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Sixtieth Annual Meeting Address

James McBride Dabbs and the Soul of the South

Thomas L. Johnson

Last year the South Caroliniana Library received the papers of the late University of South Carolina English professor Frank Durham, given us by his widow, Society member Kathleen Carter Durham. In this splendid collection is the history of the founding of the South Carolina Review, the brainchild of Durham and his colleague the late Alfred Reid of Furman. When they were launching this "journal of creative and critical writing for South Carolina" some thirty years ago, quite naturally they were desirous of featuring in their premiere issues the works of writers in the state who had a proven record of publication and thus some established name recognition. In a letter of November 21, 1967, Durham mentions to Reid such South Carolina-related writers as Louis Rubin, Max Steele, Walter Spearman, Lodwick Hartley, William Price Fox, John Dickson Carr, and Paul Hyde Bonner as persons to be solicited for work to be featured in the Review. And then, near the end of the letter Durham asks Reid, "What about old James McB. Dabbs?"

Almost three decades later, this is the question before us on this particular night in May 1996 before an audience which purports to love its place and honor its history and identify its heroes in the larger scheme of things.

Well, indeed, what about "old James McB. Dabbs?" Who was he? What shall we do with him?

Perhaps by the end of this session, we may find the question turned around: What does he do with us?

Some of you, of course, may never have heard of him, and I've got to proceed on this assumption. This is all right—up to now, that is. From here on out, you will want to know who he is. Not primarily because any South Carolinian who considers herself or himself versed in the significant cultural or historical or literary matters of this state and region would wish to. But out of the desire to identify the sources of life and light which nourish and satisfy and edify at the deepest levels of human experience. And not just the intellectual ones, either. It's too late, and I'm too old, to fool with talking about anyone whose work does not appeal to impulses beyond cold, rational ones. I approach this subject in the spirit of the late theologian D.T. Niles, who characterized himself simply as one beggar telling others where the source of bread is. I would not touch it if it did not have some deep emotional as well as intellectual appeal. Dabbs, indeed, does not force himself on anyone. His is a benign and quiet and gentle, if vital and restless, spirit. He does not insist upon a hearing. But he is always waiting to be discovered and rediscovered by those who are looking for some still, small human voice to speak a sane, clear, humorous, eloquent word amid the nonsense and insanity and vulgarity of our day, in which the same issues of human relations are as much with us as they were with him.

But why "old James McB. Dabbs" tonight, this year?

Because this year—indeed, this month—marks the centennial of his birth. James McBride Dabbs was born in Sumter County on May 8, 1896.

And because we are here. We are on the campus less than one block south of the very place where Dabbs spent four of his most formative years, and where exactly eighty years ago he graduated as valedictorian of his class (1916). He was a product of this university. He was shaped by it in essential ways: not only in terms of the liberal arts education which he received; but in the very conception of education that he gained, away from regarding it as an aristocratic privilege to viewing it as a democratic ideal—a pointing away from campus to an interest in social problems and public affairs.

He finished as one of the outstanding graduates of this institution in the twentieth century. The faculty and students recognized it eighty seasons ago. In a letter of May 11, 1916, Dean L.T. Baker stated simply, "We regard Mr. Dabbs as one of the best men that the University has trained. He has been an active leader in student affairs, and enjoys the high esteem of the faculty and his fellow students for his manly qualities." And on May 13 his mentor Josiah Morse wrote: "He is a young man far above the average, in every respect. Justice cannot be done to his intellect, his character and personality, his industry and qualities of leadership without a liberal use of superlatives. His fellow students have shown in what high esteem they hold him by electing him President of the student body, and recently Valedictorian of his class. He has also been President of the Y.M.C.A., editor of the several University publications, and has been a leading force in all University activities."

Thus, for starters, he was one of the outstanding graduates of the University of South Carolina, taught by men here who were imbued with the democratic spirit of education and a vision of the educated man as one who would leave the university to be vitally engaged in the human and social enterprise beyond the walls of academe.

What further about him?

In his own biographical accounts he identifies himself as a soldier. And, I suppose, in some sense he was a soldier all his life. But he literally served as a second and then first lieutenant, field artillery, in the U.S. Army from 1917 to 1919, with one year's service overseas. At the end of it, in a letter of June 2, 1919, to his wife Jessie he wrote, "I swear now that it would take a war twice as big as this one to ever get me out of the United States—`God's country'—again! I will want to fall upon my knees and kiss the soil of the dear land when I return. Talk about Christopher Columbus being glad on the morning of Oct. 12, 1492, when he sighted the sandy shores of the West Indies—well, you haven't seen me yet!" And of course he never did leave the country again, although one of his daughters has remarked recently that he greatly regretted he was not eligible for active duty in World War II.

What next?

He became one of the state's outstanding teachers for two decades, from the early 1920s into the 1940s, when he taught English—first at USC (1921-1924) and then at Coker College in Hartsville (1925-1942). He served as head of the English Department at Coker from 1925 to 1937. Listen to the ways some of his former students identified and described a great teacher. Norma Deuel Lutz, a native New Yorker who spent her first two college years at Coker (1927-1929), has said: "I have always felt that he was the most inspired and inspiring professor I ever had." Evelyn Snider, of Conway, who claimed that it was he more than any other teacher who steered her into the field of teaching English for over forty years, wrote: "When I think of [his] classes, one recurring theme is dominant—`love of life.' I am most grateful that I had the privilege of `[sitting] at the feet' of a truly great teacher whose depth of perception and enthusiasm of living have influenced me so profoundly."

Dorothy Smith Jeter found that the classroom association with Dabbs was the highlight of her college experience, and that he left lasting influences. "He was the one teacher with whom I kept in touch as long as he lived," she wrote. Another student, Mary Beth Strickland Stokes, class of 1933, described him as "a great, humble man—one of the last, it seems to me, of teachers willing to bare their souls, trusting their students to relate." Virginia Ewbank Wideman has testified that

although Mr. Dabbs was thoroughly familiar with the subjects he taught, we learned more from his own scale of values than we could ever gain from reading poetry or prose, however eloquent either might be. His ability to find beauty in almost everything, sadness, loneliness or even death, affected us all....We found ourselves beginning to affirm life more and to deny it less....His last gesture to us as we left the world of academe was to teach us how little we really knew and that knowledge itself was only valuable when it was graced with humility.

Antoinette Geiger Wike, class of 1936, remembered Dabbs "as a scholar but never a pedant." Martha Claiborne MacInnes characterized him as a teacher who still strove to find truth as he taught it to students. Marilynn Haight Moreland recalled that Dabbs "guided; he encouraged us to expand our minds....By precept and example he taught us self-evaluation. That, in my opinion, is the most valuable lesson of all." Belle Thornwell Watts wrote that as long as their contacts continued, "whether occasionally in person, through correspondence, or through his writings, he continued to open doors to worlds I had not even imagined."

What else about him? Well, he also became a farmer.

In 1937 Dabbs moved from Hartsville back to Dabbs Crossroads in the Mayesville section of east Sumter County: he returned from the college to the ancestral plantation which he had inherited from his mother's people. His first wife, Jessie, had died in 1933. He had married Edith Mitchell in 1935. While he loved Coker and told a student reporter that his twelve years there had been the richest he had known and that his life there had been a happy one, he had come to feel some dissatisfaction with his circumstances, partly over being an absentee landlord, partly over what he was beginning to sense at Coker. "I felt more and more strongly that we were cut off from the world there...that somehow we were not living, at least not completely," he wrote in an unpublished essay entitled "Part-Time Professor." Still responsible for teaching at Coker on a part-time basis, he thought that living on the farm and commuting to Coker would bring him "into closer contact with the basic material processes of life" as he "engaged, even in a limited way, in these processes on my farm," he wrote. "I might feel my activities more justified, and get a stronger sense of being in the main waters of life. As a teacher, then, I might speak with more authority and assurance."

And so, from 1937 to the end of his life, he lived at Rip Raps, where from 1942, when he stopped teaching, until his death in 1970 he made his living as a farmer. "It doesn't pay much," he would say later, "but it's honest-to-God work." In an article about Dabbs written by Florence journalist Dew James in 1968, he indicated that Dabbs still considered himself a farmer: "At least, I put down farming as part of my income tax report. I usually put down a loss and not a gain."

Dew James explained that even though Dabbs was renting out the croplands to neighboring farmers, he still maintained grain and hay crops to feed a herd of cattle started by his sons several years before. "Occasionally, I get pushed into doing work on the farm," he was quoted as saying. "This year I had to put the hay crop in because I couldn't get any help. But I really have too much of this other stuff to do," he remarked. Dabbs was then seventy-two years old.

"This other stuff," of course, was his writing and lecturing. For James McBride Dabbs was not only a farmer; he had also become by then one of South Carolina's preeminent writers, although probably better known outside the state than within it.

Which means, incidentally, that he "out-agrarianed" the Southern Agrarians. He was not one of the twelve contributors to the famous volume I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, published by Harper and Brothers in 1930, nor one of the twenty-one contributors to the later, allied work Who Owns America? But in his writings he addressed many of the same themes and issues about which the Southern Agrarians wrote: the distinctiveness of the South—its peculiar history and traditions, its characteristics, values, and problems; the mixed blessings of industrialism; education; the African-American presence and identity in the South; Southern religion.

The difference was, he wrote about these things from within the actual agrarian context—he wrote on the farm, from the farm. None of the so-called Southern Agrarians wrote out of any long-term intimate connection with agrarian life in their later years. Even Andrew Lytle, who came closest to doing this when he managed his father's Tennessee cotton farm for ten years, discovered that "farming and writing were ultimately incompatible" and turned to teaching, like most of the other Agrarians. Dabbs, however, reversed the process: he gave up teaching for farming and writing.

Louis Rubin says that for the Agrarians the image of the agrarian South was "a rich, complex metaphor"—"giving body to their arguments, anchoring their perceptions in time and place." For Dabbs the metaphor became the reality. Almost fifty years, or two-thirds of his life spent on the land (if one counts also his first sixteen years as a boy on his father's farm) inform his judgment, perception, wisdom, values, and point of view.

His first known published work was a prize-winning essay which appeared in the Progressive Farmer in July 1912. It was entitled "What Diversification and Rotation Mean to the Farmer and How They Help Make Him Independent." By the 1940s he was known as "a man of letters and of lettuce," as his Sumter friend, the artist Elizabeth White, once introduced him.

What about "old James McB. Dabbs" as a man of Letters? What did he write that justified his induction into the South Carolina Academy of Authors back in 1990, that links him forever with such other distinguished writers from the state as William Gilmore Simms, Mary Boykin Chestnut, DuBose Heyward, Josephine Pinckney and the rest?

He was a poet who published 81 poems between 1913 and 1966. And he was a prose stylist who wrote more than 175 essays, articles, sketches, and introductions; 68 letters to editors; more than 20 book reviews, 13 speeches and a handful of student short stories. He was a poet, then, who would find his most powerful and appropriate medium in prose. He wrote four major books. His award-winning 1958 book, The Southern Heritage, was a history of race relations in the South. His so-called "spiritual autobiography," The Road Home, written largely in the 1930s but not published until 1960, is a primary work of personal history, a contemplative treatment of his emotional and intellectual growth. Described as "a beautiful story...poetic and moving," it is to be numbered among the half-dozen or so leading autobiographies written by South Carolinians in the twentieth century. Who Speaks for the South?, his analysis of Southern character in general, published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1964, was hailed as "the most perceptive book about the South and the Southern mind and Southern history since W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South. Haunted by God, published posthumously (1972), is a major study of the religious significance of Southern culture—"trying to understand the divine influence within the South as it shaped men through the passage of time and the fact of space."

The little blue paperback Civil Rights in Recent Southern Fiction, now a collector's item, came out in 1969 and is interesting and important for at least two reasons. It is Dabbs's careful tracing of one historic theme through the pages of selected Southern writers, bringing together his knowledge of literature and his knowledge of the African-American community and the struggle for civil rights. As such, it reflects a prodigious amount of reading on his part. And it contains perhaps the clearest statement of one of his most deeply held beliefs: "The basic themes of tragedy and loneliness are tied up with the relation of blacks and whites. This is the core problem of Southern life. And the basic question in regard to it is how whites and blacks have existed side by side, with how much cooperation, how much conflict."

Which brings me to the last two facets of this man's life work which define him as a man for all seasons. For, in addition to being a farmer and a writer, out-agrarianing the Southern Agrarians, he was himself among our most winsome twentieth-century Southern leaders in the area of civil rights and human relations. He was a "practical poet" who served the significant causes of his day with his pen and his voice and his pocketbook. He did not shy away from an active involvement in politics, especially beginning in the late 1940s, when he engaged in Democratic Party politics on behalf of the pro-Truman ticket in South Carolina. And listen to one from a list of reasons he gave for supporting John F. Kennedy in the national elections of 1960:

I will vote for Kennedy partly because of his youth and of his daring. Wisdom may come with age, but so may timidity. For lack of imaginative boldness, the Republican Administration has thrown away the supreme prestige we held at the end of World War II. Kennedy may be brash; he may think he knows more than he does; but in my opinion he is daring, and I'm tired of seeing us let the world dribble through our frightened fingers. It isn't a question of getting rough with Kruschev; it's a question of being imaginative in a world crying for leadership (Presbyterian Outlook, 10 October 1960).

For years Dabbs was a key member of the South Carolina Council on Human Relations. And from 1958 to 1963 he served as president of the Southern Regional Council, that interracial organization which for over half a century has done so much to bring about positive social and political change in the South. Martin Luther King, Jr., called him "one of the outstanding figures in the South" and in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail hailed him as one of the few "white brothers [who] have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it." The Dabbs Centennial Symposium recently held at USC and in Sumter was a testimony to the fact and quality of his leadership.

And I think we need to say that Dabbs can be considered one of our principal twentieth-century Southern churchmen and theologians. He certainly was the chief lay theologian of his own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States. For years he contributed essays and articles to such journals as Christendom, the Christian Century, the Presbyterian Outlook. From 1937 until his death he was clerk of the session of the Salem Black River Presbyterian Church a couple of miles up the road from Rip Raps. He was a member of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen with his friend and colleague Will Campbell and contributed to the organization's journal Katallagete: Be Reconciled. Furthermore, probably unknown even to most Presbyterians, he served "for years" on the denomination's advisory Committee on Christian Action and on the Assembly's Permanent Committee on Christian Relations. It was as a member of the unit formed from these two committees, the Council on Church and Society, that he wrote the original draft of one of the Presbyterian Church's most eloquent theological pronouncements on social justice. The statement on "Justice, Law, and Order" was officially adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. in 1969. Then, of course, there was his final book, Haunted by God, which he considered his magnum opus.

His friend Donald Shriver pinpointed Dabbs's special contributions as a theologian. Dabbs's weapon, he said, was not so much the "flaming sword of moral principle" as "following manners `home to morals.'" Dabbs, he said, wanted to widen the Southerner's personal religious vision to encompass the whole wide world of spatial, temporal, social reality." Shriver considered Dabbs's most enduring contribution his "integration of the southern experience of history with Christian notions about God"—his concept of "blessed adversity": that out of death and defeat and mutual tragedy and loneliness God can create a new place and community and history. Listen to what Dabbs had to say to a presbytery meeting in Georgia in 1964:

As I see the racial revolution in the South...it is the Spirit of God working for freedom against bondage, and it is the spirit of the South discarding old evils, creating new goods. We should welcome the revolution, both as Christians and as southerners—as southern Christians. If we cannot welcome it completely, we should at least not fear it. "All things work together for good to them that love God." Though our world is changing it is not necessarily decaying. "My Father is working," said Jesus, "and I am working." Let us work with him.
That passage is from Dabbs's speech as published in Shriver's 1965 book The Unsilent South, subtitled "Prophetic Preaching in Racial Crisis." Dabbs was the only layman included in the book, and his the only piece not considered a "sermon."

That Dabbs was interested not just in the life of the mind, but in matters of the soul as well, is further illustrated in one of his best known speeches, one entitled "The Tragic Fellowship of Southerners," in which he talks about "listening to the heart." "All Southerners," he said, "are bound together by their long and tragic history. Though our institutions say we are two, our hearts increasingly whisper we are one. Let us listen to our hearts and go on from there." While he would spend a good deal of his time and energy and words insisting that love without justice in the larger social, economic and institutional world is simply so much empty sentiment or false sentimentality, he still insisted upon exploring its diverse forms. "I have moved through the world seeking primarily the form of love," he wrote in an essay which was included in a 1962 anthology entitled We Dissent. He went on to say:

I sought it first in individuals, I seek it now, more largely, in the South, and perhaps even in the world. The main problem in the South is, What is the form of love here? What is to be loved here? That there is something, indeed much, I have no doubt. For I look backward through my father and my mother and see through and in them the South, in spite of all its absurdities the balanced South; and it is nonsense to think there is little to be loved here."
"It might be well," he wrote in The Road Home, "if we continually reminded ourselves of the nature of our love: that in loving men and women and the fields and woods, we are loving God; that he is the Spirit within them that draws us to them; that in addition to being concrete individual presences, they are symbols of him in the world, moments of eternal life."

Dabbs uttered such things not only in his published books and essays and speeches. He said them in letters to friends and colleagues. In fact, he was a wonderful letter writer. I wish I could have spent the evening reading to you from his letters [you know that is one of the archivist's principal paid joys: reading other people's mail]. And I am happy to inform you this evening that a project may be under way which will result in the publication of a volume of selected letters from Dabbs. I spoke with a young scholar just this week about the project. [This is another reason why what we do at the South Caroliniana Library is so important, and that what you do as the Society is so critical.] Listen to what he wrote in 1964 to his friend P.D. East, the maverick Mississippi journalist who edited The Petal Paper:

One of the best things that has come out of my meeting with you came ten days after I was riding with Will Campbell in Tennessee [in 1960]. He told me, as he had told you, the definition of a Christian: "A Christian believes all men are bastards, but God loves them just the same." I pondered this a moment, and then said, "That may be true, but somehow I seem to be a happy bastard." Will almost turned the car wheel loose, right in the Tennessee mountains. "Ah, that's the worst kind," he said. "Just circling the verge of hell, just circling."
Will Campbell says that after this, of course, Dabbs began to sign his letters to him with the initials "H.B."

What about "old James McB. Dabbs"?

One of his former Coker students and neighbors, Kathleen Tisdale Tavel, has made these telling observations about him, allied closely to the community which produced him: "Salem and Mayesville have never been important so much for themselves as for the people who came out of them with a remarkable, but indefinable sense of place in the world: place and community of spirit based literally on everyday country things and farming as an occupation." She speaks of the people, who "had no cloying intimacy, then or now, but a lovely indefinable code of distance called `respect' that was caring beyond friendship, but kept everyone from infringing on the time, personality, or independence of another." "When we say Mr. Dabbs came out of this place," she continues, "we also know he took with him a moral stability forged in grief and conviction, and a mental force that could not be gainsaid."

Dabbs bore about him, then, a sense of place, a code of respect, community spirit, moral vision and stability, and force of mind. And, we might add, depth of feeling and breadth of imagination.

He was also characterized by the love of which he so frequently wrote and spoke. A love for persons, to be sure. "He had such an awesome power of loving people," his Alabama friend Virginia Durr has written of him, "it really was astonishing how many good things he could find to say about people whom I thought were awfully bad people and were doing extremely bad things." "He was a lovely and loving man," she continues, "and I am so glad I knew him and so proud to think he came out of the South."

He also had a love for truth and the impassioned, realistic, enduring pursuit of it.

The late South Carolina historian David Duncan Wallace observed that in the nineteenth century the South Carolina mind began to become insular and combative rather than constructive; that "through slavery, and after emancipation through the race problem, South Carolina incurred the intellectual slavery of the one-party system." Her thinkers, rather than being "seekers for essential truth in social and political relations," became attorneys in a case whose very success "would have been the greatest calamity." Wallace concluded that the South Carolina mind, therefore, "though a powerful one, was not a free mind."

We can say—or at least I will say, and invite you to read Mr. Dabbs's books and then decide for yourselves—that not the least of Dabbs's roles was that of an unwitting restorer of his state's best mind to itself. In his mind—and heart and imagination—South Carolina's, and the South's, most profound intellectual and spiritual traditions once again took root and bloomed in all their power, grace, and freedom. May we not say that he returned the deepest and best soul of the South to itself?

One distinguished Southern critic, Fred Hobson, says, simply, that Dabbs "was not only one of the most committed and compassionate interpreters of the South but also one of the most astute....He is a Southerner to be read and heeded, both for what he suggests about the South and what he suggests about himself." "Dabbs both remained and prevailed," declares Hobson. "He was notable in his tradition in this respect, and he is also notable because he may be the last of his line."

But let's give Mr. Dabbs his own last funny, personal, concrete, existential word—from a letter he wrote Maude, his oldest daughter, in 1956:

I spoke in Greenville Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday night. Everybody from the Unitarians through the University professors, to the Baptists. That should cover about all types in Greenville! Dinner meeting with the American Association of University Professors; dress affair, etc. Finding out what's wrong with the South is certainly going to make something wrong with me: Edith had to split my tux vest up the back so that I could button it in front. I may have looked like a noble figure; I was really a stuffed shirt...The South is delightfully insane. I'm the only man who understands it, and I'm growing confused myself! "And when I vanish," as [Walter] de la Mare says, "who will remember" what sort of country this was anyhow!
On this May night can we not take some pride and joy and solace in remembering, and celebrating, one hundred years after his birth, that ours is the sort of country which has produced, and can produce, an "old James McB. Dabbs"?

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