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Writer rediscovered after falling into disfavor
SOUTHERN LIGHTS: Writer rediscovered after falling into disfavor
By Ben Windham
Martha Young today is virtually forgotten, even by her fellow Alabamians. Yet in her prime, many critics felt her work rivaled that of Georgia’s Joel Chandler Harris.
The comparison to the creator of Uncle Remus turned out to be a double-bladed sword, for the black dialect writing that made Young famous from New Orleans to New York would fall quickly into disfavor as sensibilities changed.
Her story, however, ends in redemption in the hands of an unlikely savior -- the granddaughter of a fugitive slave.
Young, the daughter of Dr. Elisha and Anne Eliza Ashe Tutwiler Young, grew up on a plantation near Newbern in what is now Hale County. As a small child, she heard her family’s slaves tell the same classic African-American stories of Br’er Rabbit and his buddies that inspired Chandler in Georgia.
Her father was a Confederate Army surgeon at Fort Morgan. After the war, when Martha was about 6, he moved his family to Greensboro.
It was a town of two worlds. In one of them were the fine homes of families like the Youngs, a comfortably sprawling two-story residence at 807 Centreville St. believed to have been constructed in the 1820s. In the other were the shanties and shacks of the former slaves, who accounted for 972 of Greensboro’s 1,760 residents.
Occupied by federal troops, the town was rigidly segregated. Tensions sometimes ran high between the former slave owners and militant freedmen who demanded a voice in local politics.
At the same time, however, Greensboro was something of an oasis, known throughout the Black Belt for its sense of grace and culture. It boasted not only a public school but also a private academy for young women and Southern University (later to become Birmingham-Southern College).
It was a place where a skilled surgeon like Dr. Young could thrive, even in the post-war tumult. He became famed in medical circles as the first physician to successfully cut and tie a carotid artery, a daring achievement for the time.
Martha’s aunt, Julia Strudwick Tutwiler, was just as daring. Daughter of an educator, she had defied state law by teaching slaves on her father’s plantation to read and write. After the war, Tutwiler crusaded for social justice, speaking boldly for the rights of women, better conditions for convicts, the need to improve schools and state government.
Like her famous aunt, Martha defied convention, immersing herself deeply in the black folk culture all around her.
At the Female Academy, she came under the spell of Louise-Clarke Pyrnelle, a teacher from Selma whose 1882 dialect book “Diddie, Dumps and Tot" was to become one of the most popular pieces of the children’s literature in the country.
In her early teens, Young transferred to her grandfather Henry Tutwiler’s famous school in Green Springs, 16 miles north of Greensboro, where she spent much of her free time roaming the countryside on horseback, studying wild flowers and birds and visiting with black families.
The well-heeled young white woman drank deeply from the well of African-American culture on those jaunts over Dr. Tutwiler’s former plantation.
She heard surging spirituals like “Roll, Jordan, Roll," a song that some modern musicologists say was the root of the 20th century’s great outpouring of blues, jazz and gospel.
She absorbed folk tales about that trickster, Br’er Rabbit, who counted on his mother wit for survival.
And bit by bit, she found herself exposed to a darker world, of powers and spirits, that few white people were privileged to glimpse.
She learned, for example, that picking fruit after dark will make the tree die; that a dream about a lost tooth presages a loved one’s death; that a piece of clothing hidden in a tree hollow will help protect its owner from a conjurer’s spell.
She also listened carefully to the speech patterns of the African-American storytellers, the way they enunciated and constructed phrases.
All of it came together in her writing.
Young was in her early 20s, a graduate of her Aunt Julia’s Livingston Female Academy, and a real estate businesswoman and social worker in Greensboro when she sold her first composition, “A Nurse’s Tale" to the News Orleans Times-Democrat in December 1885.
It made her an overnight success. In rapid succession, her stories and poems were published in Louisville’s The Southern Bivouac, New York’s Century, Cosmopolitan and The Home Journal magazines, and newspapers around the country.
The popularity of her dialect stories was part of a rage for African-American culture that was sweeping the country.
It was a patronizing passion, based on stereotypes and cultural bigotry. It also found expression in the minstrel shows that emerged during the same period as the country’s leading form of public entertainment.
A great war had been fought and thousands had died, but no one seemed to know how to proceed in a country of newly liberated African-Americans. Maybe the tomfoolery, burned cork and dialect were an effort to mask a great, raw wound in the national psyche.
Harris in 1880 published his first and best known book, “Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings." It sold more than 7,000 copies in its first month, an astonishing total for the time. Mark Twain, among others, hailed it as a masterpiece.
From almost the beginning, Young earned favorable comparisons to Harris. The Montgomery Advertiser said her stories “rival those of Uncle Remus." The New Orleans Times-Democrat offered a similar assessment of her first full-length book, ponderously titled “Plantation Songs for My Lady’s Banjo and other Negro Lyrics and Monologues."
And Harris himself wrote to Young in a letter that some of her dialect verse “is incomparably the best ever written."
She followed the success of “Plantation Songs" with “Plantation Bird Legends," a book that blended her interest in black culture with her love of ornithology.
Harris had his rabbit; Young had her birds -- Sis Wren, Bruh Sparrow, Captain Crow, even a Miss Batty -- who acted out her plantation fables.
That book, too, got sterling reviews nationally. “What the Grimm brothers did, taking from the lips of the unlettered peasants the folk tales of the foretimes and setting them down for the delight of the after age, has now been done by Miss Young," rhapsodized The Pittsburgh Gazette.
Young went on to write other books, including the wonderfully titled “Behind the Dark Pines" (it was the phrase that the book’s Mammy used to begin her stories) and “Minute Dramas: A Kodak at the Quarters."
Today, they’re tough sledding. The deep dialect is difficult for modern eyes to decipher. It’s also an embarrassment to a politically correct ear. This is the language of minstrels, of stereotypes with painted faces.
Dialect books began to fall into disfavor in the 1920s. The genre was in free fall by the time of the social revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.
Harris was harshly condemned. Some of the more discerning critics tried to divorce the wily Br’er Rabbit from the author, citing African roots of some of the stories and the parallels between the rabbit’s ability to survive in a hostile world and the social conditions of the former slaves. But Harris found his Uncle Remus damned as “one of the many masks employed by the Plantation School to justify the restoration of white supremacy," in the words of one critic.
Young’s ship sank with the same barrage. Like the Disney movie “Song of the South," its charm was overwhelmed by the torrent of negative emotions it produced.
By the late 1930s, Young had largely given up writing dialect folk tales. She concentrated instead on sentimental and religious pieces.
She died on May 9, 1941, in Greensboro and was buried in the Stokes Cemetery there. It was the same year that civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph organized a mass movement that forced President Roosevelt to take steps against racial discrimination in defense industries.
By then, Livingston’s Ruby Pickens Tartt had begun a long and active career in documenting black heritage. As newly appointed supervisor of the Federal Writers’ Project for Sumter County in 1936, she made a collection of spirituals that she mailed to John Lomax at the Library of Congress in Washington.
Tartt, like Young and Harris, had an ear for speech patterns and wrote stories in dialect. What may have saved her from the savaging that her predecessors received from their critics was a technological invention: the recording machine. Tartt’s fame rests today on the bedrock of the recordings of the region’s folk music that Lomax and others made under her guidance.
Young was not so fortunate. William Stanley Hoole, the noted library director at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1971, celebrated her career in a self-published booklet in 1982 in which he called Young “Alabama’s foremost folklorist," but for all practical purposes, she was forgotten. Perhaps it did not help her cause that Hoole’s booklet had the imprint of “Confederate Publishing Company."
Fifty-five years after her death, however, Young was rediscovered and her stories placed again in the warmth of a national spotlight.
Surprisingly -- but perhaps fittingly -- her resurrection was due to the efforts of an African-American.
Her name was Virginia Hamilton. Her grandfather, Levi Perry, fled from slavery via the Underground Railroad and found sanctuary in Ohio.
Hamilton, whose parents were gifted storytellers, won a scholarship to prestigious Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Her first venture as a children’s author, a book titled “Zeely," was published in 1967.
She delved into African-American folklore for books like “Her Stories," “The People Who Could Fly" and “Jump! The Adventures of Br’er Rabbit," a fabulous retelling of the classic tales.
Warmly received, her books won major honors such as the Newberry Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the National Book Award and the Coretta Scott King Award.
Somewhere along the line, Hamilton came across Young’s “Plantation Bird Legends." She read through the dialect trappings and saw the beauty of what lay beneath.
“Martha Young became Alabama’s foremost folklorists," Hamilton wrote in 1996, “a collector of black folktales and song and a writer of many such tales of her own in the African American tradition … At this point in time, it is no longer possible to know which tales were of Martha Young’s own creation and which were based on tales told by black tellers -- first those who were slaves when she was a little child, then, after Freedom, the household servants on the plantations owned by her father …
“The stories," Hamilton continued, “ … were originally written in a heavy, tongue-twisting, so-called black dialect. I have recast and rewritten a choice few of them here in an easy-to-read colloquial speech. I have written them down especially for children, to make them smile …"
Hamilton’s beautifully illustrated book of retold Martha Young stories, “When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing," is calculated to make anyone smile. It’s full of gems of down-home wisdom.
“So children, here’s a leaf from the book of birds," ends a story about a battle between Bruh Sparrow and Sis Wren over a pumpkin that neither could pick up. “Pick on your own size. For it’s no use squabbling over what’s too big for you to handle."
I think that Young would wholeheartedly approve of Hamilton’s adaptations. The stories, indeed, take wing and fly. Though separated by time and culture, both writers were people of tremendous heart.
A final irony: Hamilton was one of the most beloved authors of children’s literature in the nation at the time of her death in 2002. Young held that status 80 years earlier. Today her work lives through Hamilton’s adaptation.
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