Saturday, July 19, 2008

Poplar Grove: The Novel

There's a wonderful used bookstore here on the Eastern Shore called the Unicorn Bookshop - my good friend Ted Widmer first took me there several years ago, and since then, every time I visit, I seem to come away with something interesting and unusual. A year or two ago, an old hardcover novel attracted my eye, and for a few dollars I brought it home. It then went onto the shelf unread and I forgot about it until just this week, when it caught my eye again and - for reasons that will be obvious in a moment - I read it with great interest.

The book is A Maryland Manor, subtitled A Novel of Plantation Aristocracy and its Fall, by Frederic Emory, and was published in 1901 by Frederick A. Stokes, a fairly prominent New York publishing house of the time. It is set on an Eastern Shore plantation during the Civil War - referred to simply as "The Manor" - that has been the seat of the wealthy Cheston family for two centuries.

As I began reading, I realized almost immediately that the book was a thinly veiled portrait - with some fictional embellishments - of the Emory family and Poplar Grove.

The house itself - grand but shabby, "a rambling structure of mottled brick, reddish brown and gray," swathed in vines and creepers, with verandas around it, and the brick-walled family cemetery immediately adjacent, next to the library - is clearly Poplar Grove. Emory even describes the long cove off the river (in real life, Emory's Cove) and the adjacent farm known as "Indian Spring" (aka, Indiantown), and another nearby farm that is clearly supposed to be Readbourne, the old Hollyday estate next door to Poplar Grove. There are vivid descriptions of a nearby town (unnamed) that is obviously meant to be Chestertown, and of a village called "Winton Mills" (aka, Wye Mills) where the family goes to church. The family names of the main characters are also clearly based on local geography: "Cheston" (after Cheston-on-Wye, an old manor in Queen Anne's County) and "Kent" (the name of the adjacent county).

The novel's plot is a typically implausible Edwardian potboiler, with some overtones of Henry James - an impostor and unclaimed inheritance; long-lost neighbors and relatives reappearing from Europe and New York; a headstrong girl who needs to be tamed by the right man; sinister social-climbers scheming to wrest the Manor out of the hands of the noble-hearted but naive Cheston family.

But it's clearly also set against a very real backdrop of Poplar Grove as it was at a crucial moment in its history, when the Civil War broke out and slavery began to crumble. The plantation's owner, Colonel Robert Cheston, is an old Seminole War veteran who was called home to resign from the Army and manage the plantation when his father died unexpectedly - just exactly like Colonel John Register Emory (1818-1880). And like Colonel Emory, the fictional Colonel is "an ardent 'States Rights' man" who commands the local militia and fervently supports the Confederacy, even though practical considerations prevent him from going South himself. In the book, he is also as naive about slavery as he is about the plantation's finances: "He failed to see that repression, however benevolent, generates in all human society diseases which gradually sap the stateliest and stoutest fabric. All was fair, to his eye, because the many submitted so amiably to the few. He was blind to the fact that the free states were rapidly outstripping the slave states in wealth, in enlightenment, in the general average of happiness precisely because they gave every individual an equal chance. He pitied what seemed to him their inevitable lack of social graces, their sordid materialism...."

In fact, the book is somewhat cutting-edge for its time on the subjects of slavery and race - since in 1901 it was very much the fashion for Southern "local color" authors simply to rue the demise of the moonlight-and-magnolias Old South. True, Emory portrays his black characters with stereotypical traits (though also sympathetically, for the most part). Yet his noble young hero, Basil Kent, son of a neighboring planter, has inwardly come to the secret conclusion that slavery is morally wrong - and at a climactic moment in the book, he reveals his true feelings, frees all the family slaves and enlists in the Union Army (much to the shock and dismay of the white community). The novel daringly portrays a mixed-race house servant, Phyllis, who is in love with Colonel Cheston's white brother - a love that Emory strongly suggests was once consummated.

While Emory seems to sympathize politically with the abolitionist views of Basil Kent, he also feels emotional sympathy with the proslavery Colonel Cheston. A Maryland Manor vividly describes the moment - a painful and poignant one, from the white family's perspective - when the Manor's slaves all abandon the plantation and flock to a Union encampment:

"The blow was a heavy one for the Colonel. His pecuniary loss scarcely affected him at all, but the absence of the familiar figures about him caused him cruel pain .... Many of them had been companions of his boyhood with whom he had played and hunted. Others had been the nurses or out-of-door preceptors of his early childhood to whose quaint stories he had often listened with rapt attention. ... Sad at heart, he walked down to the Quarter at nightfall, hoping against hope that some had returned. The building was empty. Tears glistened in his eyes at the sight of it, a shadowy mass in the darkness from which came no sound. Usually, at this hour, it was gay with lights and laughter, but now, for the first time in its history, it was silent and deserted. It was as though Death had entered, to abide there. And death, indeed, was there - death to the Old Order which the Colonel so passionately loved."

As alien and politically-incorrect as these feelings may seem to a modern reader, they also seem authentic, as if Frederic Emory had experienced them firsthand. And in fact, some sleuthing into his life reveals that he did.

Frederic Emory (1853-1908) was the nephew of Colonel John Register Emory, the proprietor of Poplar Grove during the Civil War era. The 1860 Census lists him and his parents (he was then seven) immediately after John Register Emory's family, which strongly suggests that they lived either at Poplar Grove or immediately next to it. Frederick's father was Blanchard Emory (1831-after 1900), the youngest of General Thomas Emory's eleven children. Blanchard and his brother John married two sisters, Mary and Alice Bourke, so the families must have been exceptionally close. When Frederic Emory wrote A Maryland Manor, then, he was describing Poplar Grove as he knew it between the ages of about 8 and 12.

And Emory was clearly a formidable youngster - the sort who would have missed very few details, even at that early age. While still a teenager, he researched and published a series of newspaper articles on Queen Anne's County's history, which were later enlarged into a book. As an adult, he worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and then, from 1893 to 1905, served as Chief of the Bureau of Trade Relations at the U.S. State Department - playing an important supporting role in developing and theorizing American foreign policy during those critical years. Emory returned from Washington, D.C. to Queen Anne's County in retirement, and lived in a house on the Chester River that he called "Blackbeard."

Frederic Emory's sharp political eye, his love of history, his understanding of the broader world, and his deep attachment to his native soil are all evident in the pages of A Maryland Manor, which was the only novel he ever published. It brings Poplar Grove to life differently than the family letters and political and business documents that we have found: more visually, for one thing, with vivid descriptions of the place when it was not an empty house, but a bustling plantation peopled with family members, visitors, retainers, and slaves. I will follow up this entry soon with some posts of more passages from the book.

3 comments:

Ann Emory said...

My records show for Frederick Emory (1853-1908) that he was born at Bloomfield Farm.
Named for "Uncle Fred", who laid out the City of Marysville in California and was a friend of Colonel Sutters, who owned the gold mines there when first discovered. (ref. Colonial Families p 183)

From obit in Centreville Observer, Sept. 26th, 1908. - Died at his home from a lingering illness of consumption. He had been in failing health for some time, which fact caused him some years ago to resign the post of secretary to the Bureau of American Republics at Washington, appointed by President McKinley. Emory went to Baltimore at an early age and became connected with the SUN. Later he removed to Philadelphia, working on the Public Ledger and other papaers.
Belonged to the Cosmos Club.

Anonymous said...

Ann I can't figure out the syatem below. So please excuse the method I am using. I may have some interesting info about "Uncle Fred" Emory please contact Jeff Sarvey at jpsarvey@yahoo.com. Thanks.

EDCAT said...

Very interesting article. Recently acquired a Washington D.C. Riggs National Bank check signed by Frederic Emory in 1905, was researching his name and found thus article. Thanks