is an important work that will richly reward a close reading.