I met Havilah Babcock only once, and that was in passing without my knowing who he was, but he has probably had more to do with my working life than all but a few other individuals, for he created the world in which I lived at a formative stage in my life.
His presence was central in the atmosphere and climate of the world I entered as an undergraduate at Carolina in 1962.
Babcock’s gentlemanly, agrarian world was reflected in stately old Davis College, which housed the University of South Carolina’s English department before 1967. With its neoclassical, gray stucco walls and its pair of columns at both ends, the building had no front and back — both entrances were the same. A great airy hall ran the length of the building, making it cool in “Famously Hot” Columbia. With no air conditioning, in spring, summer, and fall the oversized windows that ran to the top of tall ceilings were open to the world. I could see azaleas in full bloom, smell newly mown grass, and hear the quiet conversation of students changing classes and birds in the trees. No leaf blowers or traffic sounds could be heard.
Babcock’s bird dogs always enjoyed free range. His pointers were always sniffing here and there under the desks and bounced in and out at will. It happened so often that it was not a distraction but instead a comfortable and reassuring routine that reminded many of us of the woods and fields of home. I can still hear the click of their nails on the tile flooring — squares of large clay-baked tile, always kept spotlessly clean and shiny with wax. They were the color of the red clay back home in Newberry County from where I had come.
Like Babcock, we were always acutely conscious of the seasons. The building was thus teaching in its own way. It was this building and the world Babcock created there that made me a writer.
Havilah Babcock was born in 1898 in Appomattox, Virginia. Even though his world had been torn apart by a war that ended at his doorstep just 33 years before, young Havilah still had his familiar creek, fields, and a bountiful nature to enrich his boyhood.
Babcock lived the outdoor life of a farm boy before receiving a master’s degree from the University of Virginia. He taught at William and Mary, married his wife, Alice Cheatham, from Appomattox, and came to USC in 1926 at the age of 28. He came to work toward his Ph.D. and return home, but, as he explained, he found the hunting and fishing so good and the people so friendly that he stayed the rest of his life. He taught at Carolina for 38 years.
Contrary to the way most people pronounce his first name today (with the accent on the first syllable), his wife and close friends always pronounced it with the accent on the second, to rhyme with “Delilah.” As sporting writer Pat Robertson demonstrated in South Carolina Wildlife in 1977, his widow, hunting companions, and closest friends, like Paul Gravely of Spartanburg, usually shortened this to “’Vilah” — with the accent on the first syllable and with a long “i.”
Babcock praised Alice for never leaving him despite his obsessive love of hunting. In the fall, he would be gone for days. Alice put up with his dogs, which he declared were second only to a virtuous woman in having a price above rubies. Many of his stories deal with them — their training, their skills, and their personalities. His only novel, The Education of Pretty Boy, is about one of them. Babcock defended his role as a hunting husband, reasoning that firstly, a hunter makes a steady, patient, and overall better mate, and secondly, a man who is not hunting and fishing is probably doing something worse.
Every fall with classes begun, Dr. Babcock would set off on his hunts. Bobwhite “partridge,” as quail used to be known in the South, was his favorite pursuit. His close colleague and friend Claude Neuffer recalled that ’Vilah once nearly got into trouble by a note he left on his office door: “Dr. Babcock will be sick all next week.” From all accounts, he was an unorthodox but highly effective teacher. Professor Neuffer described him as “incapable of pedantry and dullness.” He only barely tolerated academic protocol and stuffiness. For example, he famously defined an academic conference as “a swapping of ignorance and an exercise in mutual boredom.” He always preferred the company of rural folk to academics or writers.
In an excellent essay on Babcock (“Living the Good Life in the South,” Chronicles, October 2014), Tobias Lanz wrote, “Rather than a professor who happened to write about the outdoors, Babcock was an outdoorsman who happened to be a professor.” Dr. Lanz called him “a true Southern agrarian” whose agrarianism was more practical than that of the famous literary agrarians of the 1920s and ’30s.
Babcock understood that if parents entrusted their most precious possessions — their children — to him, he and the university department he chaired owed much back to them. He built no barriers between himself and his community. As Lanz pointed out, Babcock’s commitment to the state that paid his salary led him to become president of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, the State Fish and Game Association, and the Izaak Walton League. He, like fellow Columbian Harry Hampton, was an early supporter of conservation.
Babcock’s friends remember him as valuing good face-to-face conversation. He would likely not have tolerated emails and our age of electronic communications. Like William Faulkner, he barely tolerated telephones. He said that he felt conversation to be one of the truest expressions of human freedom because it didn’t operate by regulations and moved organically from topic to topic. Babcock said that once formal rules were applied, conversation becomes like an academic conference. He wrote, “The great requirement of good conversation is that nobody should know what is coming next.”
He had plenty of good conversationalists among his farm friends and hunting companions. William Faulkner, also a hunter, declared that hunt camp conversation was “the best of all telling” and made use of it in his greatest works. So did Babcock.
While he was department chair, the department emphasized good writing and excellent teaching. His most popular course at the university was “I Want a Word.” Babcock demanded the proper word in the proper context. As a former student recalled in the 1970s, “There were no bored students in a Babcock classroom” just as no reader “will be bored by any of the professor’s works.” His courses filled up a year or two in advance and drew students irrespective of discipline. I, as one example, was never able to get into his courses. Still, as an English major, I benefited from the atmosphere he created. Above all, it was relaxed and genteel. The professors he assembled were special men and women like Claude Neuffer, Ennis Rees, Merrill Christopherson, Frank Durham, Yeaton Wagener, Carol Carlisle, Edward Nolan, and John Russell.
As literary critics are beginning to see, Babcock’s writing is more than telling a good story. His tales, written in a style of disarming simplicity, are full of wit and wisdom. Neuffer in his 1967 tribute “His Health Was Always Better in November!” praised his works for their “essential humanity.” They often show that people need continued close connection to the outdoors. He felt hunting and fishing to be good recreational ways of doing so. They were true sports because they took place on good ground in nature.
As Lanz points out, Babcock felt football and baseball were not sports but games because they were confined to circumscribed and static playing fields. Conversely, Babcock reasoned that in true sports, a person is forced to be alert to the totality of changing complex surroundings. True sports would not hinge on a one-point loss that would cast gloom over an entire week as if a person’s closest friend had died. From true sports, Babcock declared that a participant bags the scene and participation in the natural world as the biggest trophies of all, regardless of whether or not the hunter got his prey. Neuffer, who often accompanied ’Vilah on hunts, reported that he never took a rifle. The walk and talk in nature with his friend were the rewards.
And, on the subject of trophies, Babcock critiqued the mad scene of big game hunters flying all over the world in search of the big and biggest animal or of killing something massive and exotic. His 1958 classic I Don’t Want to Shoot an Elephant names his prime sport as the lowly bobwhite partridge. In this philosophy, Babcock was obviously no Ernest Hemingway.
Babcock believed that being in nature was better for a man’s nerves than a doctor’s pills. He wrote, “A fishing boat is better than a psychiatrist’s couch.” He declared, “Farmers seldom have nervous break-downs. They haven’t time. People who lead a brisk, outdoor existence don’t go in for neuroses, psychoses, and other expensive and fashionable complaints.” In his story “The Bug in the Clock,” he said, “It ought to be against the law to let a boy grow up in a city.” He felt that a stirring day in the field for young and old alike “purges the mind of mental constipation.” He added, “What this country needs right now is a mental laxative.” In another essay, he declared, “When I need a psychiatrist, I go fly fishing.”
Babcock was a popular writer for Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield. He placed his first story in Field & Stream in 1934. He went on to publish five major books, beginning with My Health Is Better in November in 1948. It was illustrated by his colleague, art history teacher Augusta Rembert Wittkowsky, one of my favorite teachers at Carolina. Babcock’s last book, Jaybirds Go to Hell on Friday, came out shortly before his death on Dec. 10, 1964, just before Christmas break at the end of fall semester. Even as a junior English major, I was not aware of its publication or even that he was an author. Such was Babcock’s modesty. He was never one to seek the spotlight. This is the way one of his students acknowledged his passing: “Professor went hunting and forgot to come back.” Off hunting, yes. That is why classes did not see his bird dogs anymore.
When he was confined to the city limits of Columbia, he was a vegetable farmer who delighted in giving his friends heirloom tomatoes said to be as large as grapefruits. He had a small farm outside of town where he kept bees and successfully labored to increase the bobwhite population. He gardened year-round. In one of his last letters to his editor, he spoke not of hunting, fishing, or writing but of his vegetables and compost heap.
He and Alice loved camellias. She wore one pinned to her blouse every day during blooming season. In Babcock’s day, it was a tradition in much of South Carolina, especially at church, but is seldom seen today. This small detail reveals much about the shift in values and cultural norms and something of the nature-deficit syndrome from which Babcock felt urbanized moderns suffer. The Babcock Camellia Garden at Carolina preserved some of the couple’s specimens.
From 1926 to 1964, Babcock saw dramatic, and in his view, catastrophic change. He was never a so-called “progress” man. He hated the idea of telescoping distance with fast travel of any kind. He called himself a stay-at-home, “not a far-roamer and saga-seeker.” He said he never boarded “any sort of an airplane” even “when it was squatting on its haunches.” He told the story of the mountaineer who was persuaded to take his first flight. When asked how he liked it, he thanked the pilot for both rides. “What do you mean by both?” the pilot asked. “My fust and my last,” he replied. Babcock understood. The story reminds me of the old gentleman who declared after his first and last flight that when he went up again it would be with Jesus, and that no one has any business in an airplane but doctors, lawyers, and fools. I had always agreed until a recent medical emergency required an airlift, a flight that likely saved my life and made me able to write this essay.
Babcock witnessed the state’s commercial and industrial growth with foreboding. His whole existence had testified to the dangers implicit in the “money as measure” philosophy he saw increasing in America in a “cash register evaluation of life.” He disliked industrial agriculture in particular because it transformed the landscape into something less diverse. It poured poisons on the land and squandered soil. Agro-industry reduced the number of farmers and sent people to cities. Most dramatically of all, it reduced wildlife, especially his bobwhites. Babcock felt that it undermined Southern culture itself in its most central agrarian values and attributes. He wrote that industrial farming’s barbed wire “was nothing short of an invention of the devil.” It replaced the hedgerows and rail fences that were perfect habitats for wildlife.
Babcock felt that the massive new lakes came at a heavy price to both the land and the people’s collective memory that undergirded and strengthened the culture itself. Wealth came at a price not to be quantified by dollars. As to wealth, Babcock wrote: “Any man who has what he wants and has $2.50 in his pocket is well-to-do … I have never kept a budget. The idea is repugnant to me, and I am probably the world’s worst bookkeeper … we just spend what we need for hunting and fishing. Whatever is left over goes for housekeeping, clothing, etc.” As for his salary as a teacher, he declared that although small enough, he really didn’t need much and was getting paid more than he was worth anyway.
Babcock did not live to see the state’s quail population decrease more than 90 percent in the 50 years after his death. This would have hurt him the most. His phrase “The Bob-white is a gentleman” is loaded with special meaning. Babcock intimated that the concept of gentleman was itself being even more dangerously threatened than the bobwhite. They seem to have declined together.
As Dr. Lanz points out in his Chronicles essay, today, sadly, Babcock would likely have few if any friends in an American university. Lanz feels that the strident politicizing of literature departments “would have been beyond his comprehension.” He adds that sadly there would be little tolerance for a man like Babcock who thought that writing about things that interested the average person was important.
A glass and concrete high-rise replaced Davis College in 1967 to house the English department, which is where I did my graduate study. The new building’s low-ceilinged rooms both allowed for and required better “climate control,” and the classrooms had no windows. As Babcock might say, the structure was indeed not designed for the climate but rather to control it and create a barrier to nature. It is hard to envision Babcock there. He would, no doubt, have made much of the term “climate control.”
I highly recommend the works of Havilah Babcock — any of them and all of them. He and the comfortable gentlemanly rhythms of the life of his time and place are preserved there. It would be difficult to argue that his writings do not represent a healthier outdoor world of particularities, of familiar family fields and homeplaces, and of bobwhites, gentlemen, and ladies who take the time to pin a camellia to a blouse. Above all, as a writer, Babcock understood literature’s long view. The reader can benefit from the wisdom of this view expressed in the carefully honed prose of works that are to be savored and pondered rather than rushed through and quickly forgotten.
Dr. Kibler received his doctorate in English at the University of South Carolina and taught for many years at the University of Georgia. A poet, novelist, and cultural historian, he now writes and farms at his home in Newberry County.