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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
June 15, 2005 column
"Letters from Central Texas"