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  • Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

    George Sessions Perry

    by Clay Coppedge

    Traces of the town that George Sessions Perry knew and wrote about in the first half of the Twentieth Century can still be found in Rockdale. All it takes is a little scholarship and imagination.

    A visit to the Lucy Hill Memorial Library in downtown Rockdale is the first stop. Outside, a historical marker outlines Perry's contributions to American literature and journalism; inside are first editions of his books and copies of virtually every article he ever wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, including one titled "The Little Town That Rained Money" about the day Alcoa came to town.

    Alcoa is still in town, but no one is writing about Rockdale raining money these days. The issues are more contentious now. It's hard to say which side Perry would come down on but we are sure his affection for the place would shine through, regardless of his stand on political issues.

    The temptation to look for George Sessions Perry's Rockdale can be strong because few writers are linked in readers' minds with a hometown like Perry and Rockdale. Other such writers develop, at best, an uneasy alliance, like Thomas "You-Can't-Go-Home-Again" Wolfe and Asheville, North Carolina.

    Perry wrote with lifelong affection about his hometown, first as a novelist and later as a magazine journalist.

    "Rockdale, my hometown, is Texas' heart and significant part of its soul," Perry wrote in his book, "Texas: A World Unto Itself." He describes the pioneers of Rockdale as typical of restless Southerners who hitched their wagons and moved to Texas after the Civil War.

    "The little group that landed at Rockdale selected this spot because the land was sandy," he wrote. "It was easy for a tired man and small, tired mules to plow. There were plenty of building posts at hand, and the land would grow the broad variety of items a pioneer family needed."

    Noting that the fertile Blackland prairie was just three or four miles away, Perry wrote: "Rockdale folk were too tired, after their long, hard journey, to tackle it."

    Perry's novel Hold Autumn In Your Hand which won the National Book Award in 1941, is still the book for which Perry is best known. The book was made into a popular movie, "The Southerner," starring Zachary Scott as Sam Tucker, the story's main character. The book is often compared with Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, with Perry's book often getting the higher mark from critics.

    The book's main character is Sam Tucker, a poor tenant farmer in the Brazos River bottoms "contending with nature, the seasons, the river and more than a few of his fellow men." It's a hard look at a hard life but Perry's affection for the land and people who live on it is genuine and unabashed.

    In the community of Liberty Hill, it's not hard even now, long after the dethroning of King Cotton, to see Sam Tucker striding the land and checking the skies for rain.

    In his book Texas: A World In Itself Perry writes about the "jovial prosperity" that came to Rockdale with the coming of the railroad. He wrote also of the social order imposed out of that prosperity: "Mrs. Hicks was the town's first lady, social arbiter and senior member of a regency which built, directed, and controlled Rockdale's imposing stucco Baptist church," he wrote "The other member of this regency was God."

    Perry served as a war correspondent in World War II after a broken arm that never healed properly kept him out of the armed forces. He was in the first wave of men to hit the beach at Salerno, during the invasion of Italy.

    He never got the images of war out of his mind and could not bring himself to write a novel about what he saw. Yet he could not imagine writing fiction without including his experiences in the war.

    After the war Perry became one of the highest paid magazine writers in the country. His series on "Cities of America" was collected in hardback and he enjoyed success with other books but he never published another significant piece of fiction.

    According to friends and scholars, Perry believed he "sold out" his talent for a lucrative career in magazine journalism. In order to be closer to the lucrative magazine markets, Perry and his wife Claire maintained a home in Connecticut; Perry felt he turned his back on the hometown that nurtured and inspired him.

    All of these doubts and demons were fueled by Perry's struggle with arthritis, alcoholism and strong symptoms of increasing mental illness.

    Those who knew him in those dark days were not completely surprised when on a cold December day in 1956 Perry walked out of his house and into a Connecticut River.

    Three months later his body washed up in a nearby town. The coroner ruled Perry died an "accidental death by drowning."

    Few people who knew Perry believed there was anything accidental about it.

    Clay Coppedge
    - June 15, 2005 column
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