Used with permission of the
(The entire autobiography is in five sections and totals 23 pages. Section I is approximately 6 pages.)
Most people carry in their hearts a picture of the land of their childhood, and while other impressions fade, this picture grows stronger and stronger. --- Thorkild Hanser
Who we are, where we came from, what our ancestors did before us, and where we lived and how we lived has much to do with what we might compose in verse and story. Of English and Scotch-Irish stock, my ancestors settled in Virginia during pioneer days, the Lindseys at Berryville, the Stills near Cumberland Gap. A roadside marker at Jonesville denotes the birthplace of Alfred Taylor Still (1828-1917), who conceived the medical system of osteopathy. One of our "set." On my mother's side my great-grandmother was a Georgia Lanier. Tradition has it both ancestors fought in the American Revolution and wilderness land was allotted them as reward, the Lindseys first settling in north Georgia, the Stills in Alabama. In my mother's childhood the kitchen floor was beaten earth. Grandpa Lindsey mined enough gold on his land to fill his teeth. (The gold rush in Dahlonega, Georgia, predated Sutter's Mill by twenty years.) The move to Alabama when my mother ws sixteen was occasioned by the destruction of the home by a cyclone. An often-heard account was of Uncle Joe surviving burial under the rocks of the chimney.
When my parents married in 1893 they homesteaded in Texas and two of my sisters were born there. Papa's farm is now a part of the Fort Hood reservation. On moving back to Alabama he ran a drugstore for a time and boarded the schoolmaster in order to be taught the requisite Latin. Papa always trusted to return to Texas although it never came about, for a sister died of scarlet fever and Mama would never agree to leave her. He generally dresed "western," boots and hat, and we ate sourdough bread. I recall bits and pieces of Texas lore passed on to us and I've always thought of Texas as a distant home. My collection of Texas writings reflects this nostalgia . I soldiered at San Antonio during World War II.
Papa undertook his life's profession as a "horse doctor," a veterinarian with little formal training, along with farming and horse trading. "Short courses" at what is now Auburn University fitted him for a license to practice veterinary medicine. He once told me, "I've never cheated anybody in my life except in a horse trade. That doesn't count. It's a game." Papa appeared to know every equine in the county by their dubbing, having been present at their procreation, or birth, or having ministered to them. In passing he always spoke to them and sometimes raised his hat. Papa was fair of countenance, redheaded, and never lost a hair to his dying day, eyes blue as a wren's egg. I recollect an aunt informing me, "Too bad you're not good-looking like your daddy."
I appeared in this world July 16, 1906, on Double Branch Farm near LaFayette in Chambers County, Alabama. After five girls I was the first boy. Eventually the count ran to five girls and five boys. Our black wet nurse was "Aunt Fanny" who helped Mama care for us. She diapered us, comforted us, shielded us. We loved her with all our hearts. When my legs were long enough I would run away to her house and she would let me sop syrup out of a bucket lid. When they came hunting for me she would make out to hide me under the bed. Her unmarried companion was named Porter and uncommonly white for his race. He had been struck by lightening twice and survived and that we thought was the reason.
Sometimes I tell folk I was born in a cotton patch as one of my first memories is of running about with a small sack Mama had sewed up for me, picking a boll here and there, and of urging my sisters to pick faster as Papa had promised I could go to the cotton gin with him if we finished out a bale that day. And of the wagon trip atop two thousand pounds of cotton and of losing my cap up the suction tube. A memorable happening for a boy of four.
After Grandma Still's death we moved in with Grandpa and Aunt Enore, a maiden aunt, on the farm between Pigeon Roost and Hootlocka creeks, near Marcoot. I was five and a brother had long since kicked me out of the cradle--almost before I could walk. I believe that was a deciding factor in my development. About then I fell and stuck a rusty nail in my stomach and had to learn to walk a second time. In our family, once you learned to stand alone, you were treated as an adult. Though a quiet child, I'm told, I was independent. One who wouldn't allow my aunts or my kissing cousins to "smack" me. I began to think for myself early. Yet my father once told me, "You had a long childhood." He meant my youth was spent in a schoolroom instead of in the fields. Of his own schooling Papa said he got as far as "baker" in the Blueback Speller.
Grandpa Still's homestead was antebellum with all the attributes associated with pre-Civil War architecture. Gray, with sand mixed in the paint. Large rooms, high ceilings. The kitchen and dining room were set back from the living quarters as a precaution against fire. An attic with a full measure of artifacts of the past. Clear in memory are the boxwoods crowding the front steps and the paths among Grandma's flower beds. And the buckets of water thrown on the cape jasmines on summer nights to enliven the fragrance.
I was six when we moved to the Carlisle Place two miles from LaFayette on the Buffalo road. Within a year we were living in our own newly built and mortgaged home. Standing today in Chambers County are many dwellings of the same pattern-- roomy, hall down the middle, veranda halfway round, a frosted pane distinguishing the front door. From a rise on our forty-acre farm a body could see the Talledega Mountains like a train of smoke to the north. To the south, out of sight, were the Buckelew Mountains where Joe Barrow Lewis, the boxer, was born in 1914.
Chambers County has several historical connections. Woodrow Wilson's grandfather taught school weekdays in the old Presbyterian church and Stonewall Jackson's father-in-law was pastor for a time. Here the "Mark Twain" in my nature won't let me skip a pleasantry. One Papa told me. Passing through LaFayette on a Sunday he heard the Baptist congregation singing "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?" and the Methodist simultaneously, "No, Not One." Papa liked a good joke ----- such as when Grandpa Lindsey accused Papa's bull in an adjoining pasture of "demoralizing" his cows. When Papa and my uncles laughed they could be heard a half mile.
At the Carlisle Place in summer we children worked in the fields, Papa with us when not on call, Mama alongside when she could spare the time from cooking, sewing, laundry, preserving fruits and vegetables, and varied household tasks. To ward off suntan and freckles my sisters greased their faces and necks with cream, wore stockings on their hands and arms, and covered their heads with wide-brim straw hats. My sisters would never work in sight of the road. While our main crop was cotton, we raised sugarcane, sorghum, soybeans, and corn. The sun was hot, the days were long, and the rows of cotton seemed to stretch to the horizon.
One day, hoeing cotton on a row next to my sister, Inez, she began to tell a story, and as I thought a true one. It continued for hours as our hoes chopped and pushed and covered and rang against stones. Then I learned it was a fabrication. She had created it as she spoke. From that moment my horizon expanded into the imaginary. I could make my own tales and did. Oral ones.
The boll weevil made an appearance in the South and we walked the rows with a cup of kerosene and picked them off. We picked potato bugs as well and rooted out nut grass. An established colony of nut grass was considered the death of a farm. Also known as chufas and their bulbs good to eat. The taste of coconut. When we located a plant we ate the enemy.
At seven I started in school, walking the two miles to the "college" in LaFayette with my three sisters, bearing a lunch of two biscuits and slices of bacon. The first teacher, Miss Porterfield, wrote my name on the desk with chalk and handed me an ear of corn. My duty was to outline my name with the grains. A hands-on beginning. By day's end I knew its shape and could write it myself. Small for my age, I was the only pupil needing to stand on a box to reach the blackboard. On Class Day I stood in chapel and recited Stevenson's "Birdie with a yellow bill...." and brought down the house. My knee pants were unbuttoned. We acted out "Hiawatha" and I was Adjidamus, the squirrel. Hiawatha's thanks linger:
On Field Day I participated in the sack race. Inez won the fifty-yard dash and the reward of a box of chocolates. When a second layer emerged it was like the discovery of gold on California's American River. Some thirty years later Miss Porterfield was to tell me, " I can still call the name of every child in your class, but I never thought you would be the one."
The two events which figure largely in my youth were the American Civil War and the Great Depression. My grandfather Still had served in the Confederate Army and had a finger severed by a Yankee bullet. My maternal grandmother's first husband lost his life in north Georgia attempting to head off Sherman's march to the sea. Many veterans were alive and sometimes sat on Grandpa Still's veranda and reminisced. I recall vividly the account of the tunnel the Yanks dug under the Confederate trenches at Petersburg and the aftermath of the explosion. On Confederate Day we students were given small "bonny blue flags" and marched to the cemetery to decorate the graves of veterans. Although we harbored little knowledge of the cause of the struggle, we were certain it would be fought again and the next time won. In later years I visited the major battlefields and the sites of many of the smaller engagements. Appamattox brought tears. I was readying myself to write a novel based on the prison at Andersonville, Georgia, only to be thwarted by MacKinley Kantor publishing his own.
Aside from the Holy Bible, we had three books at home: The Anatomy of the Horse, The Palaces of Sin, or the Devil in Society, and a hefty volume with a missing back, Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge.I learned from Palaces the sin of drinking gin and playing at cards. The author, one Colonel Dick Maple, who "spent his fortune with lavish hand, but awoke from his hypnotic debauch at Society's shame," the scene of action Washington, D.C. A full-page drawing depicts "Jenny Manley of Alabama rebuking guests at table for drinking wine." The Anatomy was beyond my comprehension.
The Cyclopedia was my introduction to a wider world. Subjects covered were eclectic -- philosophy, physics, rhetoric, as well as such topics as the pruning of fruit trees, rules for games, social and business correspondence, the language of flowers, and capsule histories of nations. A miscellany of subjects. There was a selection of poems, including Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I memorized the haunting"Ozymandias" and Cleopatra's swan song, "I am dying, Egypt dying." The Cyclopedia was my first stab at a liberal education. During those years I saw my first motion pictures, Damon and Pythias and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. With a ticket provided by a teacher I attended Chautauqua -- a classical guitar performance and a lecture which I choose to believe was the famed "Acres of Diamonds." Jean Webster read from Daddy Long Legs at the school. William Jennings Bryan came to town. The warden of Sing Sing Prison lectured. Papa pulled me through a crowd to have me shake hands with Governor Comer. A circus came to town and our class learned to spell elephant, lion, and tiger.
I remember the day World War I ended. A truck loaded with celebrants passed, shouting, "The war is over! The war is over!" One morning we hurried to LaFayette early to attend a hanging. We stood in the road before the jailhouse while this gruesome rite took place. On that day I became the foe of capital punishment, and in my teens, witnessing a Ku Klux Klan initiation involving the burning of a cross with citizens in bed sheets taking the oath, my liberal instincts rose and remained.
At school there was "Old Black Joe," the janitor who befriended a generation of children, and such was his respect in the community he was one of the two blacks allowed to vote. The other to share the privilege was the barber Green Appleby, who served only whites. Appleby's advertisement in the LaFayette Sun listed him as a "Tonsorial Artist....Neat shop....Sharp razors." Another black held in esteem was "Puss" Irwin, the wiry courthouse janitor, who dutifully held us younsters up to the fountain for a drink of ice water. His assistant was Joe Barrow, the father of Joe (Barrow) Lewis. I recollect him usually dozing on the courtroom steps.
I was grown and in graduate school before I became acquainted with the writings of Johnson Jones Hooper, author of Some Adventures of Simon Suggs, Late of the Talapossa Volunteers---- antebellum humor of the Old Southwest. Born in North Carolina he came to Alabama and founded the LaFayette East Alabamian in 1842, a newspaper with the motto: "It's good to be shifty in a new country," and later, while practicing law, edited the Chambers-County Tribune. In my first encounter with Hooper's works I was put off by the rash of dialect. A briar patch of contradictions, elisions, and apostrophes. Not aware that I had lived in the same geographical spot, critics have more than once suggested that Simon Suggs is the father of my character Uncle Jolly in both my novels River of Earth and Sporty Creek. Uncle Jolly was my great-grandpa, with some of the attributes of a cousin, as near as I've come to using actual persons in my fiction. When I came to be writing about Kentucky, dialect was both a problem and a challenge. Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic, warned me early on, "Dialect is out of fashion." My intentions are to evoke speech. Dialect too strictly adhered to makes a character appear ignorant when he is only unlettered. Yet Simon Suggs overcomes all obstacles, and has lasted, and is a pleasure when read aloud by an apt interpreter.
We moved to LaFayette for a couple or years--something to do with the mortgage--and into the Judge Norman house, a dwelling of many rooms, spacious grounds, flaming crepe myrtles, giant magnolias. The air was scented with cottonseed oil being processed in a nearby plant, a match for frying smoked ham. Within earshot of the back fence lived "darkies," as they were referred to in those days. We heard their laughter and singing and cheerful banter and mistakenly judged them as being without the cares which plagued white society. Our neighbor was "Cotton Tom" Heflin, U.S. congressman or senator for decades. The Heflins were rarely at home. The straw mat on our hall floor was a gift of Mrs. Heflin. His son once fired a shotgun in our direction, raining pellets on our roof. The Norman house has long since been demolished, the white-pillared mansion of the Honorary J. Tom Heflin still stands.
The "college" which I was to attend through the fifth grade had actually been one in times past and was in need of major repairs. A proposed three-mill tax was put on the ballot and defeated in the election. In talking to the editor of the LaFayette Sun next day my father said, "The building will have to fall down for the voters to wake up." The roof of the auditorium collapsed that night.
At war's end the price of cotton fell. We had moved back to the Carlisle Place for two or three years when our long-carried mortgage on the farm was foreclosed. We moved to Shawmut, a textile town in the Chattahoochee Valley. Although we lived on "Boss Row" (Lanier Avenue), my father was not employed in the factory. Many townsmen kept a cow in the backyard, some a horse. The company wanted a veterinarian handy. On Christmas Eves we children hung our stockings by the chimney and were rewarded with an orange, an apple, peppermint sticks, and a handful of nuts. Once, a toy pistol. The first Christmas at Shawmut the factory gifted every child with a paper bag brimming with a variety of fruits and nuts and candy and a toy.
Up to then the only fiction of value I had read was Treasure Island. Not even Tom Sawyer or The Last of the Mohicans or Robinson Crusoe. There was to be much catching up in the years to come. Against the librarian's suggestion, I borrowed Balzac's Father Goriot. It was a revelation. I can still smell the boardinghouse depicted in the early chapters. And I began to write my first novel, of boats and sailors and whales. I had never beheld a boat larger than a bateau, known a sailor, or viewed the ocean. I have no further memory of this venture.
I got caught up in the game of basketball. Often played from school's end until dark. Our team was invited to the state tournament at Birmingham. Only one member of the team was taken along, the other players being "ringers" recruited from the factory. They attended classes a half-day to qualify. We were joyful when they were roundly defeated their first game, probably by a another team of ringers. Such affairs are better ordered nowadays. I won second prize in a Birmingham News essay contest on the subject of insect control in gardens. First prize went for chemical treatment. I plumped for the birds.
I was in the ninth grade when we moved farther down the valley to Jarrett Station. I attended Fairfax High School in another factory town which was within walking distance. Joined the Boy Scouts of America, earned twenty-three merit badges and achieved the status of Eagle Scout, and published my first poem in Boys' Life titled "A Burned Tree Speaks."
During my senior year I happened upon a catalog of Lincoln Memorial University located near Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. A college established after the Civil War by General O.O. Howard due to the loyalty of the area to the Union cause. Flourishing to this day and in a natural setting probably unequaled in America. The ability to work my way was the draw. In the fall I set off with sixty dollars earned as an office boy at the factory and door-to-door delivery of the Atlanta Constitution for this school of some eight hundred students drawn mainly from the mountain areas of the three adjoining states. I had made a genealogical circle. Up the road in Virginia was the site of the Stills' pioneer home.
Most students worked for their tuition and keep at Lincoln Memorial, on the farm, at the hatchery, dairy, rock quarry, and upkeep of the campus. I was assigned to the quarry where I pried limestone croppings out of a pasture and sometimes operated a rock crusher. One Christmas vacation, lacking a ticket home, a nickel in my pocket, I spent shoveling gravel onto roads and crosswalks. I spent the nickel on chewing gum. Once, I put a hand in my pocket and found a silver dollar. An "angel" had put it there. My grades suffered the freshman year as I was too fatigued to study. They picked up the other terms after a change of chores-- raking leaves, mixing concrete, roof mending, house painting, janitor at the library. I attended classes mornings and worked afternoons. As janitor I took over the library at 9 p.m.
A majority of the students had no money to buy extra food. My overriding memory of those years was of being hungry. We ate everything off of the tables. Walnut trees were plentiful on the hills of Harrogate and we cracked bushels. We raked our hands through snow under apple trees for overlooked fruit. The president of Lincoln Memorial spirited me into his house to try on a suit he could spare. It fitted perfectly. I broke into tears when he presented it to me. Not from joy, as reported, from humiliation. I never wore it.
The third and fourth year I kept the job of janitor at the library. At nine o'clock I locked the door, emptied the wastebaskets, swept the floor, and rubbed up the tables, and until daylight it was my private domain. Many nights I became too sleepy to make it to the dormitory and slept in the stack room, a book for a pillow. I hardly knew what to take up first, what book, what periodical. Discovering the scholarly journal American Speech, I wrote two articles which they published and which H.L. Mencken was to quote in the American Language. I particularly noted the Atlantic and it became the future target for my poems and short stories. The library became the recipient of many years of this journal and I was bid to check the files for missing issues and dump the rest into the furnace. That summer I freighted virtually a ten-year collection of issues home and with the Great Depression in full swing and work unattainable, I read every story, poem, and essay. During the next quarter century they were to publish three poems and ten short stories of mine.
At Lincoln the provider of the "work" scholarships was an elderly gentleman by the name of Guy Loomis, heir to a sash-and-blind fortune, and who was providing assistance to students in several institutions in the southern mountains. I managed to learn his address and wrote in my senior year to thank him and to invite him to the graduation exercises. He actually came, driving down from Brooklyn in a chauffered Cadillac, remained several days, and attended class exercises. After I won the Rush Strong Medal and prizes in four other essay contests, he offered to sponsor me for a year in graduate school, provided it was in the South. In extending the scholarship he said, "I'll make it possible, not easy." His warning proved correct. I chose Vanderbilt University and was off to Nashville in the fall.
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