A noted Southern literary historian once took me to task for wasting time on polemics. The scholar’s task, he said, is to search out the facts and make coherent sense of them. In the long run, the truth of history would inevitably correct the fictions of ideology. At the time I was skeptical, and in the succeeding 20 years my skepticism has only increased. No matter what “facts” are laid on the table, most people—most educated people—continue to accept the textbook version of history they learned in high school, whether the subject is Periclean democracy, the character of Richard III, or the American War Between the States. In this fixed race of American discourse, the most common exceptions are not the independent minds who live examined lives, read serious books, and form their own conclusions, but the one-legged eccentrics who, having climbed onto a hobby horse, cannot dismount and must delude themselves into thinking that they are ruining a race when they are only rocking in place, interpreting Plato’s myth of Atlantis as history or giving anyone but Shakespeare the credit for his plays.

Most of what we think we know is propaganda, and if we are lucky we have had our character nourished on wholesome propaganda. George Washington is a more interesting character than the lay figure created by Parson Weems, but it is not bad for children to grow up believing that the Father of Our Country was obsessively honest. Usually, however, it is the ignoble and dishonest propaganda of America-haters that we now learn in school: the lie that Jefferson is known to have carried on with a slave, the lie that Franklin Roosevelt was a brilliant and principled friend of the common man, the lie that Reconstruction was anything other than a brutal and disgraceful episode in our national history. In my experience, the best antidote to evil propaganda is not a more wholesome counter-propaganda (e.g., Paul Johnson’s trivializations of world history) but authentic first-hand material. Anyone who has read in good faith William Herndon’s memoir of his law-partner and friend Abraham Lincoln can never regard the 16th President as a saint, and any honest reader who spends a few days with James Kibler’s Our Fathers’ Fields will come away with a fresh perspective not only on the South but on American history.

If honesty is to be the theme of this review, I should confess that I have known and respected Jim Kibler for several )ears and that I regard him as one of the finest living historians of American literature. However, as much as I have admired his work, I never thought him capable of producing such a book as this. In 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, Professor Kibler bought the Hardy plantation on the Tyger River in Newberry Count), South Carolina. Since then he has spent his time, his energy, and his money on restoring the Big House, replanting the gardens, and burrowing through the Hard) family records. The result is something like a core-sample of the American experience from 1786, when the property passed into the hands of the Hardys of Lunenburg County, Virginia, down to 1973, when Miss (i.e., Miz or Mrs.) Alice Hardy, by then in her 80’s, sold the plantation and moved into Union.

To me, Newberry County has always meant a boring section of road between Columbia and Greenville, an area of the state where, as I recall, there was not even one place to eat along the highway. Like many parts of the South, the area is haunted by ghosts drat sometimes seem more real than the New South promoters and politicians who now dominate the region. In writing the story of one house and one family, Kibler has played the part of an Odysseus, traveling backwards to find his home; and like Odysseus, who fed the ghosts in die underworld on blood that gave them the power to speak, he has brought before the reader a succession of Hardy ghosts, telling us of their everyday lives: what it was like to farm such a place 150 years ago, the trees they planted and the food they ate, how the men of the family gradually built up their estates, and how the women, black and white, kept the people fed and clothed.

Any social system has its saints and its villains, and the dominant class of the antebellum South can show both sorts. The Hardys, being neither, may be about as exemplary a family as an historian can hope for: Prosperous and successful, they could match neither the power and style of the Low- Country rice planters nor the baronial majesty of a Wade Hampton, reputed to be the richest man in America on the eve of the War Between the States. Kibler does not hesitate to point out that, as a community, the Hardy plantation worked in both senses of the word. The white owners w-ere involved, hand,s-on, in the day-to-day-operations of the place, while the black slaves worked hard and were taken care of It was not Eden, but the testimonies of ex-slaves collected in the 1930’s are nostalgic rather than resentful. Kibler quotes at length from the narrative of Feaster of near-by Goshen Hill Plantation. Feaster remembered the good food and good times at Fourth of July barbecues, but he also remembered an abusive overseer who tried to have his way with the women. One day, when he and his brother John were picking berries with their mother and other women, the overseer came up:

He argued wid both mammy and ol’ lady Lucy; and dey kept telling him dat de missus want her berries and dat dey was ‘ligious wimmens anyhow and didn’t practice no life o’ sin and vile wickedness. Finally he got down off’n his boss and pull out his whip and ‘low if dev didn’t submit to him he gwine to beat dem half to death.

The boys ran away to watch. The overseer takes off his clothes and lays down the whip, at which point the women “grab him by the goatee and further down, and hist him over in de middle of dem blackberry bushes.” When they report the attack to their mistress, whose husband is away, she does not hesitate to fire the overseer on the spot. Although the episode illustrates the danger of putting women under the power of a man who is not their husband or father, the story has a happier ending than if it took place in the armed forces or the White House.

If the introductory chapters constitute a social history of the Old South, the chapters dealing with the Hardys’ declining fortunes during and after the war read more like a tragic narrative. By 1860, Squire William Eppes Hardy had already lost six of his 12 children. As the storm clouds gathered, he experienced the marriage and departure of his daughter and the deaths of a son and of his own mother. In the course of the war, his nephew Willie Hardy was shot dead at First Manassas, and Kibler records the deaths of son after son of the Hardys’ neighbors. In the spring of 1864, the squire’s son Haywood died of a prolonged illness he had contracted in Virginia. A younger son, William Dixon Hardy (Captain Dick, as he came to be known), survived the war and presided over the dwindling fortunes and acreage of the family. At the end of the war, the estate, even while it was still intact, was valued at only 15 percent of its former worth—a good measure of what South Carolina suffered as a whole, even in areas that the pyromaniacal Sherman did not succeed in burning.

The post-war cast of characters in the Hardy saga is narrower, and—as happens in so many societies on their last legs—the eccentricities become more marked. Captain Dick Hardy, the war veteran who returns to keep the place going, emerges as an archetype of the defeated South: proud, hard-working, but too honorable to save the sinking ship.

When I spoke with him last summer about Our Fathers’ Fields, Kibler told me that he regarded his book as a kind of a novel. After reading the first few chapters, I was unable to figure out what he meant. It is not simply the technical discussions of plantation management—Moby Dick has thornier passages on the physiology of whales. A novel has to be an integrated narrative with something at the center. By the time I put the book down, I realized that there is a center, and it is the house itself and the family that lived in it. If, as Mel Bradford used to say. Southern fiction is always the story of families, not of individuals, then Our Fathers’ Fields works not only as a Southern novel but as a full-blown Southern Agrarian novel that takes us from an antebellum Golden Age through the years of conquest and desolation down to the current resurrection. In putting together this book and restoring the house that is at its center, James Kibler has simultaneously lived and written the story of the South: its rise, its fall, and—if it is up to the likes of Professor Kibler—its renewal.


[Our Fathers’ Fields: A Southern Story, by James Everett Kibler (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 444 pp., $29.95]