In a Minor Chord: Waters Edward Turpin's "These Low Grounds" Reissued

If – like me – you have been a serious reader of African American literature since around 1968, you may have bought The Negro Caravan, the seminal 1941 anthology edited by Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee when it was reprinted by Arno Press/New York Times in 1970.

In 1941, Richard Wright had just published Native Son (1940), and a few years earlier Zora Neale Hurston had brought out Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), selections from both writers in The Negro Caravan, and both novels now recognized as classics of African American literature.   

While Hurston’s novel could be said to point back to, or be a late masterpiece of the Harlem   Renaissance of the 1920s, Wright’s Native Son inaugurated a new era of social realism.  

Three minor 1930s novelists of the rural South, whose novels are excerpted in The Negro Caravan, would seem to span the years in between: George Wylie Henderson (1904-1965), George W. Lee (1894-1976), and Waters Edward Turpin (1910-1968).

Henderson’s Ollie Miss (1935), a novel of the Deep South of cabins, fields, and roads that are not quite roads, set in the vicinity of Booker T. Washington’s famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, is a minor masterpiece, noted for its portrait of the strong and strong-willed young heroine, Ollie Miss, and praised by critics for its lyricism, and especially for its authentic use of black vernacular.

Before his book was published, Alabama born Henderson had already immigrated to New York’s Harlem, the setting for the last half of his second novel, Jule (1946). Well worth a read, even as you would probably agree with critics finding Ollie Miss to be the better book.

George Washington Lee’s River George (1937), set in part among sharecroppers on a Tennessee plantation, and Waters Edward Turpin’s two novels from the 1930s have been out of print for years.

But now Dover Publications to their credit have reissued a paperback edition of These Low Grounds (1937), following the lives of an African American family over four generations, from slavery times to the thirties, with “revealing documentation of Negro life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” according to the editors of The Negro Caravan.    

While the novels of George Wylie Henderson, both reissued by the University of Alabama Press, benefit from solid introductions from well-known literary critics – Ollie Miss (1988) by Blyden Jackson, Jule (1989) by J. Lee Greene – Dover offers us just half a page About the Author and a few blurbs from reviews written at the time of the first publication of These Low Grounds, surely an opportunity missed to take a closer look at this fine novel from the vantage point of 2020.  

As it is, Dover might as well reprint and give us the sequel O Canaan! (1939) too, tracing the trials and triumphs of migratory farmers who left the South during the Depression in search of better opportunities in the North, seeing Chicago as another Canaan, the promised land of the Bible.