Frank Yerby’s Benton’s Row appeared in 1954, eight years after his debut novel The Foxes of Harrow (1946) In many ways, the narrative arcs are similar: a mysterious man comes to town, under mysterious circumstances, he makes a fortune, has numerous lovers, and his dynasty crumbles by the end of the novel. While The Foxes of Harrow focuses on Stephen Fox almost exclusively, ending around the Civil War, Benton’s Row follows Tom Benton as he arrives in Northwest Louisiana from Texas in 1842, escaping the hangman’s noose, and his progeny through the early 1920s. In fact, it would be more appropriate to say that the novel follows Sarah Benton, Tom’s wife, throughout her life. (At points, I kept thinking about Gaines’s epic The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) when reading the novel. The scope of time covered mirrors that text.)
Today, I want to continue something I have been working on with Yerby since I first read The Foxes of Harrow, the manner in which he undercuts the dominant “costume novel” story arc with African American characters who counter the salacious and villainous characteristics of the white protagonists. By doing this, Yerby subtly drives home the point, again and again, that the the myth of the Old South, and the myth of white superiority, is nothing more than a falsehood people construct to maintain their positions of power.
In Benton’s Row, false bravado and lies about valorous acts on the battlefield during war play a part in the manufacturing of these myths. At the start of the war, Wade ran and hid in hopes that he would not have to fight. Eventually though, he gets enlisted and serves. Before he returns home in 1865, Sarah presumes her son Wade is dead because she receives a note telling her that he is MIA. She thinks about her son possibly gaining the courage to fight and not run; however, she cannot imagine Wade’s acts of bravery in the face of adversity.
Though she had seen war itself, here on the very outlying fields of her own plantation, or even, perhaps, because she had seen it, her mother’s heart rebelled against picturing in imagination the scene of her son’s presumable and indisputably heroic death. What she went to, with almost painful honesty she could not control, was Wade’s boyhood, and how she pitied him. (162)
Even when the stories of Wade’s bravery reach her ears, she cannot believe them because she knows of his cowardice from childhood. However, she does not challenge the stories: instead, she allows them to continue and perpetuate as myth throughout the community of Wade’s indisputable gallantry.
While Tom Benton exudes the quintessential ideals of rugged masculinity–strength, valor, grit, determination–Wade, his son, does not. Instead, Wade runs away when times get tough. During the Civil War, the myth of Wade Benton’s heroic valor at Briar’s Creek takes over his life. He returns from the war with Oren Bascomb, a “poorwhite” who plays up Wade’s supposed bravery at Briar’s Creek. Oren uses the lies as leverage to increase his wealth and standing in Benton’s Row, thus creating a space for himself out of the mythologized exploits of Wade. No one questions Wade’s “bravery,” and he does not challenge the story either. The account cements his place in the community; however, Oren’s threats of blackmail eventually leads to Wade’s demise.
Wade allows the myth to flourish throughout the rest of his life. At his marriage to Mary Ann, Wade dons “his patched and faded [Confederate] uniform,” covering the brass buttons and any other reference to the Confederacy for fear of being charged with a crime (187). These items–the insignia, buttons, and “epaulets”–remained underneath the surface, as if nothing had changed. Immediately after this description, the narrator comments that Oren drove “Negro” workers in the background and “nothing about the scene below the window differed one jot from before the war” except for the new overseer (187).
In contrast to Wade, the African American Fred Douglass Benton, son of Buford and Cindy, serves valiantly in the Spanish-American War and even charges up San Juan Hill in 1898. Fred’s tombstone, in the Benton family cemetery, reads, “Sacred to the memory of Fred Douglass Benton, faithful Negro servant to the Benton Family, who died gloriously atop San Juan Hill in defense of his Country, 1876-1898” (290). While notably problematic for its paternalism, the marker highlights Fred’s valor in battle. Like Wade’s actions, Sarah feels conflicted about Fred’s death in battle. She classifies his death as “somewhat less than glorious” because she know the true nature of how he died (290). Her grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest Benton (Nat), told her about the incident in a letter home during the war.
Recovering in the infirmary, Nat relates the events of Fred’s death to Sarah:
All I know is a skinny nigger bit named Fred Benton went up San Juan Hill in the very vanguard. He wen up and he got to the edge of the trench with a group of his buddies when a piece of a shell from the American artillery hit him in the back. Those artillerymen killed more of our boys that day than all of the Spaniards put together. And when Lt. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt came storming up that hill every tooth and eyeglass gleaming, that skinny nigger boy Stone [Nat’s brother] and I used to take turns kicking in the tail was already lying at the bottom of the trench, bleeding to death. (291)
The medical staff patched Fred up as best they could, but they had no place to put him. They laid him on the ground, and he died. Nat blames the government for the management of the war, and says he is “sick . . . because Fred was wounded in line of duty by American artillery fire, and finished off by American Medical Corpsmen” (291).
Even though Fred’s plaque contains reference to his “glorious” death, it begins with a comment on his service to the Benton family and they ways he helped to hold them up. His actions during battle, even in a war that Nat called “dishonest,” counters Wade’s false valor. His death, at the hands of American artillery fire, highlights the struggle that he had to endure in Louisiana and America as an African American man when his country would not even support him and sought to keep him down in any way possible.
Wade’s story takes up the entirety of part II in Benton’s Row, and Fred’s takes up a couple of pages. However, we need to consider Fred’s story, and that of his son Buck, as counter to the myths perpetuated by the “idealized Southern male” that Wade, Nat, and later Roland, represent.
This is not all I can say about this novel. There is a lot more that needs to be discussed. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter: @silaslapham.