A Novel the State Doesn't Want You To Read

by Jimmy Cantrell

What follows is an excerpt from my yet-to-be published manuscript The Matrix and the Nexus: Celtic Heritage in Southern Literature. Specifically, it is the portion of my chapter on the Agrarians that treats Stark Young. My hope is that it spurs several readers to purchase (because if we don't purchase such books, no one will reprint them or publish new works with similar themes) and read So Red the Rose: a novel that theCentralized Statists would prefer tossed into the bonfires and middens created by Empire.

Like Faulkner, another native of north Mississippi, Stark Young identified all but exclusively with his Scottish Highland ancestry. Studiously aware of his family heritage, Young chose to focus his fiction on the McGehees. u201CAffectionate as Young was toward his father's family,u201D John Pilkington declares, u201Chis ties to the Youngs were never so strong as his feelings for the McGehees on his mother's sideu201D (Stark Young 3). Pilkington summarizes the McGehee migrations into Mississippi:

The ancestor of the American branch of the family, James McGregor, a younger son of the McGregor clan in Scotland, had emigrated to Virginia early in the seventeenth century and changed his name to McGehee. For several generations, the McGehees accumulated wealth and position in Prince Edward County, Virginia; but soon after the American Revolution, Micajah McGehee (1745-1811) moved his wife and children to a settlement along the Broad River in Georgia (Stark Young 4).

Micajah's children, raised in the northeastern corner of Georgia, adjacent to both the Scots-Irish South Carolina upcountry and the heart of the Appalachians, continued the trek west: u201Cthree of the boys, Edward (1786-1880), John (1789-1870), and Hugh (1793-1855), drove their wagons into Mississippi. Edward and John became Stark Young's great-uncles; Hugh was his grandfatheru201D (Stark Young 4). Like Caroline Gordon's fictional Outlaws, the McGehees of both Young's actual lineage and his fiction are dispossessed and exiled Scottish Highland MacGregors who changed their outlawed surname to deflect Crown and Anglo-Saxon hostilities.

The most insightful single work of criticism of Young's fiction remains Donald Davidson's u201CIntroductionu201D to the 1953 edition of So Red The Rose, a novel originally published in 1934. Davidson's article is nascent Celtic-Southern thesis literary criticism. Though some of his views are apparently influenced by the ancient bigotry (perhaps by way of Matthew Arnold) that the culturally Celtic tends to be poetically wild and undisciplined, and therefore in dire need of Anglo-Saxon reason and moderation, Davidson recognizes a distinct difference between Southerners who are culturally eastern Virginia English and those who are Celtic. He also recognizes that Young presents the McGehees as his epitomes of Southern familial culture at its finest:

For Stark Young, the McGehees are the embodiment of that kind of person, with a continuity of memories going back to the time of their ancestor, who was THE McGregor, head of the Scottish clan, when it was outlawed by Cromwell and forbidden the name. The u201Caristocracyu201D of the McGehees . . . is not the point. But the continuity of memories, the code, the tradition of the land are of utmost importance (xii).

Davidson argues that the novel's two principal families, while connected by marriage, represent different cultural strains in the South. The McGehees are u201CCeltic rebelsu201D against the power of the ruthless, modern, gunpoint-unified Nation, personified in the novel by William Tecumseh Sherman and U.S. Grant and in the McGehee's past by Oliver Cromwell and William of Orange. That modern, centralized State is intent on forcing allegiance even if that means using armies to terrorize civilian populations and achieve total destruction of folkways and cultural identities. The McGehees are fictional u201C. . . exemplars of the frontier wanderings that peopled the old Indian country of the trans-Appalachian Southu201D (xix). u201CThe Bedfords,u201D Davidson declares, u201Cseem to represent a strain more definitely English, in certain ways, than the McGeheesu201D (xvi), and Malcolm Bedford, he believes u201Cdoes suggest . . . a kind of Mississippi extension of the English country gentlemanu201D (xvii). Finally, Davidson believes, u201Cthe decline and death of Malcolm Bedford constitute, in dramatic epitome, an indirect representation of the decline and death of the Confederacyu201D (xxxi). Symbolically, Young suggests that the last vestiges of the Virginia Tidewater South were killed during the war, but the Celtic South, personified in Hugh McGehee, lived on, its survival due not only to its numbers but primarily to the u201CCeltic intuitionu201D Davidson attributes to Hugh McGehee, and by implication the historical u201CCelticu201D ability to survive crushing military defeat and the violent persecutions that inevitably follow.

As in the works of Faulkner and Gordon, house names are immensely important in So Red the Rose. The Bedford home is Portobello, named for the house of certain Virginia antecedents. Malcolm Bedford explains the name of Hugh McGehee's home: u201C'as a matter of fact that house was built a hundred years ago by a Scotchman. He called it Dundee, but nobody could pronounce it to suit him so he changed it to something or other, and then Hugh changed it to Montrose'u201D (8-9). Young displays the significance of the name Montrose near the novel's conclusion. After discussing politics and economics with Mr. Mack, a Yankee investor who believes only in cash nexus, Hugh remembers telling his son Edward, killed at Shiloh, about James Graham: u201CThe Earl of Montrose had been a Presbyterian, and so was that McGehee ancestor, the McGregor who led his clan to fight along with him; but they did not belong to the barbarous party of the Kirku201D (386). In fighting for Scottish Presbyterianism and in support of the National Covenant, Montrose was fighting against English Archbishop Laud's imposition of liturgy and formal structure on the Scottish church, and partially was fighting against the vestiges of French influence over Scotland; in fighting for the Stuarts and against the Solemn League and Covenant, Montrose was defending Scottish heritage against Calvinist ideologues who, in the name of theory, gladly would destroy nations. [1]

The lesson Hugh had taught Edward is the primacy of familial, cultural, and local political connections over theoretical, ideological, and expansive political associations, for the latter three are abstract and bloodless and therefore lifeless. But that is only the first part of the instruction. The remainder of the story had concerned Montrose's execution, which he had faced with such dignity that the jeering crowds had been silenced. The, perhaps unintended, lesson here, one that Hugh at this moment has grasped fully, is that it is better to die for the right cause than to destroy your soul by submission to and cooperation with governmental tyranny. He remembers Edward's saying, u201C'and we fought for him'u201D (387), and then pushes the memory away, for it certainly must then appear prescient: Edward and his General had fought and died in a losing cause opposing militarily forced government centralization.

The inevitable symbolic death of the English-country-squire-type Malcolm Bedford is foreshadowed in the dinner discussion following Edward's funeral. Commenting on the death of General Albert Sidney Johnston, Mrs. Wilson, an Irish native who speaks u201Cin her pretty Irish voice,u201D avows, u201C'Sir Walter Scott will be the ruin of the South, so much so I'd take my oath on it.'u201D Then she explains herself: u201C'I mean this chivalry obsession,'u201D and u201C'chivalry's dead, and we'll have to learn that fact in the South, or we won't stand a dog's chance'u201D (208). Young at this point calls attention to the contrast between his two principle families; Hugh McGehee u201Cknew what she meant,u201D but Sallie Bedford u201Cdisliked Mrs. Wilson.u201D Malcolm, very much the transplanted Tidewater Cavalier, believes after Bull Run u201Cthat nothing would conquer the Southern spirit and that the war would be over in three monthsu201D (156). Malcolm dies with the fall of Vicksburg, which to Young, because it meant the Union controlled the Mississippi, spelled the inevitable defeat of the Confederacy. On his typhoid deathbed, Malcolm attacks government officials in both Richmond and Washington for policies that mean horror to multitudes, but he never approaches an understanding of the philosophical issues at stake much less a tragic self-perception.

Though So Red the Rose features approximately one dozen major characters, Hugh McGehee ultimately becomes the novel's point of reference. It is Hugh who, in commenting on Sherman, condemns the Federal position on philosophical grounds: u201Call our family were Union men, but the Union is not a religion; it's a mutual agreementu201D (308). He believes that the metamorphosis of the Union into something at least comparable to a sacrosanct secular religion is an ideological threat to both true religion and extended family, and ultimately to true democratic freedom. As Reconstruction begins, Hugh u201Csaw the war only as in the line that had begun in England with the Industrial Revolution and was moving onward toward its peak. This planter civilization had been in the way of it, had to be destroyed. Just thatu201D (396).

The cost of that u201Cdestructionu201D is displayed during the gutting and burning of Montrose. The night before the devastation, Agnes finds her husband reading the back of an ancient book, u201Crecipes, cures for one thing and another, that had been in the family for generations. The first recipes were written down in the time of James V, father of Mary Stuartu201D (318-19). He is muttering u201Csomething of which she seemed to make out only the words u2018my father and his father'u201D (318). As the house burns, Hugh observes the officer in charge

standing with the ancient recipe book in his hand . . . . He would scan a page, then tear it and crumple the paper in his hand, scan another page and do the same thing; and then as the flames began in one corner of the room, he hurled the book in them. More than any of the rest this angered Hugh (325).

The house and land may be restored, but the three hundred year old recipe book, a direct link to the McGehee heritage, is irreplaceable. The meticulously slow, knowledgeable destruction of this priceless historical document by the Union officer reveals that Young considered the Union war effort to be more than an attempt to maintain a coerced Union and to lay the foundation for the end of American slavery; it was also, however unwittingly, an attempt to exterminate the South's knowledge of its independent ancestry dating from before Jamestown, of its Celtic heritage. The political expediency should be apparent: those whose cultural identities are obliterated are more likely to accept the new identities the conquering empire wishes to impose.

At this point, Young's thematic, as opposed to merely autobiographical, use of characters of Celtic heritage should be understood. As victims of the earlier Cromwellian, Williamite, and Hanoverian u201Cdisplacementsu201D in the name of Progress, Celts had lost wars of defense to larger, better equipped invaders, and somehow had survived the resulting u201Creconstructionsu201D with their cultural identities intact, if altered a little, and their politics skewed. Their Southern descendants possess, as Edward attempts to define it before the War, u201Cthis inner thing of feeling and goodnessu201D (25) deriving from the sense of clan, which provides not merely the sense of family connectedness but also a sense of place and a sense of religion, the three of which are responsible for the Southern senses of honor and history. Hugh attempts to explain it to Edward before he leaves for war, u201C'it's something to know that you were loved before you were born'u201D (150). He adds, u201C'it's not to our credit to think we began today, and it's not to our glory to think we end today. All through time we keep coming into the shore like waves — like waves. You stick to your blood, son; there's a certain fierceness in blood that can bind you up with a long community of life'u201D (150-51). As long as the McGehees, and thematically they represent the ideal of Southern culture to Young, possess self-knowledge — not a solipsistic modern scholarly knowledge, but a knowledge of family history and heritage and place, and a knowledge of the individual's place in the scheme of creation — , they are unvanquishable in the things that are most important.

Because Edward's death leaves Hugh without a male heir to carry on the family name, some readers may conclude that his line is to be seen as necessarily terminated as was Malcolm Bedford. This is not so, and not simply because Lucy McGehee is a brilliant young woman (181). Among other positive qualities, Young portrays Hugh as a prescient teacher. He tells Edward before the boy departs for war:

u201CI was wondering about my father's grandfather when he came over here from Virginia. There was his father, the MacGregor, and his mother's father, the MacDonald; and the great Montrose was dead — the MacGregors outlawed, losing their name; there were two sons, this was the younger one. He was leaving Scotland forever — I was wondering if it broke his heart — just broke his heartu201D (156).

It is as teacher that Hugh acquires a symbolic son: Duncan Bedford. When he returns home from the prisoner camp, Duncan feels he can tell no one in his family about the u201Cboundless trustu201D men developed for General Lee because they could not understand it. But u201Cthere was one man who would understand it, and that was Hugh McGeheeu201D (375). Hugh warns Duncan that the self-centered Mr. Macks — and the probable Gaelic origin of the name is significant, for it reveals that Young was not a simplistic ethnic chauvinist. Not only was Young well aware of the viciously parvenu Cotton Snobs of Natchez but that people of Hugh's ethnic background certainly can be proponents of selfish acquisition and self-indulgence and can become thoroughly modern English culturally, u201Cthe morally irresponsible industrialists who were rising to power in the American heartlandu201D (Genovese Southern Tradition 67) to whom u201C'the land's no more than stocks and bonds,'u201D a view of man's relationship to land that Hugh believes must lead inevitably to seeing one's own character as just u201C'a quick turnover for what can be made'u201D (395), will dominate this new imperial nation built upon forced governmental unity. More important is Hugh's instruction to the young man that what Southerners u201C'would do better to speak of would not be what they have had but what they have loved'u201D (395). At the close of this conversation, Duncan, who considered Edward a brother, u201Cunderstood that Hugh meant he was to be like a father to him and Duncan to him a sonu201D (397). Duncan Bedford, educated by his uncle, his symbolic father, his Celtic foster-father, will perpetuate the McGehee knowledge and sense of clan, which eventually will produce Stark Young.