With Charlottesville, Virginia and its statue of General Robert E. Lee in the news, it’s worth taking a moment to note a long-forgotten collection of short stories set in and around the town. John Bell Clayton’s The Strangers Were There (1957), published posthumously, earned mildly reviews and quickly disappeared, but it remains perhaps the most accurate portrait of the town and its people–at least as it stood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, on the brink of desegregation and the Civil Rights movement:
He got off the bus at Third Street, flipped up the collar of his topcoat and waited at the curb until the buss pulled away, expelling a bluish gush of exhaust fumes. Third Street ran diagonally to Main exactly four blocks from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Station to the Robert E. Lee Hotel. There, amid the leafless elm and buckeye trees, the commanding bronze figure of General Lee astride Traveller, his hat in his right hand, assailed by the flakes now, faced with that imperturbable gentle resignation not just south but the whole enigmatic contradiction that was and remained and would always be the South.
In Clayton’s Charlottesville, lightly disguised as “Colonial Springs,” the members of the Colonial Club–lawyers, businessmen, and officeholders–“ran everything, everywhere.” On Wednesdays, the young cadets of the Military Institute strolled downtown on their two hours of furlough. On Thursdays, the girls from the local Seminary walked the same sidewalks during their own short release. On Saturday afternoons, “crowds of fur-coated college girls and their escorts came back from football games” and took over the restaurants and drugstores. And on Saturday nights, the sidewalks were packed with country folk “come to swarm into the ten-cent stores, the hardware stores and notion stores, the Strand and the Colonial movie houses, to parade along the streets, to look and see, to get a little excited and possibly a little drunk, to give expression to something elemental.”
Born in Craigsville on the western slope of the Shenandoah Valley, Clayton attended university in Charlottesville and wrote for the town’s paper, The Daily Progress. From there he went on to work with Ernie Pyle in the Office of War Information’s San Francisco bureau during World War Two, then stayed on as an editor for the Chronicle.
H. L. Mencken is said to have encouraged Clayton to try writing fiction, and his instinct proved right. The second story Clayton ever sold, “The White Circle” (included in The Strangers Were There), was selected as winner of the O. Henry Award first prize for 1947. By 1951, he was making a full-time living selling stories to Colliers, Mencken’s The American Mercury, and other leading magazines. He then published three novels in the next three years: Six Angels at My Back (1952) and Wait, Son, October is Near (1953), both set in rural Virginia; and Walk Toward the Rainbow (1954), set in San Francisco. California historian Kevin Starr wrote that Rainbow“abounds in ample and precise detail regarding the city.”
A similar eye for details shines throughout The Strangers Were There, which collects most of Clayton’s published stories, along with a number of unpublished pieces. Edited by Clayton’s widow, Martha Carmichael Clayton (sister of famed songwriter Hoagy Carmichael), the collection is organized into three sections: “The Town Clock,” whose stories are set in Charlottesville/Colonial Springs; “The Village Bells,” set in a hamlet perhaps not unlike Clayton’s hometown Craigsville; and “The Valley and the Mountains Beyond,” set in the Appalachian farm and hill country. Through these stories weave all the different peoples of the region:
There were the rich and the poor and the good and the indifferent. There was a man worth thirty million dollars, and another, a gaunt moonshiner from Jerkumtight Hollow, come on a Saturday night to look at the neon signs, who did not possess thirty. There were the housewives, the merchants, the lawyers, the schoolteachers, the filling-station attendants, the college girls, the golf players on one scale and the pool players on another. There were the churchgoers and the radio listeners and the ne’er-do-wells and the drinkers of cheap wine. On a Sunday night there were a dinner party at the country club and a tryst at a roadside tourist cabin and a prayer meeting at the Lutheran Church and three drunks telling lies in the men’s room of the bus depot and a Negro child dying f leukemia on Jitney Street and a young couple getting married and a thousand women preparing supper and an esthetic girl at the Seminary writing what she believed to be a sonnet or a song.
Clayton has a good feel for the fine and ignoble aspirations and deeds of the poor country people living in the hills around the town. They are not all two-dimensional stereotypes of simple but honest folk. Some are lazy, some are cowardly, some too much in love with their liquor, and some too obstinate to get out of their own way. But when they come down to hang around Main Street on a Saturday night, he can see that,
There was something raw and beautiful about it. Mountain country has a great somber loneliness. The winters are especially lonely. You live there in country like that. Your neighbors are few. Once in a while, in that great dead winter stillness, you hear a solitary crow cawing and you go to the window and watch its fugitive flight across a dull sky. The snow drifts high in the hollows there. And when the warmth of the summer finally does come, you feel the need to go out and be among people.
Some of Clayton’s best feel for details comes in the small, telling descriptions of his characters. There is a remarkable range to be found here: blowhards, saints, bigots, cowards, winners, and losers. “Little Woodrow” features a small-time crook who read too many old copies of The Police Gazette while in prison and comes home dressed up like a cartoon gangster–“like a figure in a wax museum suddenly become animate and determined to revive the role of an undersized villain in a threadbare melodrama everybody else had long since forgotten.” A large, lazy man lays on his bunk “in the state of dull, hippopotamus somnolence that passed for consciousness with him.” And he offers a priceless description of a nervous paregoric addict desperately seeking his next fix: “a series of expressions like tiny clowns chased one another across his eyes: jocularity, solemnity, mirth, concern, and finally something stricken, haunted, pursued.”
If the passages I’ve quoted make The Strangers Were There a bit honey-hued with nostalgia, I should caution that Clayton was too much of a newspaperman to see the world with anything but a sharp and skeptical eye. For all the love he may have felt for the Shenandoah country and its people, he did choose to leave it behind in his late twenties and never returned. And perhaps some of his reasoning is revealed in the story, “Incident at Chapman’s Switch,” about the shooting of a black man and his wife by a belligerent cop. The town sheriff and local judge quietly agreed to look the other way, and the story revolves around a discussion between a journalist and the editor of the town paper about how to write up the account. “Son,” the editor admonishes the journalist, “We are movin’ slowly and gradually to improve things and no matter how much you would like to you just can’t do it all at once.” This causes the writer to muse:
I am a part of it…. I was born into it and raised by it…. It is my native land and I love it, but there are times when I hate it. They’ve made me talk like them and look like them and even act like them…. But they can no longer make me think like them….
One can only hope that similar thoughts come to those people around Charlottesville and elsewhere who’ve been coming up with reasons to hold back the hands of time.