by Gene Owens
I'm sitting here wondering what the Sage of Fountain Inn would make of an Obama presidency.
The Sage would be Robert Quillen, a transplanted Kansan who settled in the South Carolina mill town (population 1,200) 16 miles south of Greenville back in the early part of the 20th century. He began editing and publishing the Fountain Inn Tribune "for his own amusement and the entertainment of his friends," as he put it. The newspaper was the mouthpiece that gave his words access to the amplifying end of a bullhorn. His pithy writings were picked up at one time by more than 400 newspapers and magazines. His income from syndication allowed him to write what he pleased in the Tribune without fear of alienating advertisers.
John Hammond Moore has re-introduced him to the public through his book, The Voice of Small-Town America (University of South Carolina Press), a collection of Quillen's selected writings between 1920 and the sage's death in 1948. During that period, Quillen was sometimes compared to Mark Twain and regarded as the South's answer to H. L. Mencken. Hammond's book offers a fascinatingly candid portrayal of South Carolina midway in its transition from a Jim Crow society seething in Civil War resentment to a post-World War II state full of confidence and pride in being American.
Quillen might have viewed Obama the way he did Franklin Roosevelt as FDR took office in 1933: "When any man in time of disaster cheerfully accepts responsibility and willingly assumes duties that the whole Congress of the United States has dodged for years, I take off my hat to him. Roosevelt is a man -- a big man -- perhaps a great man."
Would he, today, say the same of Obama?
Perhaps, if he could get past the president-elect's race -- an important consideration in Quillen's South. Quillen seemed to accept the basic premise of white supremacy: "When two races occupy the same land, there seldom is trouble if the inferior race willingly accepts its inferior status and feels no resentment."
Up to this point, his view strongly reflects the attitude of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America at its organizational meeting in Augusta, Georgia. In a statement drafted by a South Carolina clergyman, the assembly referred to the black slaves and asserted: "As long as that race, in its comparative degradation, coexists, side by side, with the white, bondage is its natural condition."
But while Quillen's attitude toward the black man was condescending (he used the "n" word freely but not viciously), he nevertheless scorned those who mistreated people of color.
"The rows begin when the inferiors grow weary of snubs and ill treatment," he wrote. He blamed racial unrest on "the lowest specimens of the upper class" who "resort to violence and emphasize a racial superiority that better men take for granted."
But when writing about lower-class white Southerners, Quillen could be as scathing as Mencken.
"There are in South Carolina," he wrote, "many people who have no superiors in uprightness, virtue, chivalry and integrity. They are a minority. The majority is dirt -- psalm-singing, Jesus-shouting, liquor-guzzling, thieving trash without the slightest conception of the meaning of honor -- constitutionally incapable of decency -- inherently filthy in mind, soul and body."
The guy obviously couldn't survive a Super Tuesday.
Quillen divided South Carolinians into four classes of people, based on their lineage. They were the gentry of the Low-Country, the sturdy yeomen of the Upstate, the black descendants of slaves, and the "white trash" -- descended from indentured servants of the colonial era. The last were, in his view, the depraved "scum of England's gutters."
While Quillen undoubtedly ranked himself with the gentry, or at least with the sturdy yeomen, he often took positions at odds with the industrial elite, particularly when it came to labor unions. At a time when the population in general was hostile to unions, he wrote:
"The South is not unionized. The South pays low wages. The South is poor. The South is ignorant. That is bitter logic."
He attributed his state's poverty in part to "plain laziness," but laid most of the blame on the fact that "all the wealth dug from the soil and created by labor is sent to other states to buy things our people should produce at home or do without." These comments were clearly derived from the writings and speeches of Henry W. Grady, the great Atlanta editor of the era following the War Between the States.
"Now add to that," Quillen wrote, "the fact that chain stores are driving local merchants out of business and sending the profits to owners who live in distant cities. . . ."
Go away, Wal-Mart.
So where would Quillen stand today, 60 years after his death?
My sense is that he would have come around to the view that merit, virtue and honor are not respecters of race and therefore no barriers to the presidency. He would tend to side with the working class more than with the moneyed class, but his heart would probably be with the small businessman. He would continue as an irreverent critic of the South, but would defend it against snubs from outside the region.
I base that last opinion on his comment about a subtle slight delivered by a Canadian newspaper:
"Some days ago, a newspaper published in Vancouver, B.C., printed a kindly comment on the Tribune and referred to Fountain Inn as 'a town of which few people have ever heard.' That makes it even. Few people in Fountain Inn ever have heard of Vancouver."
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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