Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Judge Priest

Back Home: Being the Narrative of Judge Priest and His People (Grosset and Dunlap: New York, 1912)
Old Judge Priest (George H. Doran Co.: New York, 1916) by Irvin S. Cobb

The setting of these tales is Kentucky in the early 1900s. The Civil War is a living memory to many of the older inhabitants of the region and is still a significant event to the younger members of the communities. All the stories center around one Judge Priest, a portly judge in his mid-sixties, who fought with Forrest during the War for Southern Independence.

In his autobiography, Exit Laughing (1941), Cobb tells us of Judge Priest’s origins:

Now Judge Priest, who became a mainstay and a breadwinner for the Cobb family over a stretch of thirty years or longer, was a consolidated likeness, into which I diagrammed elementary parts of three separate persons. In him, as he ambled across a border southern terrain, was a trace of my father, but only mental attitudes here, not bodily aspects; and an occasional touch taken from my former fellow townsman and crony, Hal Corbett, who made a briefened appearance among these strolling memories chapter before last. But predominantly he was a reincarnation of the late Judge William S. Bishop and physically almost altogether was Judge Bishop—the high bald forehead, the pudgy shape, the little white paintbrush of a chin whisker, the strident high-pitched voice which, issuing from that globular tenement, made a grotesque contrast, as though a South American tapir had swallowed a tomtit alive and was letting the tomtit do the talking for him. The habits and the traits embodied in this triple-sided composite portrait mainly were his too: his exterior dovelike gentleness under which deceiving surface lurked a serpent’s shrewdness; his deftly concealed manipulations of local politics; his cultivated affectation of using a country jake vernacular when off the bench and his sudden switch to precise and stately English when on it; his high respect for the profession that he followed and for the office that he held so many years; his divine absent-mindedness; his utterly unreasonable fear of thunderstorms.

Touching on these two last-named peculiarities, tales were told. Once when company was present in his home a sudden forked flash in the murky heavens and a great thunderclap sent him fleeing to an umbrella closet under the front stairs where he fastened the door behind him and cowered among the galoshes. His wife pursued him there and through the keyhole she said: “Judge Bishop, I am ashamed of you—you a brave soldier of the war, to behave like a veritable coward before our guests. Don’t
you know, Judge Bishop,” –the good lady was very religious –“don’t you know that if the Lord wants to smite you dead, He will find you, no matter where you hide?”

“Maybe so, Madam, maybe so,” came back the muffled answer. “But by Gatlins, I’ll put Him to as much trouble as possible!”

In midsummer he went to a bar association meeting upstate. As he was leaving, Mrs. Bishop said: “Judge, I’ve packed six clean shirts for you and six clean collars so don’t you go mooning around, like you usually do, and forget to change every morning.” (In those days, before pajamas were ever dreamed of and nightshirts were regarded as being fussy, not to say effeminate, many a cultured Southern gentleman slept by night in the hard-bosomed back-buttoning linen which he had worn through the day.)

When he came home she was waiting for him at the depot with the family buggy.

“You look warm,” she said.

“Warm?” he echoed. “I’m parboiled. I’m cooking in my own gravy. I’m broken out with nettle rash like a baby. I think I’m fixing to die.”

“Why, the weather here has been very seasonable,” she said.

“It wasn’t too warm in Frankfort, either,” he said. “That’s the funny part of it. Seemed to me I got hotter and hotter all the time. Maybe I’m sickening for a stroke or something. Right now I’m sweating like a free nigger at election.”

“Right now? Why there’s a cool breeze blowing… Judge Bishop, bend over here and hold still!”

She undid a wilted collar and ran an exploratory finger down inside his neckband—down inside six neckbands, to be exact. Obeying orders, he had each morning put on a clean shirt. Only one detail he had inadvertently skipped. He forgot to take off the
shirt he’d slept in.
Although set in the 1900s, the best and noblest characters in the tales are the old Confederate veterans and the men and women who support the old ways. The good ‘darkies’ are the ones who also support the old South. (Cobb is a bit unrealistic on that subject, in contrast to Caroline Gordon’s None Shall Look Back and Stark Young’s So Red the Rose.) The villains are the mean-spirited souls of both races and the new breed of capitalist whites.

Not all the stories sing as sweetly as “A Beautiful Evening” and “When the Fighting Was Good,” but taken as a whole, the Judge Priest stories give us a pleasant glimpse of a place where community still existed, fragile and disappearing, but still living.

I recommend reading the stories; but even greater (much greater) than the stories is the movie loosely based on the story, “Words and Music.” The movie, called appropriately enough, Judge Priest, is directed by (who else) John Ford. Will Rogers, a contemporary and close friend of Irvin Cobb, plays Judge Priest. The movie is far and away the best movie ever made about the South and the Great Cause. I don’t see how it is possible for one to view the movie without forever being a die-hard Southern partisan.