A Biographical Sketch
Brainard Cheney, the author of Lightwood, was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia on June 3, 1900. The family soon relocated to nearby Lumber City. His father and namesake, Brainard Bartwell Cheney, who practiced as a successful attorney, inherited extensive land holdings in the Lumber City area of Telfair County. He assigned the administration of the estate to overseers while he pursued his legal career.
In Brainard’s eighth year, his father died unexpectedly, leaving his widow to raise their children on her own. Cheney’s mother, Mattie Mood, came from an old and prominent Charleston family. Though a long way from Charleston, she chose to remain in Lumber City to administer the estates. Brainard remembered an idyllic childhood living in the small river town. His days included school work and playing and swimming in the Ocmulgee River—a boyhood he recalled as not unlike that of Tom Sawyer, one of his literary heroes.
A childless couple took young Brainard under their wing and introduced him to the world of literature. In a 1982 interview, Cheney remembered visiting their home and enjoying free rein to borrow books from their library. The house contained books in every room, he recalled, even in the closets. He read Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and then Thackeray, George Meredith, Trollope, along with many others. One must consider the time, circa 1910, and the place, a very small town hundreds of miles from any large city, to fully grasp the isolation a child may have experienced. Cheney recalled a striking image. He remembered his literary patron reading on the front porch, pacing back and forth while holding a book. Because of a back injury, he was uncomfortable sitting down. Looking back on this time, almost a century in the past, one marvels at the transformations wrought by the modern world. Those days of leisurely reading oneself through the private library of one’s own, or of a friend, absorbing as a young person the great literature of the age, conjure images of a lost and golden time vastly different from our own.
Cheney’s mother managed the family estates, depending on Robin Bess as overseer. Mr. Bess, a black man, occupied a farm located on the holdings. This arrangement, with Robin as overseer, was unusual for those times in the segregated South. Cheney regarded Mr. Bess as an essential influence in his life, tantamount to a father figure. He recalled their fishing and hunting trips. They often traversed the river swamps and cypress forests belonging to the Cheneys, known as the Cheney Woods. Cheney’s third novel, This is Adam, is based on Robin and the professional relationship between Mr. Bess and Cheney’s mother. It celebrates the friendship between Brainard and Robin. He dedicated the work to Mr. Bess.
As a young teenager, Cheney considered training as a steamboat captain on the Ocmulgee River. A lively steamboat transport system plied the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers as late as the 1930’s, reaching as far north as Macon—that is, when the river’s water level was high enough to accommodate the boats. Cheney sought an apprenticeship with a local steamboat captain. That captain, Mr. Ashburn, discouraged him, correctly foreseeing the coming demise of the steamboat era.
World War I began in 1914 just as Cheney entered the Citadel in Charleston, with vague notions of pursuing a military career. He counted his time there as the unhappiest period of his life. Small in stature, he was hounded by upper classmen and officers. He recalled being addressed incorrectly as “Cheeney” by one particularly unpleasant teacher. Military life and discipline aggravated the young man, who rose to the occasion and transformed his frustration into rebellion.
An English professor at the Citadel encouraged Cheney’s interest in writing, an interest destined to lay dormant for a few more years. The War ended before Cheney finished the Citadel and by the same token deflated his ambitions for a military career.
After the Citadel, he attended one quarter at Vanderbilt University. Family financial straits required that he return home to Lumber City. He went to work in the family farming and timber business, at one time running a timber camp with some success. He also worked as a school teacher, functioning as an educator at three successive “one-room” schools in as many years. His teaching career ended when he decided to return to college at Vanderbilt University.
Vanderbilt offered the young man a new world of possibilities. There, through chance connections and a lot of hard work, Cheney became a writer. He worked as a journalist while attending classes. One of those classes was taught by the renowned poet, John Crowe Ransom, who introduced him to the Fugitive and Agrarian literary movements of southern writers. Another important mentor was Caroline Gordon, a professor and author. When he first tried writing fiction, Gordon steered him away from journalistic prose and into the creation of literature, as Cheney related in 1982.
At this time, Cheney also became friend and roommate with the young poet, Robert Penn Warren, known as “Red” among his friends. Warren later published the acclaimed novel, All the Kings Men. On many occasions he acknowledged Cheney’s critical assistance with some of the political speeches contained in the famous work. Robert Penn Warren went on to become an eminent poet, author and teacher, as well as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. Their friendship endured until Warren’s death (one year before Cheney’s) and included not only literary collaboration but also field trips for research to local rivers and rural areas.
Brainard married Frances Neel, a young woman just then embarking on a prominent career as a librarian and author. They settled in Nashville. Among their friends, Frances was known as Fannie, and Brainard was called Lon, after the silent movie star Lon Chaney. Many of Cheney’s autographed works are signed “Lon.”
Cheney left Vanderbilt before graduation to forge a career as a respected newspaperman in Tennessee and later worked for various political figures as a speechwriter and advisor. Frances began her career in the library world, becoming an eminent librarian, respected professor and author of a famous textbook on librarianship. During World War II, she worked as Allen Tate’s assistant when he accepted the post of Poet Consultant at the Library of Congress.
In 1936, Cheney took a year off to write a novel. He embarked on a journey to his home town of Lumber City. An old story of the timber wars in the area drew him back and he commenced work on the novel which became Lightwood, his fictional retelling of that story.
Fortune presented Cheney with a cousin whose insurance office once served as the last office of the Dodge Company. Those tenants left behind a mass of papers documenting the complete record of nearly half a century of legal wrangling. Cheney recalled sitting in this office, situated in a back room, reading through thousands of pages of musty legal papers. From his study of this archive and additional research, he created Lightwood, the story of an epic battle between the proverbial haves and have-nots, the timber barons and the land squatters. Published in 1939, the book sold respectably and this encouraged him to write his next novel, River Rogue (forthcoming in April from MMJW).
Lightwood was reviewed nationally, including in the New York Times. The November 5, 1939 issue contains a favorable review by Edith H. Walton, who called the work a “superior novel of the South, exceedingly well written.” Time magazine summed up the novel as having “the unimpeachable honesty, goodness, flatness, of a mouthful of cold excellent corn bread.”
Cheney traveled to the south Georgia area and signed many copies of the novel for local friends and family. These autographed copies of the original 1939 hardcover edition surface in the area periodically. They usually contain dates ranging from late October to early November, 1939.
In 1941, Cheney received a Guggenheim Fellowship. This enabled him to research the novel River Rogue, which is also based on events and people he knew from the Ocmulgee area. The book sold respectably and garnered a movie option from MGM, though it was never produced. After 1941, Cheney concentrated on his journalism career, later moving to speechwriting, working for Tennessee governor, Frank G. Clement, among others.
Fannie Cheney inherited a family home near Smyrna, Tennessee which they called Idler’s Retreat. There they hosted many prominent literary and political figures through the years. Through Caroline Gordon’s introduction, the Cheneys befriended Georgia novelist Flannery O’Connor in 1953, with whom they exchanged visits and letters until her death in 1964. Selections from this correspondence were collected into the book, The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Cheneys. They shared common interests in both literature and Catholicism, to which the Cheneys had converted. O’Connor is on record as saying that Brainard Cheney is the only reviewer who ‘got the meaning’ of her first novel, Wise Blood. Over the years they discussed and critiqued one another’s work.
Cheney published two more novels, This is Adam, in 1959, and Devil’s Elbow, in 1968. Both of these works take place in the Ocmulgee area, based on autobiographical events in Cheney’s life. He continued to work on additional fiction, but no new titles appeared during his lifetime.
In 1982, Dr. Delma Presley, of Georgia Southern University, conducted Project RAFT, also known as the Restoring Altamaha Folk Traditions project. This grant-funded project gathered together the few surviving timber rafters of the area. The events rekindled interest in the works of Brainard Cheney, specifically at that time, River Rogue, whose main protagonist was a timber raftsman.
In the spring of 1982, Dr. Presley and other project personnel actually built a timber log raft and navigated it down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers to Darien. They recreated the experience of many of the old piney woods settlers who rafted timber for supplemental income. Brainard Cheney participated in the festivities, even traveling on a portion of the raft trip. He was 82 years old at the time. Through the efforts and support of Dr. Presley, a new edition of River Rogue was published to coincide with the project. This renewed interest in Cheney’s work led to the republication of Lightwood in 1984, spearheaded by his nephew, Roy Neel.
Brainard Cheney remained an author to the end, passing away at age 89 in January of 1990. Several unpublished works, primarily fiction and plays set in his native Georgia, remained. Fannie Cheney passed away in 1996 also at age 89. These two remarkable people bequeathed a rich legacy of literature, authorship and teaching, and left many friends.
By Stephen Whigham
Additional information on Brainard Cheney:
Caroline Gordon, from Wikipedia