Hubert Creekmore (1907-66) was born in Water Valley, Mississippi, and the son of a lawyer from a renowned planter family. Before the publication of his first novel, The Fingers of the Night (later retitled Cotton Country), he had published three books of poetry. He published more poetry, also translating works from Latin and other European languages, but only produced two more novels: The Welcome (1948) and The Chain in the Heart (1953). In general, Creekmore's novels were considered to negatively reflect the then poorest state in the union. A book I haven't read more or less sums up the reason for his early death: To Hubert Creekmore: Who Died in a Taxi on His Way to the Airport on His Way to Spain, by William Jay Smith (1967).
My attention was first drawn to Creekmore's existence by a very recent article by J. B. Slogan: 'Roughhousing, Again, in the Southern Libraries: Pulp in the Afternoon' in the current (summer) issue of Oxford American (number 73). Slogan and I didn't read the same book, of course – no one ever does, even if we're the same person reading at different times – and my verdict on Cotton Country is really much more positive. Obviously I didn't expect this to be anything like as good as Faulkner (who lived just twenty miles north of Water Valley) or Welty (Creekmore's sister-in-law), but after reading such a negative article I'm so impressed by how good it actually is. No, J. B. Slogan, you can't judge this book by its cover, and Cotton Country deserves a far better one (the American one being actually better than the UK one because the characters are better drawn, although they're perhaps a little too moviestar glamorous).
Cotton Country is a strong indictment of Mississippian religious fundamentalism in the 1940s, essentially concerning – throughout – the relationship between the young Cleance and Tessie (née Ellard) Andrews and Tessie's (generally unrecognized as) psychotic father Maben (usually called Pa). Pa belongs to a church that segregates man from woman (aisle-wise) in its services, and we later learn that Cleance's father has left the flock, calling the congregation 'too holy to be human', and stating that he 'wouldn't go to no church that didn't believe in life.'
Why is Pa certifiably insane? Well, his wife was 'sinning', and it's about the time of her death (probably caused by Pa beating her senseless in tandem with giving her (or her giving herself, it's unclear) a very dangerous abortion) that the church went crazy. And Pa almost killed his daughter Bett for 'sinning' (the exact crime is unclear), and sent her boyfriend Tuck Manning running by giving him a gunshot wound. Not only does he believe that sex is a sin, but that marriage is a sin as it leads to the sin of sex, as opposed to the ideal virgin birth. Whatever would this guy do to his younger daughter Tessie, who's been enjoying Cleance's attributes in the cotton barn, as well as other unmentionable places?
Slogan cites a paragraph at the beginning of the book – when Cleance and Tessie, er, come together in the cotton barn – and seems to find it laughable and/or badly written, skipping several paragraphs and so missing the one that should have been quoted: the two together:
'Her eyes looked past his shoulders and saw the vaporous walls quake as if a wind had crossed them. She arched her back. The smell of cotton seed swept into her nose.
'Drops of saliva ran between Cleance's teeth and open lips, overflowed at the center and fell on her neck. He closed his mouth too late and licked his gums as if they were dry.'
This is way before the Chatterley trial, and it paid to be careful, so this is what authors had to do: euphemize. And I think it worked.
So Tessie gets pregnant, has to marry Cleance, and flee with him. Life in cotton country ain't easy, though, because they are scratching for a living. No, they can't afford a midwife, but quite by chance an African American one is there to greatly help at the time. At the time, of course, they weren't called African Americans, and the Jim Crow laws were still strong, but the presentation of this black family by the narrator makes them shine brightly against the inhuman prejudices of the whites. Any (extremely minor, let's be honest) racist thoughts in this novel, I'm sure, belong to the characters in the book, and not to the author of it.
Oh, and Creekmore was gay. Surely some transfer could be applied here?