Paul Green's Legacy - Alive and Well
By Roy Parker Jr.
Paul Green, the writer-humanist who grew up on a Harnett County farm and pitched baseball both right and left-handed, has been dead for 22 years. But the passions of his long life (he was born in 1894), both literary and humanistic, are still animating current life in North Carolina.
Green would have been deeply gratified by the reawakened social consciousness of the state over the matter of the death penalty. Nearly all of his earliest work, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, In Abraham's Bosom, turned either directly or in some measure on the shame and outrage that he felt for the atrocities of the gas chamber, of the chain gang, and of the discrimination that race and poverty visited on common people.
In the decades from the 1920s to the 1970s, he was the state's leading advocate for the end to the death penalty. He stood at vigils and visited condemned men on death row.
It is no accident that one of the leaders of the growing current revulsion against the death penalty is none other than Green's grandson, Paul Mac Green, a Durham lawyer and social activist.
If the younger generation has carried on Green's passion for social justice, his children and other literary trustees are busy with projects emphasizing his literary contributions.
The Paul Green Foundation has just reprinted the 1935 edition of This Body of Earth, a novel of hardscrabble sharecropper life set in the "Cape Fear valley of North Carolina."
Written in the years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the novel looks back to a generation earlier, to the post-Reconstruction South, when poor whites vied with former slaves and the offspring of slaves to eke out an existence from land they seldom owned.
In passages of almost unremitting sorrow and weariness, centered on a single character, Alvin Barnes, Green conveys the seasonal burdens of the sharecropper, the dismal life of toil and physical pain that was the lot of people who lived in the shotgun tenant houses.
But he also depicts the sparks of endurance and courage that Green so admired as the right of every human being, and whose story he celebrated time and again in his plays, in novels and short stories.
This Body of Earth is a word pilgrimage through a largely-vanished North Carolina human and even physical landscape. It is rich with descriptive color of turn-of-the-century life in the cotton bottoms of the Cape Fear, a virtual encyclopedia of the folklore of farm, country church, crossroads store, and fishing hole.
Publication of This Body the Earth is a project of the literary arm of the Paul Green Foundation, the Publications Committee, headed by his daughter, Betsy Green Moyer.
And Moyer is working on her own project. An accomplished nature photographer, she is putting together a book that would combine her talent with Green's own deep interest in the state's flora. She will use her art to illustrate descriptions of flowers, plants, and trees from an immense Green book, known as Paul Green's Wordbook: An Alphabet or Reminiscence, a compendium of folklore, nature observations, colloquiums and comments on just about everything else that Green observed in a lifetime of keeping notebooks.
Another daughter, Dr. Janet Green, has recently published a small paperback memoir describing her life with her mother, Elizabeth Lay Green, a memoir by her daughter Janet McNeill Green.
Meanwhile, publishers are readying the manuscript of another full-blown study of Green's life and work, a field long enriched by the work of Prof. Laurence Avery of UNC, who as both biographer and editor of Green's voluminous correspondence has kept publishers busy almost from the day of Green's passing.
In addition to all this, Paul Green's place as the father of the outdoor drama is secure. Summer people still flock to such attractions as the The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, his first such drama and still packing them in nearly 70 years after it was first staged. Green's legacy is administered by the Paul Green Foundation, located in Chapel Hill. Marsha Warren, a former director of the immensely successful North Carolina Writers' Network, is the foundation's executive director.
The foundation gives small grants to aspiring writers, playwrights, and social activists, and seeks publishers and researchers interested in the great archive of Green materials now in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill.
A "Friends of Paul Green" support group was recently formed through the efforts of Maxine Swalin, the 100-year-old co-founder with her husband, the late Benjanin Swalin, of the North Carolina Symphony.
A permanent display of Paul Green artifacts and photographs is on display in the Chapel Hill Museum, located at the corner of Boundary and East Franklin Streets. Hundreds of local school children regularly take part in programs designed to introduce them to Green's work and legacy.
Few ambidextrous baseball pitchers turned writer have so much going on in their name as Paul Green.
Roy Parker Jr. is retired Editor of the Fayetteville Observer-Times, and a trustee of the Paul Green Foundation (May 2003)
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