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George Stoney, Writer: The Early Years

Rapport, Leonard, 1913-

Wide Angle, Volume 21, Number 2, March 1999, pp. 19-25 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/wan.1999.0025

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Writer: The Early Years by Leonard Rapport In September 1916.George Stoney. 2 (MARCH 1999). just before his sixteenth birthday. But at summer’s end. Look Homeward. 10-25. maybe only. another foreman’s son got the job. George took himself and his fortyseven dollars to Chapel Hill. pp. Thomas Wolfe returned to Chapel Hill. almost seventeen years after his graduation. 2 1 NO. Wolfe was to become North Carolina’s first. Angel. Maxwell Perkins and Edward Aswell. George would go to Chapel Hill. The Carolina Magazine. In January 1937. On his newspaper route. © OHIO U NIVERSITY SCHOOL OF F ILM 19 . for several months. Chagrined and ignoring reality (and possibly missing a chance decades later to offer testimony for somebody else’s version of The Uprising of ’34). Angel. and that their routes included several prostitutes. George had forty-seven cash dollars with which to pursue his education. Inevitably. “I knew I was going to be a novelist ever since I picked up the first writings of Thomas Wolfe.”2 George considered it prophetic that he had a newspaper delivery route in a black section of town. WIDE ANGLE V O L . In his autobiographical novel. he had an alternative plan. In exchange. There were a dozen articles about Wolfe by his editors. in Winston-Salem. was three months old. George had been delivering the paper free. Thomas Wolfe of Asheville became a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. there was a cotton mill foreman to whom. Leonard Rapport is an archivist and historian. the man was to help him get a job in the mill. George Stoney. just as Wolfe had. an unforgettable place. He says. great writer. he described the college and village as “a charming. This visit was commemorated in the October 1938 issue of the college’s literary journal.”1 George Stoney was thirteen when his English teacher read in class from Look Homeward. If that wasn’t enough.

“‘Did you really mean that. by faculty members. After a harried four years of working his way through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. the speechless almost captured pass-word. He now no longer dreamed (if he ever really did) of becoming North Carolina’s second great novelist. the Raleigh News and contemporaries at Chapel Hill and Harvard. flabby. Some of these stories grew out of his reading in eighteenth. smell.”5 George was to make do with his own talent used in his own way. When that project ended. about going back to live in Yancey County?’ I asked Wolfe as we cracked pecans together in his barn-like rooms in the Hotel Chelsea in New York. and his well publicized inability to spell correctly. and by several students. While an undergraduate. homesick. which he catalogued while earning twenty-five cents an hour on a National Youth Administration job. and in retrospect probably the most memorable. A devotee of hitchhiking. He questioned Wolfe about a remark he had made in Chapel Hill indicating that he planned eventually to return to North Carolina. The longest article.’”4 The Carolina Magazine article represents a sea-change in George’s aspirations for a writing career. George finally graduated.and nineteenth-century North Carolina newspapers. But going back taught me this one thing. drugged in the magic of unheard music. he submitted a proposal to the News and Observer. Tremendous. his stumbling heavy lips blubbered sentimentalities about how good it was to be back…3 In the spring of 1938. the ten thousand mouths. who had recently arrived in New York. see with his catholicity and acuteness. He smiled a little bitterly. he thought such a 20 . We tried to taste. stuttering. his warm brown eyes pleaded forgiveness. a couple of flunked classes. not with his class in 1937. but in 1938. He realized he wouldn’t match Wolfe’s “lost child-face below the lumpy ragged cap. George tells of the friendship that developed between them during that last summer. was George Stoney’s reminiscence: We wrote of “the thousand faces. A man can’t go back home again. George had begun selling feature stories to the leading state paper. helped organize and label Wolfe’s literary materials.” in a foolish effort to approximate his style. George. ‘I did then. listening for the far-forested horn-note. still a boy at thirty-six.… Then Eugene came back to Pulpit Hill.

and his notebook are becoming a familiar institution on the highways and byways of Alabama.7 In October 1940 the New Republic published “No NLRB for Ben Hill County.”6 The article went on to say that George had gotten a job in the Survey Department of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. Mississippi and South Carolina…”8 In January 1940. Stoney. he mailed in stories about the woman who sold sandwiches on the Charleston docks. economic influences. Later in 1939. Tennessee. “No Room in Green Pastures” appeared in Survey Graphic: “George C. His car.” The journal said: We launch this significant election year of 1940 with an analysis of the franchise in the South. The article is about the wooing of Argentina by fascism. 1939. A sequel to the present article will examine some of the social attitudes. and political implications of the poll tax and the one-party system. where he spent two months. In New Orleans. the man. the UNC Daily Tar Heel ran a story: “A man who nearly failed to get his degree from the University because of poor spelling has an article in the January 4. and was free-lancing for the New York Times. Georgia. On January 6. the longshoremen who carted coffee in New Orleans and sometimes ate the beans. “Suffrage in the South/Part 1: The Poll Tax. George C. 1939 New Republic. published in 1944 by Harper and Brothers under the title. he got a job on a freighter to Argentina. An American Dilemma: The Negro 21 . his camera. and became one of Bunche’s three field assistants on Gunnar Myrdal’s classic study.trip through the South would produce publishable episodes.” In January 1941. Stoney writes on the pains of progress in the switch from cotton to cattle in the Black Belt. So during 1938. The newspaper agreed to let him take a shot. Stoney. George had also been hired by Ralph Bunche. a journal of social and economic importance at the time. George began writing for Survey Graphic. the people who hung around a park in Jacksonville. a native southerner who has done much firsthand research on the restricted suffrage which characterizes one-sixth of our American democracy. The cover of the January 1940 issue featured his lead article. by George C.

Myrdal has perhaps indicated to you that in a general way information on one or two of the other topics would be desirable. I left it open…as to how long he shall work and with what financial arrangements. will be primarily with the status and attitudes of white citizens of the South in both urban and rural areas.Problem and Modern Democracy.” This was very encouraging to me.9 He had Bunche join him on a trip through the South.… Your concern. He is much impressed and states. put the duo in real danger several times.11 On January 24. The project had its beginning when the president of the Carnegie Corporation decided the time had come for a comprehensive study of the Negro in the United States. and that such a study should be done by somebody other than an American. without Myrdal. The Corporation supplied Myrdal with the then-unprecedented sum of $300. Bunche wrote George: Myrdal has written to tell me that he has had a conference with you. George Stoney was the only white. Early in their relationship. combined with his lack of knowledge of Southern mores. George wrote Bunche: “Have some astounding stuff written up in notes that I am typing out to send.…I have read through the manuscript of your article on the South and think it excellent. to use as he saw fit. Chosen to head it was Gunnar Myrdal. a young department head at Howard University.” Bunche made two ]other trips to the South. and an economic advisor to the Swedish government. but the bulk of the interviews were conducted by three field assistants. Later Bunche wrote that Myrdal “thought he was on a lark. Among the persons Myrdal selected for the project was Ralph Bunche. “We agreed that he should start working for you the first of January.” and “I was ]always on the verge of being lynched because of his playful pranks. ]We actually had to run for it a couple of times.000. 1940. was an elected member of the Swedish Senate. 22 . A Bunche biographer described what happened: Myrdal’s sense of humor.10 Of the three assistants. from the Chattanooga YMCA. of course. Myrdal had become aware of George through his articles in Survey Graphic. but my understanding is that your main emphasis would be placed on the political participation subject. a thirty-eight-year-old Swedish scholar who held the chair of social economics at the University of Stockholm.

without these frank 23 . In an “Author’s Preface. and among the “Books. in 1973. because of the extreme press of time and the wide scope in both subject matter and territory. and it would probably take more than what has yet happened to build you up into the proportion of a radical menace down there. your experience at Huntsville should be revealing and if your experience is such as to indicate that perhaps you should go elsewhere first in order to let things simmer down. In the author’s preface. a four-pound volume of almost fifteen hundred pages. Then. Many of the important men in politics have opened their hearts to me here—the local situation would turn anyone’s stomach—and it would be a very real tragedy if they should be spread around. in part: We have thought it all through and have come to the conclusion that you are such an innocent and honest looking young fellow that even the rankest Tories are not likely to consider you a radical menace unless you start raising hell outright. that can be arranged.” Bunche described the mass of collected field material: Mr.Please remember to keep these things strictly confidential. Pamphlets. and Other Material Referred to in This Book.…Stoney’s interviews with Southern ]county officials have been invaluable. However. Periodicals. Bunche had in mind publishing in a separate volume much of what his small team had collected that didn’t make its way in An American Dilemma. What George and his colleagues had produced remained in manuscript form for three decades. Three decades later. appeared. edited and with an introduction by Dewey W. But this hardly suggested George’s contribution to the project. You are disarming. There is also one direct quote in a footnote from something George had written for Bunche.13 In 1944. Stoney did especially fine work under difficult circumstances. the extent of that contribution came to light.” his Survey Graphic article on “Suffrage in the South” is listed. and carry a great deal of true Southern dignity. the University of Chicago Press published Ralph Bunche’s The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR. George is listed among persons who undertook various research tasks. But his increasingly busy career never permitted him to do what he hoped to do with this mass of material. Grantham.”12 Bunche answered George. you know. An American Dilemma.

Look Homeward. George Stoney. 6. interview by Barbara Abrash and Daniel J. to acquaint himself with recent elections by reading extensively in the back files of the paper. Culture. October 1938). no.expressions by one Southerner to another.. and then to search out the public officials. Notes 1. friendly. 1939. 622.” Survey Graphic 29. his technique was to visit the office of the local newspaper when he first arrived in a community.” Grantham wrote: Stoney. Stoney in particular had a remarkable talent for reproducing the language he heard. As a result of his research. 11–14. 1. Thomas Wolfe. for spotting the revealing comment and the vivid expression. and History. 24 . 1996. He conducted about half of all of the interviews. to make them feel comfortable in his presence. there was no suggestion) is remarkable. Walkowitz. Wolfe. he seemed to know how to approach all manner of people. 14 In “A note on the editing. including the members of the election commission. the picture we attempt to portray here would be woefully incomplete. Center for Media. 7. 5. through the streets and the common-law rightsof-way through yards and vacant lots—common-law only to newspaper boys and companionable early-rising dogs. 2.15 That more than sixty years later George Stoney would be actively teaching in a great university and involved with filmmaking (of which. 396. and engaging young man.… As an interviewer for Bunche. George Stoney. Angel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. “Suffrage in the South/Part 1: The Poll Tax. Ibid. 12. George Stoney. in the pre-World War II years. January 6. and to get them to talk freely. 3. made a special point of talking with local officials. the only white member of the group. 4. 1 (January 1940). “Eugene Returns to Pulpit Hill: Reminiscences of a ‘Wolverine.’” The Carolina Magazine (Chapel Hill. 1929). the UNC Daily Tar Heel. An open. The journey could conceivably have had its beginning in the pre-dawn hours of his delivery route for the Winston-Salem newspaper. he frequently found that he had more “facts” about the local situation than the people he interviewed. New York University. 3.

in the years to come.8. 9. 1940. by Dewey W. Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? (New York: New York University Press. Bunche was the first black American to earn a doctorate in political science. Henry. Grantham. 13. 24 January 1940. Schomburg Collection. xiv. no. 15. Ralph Bunche.1 (January 1941). awarded Nobel Peace Prizes. New York Public Library.. George Stoney. Ralph Bunche. 25 . Edited and with an introd. 12. Ralph Bunche. 10. ix. 11. Schomburg Collection. 94–5. New York Public Library. The political status of the Negro in the age of FDR. 1999). New York Public Library. Schomburg Collection. 30 November 1939. Survey Graphic 30. xiii. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Charles B. 14. Ibid. 3. letter to Ralph Bunche. letter to George Stoney. letter to George Stoney. Both Bunche and Myrdal were. 1973).