Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A fictional character strives and fails

Green describes the hopeless tenant farmer he created for his novel, <cite>This Body the Earth</cite>. He believed that by crafting a character who strove but failed he could motivate watchers and readers to try to improve their world.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

It's very interesting the way you talk about what is going on in society today bearing down on you as you write. It is not that you are trying to write about contemporary things, but they are there. When you were writing something like This Body The Earth, for example, in 1935, do you remember having that same kind of feeling of what was going on in the society around you at that time?
Yes, that's right. I took a rural theme because …well, I went back some years and I don't remember what the date was, it would be about the First World War. Anyway, I remember that my young man that I was writing about and created, he didn't go to war. I think that he married or something. Anyway, … maybe it was before the war, but I had seen as a child this tenant farm system and it was still rampant. My father, we were poor farmers, but he finally got a couple of tenant houses. That tenant system had grown up after the Civil War and it was a vicious thing, the farm tenancy. Hookworm and pelagra in the South. So, I decided that I would try to write about a fellow … well, I made a tragedy out of it. I didn't treat the young man right because he could have succeeded if I hadn't wanted to give a tragic expression to it.
Why did you want to give a tragic expression to it?
I don't know, maybe that is a one sided view, this tragic or pathetic thing, but I had seen so many people whose lives were sort of wrecked. I remember one tenant on our farm and when my father would get a tenant family, he would want a man and a wife with a lot of children so that they could pick cotton. To a man and a wife with no children my father would say, "No, I'm sorry, we are looking for a big family." Well, there is no use in going into that, but I tried to tell the story of this tenant farm business and I felt that somehow if I wrote about a man who tried to move up, he did everything he could, he worked himself to death almost and he couldn't make it and so the reader would ache in his heart and say, "Oh, this ought not to be like this." That ache on the part of the reader, the sense of sympathy, the strong sense of sympathy that you would have for a man like this, a young man that failed, would be strong enough to maybe make the reader get out and try to do something. I think, if I may say so, that this is one of the flaws in the Russian or totalitarian system, where in their works of art, usually in their drama, their novels and poetry, they come out with a yea saying point of view, optimistic, so that a spectator or reader is denied the rich human experience of trying to provide a program of his own. So, if you read a tragic thing, well … take Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Jude wanted to go to school you know, and so on, but he had so many weaknesses, sexual ones and all, and the greatest weakness of all was what the author intended to do with him. Hardy didn't intend to give him a chance. [Laughter] You can read the book now, I tried to read it recently and it is obvious that Hardy is not going to let this guy succeed because he wrings more anguish out of it. I think he does it so much now that the book is hurt. When I first read it in 1922, gosh, I went out and walked up and down the streets of Ithaca where I was going to school and thought that this was just the greatest thing that ever was. I didn't see the Machiavellian intent of the author. Recently, trying to read it, I gave it up, I said, "Well, this guy doesn't have a chance." He tries to do this and Hardy won't let him. Everything is against him.