The Store: A Darkly Tragic Pulitzer Prize Winner

Like many winners of the Pulitzer Prize, T.S. Stribling was once a prominent literary figure. He was often compared with the likes of William Faulkner or Robert Penn Warren, but Stribling has since faded into obscurity. The Store is his most celebrated novel which won the Pulitzer in 1933, and in my view it is a challenging and darkly tragic novel devoid of heroism or nobility. In truth, it is the second installment of a trilogy that explores the struggles of facing the American South during Reconstruction. When The Store was first published, Time magazine wrote that it “is easily the most important U.S. novel of the year.” Robert Coates of The New Yorker compared T. S. Stribling “to Mark Twain in his abilities to convey the very life and movement of a small Southern town.” To date, T.S. Stribling is one of only two Alabamian writers to win the Pulitzer, though he is technically originally from Tennessee (the other Alabamian is Harper Lee who won the Pulitzer for her celebrated novel To Kill A Mockingbird in 1961 –click here to read my reflections on To Kill A Mockingbird).

The Store is a bit of a wandering novel, I found it difficult to plug into, though admittedly Stribling’s prose is surprisingly engaging. It is the second book in the “Vaiden Trilogy” which documents the Vaiden family beginning with the Civil War and extending into the early 20th century. In total, the trilogy covers approximately six decades. The first novel, The Forge (1931) primarily focuses on the Vaiden family during the Civil War until the abolition of slavery. The second part, The Store (1932) explores the life of Colonel Miltiades Vaiden during the late 1880s. In the final novel, Unfinished Cathedral (1933), we see the rapid development and growth of federal works projects in Alabama and the subsequent land boom which leads to economic growth. The trilogy has been kept in print thanks to the efforts of the University of Alabama Press –in fact the edition of The Store that I read was published by the University of Alabama Press.

The setting of The Store is Florence, Alabama in the mid-to-late 1880s. Our protagonist is Colonel Miltiades “Milt” Vaiden, a decorated Confederate veteran and former overseer of the Crowninshield plantation. Note: Miltiades was also the name of the famous Athenian military commander during the Persian Wars (as found in the writings of Herodotus). At any rate, in the postwar “New South” and despite its expanding mercantilism, Col. Vaiden finds himself impoverished and wayward. He hopes to regain his prominent status in the community. While reading along, we in the audience are never quite sure if we can fully trust Col. Vaiden –he is mischievous, exploitative, and he despises “uppity” newly freed blacks. The novel is rife with all manner of racist language. Col. Vaiden and his compatriots put their faith in the resurgence of the Democrats under President Grover Cleveland in order to revive the status of whites in the South (it should be noted that Col. Vaiden is also a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan).

However, The Store does not simply echo the familiar refrain which castigates the South as irredeemably racist. There is nuance in the novel. We come to understand the true struggles faced by Col. Vaiden and his fellow countrymen as Alabama longs to rebuild its economy and culture. In addition, former slaves are at least sometimes portrayed as individuals in the novel (i.e. they do not always as one-dimensional props to advance a dogmatic narrative). Col. Vaiden blackmails his way into a new clerkship job at the J. Handback & Sons store (Mr. Handback made the mistake one night of drinking excessively and revealing his penchant for black prostitutes to Col. Vaiden who then exploits the confession and uses it against him in exchange for a job). Mr. Handback had previously scammed Col. Vaiden out of his money during the war and in doing so he became Col. Vaiden’s nemesis. Though there are many shameful and disappointing decisions in the novel, we are given a unique panorama of the era –Yankee tradesmen, former slaves, neighborhood boys, mob rule, conniving townsmen, and the daily challenges of running a store amidst a changing culture.

Among the many side-plots in the novel, the most important concerns Gracie, a former slave and half-sister of Col. Vaiden. Years ago, Col. Vaiden raped Gracie on his wedding night and her “mostly white” son Toussaint is secretly the biological son of Col. Vaiden, though the rape of slaves was so common in this time that Col. Vaiden assumes Toussaint is merely the progeny of someone else in town. For a long section of the novel Gracie longs to move North with Toussaint where he will have the chance to marry a white woman and have the opportunity for peace and prosperity. However, she remains stuck in Alabama and we, as readers, witness many scenes of Toussaint being physically attacked by other boys and older white men.

As time passes, Col. Vaiden steals a large sum of cotton from Mr. Handback and he hides the money with Gracie. When the scandal passes, Mr. Handback is ruined and he eventually commits suicide while Col. Vaiden uses his tainted money to purchase a plantation and open his own storefront. Surprisingly, the store plays a relatively minor role in the novel despite its title. Perhaps the title is intending to draw attention to the newly emerging mercantile economy at the time. At any rate, Col. Vaiden runs into all manner of conflicts with other townsfolk and his unpleasantly “large” wife dies which grants Col. Vaiden the chance to wed the woman he truly loves, but instead his paramour persuades him to marry her young daughter. In the end, the old “negro” schoolhouse is burned down and a group of white southerners is whipped up into a frenzy –the mob frantically calls for the lynching of several black men including Toussaint (Governor O’Shawn leaves town to avoid the illicit mayhem). At the last moment, Gracie rushes to warn Col. Vaiden of the impending lynching and to inform him that Toussaint is actually his own son, but the warning is too late. Gracie and Col. Vaiden find the body of Toussaint hanging from a tree in the center of town. The next day Toussaint is buried and Gracie leaves town to head North.

The Store is a dark glimpse at a horrific period in American history, written by someone who lived through it. The Store is a novel that I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to anybody save for those on this fascinating pilgrimage through the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Upon its publication some of Stribling’s fellow Alabamians in Florence objected to its portrayal of extreme cruelty. In response in a 1934 interview Stribling said his trilogy had been a “survey, more or less, of the foibles and amusing social kinks of the whole South from Civil War times to the present. I have focused everything I found on Florence because that was the scene of my prolonged story. I am in the position of a very sad literary dog which drags every bone to his kennel, and I know this has made it quite uncomfortable for the perfectly nice and charming people who live in the house... nowhere in the South exists such a concentration of moral and financial quirks, twists, and biases as I have depicted in Florence… [a]s a matter of literal fact, Florence, Alabama is one of the pleasantest places I have ever known, filled with the most mellow and delightful folk. The only reason I chose Florence for the scene of my trilogy is because it had an interesting and romantic past, and it possesses more than its share of actual physical loveliness and softness and floweryness which gave me precisely the sort of aesthetic relief which my ruthless narrative required. So, as has happened to many another maiden, Florence has been mistreated because of her beauty.” Many years later Stribling recalled an incident at the Pulitzer awards banquet in 1933 wherein he accidentally stepped on the foot of the famous poet Robert Frost when he came forward to accept the award. When Mr. Frost reminded the author of the event years later, Stribling responded to the poet “I have stepped on other people’s feet, too” –a reference to the many people in Florence, Alabama he upset with the publication of The Store.

Here are some worthwhile passages I encountered while reading:

“Ever since the Civil War had lost him his place as an overseer on a cotton plantation, he had desired the post and circumstance of a country plantation, he had desired the post and circumstance f a country gentleman. Only nowadays there were no country gentleman. Nowadays one reached gentility by other methods, but Colonel Vaiden, somehow, had not succeeded in fitting himself into those other methods” (2).

“As for herself something might happen to her. She was a woman living in sin. Mr. Handbeck kept her. Here she led n isolated, apprehensive, and vaguely melancholy life. But Toussaint was innocent and honorable and truthful… and white. It would be terrible if anything, through her sins, befell Toussaint” (35).

“She would get him North as soon as possible. A romantic notion of installing herself in some Northern city as a Mexican woman continually dwelt in Gracie’s mind. Toussaint would go through college; he would become a professional man, and he would marry… the rest Gracie never really putt into words, but she always saw her white son married to a white woman and the long stain of negrohood in her lie brought to an end” (70, on Gracie’s internalized racism).

“…and Miltiades thought to himself that this implication of equality was bound up in any hiring of negroes whatever. ‘They ought to be owned,’ he thought gloomily, ‘if this is going to be a white man’s country” (117-118).

“‘Colored People, Gracie,” advised Miltiades earnestly and sincerely, ‘re hurt more than they are helped by education. When a colored person becomes educated there is no place for him. An educated man doesn’t want to do day labor in the fields. And where could Toussaint be a doctor, or a lawyer, or ever run a store bigger than a peanut stand…’ The Colonel continued to shake his head. ‘You don’t want to ruin him, Gracie.’

The white man earnestness forced itself upon Gracie’s mind with the merciless quality of truth. It made her dreams for Toussaint’s advancement appear utterly unreal. It produced in the quadroon, in a more refined and complicated form, the ancient agony of her slave days, when she had dreaded lest Solomon, her first husband, might be sold away from her, as indeed he finally was”
(297-298. In this scene Colonel Miltiades persuades Gracie not to send Toussaint to the North for education on purely racist grounds).

The Story of the 1933 Pulitzer Decision
The 1933 Pulitzer Novel Jury was composed of three returning members Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine. Per their letter to the Pulitzer advisory board, The Novel Jury selected The Store “chiefly because of its sustained interest, and because of the convincing and comprehensive picture it presents of life in an inland Southern community during the middle eighties of the last century.”

The letter also listed four other novels that were considered for the prize: Sons of the Martian by Donald C. Peattie about a European love triangle; God’s Angry Man, Leonard Ehrlich’s debut novel portraying the enigmatic pre-Civil War figure John Brown; The Pilot Comes Aboard, Will Levington Comfort’s final novel before he died suddenly about a young boy and his adventures on the high seas; and To Make My Bread, Grace Lumpkin’s debut novel about the Loray Mill strike during the industrialization of the South. Somehow The Store was selected for the Pulitzer over more remarkable novels of the year including William Faulkner’s Light in August, or John Dos Passos’s 1919, or even Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty.

Apparently, Mr. Stribling was mostly unimpressed with the Pulitzer Prize. He showed it to his wife once and then promptly stuffed it away in his attic where it remained for many years.

Who is T.S. Stribling?
Thomas Sigismund Stribling (1881-1965) was one the more prominent writers of his age, certainly the most famous literary figure to emerge from Florence, Alabama (located in northwest Alabama). His novels tended to focus on the Reconstruction era of the Old South.

Stribling was a native of the Tennessee Valley region. During the Civil War his father’s family fought for the Union and his mother’s family fought for the Confederacy. Stribling was educated in Alabama, he attended the University of North Alabama and later attended the University of Alabama School of Law, but his legal career quickly fizzled out, much to his parent’s chagrin. He then decided to focus his time on writing. He wrote a number of short stories and science fiction serials for various magazines located in Nashville and New Orleans. With the arrival of minor success, he used his newly earned money to travel widely in Europe and South America.

Stribling started writing a string of novels beginning with a novel called Birthright in 1922 -it was later turned into a silent movie directed by Oscar Micheaux, the now famous early black film director. Around the same time Stribling married a friend and accomplished musician, Louella Kloss or “Miss Louella.”

Stribling’s true success came with the so-called “Vaiden trilogy.” The series began in 1931 with a novel called The Forge which documents the life of Colonel Miltiades Vaiden at the outbreak of the Civil War until the end of the war and the abolition of slavery. The second installment, The Store, was published in 1932 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. It picks up the story of Colonel Miltiades Vaiden a number of years after the end of The Forge as the South struggles to recreate a new economic order and lingering racial tensions drive social unrest. The third part of the series was called The Unfinished Cathedral published in 1933. It concerns federal development projects instigated by President Hoover which cause a real estate boom in Alabama but which also exacerbate racial tensions between whites and blacks.

Toward the end of his career, Stribling focused his attention away from the rural South. In 1935 he wrote a book called The Sound Wagon about the cities of New York and Washington D.C. In 1938 he wrote his last book called These Bars of Flesh, a satirical novel about New York City academia. He continued writing mystery stories for magazines until his death in 1965 in Florence, Alabama. He is buried in his birthplace of Clifton, Tennessee. His home has since been converted into a library and museum. After his death, fellow academic compiled Stribling’s writings to form a posthumous autobiography.

Stribling, T.S. The Store. The University of Alabama Press, 1985 (1932).

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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