Georgia: An Echo of Chain Gang Justice

Georgia Chain Gang (Library of Congress, Photo).

On Saturday, tenants and sharecroppers from local farms would come to town to swap goods and talk, but the rest of the week was pretty dull. It was a lonesome, isolated place.

The nearest bus stop was 3 miles away on the Forks Falls Road where the chain gang was working. For want of anything better to do, the villagers would walk there to hear the chain gang chant work songs to the rhythmic beat of their picks pounding into the hard-packed clay.

In author Carson McCullers’ words:

“The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable man street only a hundred yards long.

The largest building, in the very center of town, is boarded up completely and leans so far to the right that it seems bound to collapse at any minute…”

This quote is from Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of a Sad Café, her novella of greed, love, deceit, and revenge in rural Georgia. In the opening scene the reader is introduced further to the boarded up building. It appears deserted, but:

“Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long secret gaze of grief.”

Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of a Sad Café is not a happy story and the principal characters do not arouse our sympathy even as they suffer. Amelia, the woman peering out of the second story window had her moments of glory in the little town, but she lost everything and ended up isolated and alone.

The Ballad of a Sad Café is the first story in the collection by the same name. My copy of this book dates from 1951, and I first read it while I was in college. Was it for a book report? I don’t remember. The dust jacket is now worn, but the cream colored script of the title on black paper is an exclamation point on its shelf in my library.

Times Magazine reviewed the collection in 1951. Read what they said:

Carson McCullers published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, at 23, and it was an immediate success. Novelist McCullers herself made good copy. She was a round-faced Georgia girl with bangs, who worked at her writing between 4 and 8 a.m., before going off to a daytime clerical job (she had lost one job when caught reading Proust). On top of that, the critics decided that her book, a somber, wide-eyed look at small-town Southern life, was really first-rate.

Now, at 34, Mrs. McCullers has the pleasure of seeing a fat volume of her collected works: the three novels, six middling stories, and a superb novelette that serves as a title piece, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Taken together, the 791 pages pretty well establish Novelist McCullers as one of the top dozen among contemporary U.S. writers.

That’s pretty strong praise, but I fully agree. Recently, I pulled her book from the bookcase and began skimming the title story. Soon I found myself reading, and then I was hooked. Hours later, I finished the title novella and found myself thinking of how McCullers handled the theme of love and revenge and her unusual introduction of prison chain gangs as a background.

The Ballad of a Sad Café is the story of a love triangle like no other. A contemporary reviewer called the characters in the story “an assortment of freaks, geeks, and lost souls that shake one to the core, and the worlds she creates are ones out of the foggy depths of nightmares.”

The story flashes back to when Amelia was 30. She was the richest and most powerful person in town. She was tall, strong and self-sufficient. She also brewed the best tasting moonshine in the region and sold it out of the back door of her home. She was once married (for 10 days), but drove her husband out of her home with her fists and sharp tongue when he pleaded for his rights as husband. He loved her, but she didn’t share his feelings. He would leave, but love turned to hate leads to a powerful revenge that brings Amelia to her isolated and lonely end. This is powerful story telling.

The songs of a nearby chain gang are eerie backdrops for this story. The author tells us at the start of her novella that the chain gang is working a few miles from town on the Forks Falls highway. At the end of the story She returns our attention to the chain gang  in a short coda that ends with the words:

“And what kind of gang is this that can make such music? Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this country. Just twelve mortal men who are together.”

Maybe this is just “misery loves company” or perhaps the author is exploring some deeper connections—read the story and make up your own mind.

The prison chain gang persisted in Georgia well into the 50s. The chain gang in Georgia and elsewhere was marked by extreme cruelty and blatant racism. It died out completely by 1955, but staged a comeback in the 90s when Arizona Sheriff Arpaio (are-PIE-oh) of Maricopa County (greater Phoenix) began to use chain gangs to clean up public roads. It was reported by the local press that “His chain gang kills three penal birds with one stone: Humiliating the prisoners, scaring potential law-breakers and showing citizens (and voters) how tough their sheriff is.”

I hope that today’s sheriffs will think twice before any more attempts to bring back the chain gang in any form for whatever reason.

The story of the cruelty of chain gangs in Georgia was revealed by the communist writer John Spivak who published in 1932 the provocative novel Georgia Nigger which led to the sensational best-selling book I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang by Elliott Burns. This book became a popular movie; the first of many with a chain gang setting.

The South Carolina Press has republished Spivak’s novel. The press release states:

The New York Times praised Communist Party reporter John L. Spivak’s shocking 1932 novel Georgia Nigger as having “the weight and authority of a sociological investigation.” This Southern Classics edition makes Spivak’s narrative available to modern readers, augmented with a new introduction by David A. Davis as well as additional documents Spivak gathered during his investigation into the abuses of the Depression-era Southern prison system.

Fortunately for readers, the The Ballad of the Sad Cafe has recently been republished and is also available as an eBook on Kindle and Kobo. Take advantage of the opportunity to read stories of Georgia and the South in the 50s as told by a skilled and provocative story teller.

Day 74: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories, Carson McCullers (originally 1951, now available as an eBook).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked; Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure. Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical.
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