The Forge is the first book in the Vaiden Trilogy by award-winning Alabama author T. S. Stribling. Originally published in 1931, The Forge introduces the Vaiden family, residents of the rural north Alabama of Stribling’s own youth. The Vaidens are a family of white yeoman farmers who scratch out a living in the social and financial shadow of the Lacefields, masters of an opulent plantation nearby. The novel opens on Alabama’s secession and the onset of the Civil War. It traces the story of Miltiades Vaiden, who enlists in the Confederate army, and explores the ways the Vaidens, Lacefields, and freed slaves attempt to adapt to the collapse of southern society on the home front. After The Forge, Stribling continued the Vaiden saga in 1932 with The Store, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize. He completed the trilogy in 1934 with The Unfinished Cathedral. Together, the three books paint a portrait of the agrarian South of the mid-nineteenth century, its destruction, and the beginnings of a mercantile future.
About the Author
T.S. Stribling was born in 1881 in Clifton, Tennessee, the child of a family whose allegiance was divided in the Civil War. In 1902, he graduated from Florence Normal School, now the University of North Alabama. In 1903, he relocated to Tuscaloosa where he taught high school and attended the University of Alabama School of Law. He practiced law until 1907, when he devoted himself to writing full-time. His “Vaiden Trilogy” is considered his magnum opus, and the second book in the series, The Store, earned the Pulitzer Prize. By the time of his death, he had written more than twelve novels, one a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, two Literary Guild selections, and another the first book by an American selected by the English Book League.
Read an Excerpt
By T. S. Stribling
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1985 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
OLD MAN Jimmie Vaiden's home was half a house and half a fort. It was built of hewn logs with high narrow windows that were lineal descendants of portholes.
The thundering old man himself was not aware of this martial kinship of his dwelling. It was thus that log houses were fashioned in Alabama, years ago, when he and his family and his slaves had immigrated from South Carolina; therefore he had built his home so, with the unplanning certitude of a wasp.
The pioneer, James Vaiden, added other structures to his holdings from time to time. Across the rutted public road from his dwelling house stood a forge, because he was a blacksmith by trade before he became a landed man. After the forge came stables, barns, a cotton gin, slave quarters: a progressive building to house the lusty reproduction of his stock, his negroes and his own body.
All this ebullience of life was not prosperous in the American sense of that term. It was not arranged and focused on the merchantable. It was a fecundity quite as unplanned as the shaping of the houses. With the Vaidens all things followed the casualness of Nature: their cows calved, their sows littered, their mares foaled, their fox hounds pupped when they listed. The black women on the place produced by hap and chance certain small gurgling, cooing articles of merchandise which later might have been traded but never were.
Old man Jimmie Vaiden's wife, Laura Vaiden, had had ten children. Six were born at brief intervals before and after the Vaidens had settled in Alabama. Then came a seven- or eight-year truce with the stork, after which, rather surprisingly, four more babies were born. These sets of children were almost as isolated from each other as parents are from their children. Any child in the younger set expected dissympathy and criticism from any brother or sister in the older set, quite regardless of the nature of the project it had in hand.
However, this attitude of perpetual derogation was not so irrational as it sounds. It was based, subconsciously, on the law of averages. The elders arrived at a prompt and monotonously correct judgment when they condemned all activities whatsoever among their younger brothers and sisters.
Take for example Polycarp and Augustus Vaiden, ætat. sixteen and fifteen respectively. These young gentlemen had swung two cats by their tails over the lower limb of a black oak which grew in the yard. This provoked instant and frantic hostilities. Beneath the exhibition four or five of the younger set of the fox hounds leaped and yelped at the cats which were just out of their distance. The older dogs, bony and sophisticated, lay curled up in the April sunshine and cracked a single bored eye at the leaping pups and shrieking cats, then closed it again and tried to sleep, or got up and moved awkwardly away after the manner of stiff old fox hounds.
Suddenly, in the midst of this uproar, the pups abandoned the cats, and every hound on the place bolted over the fence with a waving of slim tails and deployed up the road howling to a key more melancholy than ferocious.
The next instant out of one of the slave cabins flanking the big house toward the south ran a negro man. As he came through the front yard he called out:
"You, Gus and Carp, I'm a-goin' to tell ol' Pap on you, hangin' up them cats ..." then, without a pause, he ran to the fence, climbed astride the top rail, and vented resonant threats:
"You, Roxana! Come on back here, Hyder Ali! What you mean, Bulger! You low-down whelps! Come back in this yard or I'll bust yo' haids."
This vituperation was automatic as the black man peered up the road with the lively interest of a rustic to see what wayfarer the fox hounds had scented.
Four minutes later when a horse and rider rounded the turn of the long red road the negro distinguished nothing more than a certain proportion of white and bay in the horse, but that was identifying.
The two white boys had loosed their cats and now came to the fence,
"Who is it, George?" asked Polycarp.
"Go tell ol' Pap, Pa'son Mulry's comin' on his calico pony," directed the black man in a flatted voice.
The younger brother, Augustus, remarked the change in the negro's tone.
"Well, what's the matter with Parson Mulry's coming?"
George appeared annoyed; he thrust out his thick lips.
"Nothin' ee matter. Jess you go tell ol' Pap Pa'son Mulry's comin' on he calico pony."
Augustus ran toward the heavy fort-like house excited by anyone passing along the public road. George continued on the top rail, all his heavy chocolate features involved in a frown. He was thinking with a touch of apprehension!
"Wondah what dat ol' Pa'son Mulry come heah fuh on prexactly dis day.... Wondah if dat ol' secon'-sighted Pa'son Mulry foun' out whut I was a gwinter do...." Here he pressed the outside of the pocket of his homespun trousers and felt the outline of a spoon against his flank. It was a silver spoon. He had just stolen it from the kitchen of the big house with a vague idea of maneuvering himself into a position where he could commit murder or inflict serious injury upon anyone toward whom he felt disposed. His lethal weapon was this spoon. Now here in the midst of his preparations came old Parson Mulry, who was a weird. Either the old man already knew his criminal designs, or something had sent him to find out. What that something was George did not inquire. A feeling of fatality suddenly hung in the bright spring sunshine; it brooded over the fort-like house and above the red woundings of the hill where Columbus and Robinet, two older negro men, plowed for cotton planting. And all this indefinite malevolence had gathered over George because he had one of old Missus's silver spoons in his pocket.
Old man Jimmie Vaiden came hallooing out of the big open hallway that divided his house into halves.
"Hello, Brother Bennie! Light and rest yore saddle, Brother Bennie! How you feel being jest an Alabamian, Brother Bennie, with no connection with the dad-blamed Yankees?"
The old itinerant preacher lifted a hand and answered in the chanting sing-song he used in his pulpit:
"It was bound ... to come to that ... Brother Jimmie."
The evangelist tossed his reins to George and dismounted stiffly from his horse.
"Shore! Shore!" agreed the planter. "It's a load off my mind, Brother Bennie. I breathe freer. I don't want no connection whatever with a passel of dad-burned abolitionists!"
"Now, Brother Jimmie ... what does the Bible say? ... It says a-s-k yore brother to repentance ... nine and ninety times."
The planter was a powerful old man with a thick neck and now his face flushed under his white hair.
"Brothers! Thunder an' Aleck, Bennie Mulry, they ain't no brothers of ours. I believe the lost tribe of the House of Israel was a symbol of the whole plaguey Yankee nation! They're agin common sense. They're agin civilization. They're agin the Bible itself, and Abe Lincoln is their Antichrist!"
"How is that ... Brother Jimmie?" sang the parson.
"Why, if the Almighty hadn't meant for the nigger to be a slave would He have wrote, 'and Ham shall be his servant and dwell in the tents of Japhet forever'? ... Ain't the nigger Ham?"
Both minister and planter were of one mind on this point but both possessed that legal temperament normal to the South which took the converse of any proposition whatsoever. Now the old parson intoned:
"The nigger is Ham, Brother Jimmie, but do you claim to be one of the Jews?"
"Why, plague take yore hide, of course I ain't one of the Jews, Bennie Mulry!"
"Who was Japhet the son of?"
"Who? Why, Noah, of course! But dad blame it, Bennie Mulry, in writing His Holy Word, God'l Mighty used Japhet as a symbol of the white race! Daggone it, Bennie, the Jew was as clost to a white man as the Lord had made up to that time, so He jest used Japhet as a symbol ... meaning us."
In their hearts both old gentlemen agreed to this. It explained life to them: the black men reddening the slopes of the hill, the slave quarters, Nigger George standing ready to catch the parson's rein when he tossed it to him. The preacher moved beside his host from gate to porch, combing his thoughts for another anti-slavery argument, when the old planter added a complacent Q.E.D.:
"Yes, it's as plain as the nose on a man's face that the nigger was predestined to be a slave."
The particular word old man Vaiden used was a red rag to the parson. Immediately he shifted his whole line of battle.
"Looky here, Brother Jimmie ... I wouldn't say predestined.... I wouldn't use that word, predestined."
"Yes, and why wouldn't you?" demanded the old planter instantly, equally irritated. "Because you're a daggoned wishy-washy old Methodist preacher, who ain't got the backbone to eat the strong meat of the Word and air goin' to drink milk all yore life with the rest of them logical babies—yore Methodist brethren!"
"But looky here!" sang the preacher earnestly, "Looky what you're gittin' into.... It's all right to apply predestination to the nigger ... of course he's predestined ... but don't han'l that term too loose ... you don't want to apply it to the white man!"
"As a Hardshell Babtist and a gentleman, that's exactly what I want to do!" cried the planter. "I apply her wherever she hits, white or black, high or low, ministers, laymen, or sinners. They ain't nobody too good for me to apply God's Word to! I'm a meat-eatin' Babtist, not a spin'lin' milk-drinkin' Methodis' like St. Paul tells about."
The two old men moved into the open end of the big hall booming scriptural allusions at each other and filling the sunshine with their theology.
A girl with brown hair and extraordinary eyes came to the entrance of the hallway and stood looking at the old wranglers. Not a word of their debate penetrated her attention. She watched simply for a gap in their quiddities, and presently, catching a pause, asked quickly:
"Pap, can I ride old Joe over to the BeShearses'?"
"Marsh," directed the old man in his outdoor voice, "Go tell yore maw Brother Mulry's come and have Creasy ketch a chicken."
"She's already doing it ... can't you hear the dawgs? Say, Pap, can I ride old Joe over to the BeShearses'?"
The old planter listened a moment to the shrill cackle of a hen and the baritone shouts of an old negro woman hissing on her dog. The preacher chanted:
"But looky here, Brother Jimmie, how could a loving, all-merciful God create a living soul ... in his own image ... with a direct purpose ... of burnin' it in hell forever?"
"Why, Bennie, that's God's crownin' joy for His elect, to be flyin' around through the sweet airs of heaven and remember that nearly ever'body else has gone to hell."
The two old men passed the girl in the hallway and entered a dark living room where a log smouldered in a great fireplace. The girl at the door interposed once more to ask if she could ride old Joe which her father kept standing saddled and bridled at the gate.
This time old man Jimmie Vaiden heard her and the thought of old Joe being ridden away by his daughter annoyed him.
"No, no, Marsh, I might be called somewhere."
"Who'd call you?"
"How in the thunder do I know? If I knew I'd git on my horse and go there now!"
"I wanted to go to see Ponny BeShears," said the girl in a hopeless tone.
"Ponny BeShears! And a lot of good her silly chatter'll do you! Come in here and set down and listen to me and Brother Bennie and we'll learn you something about the Bible."
"I don't see why I can't have old Joe ..."
The girl turned, walked across the wide hallway to the company room on the other side. She entered this, an equally dark but cleaner and more formal replica of the living room. She glanced at a tall thin woman sitting with a book at a table. The reader was old enough to have been the girl's mother. Now she laid down her book and stated as a fact, not as a question:
"He wouldn't let you have him."
"He said he might be called off somewhere."
"I fancy somebody calling him away from that preacher," stated the woman ironically.
"Sister Cassandra, you ask Pap to let me have old Joe."
The elder sister clicked her tongue against her teeth.
"Tchk! The idea of me going to that trouble so you can visit Ponny BeShears. Ponny's too ... she's too beefy ... she makes such a show of herself."
"She can't help it."
"She could ... corset herself in. She doesn't want to help it! Every time she sees a man she's slapping him and bulbing around him."
Miss Cassandra clicked again, resumed her book, adjusting it to the light from a small delicately curtained high window.
The girl with the gray eyes and the hair and the finely turned lips drew a long breath and walked across the room to the fireplace. The hearth in this room was brick instead of stone, and here too a little fire burned. But the room was chilly and this made the delicate lace curtains look like designs of frost. They were handmade curtains and formed an odd contrast to the heavy, flattened, whitewashed logs that made up the walls of the room.
The girl stood before the smoldering fire in silent rebellion against the monastic silence of the room.
"Oh, sit down, Marcia, and read," snapped Cassandra at last. "Improve your mind ... you've got a good mind if you weren't so lazy."
With a restlessness bordering on turmoil inside of her, Marcia supposed gloomily that she was lazy, and that her older sister Cassandra, complacently conning the pages of a book, was energetic.
"What are you reading?" asked the girl without interest.
"Paine's Rights of Man."
"You oughtn't to read that book anyway," said the girl indifferently.
"Paine wrote about politics as well as religion," stated the woman with dignity.
"Oh, did he? Listen, Sister Cassandra ... I wanted to go to the BeShearses'. Then I wanted to go on over to the Lacefields'. There's going to be a speaking over there tonight and I—I thought I might learn something."
The older woman turned to look at her sister.
"Who's going to speak?"
"The Honorable Emory Crowninshield. He's running for Congressman."
"Yes, I imagine you are interested in what the Honorable Emory will have to say."
"Well, you asked me to read about politics," cried the girl exasperated. "Now when they are really here ..." She flung out her hands hopelessly to the slow fire.
"I imagine there is something else over there drawing you," hazarded the sister.
"M—m ... dance, maybe ... after the speaking."
"I thought so."
"But Sister Cassandra, I'll have to hear the speaking! It'll improve my mind that much."
The improvement of Marcia's mind was not exactly a sore point between the older and the younger sister but it was an uncomfortable one. It was well understood between them that Cassandra's mind was improved and Marcia's unimproved. It was Cassandra's ambition to have her younger sister reach her own high estate, and Marcia was forced into a sort of bored consent that this would be a good thing, but that was as far as they had ever got with the undertaking.
"You'll be cutting your eyes at that young A. Gray Lacefield," stated Miss Cassandra disapprovingly.
"I'll hear the speech," repeated Marcia, sticking to her guns.
Miss Cassandra laid down her Rights of Man face up.
"M—m ... yes ... much good it'll do you.... Well, what are you going to wear?"
"Oh, am I going to get to go!"
"Oh, I suppose you are. The secession of the South will be almost as historical as the Revolution some day, maybe."
"Why, my silk dress, of course."
"You have two."
Marcia became anxious.
"Well ... my new one, I suppose." Then she began talking quickly to change the topic. "Sister Cassandra, do you really think our state seceding is as important as the Revolutionary War?"
"Now listen," said Cassandra, "your best dress was not made to wear to frivolous things like dances."
"But Sister Cassandra," cried Marcia in distress, "it's a speaking, too. The Honorable Emory Crowninshield will be there."
"He'll never notice you."
"Of course he won't if I don't have on my good dress!"
"Well, I hope you don't want him to notice you!"
This, of course, cut the very earth from under Marcia's feet. A dress must be worn with an eye to meeting the amount of notice she would have received without it. That was modesty. It was logic, and as usual it filled Marcia with exasperation.
"Look here!" she cried. "I'm not a child. It's my dress and I'm going to wear it!"
"Who gave you the dress?"
"You did, but it's mine!"
"All right ... all right ... then you can go to Father for yourself and see if you can get old Joe.... A dance musses a dress."
Excerpted from The Forge by T. S. Stribling. Copyright © 1985 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Forge is book 1 in the 3 part Vaiden series. The books begin at the start of the Civil War and follow one Southern family through reconstruction.The second in the series, The Store, won the Pulitzer in 1933, so I decided to read the entire series.The Forge was very successful at creating this family and depicting their lives. The pace was quick, in fact in the 500 or so pages of this first book, we went all the way through a family owning slaves, signing up to fight in the Civil War, losing half of their family in the battles, losing the war, losing their slaves and eventually losing all of their money. They went from being a prominent and well respected family to having nothing and being shamed into town.There is a definite agenda of the author, to both show this family in a sympathetic life and to make a statement against the way they lived. I found him to be extremely successful at this as well.It's a little strange reviewing this book now, as I finished it and immediately began the second book. So it basically feels like I'm still in the middle of it. I was torn rating it, because it's something I've really enjoyed and become somewhat lost in, yet it isn't necessarily something I'd recommend to someone either.