Brainard Cheney (June 3, 1900 – January 15, 1990) was a novelist, playwright and essayist from Georgia associated primarily with the literary movement known as the Agrarians. Cheney was born in Fitzgerald, located in the wiregrass region of south central Georgia. He moved to Lumber City with his family when he was six years old. He published four novels — Lightwood (1939), River Rogue (1942), This Is Adam (1958), and Devil's Elbow (1969) — that depict the marring of Agrarian ideals by the social transformation of South Georgia between 1870 and 1960. Cheney attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and there became friends with many of the Fugitives and Agrarian writers such as John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. Cheney taught school for a short time in Scotland, a small town in southeast Telfair County.
In the following essay, Michael Williams provides a brief analysis of his book, Rivers, Rogues, and Timbermen in the Novels of Brainard Cheney. It is a synopsis of his recent program presented to the Pioneer Historical Society, July 1, 2015. In his, book, Michael identifies some of the historical figures behind Cheney’s novels, including some of his own ancestors, and analyzes Cheney’s works from a literary perspective, comparing his major themes to those of the Agrarian writers at Vanderbilt University in the 1930s and 1940s. Michael Williams is a native of Telfair County, living in the China Hill area with his wife Jana and two daughters.
Brainard Cheney’s Agrarian Philosophy
By Michael R. Williams, Jr.
The Agrarians were a group of scholars located at Vanderbilt University in the 1930s and 1940s, who advocated extremely conservative views on education, race, the environment, and industrialization. Their members are among the finest writers of the 20th century, and they are often credited with leading the Southern “Renascence” that led to the later proliferation of famous Southern writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Among their members were Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, and Donald Davidson.
Most modern literary critics feel that the Agrarians have been “debunked.” They are a bunch of old, white, racist, dead men from the South. This is true to some extent. Their ideas on race, education, and industrialization are quite dated. Much of their philosophy has been a failure morally and in practice. Even a few years after the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, the famous Agrarian manifesto, Robert Penn Warren admitted that he was wrong about segregation.
The Agrarians were wedded to the Democratic Party at the time, but their preference for privatization of education and the supremacy of states’ rights over federalism would be more closely aligned with the Republican Party today. Their views are somewhat libertarian in nature. One place where they have retained their relevance, however, is with environmental concerns. The Agrarians didn’t like mechanization of agriculture, and they did not like to see their environment exploited, either by the federal government or by unfettered private industry.
This is where Brainard Cheney, a Telfair County native, allies most closely with them. Cheney came to Vanderbilt a bit later than the Agrarians. He was not really a member of their group, and he had more forward thinking views on race, but he shared their concern over industrialization, and he shared their belief that individuals can gain a greater sense of meaning and purpose to their lives by establishing a connection with the natural world. And this is one idea that will never be debunked. Great literature has always acknowledged the importance of man’s relationship to nature. Nowhere is this clearer than in Cheney’s first novel Lightwood, where the protagonists are simple yeoman farmers who live in harmony with nature, their existence based on crop and river cycles.
Some of the minor characters in this novel were based on my ancestors, most notably Captain Lucius Williams, my great, great, great grandfather’s brother. The villains of the novel, agents for Coventry and Company (the Dodge Company historically), attempt to take Lucius’s land holdings. In retaliation, he resorts to subtle acts of terrorism against the company, forging phony deeds for other settlers, driving railroad spikes into company logs to damage the sawmills, sometimes shooting at company woodcutters on his property and that of his friends and family. Company agents, including the historical Cohen Garrison, murdered him in his home in the 1890s. Years later, members of my family avenged his murder by shooting Cohen Garrison to death on Christmas Eve night at Blockhouse Church in 1902. This is what I refer to in my book as the last shot fired in the Georgia Squatters War.
The tragedy of that novel is twofold: many settlers die along with innocent men who work for the company, but the larger tragedy involves the despoilment of the region: the permanent destruction of the largest tract of longleaf pine timber anywhere in the world. The main character Micajah Corn abandons his fields in his war against the company, and he betrays his friends and family out of twisted sense of personal revenge. It’s Cheney’s darkest novel. No one is redeemed. The company takes the land. The settlers go to jail or to their deaths. The landscape is ruined forever.
Cheney’s second novel, River Rogue, concerns itself with the timber raftsmen of the Ocmulgee, Oconee, and Altamaha Rivers. In many ways, the novel is more fun than Lightwood. It has more humor and more controversial material, with many of the scenes taking place inside taverns and brothels. The protagonist and antagonist relationships are the same. Once again, we have the raftsmen, who are mostly famers and whose lives are based on river cycles, pitted hopelessly against the same company. The main character, Snake Sutton, betrays himself and his raftsmen friends. He is corrupted by greed. The fun of the novel is watching the clever and wily Sutton rise to prominence in Darien. In doing so, he loses everything that ever mattered to him.
He does find redemption at the end but only by abandoning the industrial life of Darien and returning to Longpond, the oxbow lake on the Oconee River from whence he came. Tragedy precipitates humility. He learns that he cannot bend the natural world to his will.
Cheney’s third novel was called This is Adam. It’s a breakthrough novel in Cheney’s treatment of racial issues. Some feel that it is Cheney’s best. I’m not so sure, but I do find the relationship between the two main characters fascinating. The novel is set in the fictional town of Riverton (Lumber City historically), and once again, we see industrialists try to take advantage of the less fortunate, in this case, a widowed woman and her African American caretaker. The ending of the novel is supposed to be a triumph in that the characters lose the land but gain salvation. However, the religious conversion ending feels a little clunky to me. It no doubt reflects Cheney’s own conversion to Catholicism, which had occurred not long before he wrote the novel.
Devil’s Elbow is Cheney’s final published novel. It’s a direct sequel to This is Adam and is Cheney’s most autobiographical work, a post-modernist murder mystery. There is a lot to like about this novel. I love the scenes that take place in Riverton (Lumber City) and the ones on St. Simon’s Island. However, some of the female characters could be better rendered in my opinion, as could the foreign settings. The novel is a love story between a young writer and his estranged wife, clearly modeled on Brainard and Francis Neel Cheney. As in River Rogue, we have a main character who is somewhat responsible for the death and drowning of close friend. Here Nashville, Tennessee, the world of the Agrarian writers, represents sin and corrupted sexuality, while Lumber City represents the Agrarian dream. Once again, the only redemption for the main characters is in finding God.
Brainard Cheney may not be the finest author of his generation, but he has a remarkable gift for description. His style is reminiscent of some of the better naturalist writers of the 19th century. He is the finest writer to portray the 19th and early 20th century Wiregrass region. The historical value of these novels can hardly be overestimated. These events are little known, tragic, and preventable. Cheney’s novels are interesting for anyone concerned with the habits, customs, and manner of speaking of squatters, settlers, famers, timbermen, rafters, and steamboat captains in 19th century Wiregrass Georgia.
More importantly, Cheney outlines a grand vision for those of us in the Wiregrass Region, a reminder about how to conduct our lives and live in harmony with nature. Brainard Cheney is OUR author. His concerns are OUR concerns. We could offer him no greater honor than to preserve his novels, his river, his culture, and his way of life.