Archibald Rutledge, God’s Children, 1947 (I read the Kindle edition of this book).
I have a love and hate relationship with this book. Archibald Rutledge had an ability to see beauty and complexity everywhere. A lover of nature and the beauty of his family’s South Carolina’s plantation, he was able to convey the awe he experienced in nature into words that delight the reader. Yet, as he was writing in the early 20th Century, there is a strong sense of paternalism in how he relates to the African American sharecroppers who worked the land. He claims to love them and credits them for helping him experience the fullness of nature, yet he’s a man of his time. It doesn’t seem to bother him that he lives in the big house and they live in shacks.
However, Rutledge saw himself responsible responsible for the welfare of those who live around his plantation. “The whole business of government, especially the unpleasant details of taxes, is to a plantation Negro a dark and mysterious affair,” he writes. Then he tells the story about Jim, an African American man who was delinquent on his poll tax and about to lose his land. Rutledge spoke to the Sheriff who said Jim had to pay the sum or he would have to claim title. Rutledge paid it, and expected Jim to work his debt off. But the Sheriff later asked if Jim was over 60 years old, saying if so, he’d be exempt from the poll tax. Talking with the Jim, Rutledge realized that he had no idea of when he was born. He asked about things he could remember in order to determine his age. He remembered being of “good sense” (which would have meant around 6-7 years old) when there was the Great Shake (the earthquake that damaged Charleston in 1886). This put him over 60 years of age. Archibald received a refund. Reading this, I was amazed Jim would have to play a poll tax because I am sure he wasn’t able to vote South Carolina at that time. Although it was noble of Rutledge to champion Jim’s cause, he followed it up with a joke about how now plantation owners are the slaves, as he noted how they are responsible for the descendants of slaves. I’m sure if Rutledge was writing today and not in 1947, such views would not be published or at least not received well by the general public.
Yet, there is much wisdom and beauty in his writings. “[L]ife is enlivened by its uncertainty, as it is made dearer by its insecurity and its brevity. As the long look of the setting sun lights up the fading landscape (especially an autumnal one) with more tenderness than the morning mysterious glamours…” This portion of a sentence (Rutledge was no Hemingway as I quoted only half the sentence) captures the wisdom and beauty of his words. Life everywhere is made up of roses and razor blades, arsenic and azaleas,” displays the paradox Rutledge saw in life. Writing about the African American cemetery, he says: “There the mighty pines towered tallest; there the live oaks stood druidlike; there the jasmines rioted freely over hollies and sweet myrtles, tossing their saffron showers high in air. As children, Prince and I dreaded this place.” His sentence structure is often complex and his words ring of poetry.
In this book, Rutledge tells of hunting and fishing with his African American friends around the plantation. Some of the stories are from his youth, such as when he and Prince caught a poisonous water moccasin while fishing and used it to scare the plantation’s cook (I thought of my own experience of almost catching such a snake). Some of the stories seem a bit fanciable such as Mobile, the huntsman, hunting next to the rice paddies where workers were busy. His wife was working in the paddy and their infant child was left to sleep on a dike. When an eagle swooped down and grabbed the child, Mobile took aim and, from a long distance, shot the bird and saved the child. Another story involved a traveling man with a monkey. The monkey grabbed a child and took it up on the roof of the house, requiring another heroic and comic rescue.
Rutledge shares the plantation folk stories such as the one about the “Walk Off People.” When Adam and Eve were first created, all wasn’t well in paradise. Adam liked to hunt and fish so much that Eve was bored and threatened to leave him. So God created more people so Eve would have company, but it was late in the day. God said he’d come back and put brains in these newly created people, but some of them “walked off” and never got their brains. This story not only explains those without “good sense” but perhaps also those who move in on a married woman that has played second fiddle to her husband’s interests.
Rutledge spends most of the fifth chapter writing about the religion of his African American neighbors. The only place he gives insight into his own beliefs is where he addresses the fundamentalists need to understand how “the worship of nature and God go hand in hand, and that he who worships the God of the universe is usually ready to accept Christ as the Son of that God.” Earlier in the book, he remarked how the folk saying, “Prayers never gets grass out of de field” illustrated the truth about faith without works!
I highly recommend this book, which is available on Amazon Kindle for a minimal cost (I think I paid 99 cents). But I remember this book with a warning. This was written sixty years ago and recalls stories that are over a hundred years old. Today, paternalistic views are criticized. Yet, the reader who understands the world in which Rutledge was writing will appreciate his attempt at honoring those who lived on the plantation as well as the magic of the land. The author grew up on this plantation, then moved north for college and to teach in Pennsylvania. In the mid-1930s, he moved back to the plantation, to help restore it and lived there until his death in 1973. He also served for 40 years at the poet laureate of South Carolina and published over 50 books and numerous articles, many about the outdoor life. Today, the plantation is a state historic site.
“There is, I think, no lovelier land than the old plantation regions of the Carolinas—a land of hyacinth days and camellia nights. Nature there triumphs in giant trees, in great rivers, in lustrous fragrant fields, in an exotic profusion of wild flowers.”
-Archibald Hamilton Rutledge. 1883-1973