The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

IV. The New South: Lanier

§ 11. Grady

Not till we reach the fascinating figure of Henry Woodfin Grady (1851–89) do we find a true representative of the new generation. He is recognized by common consent as the chief latter-day orator of his section. Born in Athens, Georgia, he grew up in the turmoil of the Civil War, often visited the camp of his father’s soldiers, and could never forget the scene when Major Grady’s remains were brought back from one of the last battles around Petersburg. His sunny disposition and his inexhaustible flow of animal spirits made him a general favourite with the professors at the University of Georgia, where he developed that style which was later to win him fame both South and North. After graduation he became a journalist. The journalism of Georgia, like that of the whole South, was then in a deplorable state. The State governments were still in the hands of the carpet-baggers. The editors drew what comfort they could from denouncing the Republicans as the authors of all evil. Into this sullen circle came Grady with the bright, racy humour which had captivated his classmates, with a freshness and an individuality which caused many a Georgia editor to open his eyes. His own editorial ventures were brilliant in their audacity but dismal in their financial returns. By 1875 he had dissipated his fortune. Borrowing fifty dollars, he gave twenty to his wife, and with the remainder, with characteristic impetuosity, bought a ticket to New York. There, by a single article, he won the position of Southern correspondent of the New York Herald. His reports of the South Carolina riots of 1876 and of the Florida election frauds of the same year were so graphic and complete that they established his future. In 1879 he was enabled to purchase a quarter interest in The Atlanta Constitution, a medium through which he impressed himself upon his state and his section.

In 1886, by reason of a speech on The New South delivered 22 December before the New England Society of New York City, he became the spokesman of the new era, and the title of that speech became the watchword of a vast movement. Though it aroused the ire of the old school, as seen above in the denunciation of “the banners of utilitarianism” by Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., it expressed a new sense of the economic basis of society and of the social conditions which must obtain more and more in the regenerated South. Some of his later speeches are notable. The South and her Problem, delivered in Dallas, 26 October, 1887, and The Farmer and the Cities, at Elberton, Georgia, in June, 1889, show him as the evangel of the new gospel to his own section. His treatment of the negro problem before the Boston Merchants’ Association in December, 1889, was more cogent in argument than his other addresses, but less ardent in appeal. Yet one of the auditors characterized it as “a cannon-ball in full flight, fringed with flowers.” Weakened by his exertions on this trip in the unexpected cold of the Northern winter, he returned to Atlanta to die 23 December, 1889.

One singular feature of Grady’s career, and one significant of the new era, was that he never held public office. His ambition shows the change which had come over the spirit of the South:

  • My ambition is a simple one. I shall be satisfied with the labors of my life if, when those labors are over, my son, looking abroad upon a better and grander Georgia—a Georgia that has filled the destiny God intended her for—when her towns and cities are hives of industry, and her country-side the exhaustless fields from which their stores are drawn—when every stream dances on its way to the music of spindles, and every forest echoes back the roar of the passing train—when her valleys smile with abundant harvests, and from her hillsides come the tinkling of bells as her herds and flocks go forth from their folds—when more than two million people proclaim her perfect independence and bless her with their love—I shall be more than content, I say, if my son, looking upon such scenes as these, can stand up and say: “My father bore a part in this work, and his name lives in the memory of this people.”
  • This ambition dictated the character of his journalism and the substance of his speeches. In his newspaper he endeavoured without shadow of turning to draw attention to the material resources of the South and to develop her industries. In his speeches he displayed even greater brilliancy, fervour, and versatility in presenting the various phases of the topic. Incapable of rancour himself, he with magnanimous sincerity and a whole heart endeavoured to remove the barriers to harmony and co-operation between the sections. In short, he became the orator of the peacemakers.

    This purpose in part explains the form of those addresses. He was delivering an appeal to his public, not conducting a legal argument. He was moving his auditors to a new point of view, not convincing them of a scientific truth. He threw into the effort all the ardour of a generous and enthusiastic nature. The pictures of his fancy, the constant balancing of phrases and ideas, the play of wit and humour and pathos were employed with the instinctive effectiveness of one who has learned to sway audiences. They reflect, too, in many ways the sonorous models of Southern oratory that formed the pattern and ideal for his youthful attempts. Yet there is a greater definiteness of thought, a closer linking of word and idea, on the whole a simpler and more vivid style than obtained in the old school. To the ears of the sophisticated, of course, his periods are cloying in their fluency. To thousands of untutored youths all over the South, on the other hand, his words have seemed the echoes of a silver tongue flowing like the honey of Hybla. His picture of “a country home, a quiet, modest house, sheltered by great trees,” his vision of the returning Confederate soldier, “this hero in gray with the heart of gold,” have been declaimed from hundreds of school and college platforms all over the South. His continued popularity proves that his sentiment was not merely a device for moving an audience but was the outpouring of Grady’s real nature, full of quick sympathy and unfathomed tenderness. In character and disposition Grady belonged with the Old South; in vision and purpose he was the herald of the New.