By Alec Clayton – Many people who were not alive at the time can hardly envision the casual racism, misogyny and classism that was alive and well in the 1940s and 1950s. The television series “Mad Men” gave a bit of a hint, but from what little I can remember—I was a child at the time—it was the everydayness and never-give-a-thought-to-itness that might be astounding to people who were not alive at the time.
Author James Robert Peery was born in 1900 in the small town of Eupora, Mississippi. He served in the army in World War I and came home to write about small town life in the South in the time between the world wars in his novels Stark Summer and God Rides a Gale. After moving to the larger capital city of Jackson, he wrote about life on the home front during World War II in Angels Sleep Alone—a novel about Maury Dell Carter, daughter of a “Holy Roller” preacher, and Bob Sessions, a wise-cracking but sensitive newspaper columnist. The everyday casualness of valuing women almost exclusively according to their physical appearance is rife throughout the novel, as are the pointed pictures of classism and racism Peery paints—as pictured in this snippet from a brief scene in which one of the town’s business leaders and old-family socialites, Charles Darnell, gives Maury and her roommate, Ann, a ride:
The big car moved away from the curb with ponderous quietness. It shot forward into a space in the downtown traffic under Darnell’s sure manipulations. He said, “I can’t trust any of the servants to buy liquor. And the last drop has disappeared mysteriously.”
Ann said, “Again servant trouble, no doubt.”
Darnell laughed and said, “You may have a point there. The servant problem gets worse every day.”
Maury said, “We know about that. Our three-times-a-week maid has quit because we buy rum and bourbon instead of scotch.”
Darnell nodded. “It’s pretty bad. Mother says the trouble is that the government is sending too many and to large checks to the wives of the Negroes in the service. There was a story in the paper only this week about a Negro janitor at a tourist court with fourteen children. He worked for twenty-eight dollars a week and then was drafted. Now his family is receiving over three hundred dollars a month! You can readily see that his wife and any of the older children able to work will not do a thing but spend that money.”
It is telling that while Darnell was born into wealth and has never worked a day in his life, Maury and Ann are wage workers from lower middle-class families; yet they all buy into the same myths without question.
Peery finished writing Angels Sleep Alone shortly before his death in 1954, before he sent it to his publisher. His widow never attempted to have it published. The manuscript was eventually inherited by his granddaughter, who sent it to me. She holds the copyright, and she has given Mud Flat Press the right to publish it. Watch for it. Coming soon.