The Charlotte News

Thursday, March 9, 1939


Site Ed. Note: To insure domestic Tranquility, we add the piece below from this date's page from the Shelby newspaper re Erma Drum's ideas of Tobacco Road and its performance in Charlotte the previous weekend.

Ms. Drum and her husband were both friends of Cash, got on well with him, and she was Cash's principal typist for the manuscript of the book.

There are a couple of it's for its in the piece, but we leave them to demonstrate that we aren't alone in that occasional slip of the mind.

Wherein A Lady Sees A Shocker With Clear Eyes

Mrs. Renn Drum, Shelby Star

Saturday afternoon as we stood out in front of the Armory-Auditorium in Charlotte, waiting for our ride to pick us up, after we had seen "Tobacco Road," I said speculatively, half to myself, half to my companions, "I still can't see why it has had a five-goin'-on-six year run on Broadway." Upon which a girl standing near me, whom I'd never seen before and probably never will again, cut across my conversation contemptuously with, "I can't see why it ever stayed open even two days."

But our puzzlement over its longevity was obviously for different reasons. She was condemning it without quarter as [indiscernible word] because of its surface ugliness, because it offended her esthetic senses. While I was honestly trying to decide how a play with only two values to offer--surface dirt and underlying truth that is stern, ugly and depressing--could possess sufficient popular appeal to keep alive and still going strong after more than 2,200 performances.

I'm still wondering about it. There have been dirty plays before--perhaps not as dirty as "Tobacco Road," but dirty enough. And it had a flare up of popularity, because most people either like dirt--some frankly, some surreptitiously--or are curious about it. But their popularity doesn't last long if they have nothing to offer but filth. On the other hand people--that is, most people who have the price of theater tickets--don't relish "underlying truth that is stern, ugly, and depressing." They aren't even curious about it, because it makes them uncomfortable to come face to face with it. So someone will have to tell me why the masses keep packing the house for "Tobacco Road."

The play is the essence of ugliness. Its characters are ugly--not a single one of them inspires affection, admiration, or even sympathy, because they don't ask or expect it. Even Granny Lester, a wrinkled, dirty old crone--whose acting, without a line to say, is eloquent--inspires no particular pity or heartache, because she asks for none. She never whimpers. She knows too well that the aged, whose period of usefulness is past, can expect no quarter in an economic strata as hard and bitter as the one in which her lot has been cast.

The lines are ugly, profane and obscene. The emotions portrayed and discussed are something nice people prefer not to look at in the light of day and in the presence of other people. The setting is viciously ugly. The Lester home is a shanty, and the family's daily bread is slow starvation. Even their religion is a futile, distorted thing. They're lazy, shiftless and ignorant, and what's worse their lives are hopeless. They know, down in their hearts, that things will never be any better for them, nor for thousands of others like them.

Perhaps you've ridden along the road in lower South Carolina or Georgia, and seen out in the middle of a cotton field, a little planked-up shanty, about twelve feet wide and eighteen feet long, looking as if it's interior might all be one room, with a sagging door and a big rock for a doorstep. You flinched a little when you saw it, but you rode happily on down the road, going to Atlanta to shop, or to Charleston to see the flower gardens, and soon forgot all about it.

"Tobacco Road" asks you to give these typical shanties more than a passing glance. To look for awhile at the people who live in them. To listen to their talk, and to observe that the inevitable effect of living in such surroundings year in and year out is brutalizing, that eventually the people who live like that become little better than animals.

What I refer to as the play's underlying truth is, of course, it's excuse for existence, but besides that--. Well, if you aren't too squeamish, it's funny too! Maybe you have to be equipped with a rowdy sense of humor to get a laugh out of Jeeter Lester's observations on life and human nature, but I might as well admit that I did. And so, apparently, did a lot of other people in the audience Saturday afternoon, for I never one time caught myself laughing without a hilarious accompaniment from others in the audience.

A Little Scrambled

The Governors of Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, and Texas better look after themselves. Ain't they got no patriotism to Dixie? Anyhow, they didn't send telegrams and letters supporting Senator Claude Pepper's demand that the $200,000,000 Florida canal project be resumed. But our Governor Hoey did. So did Governor Maybank and so did the Governors of all the other former Confederate States save only the four we mention. And--so did the Governors of California and North Dakota!

To be sure, engineers have pretty uniformly reported against the canal as being an economically unsound one. And the farm people of lower Florida are pretty uniformly against it, as likely to turn their land into a brackish desert. But a lot of Floridians stand to profit by its building at least, and Senator Pepper wants it. Moreover, it's something bigger and better for Dixie--another wonder to show the tourists. And as against the guild spirit in Dixie, what else can count? Close up the ranks, boys--and what the heck ails those missing Confederate Governors? Do they want people saying that outrageous California and hyperborean North Dakota are more loyal to the Stars and Bars than themselves.

But stay! What has come upon California that she rushes to the aid of her most ancient and bitter rival for the tourist trade? Can it be that she secretly hopes that the predictions of the lower Florida farmers will come true, and that Florida will be turned into a wasteland? Or, having turned out Tom Mooney and spawned the Ham and Eggers, is she suddenly filled with sweetness and light? And as for North Dakota, what wonderful thing has Claude Pepper promised her that she comes ramping out of her remote fastnesses to the rescue of Dixie?

On Regulating Newspapers

Probably justified, so far as it goes, was the bill which passed the House yesterday--the bill, we mean, which, if it becomes law, will forbid the publications of legal advertising in newspapers which have not been published at least six months before hand. For in some localities, politicians and their opportunists have the habit of starting up small fly-by-night sheets immediately before the season for tax advertising and suspending them once it is past. Any newspaper, to serve as a proper vehicle for publication, should be a bona-fide newspaper with an authentic circulation list and a second-class mailing permit at least applied for.

Nevertheless, both the Legislature and the bona-fide publishers of the state should study the bill carefully before final passage to see that just this is all it can be made to mean--that it is incapable of being interpreted as meaning the right of already existing newspapers to a monopoly of the legal advertising as against struggling newcomers to the field. That sort of thing is growing up alarmingly everywhere. What with regulation designed to promote monopoly for the already established real estate dealers, for barbers, photographers, and perhaps to some extent, even lawyers and doctors, the opportunities of youth are continually being narrowed.

And what is most remarkable of all is that much of this comes from the same people who are continually yelling about the necessity of preserving the American system of free, competitive enterprise. Anybody who in one breath roars that the New Deal is running the country by its regulation of business, and in the next demands monopolistic privilege for himself, is in a ridiculous position--is cutting the ground out from under his own feet and inviting unlimited Government regulation. No one has any right to play both ends against the middle, and no one can successfully do it for long.

One More Law*

Before a House committee in Raleigh yesterday appeared a familiar group composed in part of R. L. Godwin of Dunn, Cale K. Burgess of Raleigh, John D. Langston of Goldsboro, Dr. A. J. Barton of Wilmington, F. G. Clarkson and Guy Carswell of Charlotte. The personnel of this assemblage indicated that a liquor bill must have been up for consideration. It was.

The Quinn bill was drawn by its author solely to prohibit the shipment of liquor into dry counties over and above the gallon permitted by the State, he said. Such shipments, for instance, as those thousands of pints every month which used to be consigned to "Robert Taylor" of Charlotte, and which are still being consigned in bulk to other names in many dry towns throughout North Carolina. But the committee discovered that the Quinn bill actually would take away the gallon privilege, so it told off a subcommittee to re-draft it, and probably will give a reasonable report when that is done.

The bill should become law by acclamation. There is no sense at all in permitting wholesale shipments of liquor into dry counties when it is a high crime to retail that liquor: and every possible means of harassing the big shot bootleggers and their retinues should be tried. But, alas, we know from the experience of 30 years and longer and from the miserable failure of more and more stringent laws to prevent the free and almost open sale of liquor, no matter how severe the prescribed punishment, that the people who want liquor will still want it and that some way will be found to supply it to them. In fact, we make that in the form of a prediction.

Objective Unchanged

The action of the House Republicans yesterday in lining up silently behind the Byrd reorganization bill as against the Administration bill, was an obvious example of shabby partisanship. For it is nonsense to suppose that every House Republican honestly believed the Byrd bill to be the better of the two.

Or is it? So far as a Congressman can be imagined to be disinterested, it certainly is. But in point of fact, we had better amend the statement by saying that it is not often that a Congressman is ever disinterested. His prime object in life is usually quite simply to keep himself drawing his 10,000 smackers per annum. And to that end he is always desperately anxious to keep the patronage system going full tilt. That was the real reason the original Administration bill was killed last Fall. And perhaps it had even more to do with the Republican action yesterday than the will to slap the President.

The main difference between these two bills was this. The Administration bill required Congress to take open and overt action if it wants to hold the patronage, but the Byrd bill would have enabled it to hold it by the simple and unembarrassing device of doing nothing at all. Obviously, therefore, the patronage-peddlers prefer the latter.

Has patronage-hunger, then, suddenly become a monopoly of the Republicans and a few intensely anti-Administration Democrats? Of course not. Simply, the Democrats have been presented with a bill which deprives them of all the arguments they shouted last Fall. To vote against that they would have had to admit frankly that they were breaking with the Administration because they wanted to keep patronage intact. Not many of them dared to do that, but it is a fair guess that most of them wished in their hearts that the Republicans might somehow succeed in their enterprise.

A Southern First

It is not pleasant to observe that all three of the cities reported by the American Civil Liberties Union as the worst in the nation for their general disregard of the Bill of Rights, are Southern--Tampa, Little Rock, and New Orleans. And that two out of the three set down as worst with regard to the single right of free speech--Jersey City, Memphis, and Little Rock--are also Southern.

But, not being pleasant, it is still easy to explain. Disregard of civil liberties is always greatest where the conflict of ideas is most bitter. And while the case of Tampa seems to be partly explained by the fact that it is one of those few remaining strongholds of the Ku Klux Klan of the Twenties, it is also one of the chief centers of the labor organizing activities of the CIO. Little Rock, Memphis, and New Orleans, again, are in the center of the organizing activities of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. But all these communities are intensely conservative and individualistic by tradition, and all of them are more or less conditioned to the habit of mob action.

That is no excuse for their violations of civil liberties. Violence and illegal measures never really settled any quarrel. But considerations set forth here do serve to throw some light on why these Southern towns are most guilty.


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