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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THOMAS NELSON PAGE “had the good fortune,” to quote from his own felicitous description of his birthplace, as recorded in the Homeric combat ‘Pulaski’s Tunament,’ “to come from the old county of Hanover, as that particular division of the State of Virginia is affectionately called by nearly all who are so lucky as to have seen the light amid its broom-straw fields and heavy forests.” This occurrence took place in 1853; and if the future author exhibited discrimination in the choice of a birthplace, he was even more happy in the time of his advent. A little earlier, and the prejudices of his section might have obscured the fact that other as well as his ancestral acres were robed in the hue which is the color of their prevalent crop; and a little later, his sketches of Virginia life before and during the War would not have been reminiscences. It is also worthwhile to note, for the effect on the literature of his inventions, that he belongs to an honorable and historic family; on the maternal side the descendant of Governor Nelson, and on the paternal of gentleman landholders, high in wisdom and council since the settlement of the State.  1
  He was educated at the University of Virginia, and practiced law in Richmond. In 1883 he published a volume of negro dialect poems with A. C. Gordon, entitled ‘Befo’ de War,’ among which is the favorite and pathetic ballad ‘My Boy Cree’; and in 1884 ‘Marse Chan,’ his first pronounced success, appeared in the Century Magazine. The now famous ‘Meh Lady,’ ‘Ole Stracted,’ and ‘Unc’ Edinburg’s Drowndin’,’ with several other stories written for the periodicals, were published in the volume entitled ‘In Ole Virginia.’ This and ‘Two Little Confederates’ (1888), an autobiography, ‘On Newfound River’ (1891), ‘The Burial of the Guns’ (1894), and all the sketches except the first and last in ‘Elsket’ (1891), are pictures of Virginia life before, or during, the Civil War.  2
  In later years he has shown a greater versatility, writing verse as well as prose, history and biography as well as fiction, and novels as well as short stories. With this increased range, however, Virginia remains the theme of his discourse. ‘Red Rock’ (1898), ‘Gordon Keith’ (1903), and ‘John Marvel, Assistant’ (1909) are perhaps his most characteristic novels. Two volumes on Robert E. Lee pay tributes to the Virginian ideal in history.  3
  What Mr. Page would have been in another age, country, and station, it is difficult to surmise, except that he must have been a man of letters. Tradition possesses him in a remarkable degree; and if he owes much to his experiences when, a little barefoot boy, he hunted deserters in the pines, and hid behind a rail fence to see what the battle was like,—the small sovereign of a hungry domain suffering the fortunes of war,—he owes as much to the lore he gleaned in neither school nor classroom, but from the shelves of a dark old library, where Horace rubbed brown calf shoulders with ‘Clarissa Harlowe,’ and the Elizabethan dramatists with the ‘Bucolics.’ Nor can the author’s point of view be ignored in his slightest sketch; for it was that of one who lived under a régime and a code that was patriarchal in its government, impractical, chivalrous, whose fashion is passing away, and whose history is best preserved in his own volumes. It taught him that all women were beautiful, and gracious, and proud, and good, and distractingly fascinating, only becoming meek and gentle when surrendering on their own terms; and the men, at least the young men, are preux chevaliers, straight, and strong, and religious, and fire-eaters, till the timid reader trembles in their company lest he may give offense. These ideal and delightful personages might have come out of an Arthurian legend. Did they indeed step from a brown volume—“Meh Lady” and “Marse Chan,” Bruce and Margaret of Newfound River? Or are they of that stuff that dreams are made of, and the embodiment of his own beliefs?  4
  No discussion of Mr. Page’s writing can go far without a reference to the manner in which his stories are told. With what one is tempted to call a consummate art,—but that their secret is open to every reader, and that they show as little trace of labor as one of the bird-songs of his own pine forests,—these beautiful and loving personations are thrown against a dark background. The fair maiden is contrasted with her black foster-sister; Sir Galahad with his humble servitor. And the true story is told, as it can best be told in fiction’s form, of the great system of slavery,—of the traits it engendered and the characters it formed.  5
  And how subtle the instinct that the defense, not of the institution but of its victims, both master and slave, is maintained not by the white man but by the black, who in his simple fashion tells the story of the lives of his “white people,” of whom he is one, whose riches and splendor and nobility all aggrandize his own greatness. The lovely and touching idyls, ‘Marse Chan,’ ‘Meh Lady,’ ‘Unc’ Edinburg’s Drowndin’,’—pathetic and humorous, and such a picture of ante-bellum Virginia life as is seldom found in our literature,—are told by an old negro, who through the illusive haze of memory sees the social pageant pass by, till the day when the trumpet sounded and he rode to the wars by his master’s side, that master’s black angel, guarding and defending him from the foes who were come to rescue the slave. In all these stories the negro, not the white man, is the hero; like Brer Rabbit, it is he to whom are shrewdness and wisdom and the finer traits that rabbits are not supposed to possess, as loyalty and generosity. And that another, not thine own self, may praise thee, the description of the magnificence of the old régime is not related by its modest and loyal son, but by the slave; obviously a dispassionate and unprejudiced witness.  6
  Mr. Page is scarcely less happy in his treatment of another character, the “poor white.” This type is peculiar to the soil, and to know him one must live with him; he occupied before the War the middle ground between the gentry and the negro, and was condescended to by both. We see these men in a class and individually in ‘Two Little Confederates’ and ‘On Newfound River,’ especially in the admirable trial scene when the county magnate bullies the justice, and his humble adherents, Hall and Jim Mills, drawl out their patron’s wisdom. And we see them again, reborn through courage and patriotism, in the noble and stirring series of stories named for the first in the volume, ‘The Burial of the Guns.’  7
  Mr. Page’s position in letters has been recognized by many honors, including honoary degrees from several universities and membership in the American Academy. In 1913 he was appointed Ambassador to Italy.  8
 
 
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