Brainard Cheney’s compelling novels vividly recreate the historical world of south central Georgia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With a journalist’s skills and a native’s intimate knowledge, Cheney took the “wiregrass country” his ancestors had settled, and dramatically showed how industrial exploitation of the longleaf pine landscape had changed both the land and its people. Cheney brought timeless stories of human spiritual struggle to Georgia’s isolated backwoods, its wiregrass farms, and its log-driving rivers and ports, and told those stories in the language of the people who lived there.
Brainard Bartwell Cheney Jr. was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia, on June 3, 1900. The Cheney family had been early settlers of the area, and his father was a lawyer, a specialist in land claims, who moved the family to Lumber City a few years after Cheney was born. His father died in 1908, and Cheney’s mother Mattie, the daughter of a Charleston, South Carolina, minister, reared him and two sisters on the Telfair County farm. After high school Cheney attended college at The Citadel (1917-1919), Vanderbilt University (1920, 1924-25), and the University of Georgia (briefly, in the summer of 1924). During those years from 1917 to 1925, Cheney later told an interviewer, his real education came from reading widely and from the different people he met at the sundry jobs he held when he was not in school. That period included a brief military enlistment in 1918, which was cut short by Army demobilization after the Armistice. During the period from 1921 to 1924 when he was not attending school at Vanderbilt or Georgia, Cheney worked as a bank clerk in Lavonia, Georgia, ran a railroad crosstie operation and timber camp in Lumber City, and served as school principal at three rural Georgia communities in Jonesville, Scotland, and Bostwick.
In 1925 Cheney was back in Nashville, where he began long friendships with other literary Southerners. At Vanderbilt he had already become friends with a circle of writers who became known by the name of the Nashville-based poetry magazine they created for their work, The Fugitive. And in the fall of 1925, once he had decided to leave school for a fulltime reporter’s job at the daily Nashville Banner, Cheney became roommates with the Banner’s brilliant, colorful sports editor, Ralph McGill, later to be a famous editor and columnist at the Atlanta Constitution. With the encouragement of McGill and Fugitive novelist Stanley Johnson, who also wrote for the Banner, Cheney wrote poetry and short stories that eventually led him to invent the novels for which he became known. In 1928 he married Frances Neel, a Vanderbilt graduate who would become an eminent academic reference librarian and a distinguished professor of library science at Nashville’s Peabody College. The Cheneys' circle of literary friends expanded in the 1930s to include Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon.
As he labored to write a novel with the help of Gordon, who he called his “literary godmother,” Cheney continued writing for the Banner. He would work there for fifteen years, holding various reporting and editorial posts and earning a reputation as the Tennessee capital’s sharpest political reporter. After leaving the newspaper in 1940, Cheney supported his writing for several years by drawing upon his political experience and skill. After Pearl Harbor he tried to enlist in the military but was rejected due to his age. He worked in Washington, D.C., first as executive secretary for Tennessee's senator Tom Stewart and then for a U.S. Senate subcommittee, from 1943 to 1945. He later served as as public relations officer and speechwriter for Tennessee governor Frank Clement from 1952 to 1958.
Cheney published four novels between 1939 and 1969, all set principally in Georgia, with many existing places named (though Cheney took the liberty of reinventing Lumber City, whigh figures prominently in the last two novels as “Riverton”). A fifth novel, Kitty Mood's Cup, a historical fiction based on Cheney's mother's Charleston, South Carolina family, was apparently set for publication but never placed in distribution.
Lightwood (1939) was Cheney’s first published novel, and he half humorously called the story a “near-history.” With characters and incidents he based on a factual record of federal court documents, Lightwood’s plot turns on a long, occasionally violent conflict that erupted in the late nineteenth century over territory between the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers. Lightwood's plot covers fifteen years from 1874 to 1889, and like the actual “Dodge Land Troubles” it is based on, it involves legal fights and corruption as well as sabotage and murder, and the story opposes men hired by New York lumber companies against Georgia backwoodsmen and farmers who had settled the dense “piney woods.”
Cheney received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1941 to complete his second novel, which he had begun the year before at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers Conference while working alongside fellow southern writers Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. River Rogue (1942) recreates the bygone world of backwoods raftsmen along the Oconee and Altamaha rivers. Beginning in 1884, the novel tells the story of a young man who climbs out of the river swamps to rise to power and corruption on the ladder of the timber industry in the tidewater town of Darien. Ratliff Sutton is a runaway who earns the river nickname “Snake” among African-American backwoodsmen who shelter him and teach him to navigate the river and its domain of cypress swamps and ox-bow lakes. By fighting his way to ownership of a sawmill and capitalizing on his competitors’ disarray after a devastating hurricane ravaged coastal Georgia in 1898, Sutton emerges a wealthy, corrupt merchant at the peak of Darien’s era as the leading lumber port on the southern Atlantic coast.
This Is Adam (1958) and Devil's Elbow (1969) are loosely autobiographical novels, set in the decades from around 1910 to World War II. This is Adam is set in “Riverton,” Cheney’s fictionalized equivalent of Lumber City, and the story centers on characters based on his mother and an African-American overseer who worked for the Cheney family. The two characters struggle with challenges that arise when unscrupulous “Yankee” businessmen and white townspeople collude and pressure the overseer, Adam, to cheat his late employer’s widow out of land bearing potentially lucrative clay deposits. Reviewing This Is Adam in the Atlanta Constitution, Ralph McGill called it a book about “the basic essence of man and his best qualities of loyalty, faith, compassion, courage and the stubborn will to endure.” The Georgia Writers Association honored This Is Adam with its prize for the best novel of 1958.
The plot of Devil’s Elbow follows the widow Hightower’s grown son, Marcellus, as he returns home in the 1920s to settle his mother's estate. Once there, he is dogged by resurrected memories of a friend’s murder in the Oconee river swamps. Over the next two decades Marcellus returns twice more to Georgia, each time confronting more of his past and drawing closer to resolving his conflict. In describing the novel's crime scene, Cheney again drew from his vast and detailed knowledge of the Oconee-Ocmulgee-Altamaha river basin landscape, and Devil’s Elbow includes as well Marcellus’s memories of real locations from Cheney's experience, among them Athens in northeast Georgia and the islands of the Georgia coast. Devil’s Elbow brings Marcellus’s spiritual crisis to conclusion in a religious awakening similar to the journey from pessimism to faith experienced by Cheney himself who, with his wife, converted to Roman Catholicsm in 1953.
Cheney’s deep concerns with man’s spiritual struggle are also evident in two plays he wrote in the 1950s, Strangers in the World and I Choose to Die, two dramas with Tennessee settings that were both originally produced at Vanderbilt University. Cheney would eventually publish a number of articles developing his Christian Realist ideas in the Sewanee Review, which frequently published his literary reviews as well. It was a 1952 review Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, which initiated a close friendship with the Milledgeville writer, with whom Cheney and his wife corresponded and visited frequently until her death in 1964. A volume of the many letters that passed between them, taken from the Cheneys’ archived papers at Vanderbilt, was published by University of Mississippi Press in 1986.
In 1982 Cheney and his wife, who were longtime residents of Smyrna, Tennessee, made a triumphant return to Georgia as honored guests of the first Project R.A.F.T. (Restoring Altamaha Folk Traditions) festival, which Cheney helped to organize. As part of the festivities, Cheney relived a journey he had made nearly seventy years before, helping to crew a reconstructed river raft from Lumber City to Darien. At the festival, he addressed a crowd in his hometown along the Altamaha:
It was my good fortune to grow up in Lumber City something over a half century ago beside the Ocmulgee River–beside it, on top of it, and under much of it. And circumstances bore me far away and kept me there. Though I quit the river, the river never did quit me. I still have river mud behind my ears…. Yes, in a way I took the river, took Lumber City with me. Scattered over thirty years, in four novels, I have sought to tell about it–have sought to celebrate the story of the Altamaha and its people.[i]
The festival occasioned the republication that year of River Rogue, and in 1984 of Lightwood, by Burr Oak Press.
Brainard Cheney died in Nashville in 1990 at the age of eighty-nine
[i] Presley, Delma. “Introduction.” In: Lightwood. Washington, D.C. : Burr Oak Publishers, 1984.
Photo of Brainard Cheney, Kitty Mood's Cup, Burr Oak Publishers, 1985.
The following books by Brainard Cheney are held by the Hargrett Library:
Lightwood. Eastman, Ga.: MM John Welda Bookhouse, 2012.
River Rogue. Eastman, Ga.: MM John Welda Bookhouse, 2012.
This is Adam.Eastman, Ga.: MM John Welda Bookhouse, 2012.
Devil’s Elbow. Eastman, Ga.: MM John Welda Bookhouse, 2012.
Kitty Mood’s Cup. Washington DC: Burr Oak, 1985.
Lightwood. Washington DC: Burr Oak, 1984.
River Rogue.Washington DC: Burr Oak, 1982.
Devil’s Elbow. New York: Crown Publishers, 1969.
This is Adam.New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958.
River Rogue. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942.
Lightwood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939.
The Brainard and Frances Cheney Papers, 1841-1989, in the Special Collections of the Vanderbilt University Library include correspondence, manuscripts of writings, speeches, research materials, publication materials, publicity for books and play productions and materials from Brainard Cheney’s career in politics.