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10.06.02 : Wade, John Donald, Selected Essays and Other Writings by John Donald Wade, Donald Davidson, editor, published in 1966.

Notes Concerning the Author

John Donald Wade (1892-1963) of Marshallville (Macon County), Georgia was a gentleman and a scholar, perhaps the last living exemplar of that breed.   This valuable volume gives its readers rich doses of Wade’s elegant and elegiac prose.   In it editor Donald Davidson, Wade’s friend and colleague, provided an excellent and informative introduction to the life and work of the Georgia essayist and literary critic.   With degrees from the University of Georgia, Harvard, and Columbia, Wade worked as a scholar and teacher at his Athens alma mater and at Vanderbilt University.  He also served for a time as chief editor of the Dictionary of American Bibliography.  Wade pioneered in the study of southern literature, particularly with the publication of his biography of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet in 1924.   He was one of the “Twelve Southerners” who wrote I’ll Take My Standin 1930. His best-known work, the essay “The Life and Death and Cousin Lucius,” appeared there.  Perhaps Wade’s most lasting scholarly achievement came in 1947 when he created the Georgia Review and became the first editor of this now prestigious journal.   When Voltaire spoke in Candide of the value of cultivating one’s own garden, he likely spoke metaphorically of the value of human work.  For decades John Donald Wade worked professionally in the groves of academia, but, upon his retirement, he lived out Voltaire’s maxim literally, spearheading the beautification of his beloved Marshallville with the communal planting of camellias.

Our Review

Wade writes in the evocative style of a highly-skilled literary artist.  His essays yearningly depict the lost world of his youth, his own memories, and the ancestral memories of family and neighbors, most famously in “Cousin Lucius.”  Here Wade lays down, in slightly fictionalized form, his ancestral history in Black Belt Georgia.   The essay details the migration of planters and slaves into the area from their South Carolina homeland, the establishment of a prosperous and self-confident community in the antebellum years, and the destruction of that community, its leaders, and its political economy in war.   Growing up in “Hard Times” made Lucius cautious.  Grounded in rural community and educated at the state university, he was not caught up in the gyres of modernism.   He was most unlike the prototypical twentieth-century moderns depicted in the poems of William Butler Yeats, neither “full of passionate intensity” nor lacking “all conviction.”   Rather he served as a responsible and paternalistic leader in his own settled rural locale, doing his duty, quietly following his Methodist God, promoting local production of peaches, avoiding the Mammon worship of cities, leery of social and political panaceas.  If, said Wade, moderns cannot appreciate this sort of life, “may God have mercy on their souls.” (46)

The Selected Essays contains many other beautiful compositions and is chock-full of various wise epigrams.   In “Of the Mean and Sure Estate,” for example, which appeared in 1936, Wade argued that happiness could not be measured through statistics or by materialistic accumulation.  “People must  know people, and act toward them, all–high and low, old and young, wise and foolish–as if they were people and not mechanisms.” (68) Urbanites of his day, Wade wrote, had difficulty recognizing that, even with less stuff, residents of sleepy Natchez might live as happily as those of ultra-modern, industrial Detroit.

Among the most valuable of Wade’s essays were his biographical vignettes, particular those of prominent Georgians laid out in Part II of the volume.   Subtly revealing their author’s social and political predilections, these essays were mostly charitable and always insightful.  Readers discover the infectious enthusiasm of New South advocate Henry Grady, usually beloved even by those who vigorously disagreed with him.   The essay “Jefferson: New Style” detailed the  mostly tragic story of Tom Watson.  In his unique and haunting way, Wade showed that Watson, in the Leo Frank Lynching, “unblenchingly took the risk” of setting “loose an unreasonable racial hatred.”  That hatred, “along with a little hemp rope, did the rest.” (114)  The volume also contained a shrewd essay on Joel Chandler Harris.  For decades, Harris with his work at the Atlanta Constitution, had pushed forward a program of modernization, but late in life, resting on his literary laurels, had waxed nostalgic about the old agrarian South he had helped destroy.  The essay “Old Wine in a New Bottle” vividly portrays the views of the Old South die-hards, such as Robert Lewis Dabney and Charles Colcock Jones, who never surrendered to Grady’s New South dream, who recognized an eternal “conflict between the true Lord–and the dual Anti-Christs–Speed and Mass.” (152)

In short, The Selected Essays of John Donald Wade is still a book very much worth reading.  In style these essays possess a pithy elegance mostly lacking in the work of contemporary writers.  In substance Wade’s works evoke a more solid, slower-moving, rural world which seems mostly to have disappeared in our own time.   But that world has not, in fact, disappeared.   Marshallville and Macon County do still exist.  Farming and peaches remain important there.   Neither population nor per capita income are growing much.   But then, as Wade recognized, human life is not merely mechanical; there is more to it than mass, money, or speed.

Availability of this Book

We suggest you look on  New and used copies are available at minimal cost.  A good addition to your library.