When Yeaton Wagener taught his short story appreciation class at the University of South Carolina 50 years ago, he assigned a modest little narrative, “The Trial at Tom Belcher’s Store,” part of a collection entitled Frank of Freedom Hill by Samuel Derieux, set on a South Carolina farm in the early 1900s.
Its main character, Davy Allen, is a farm lad who recently lost his father. He is doing a grown man’s work to help his struggling mother not lose their home to a spiteful, miserly neighbor. When Davy saves the life of this same neighbor’s mistreated dog and it follows him home, the bitter old man takes delight in accusing Davy of stealing it and demands his arrest. Davy is brought before Squire Kirby, a magistrate who holds court nearby at Tom Belcher’s country store. The author showcases Kirby’s wisdom in meting out justice. In so doing, he portrays Upcountry values and the down-home good sense that have characterized, for me, the ways of that time and place better than any solemn book of history before or since. I won’t give away the drama’s conclusion, but enough to say, I’ve remembered the story for more than half a century.
For many years I remembered the story but had forgotten both the author’s name and its source. When a work of fiction stays in the memory that long, a reader should take note. About a decade ago, I found the source but found no copy. After many fruitless searches, I was finally fortunate to find a scarce, well-used copy at an estate sale near my home. Now, reprints are readily available on Amazon.
“The Trial” was as good as I remembered it, and perhaps on balance, even better. After a lifetime engaged in writing and providing literary criticism, I was now able to better appreciate the story’s quiet artistry and its depth of wisdom in portraying a vanished world of which I had had barely a glimpse growing up. The book Frank of Freedom Hill did not disappoint either. In fact, I now judge it to be among the best collections of South Carolina short stories, rivaling Julia Peterkin’s masterful Green Thursday and the sporting stories of Archibald Rutledge as well as Kentucky author Caroline Gordon’s justly celebrated Aleck Maury Sportsman.
In rereading “The Trial,” I also recalled our kindly teacher — the tweed-clad, tall, graying gentleman with old-fashioned white mustaches and moist eyes as he read us one of his favorite stories that moved him on this or that particular class day. “If literature can be of such worth to a grown man,” we youngsters thought, “then it must be worth a grown man’s time.” Professor Wagener, a native of Monck’s Corner, South Carolina, had been gathered into the English department fold of gentlemen and ladies by department chair Havilah Babcock.
Of Samuel Derieux himself, he has dropped from sight. He appears in no Southern literary history. He is not in the massive South Carolina Encyclopedia or the South Carolina Academy of Authors. He does not appear on the detailed “Literary Map of South Carolina” or even in Edwin Epps’s excellent Literary History of South Carolina (2004).
Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1881, he was brought to Spartanburg County as a small child by his father, who was a Baptist minister. Samuel was taught in the local school of a rural crossroads near a village that becomes his fictional Breton Junction. His grandfather’s farm becomes “The Oaks” in the community named Freedom Hill outside Breton Junction. In these formative years, his home was his grandfather’s farm, where he would return for health and inspiration for the rest of his life.
At the age of 16, Samuel nearly died of typhoid fever — an episode that seriously undermined his health for the rest of his relatively short life. This event was dramatized in a moving chapter of Frank of Freedom Hill in the life of character Tommy Earle. The main character of the chapter is not Tommy or his parents, however, but Tommy’s faithful Irish setter Frank — Frank of Freedom Hill. The remarkable Frank becomes the central protagonist of the collection.
Derieux began his college studies at nearby Wofford College then transferred to Richmond College, where he graduated in 1904. From there, now drawn to literature and majoring in English, he received graduate degrees at Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago in 1910. At Chicago, he met and married Mary Derieux, who would pay tribute to her late husband’s parents for raising Samuel to be the gentleman he became. They did this, she said, by providing him a home “in which the simple virtues of courtesy and kindness were practised as a matter of course, and a boyhood lived in close touch with woods, fields, and all the great creative forces of the earth.”
The young couple moved about while Derieux taught English in a series of colleges in Virginia, Missouri, and finally in North Carolina at Wake Forest from 1915 to 1917. He continued to return to South Carolina when circumstances allowed. He was also beginning to write and soon found acclaim as winner of an O. Henry Short Story Prize for three consecutive years. He accepted an editorial position at New York’s The American Magazine in 1917. Still, he came home when possible and, as his wife related, longed for it when not able to.
Many times in his teaching and editing, typhoid forced him to go home and live outdoors. “Here he cultivated the plain country folk in their homes, stores, and churches, hunted and acquired his wonderful knowledge of dogs,” wrote George Wauchope, a literary critic, in 1923. It was in The American Magazine that Derieux published the first of his famous stories of dogs, which became the first chapter of Frank of Freedom Hill.
Frank of Freedom Hill was published in 1922. The chapter “An Act of God” tells of an old dog blinded by a lightning strike. With his master’s tender care, he again learns to hunt. Wauchope writes that this chapter was printed in raised letters as a great source of encouragement for the blind and continues that Derieux “had the preeminent power of carrying his readers old and young alike with him emotionally,” but the emotion is earned honestly without gratuitous sentimentality. Then University of South Carolina President S.C. Mitchell, Ph.D., commented in a commencement address, “My boy doesn’t believe in crying or ‘sob stuff,’ but the other day when he read Frank of Freedom Hill, he had to go upstairs for a new supply of handkerchiefs.”
Another literary critic of the 1920s wrote that Derieux “created a new department of literature” with his moving stories of animals and “his insight into canine psychology that was almost uncanny.” Derieux also garnered praise from other literary craftsmen of his day. Booth Tarkington, for example, ranked him among the foremost short story writers in America. A close friend summarized Derieux’s style “as so simple that children love his writing, but he was graphic, and had the genius to put a wealth of feeling into what he wrote. He could make words smile or shed tears, and yet all the time they are the every-day sort that might have been used by any every-day sort of man.”
Derieux’s extraordinary creativity extended into other fields as well; he was a skillful artist, could play the piano with sweetness of touch without ever having had a lesson, and could model in clay and carve in wood. Appropriately, his oil paintings were usually of dogs against a Southern sky or sunsets and farm landscapes.
Derieux deeply loved South Carolina and always called it home. At his death in February 1922 at the age of 41, the Palmetto flag on the State House flew at half-mast for two days in his honor. He was buried in Columbia’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Derieux did not live to see a copy of his published book. In the year after his death, Mary Derieux edited a second remarkable volume of her husband’s stories entitled Animal Personalities. She wrote that her husband’s ability to allow his readers to see themselves in his animal characters was “the most striking quality in everything he wrote.”
Animal Personalities begins with a section on animals in the woods and fields of South Carolina. These first sketches stand in marked contrast to the later ones describing the animal inmates at the Bronx Zoo. Derieux shows how closely the animals’ personalities in confinement parallel the human condition under similar urban circumstances. In the zoo, boredom, unprovoked viciousness, and insanity are commonplace, reflecting the modernist ennui in a crowded city. In this zoo world, the natural order is badly askew. Derieux thus gives examples of the zoo animals’ neuroses relative to modern urban problems; paralleling the unnatural, artificial, and forced confinement of humans in the city, the zoo animals deteriorate into their most savage instincts.
In contrast, the author traces the manner in which hunting dogs in early rural South Carolina are trained from puppyhood in responsibility for upholding “the codes of duty, diligence, loyalty, and honor” that mirror their masters’ gentlemanly code. The well-bred pup is broken of stealing, “for a thieving dog is a reproach to his master.” The good behavior of the dog reflects the character of the master who lives a judicious, balanced home life. Derieux declares, “I have never known a first-class bird-dog who did not have for a master a patient, just-minded, considerate man.”
Derieux goes on to describe a dog’s good manners. He is not “greedy about food;” he doesn’t jump up on people; he doesn’t come “bolting into a room but walks in quietly with just a grateful look at the kind host.” John Siddall, Derieux’s editor at The American Magazine, noted this same gentlemanly code in the writer himself. He wrote, “Back of his work was the man himself, fine, generous, honorable, and courageous; in one word, a thoroughbred.” He concluded, “His character showed in everything he wrote.”
The themes of both of Derieux’s books thus mesh nicely. Frank of Freedom Hill portrays how the gentleman’s code of the Earles, Kirbys, and other decent everyday rural folk transfers to their animals. Consider, for example, the narrator’s statement that Squire Earle’s well-trained Frank “would have been a gentleman if he hadn’t been a dog” or self-control in animal or man “embitters a small spirit — it ennobles a large one.” The book thus quietly defines the gentleman’s code in action in both man and dog.
In the wonderful concluding chapter of Frank of Freedom Hill entitled “The Call of Home,” Frank is loaned to his master’s friend to hunt in Florida. As Frank is being boarded for the train trip, an observer comments that Frank doesn’t look eager for the adventure. His master declares that Frank will be alright, but, “He’s a countryman like the rest of us, he doesn’t like to leave home.” Circumstances sometimes require it however. This poignant statement speaks volumes about the history of many Southern families, Derieux’s own feelings of displacement, and the Southerner’s love of the land, which Derieux clearly embodied.
On Frank’s hunt in Florida, he gets snared by low, unprincipled people who hold him for ransom. Day after day, these men chain and lock him up in a tight, dirty enclosure, but the memory of home, master, and Tommy calls him to chew himself loose from his prison; and after an epic ordeal of some 800 miles, nearly dead, he reaches the steps of his master’s house at Freedom Hill, where as Derieux writes, all men and beasts live free.
Both Derieux’s books are thus about freedom, the freedom to live in God’s creation as he made it for all creatures great and small. A Carolinian should recognize the relevance of the book’s setting near Cowpens and King’s Mountain — symbols of Derieux’s sturdy pioneer heritage and its own struggle for freedom.
A year after Derieux’s death, other stories he had written appeared in magazines, including “Old Gideon,” “Figgers Can’t Lie,” “Joy Goes After the Doctor,” and “Old Thad’s Chippendale.” At least seven uncollected stories are included in The American Magazine itself, some of them quite long. A complete collection has never been published, and Derieux’s name itself is sadly all but forgotten, despite the fact that “The Trial at Tom Belcher’s Store” was made into a movie entitled A Boy and His Dog that won an Academy Award in 1946. I find this situation more a reflection on our day than the quality of Derieux’s writing.
At his death, Derieux was working on a series about the swamps south of Columbia. One wonders if these manuscripts survive.