Time and the Tidewater: Thoughts and Remembrance

If the reader will permit me this once a somewhat personal and idiosyncratic essay–heretofore I have never been either personal or idiosyncratic–I will promise never to do it again. No one can doubt the reliability of my promises.

I have played in writing over the years with my birth in West Virginia and my consequent but imaginary possession of twelve toes. (Most readers will not care where I was born, and a fair few clearly wish that I hadn’t been. Well, this isn’t your day.) Anyway, I entered this world in Bluefield General Hospital, McDowell County, West Virginia, because my mother was staying with her father, a medical doctor in Crumpler, an unincorporated coal camp up the holler from North Fork, while my father was gunnery officer aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.

In fact my people are pure Cavalier stock of the Virginia Tidewater. I am Frederick Venable Reed Jr, my mother’s maiden name being Betty Venable Rivers–a cousin marriage, which some will suggest explains a lot. The Venables were prominent in the gentility of Southside Virginia.

Why is this of interest, if indeed it is? There are reasonable people today who believe that traits such as politics, way of life, occupation, talents, and intellectual bent are genetically determined. Some time ago I found an interesting study showing that families–those studied were English–maintained distinguishable traits for many generations, suggesting that these were innate. For a generation or two similarities might be explained by children copying their parents. Over many generations, it would appear otherwise.

I wondered whether this would hold for my own family. It seems so. The first mention of Venables was of Walter de Veneur at the Battle of the Ford in 960. He did nothing astonishing, but I think that just being mentioned by name would suggest membership in something similar to the upper middle class.  The name is baronial, from the town of Venables, near Evreux, in Normandy. In France, it morphed into various Latin and French forms such as le Venour, or Venator, or Venereux, becoming, after the clan came to England with William the Conqueror, Venables-Vernon. (Spelling was not an advanced science in those days.) These never sank into the lower classes nor rose to produce dukes or earls, but several barons, members of Parliament and such.  Upper middle class. Honorable mention. Respectable, but not important.

Richard Venables is recorded as having purchased land in Virginia in 1635.  The Venables became a distinguished family, of the ruling class but without doing anything to get them into textbooks. They were in the House of Burgesses. In 1776 Nathaniel Venable founded Hampden-Sydney College, which provided schooling for many of Southside’s leaders.

Venable Hall, Hampden-Sydney College

The Cavalier society of Tidewater was perhaps the high point of American civilization. The people were extraordinarily literate, steeped in the thought of the Enlightenment, imbued with a profound and kindly Christianity. From them came the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Madisons, the Lees and Custises. It is hard to imagine any modern politician, or his ghost writer, writing either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, the latter being the framework, enduring until perhaps 1960, of an entire nation. The Virginians did.

They bore little resemblance–I might almost say “no resemblance”–to the wild and barbaric Scots-Irish of Appalachia or the communal-minded, meddlesome, and brutally intolerant Puritans of New England or, really, to anyone else in America.

Theirs was a hierarchical society. A happy quality of aristocratic rule is that graft and the sordid occupations of the lower classes are viewed as humiliating, noblesse oblige being expected. Manners and morals were not optional. No perfect ordering of humanity exists, but this was about as close as it comes.

Perhaps the physical environment had something to do with it. The uncrowded expansive loveliness of Virginia’s countryside, the wonderful quiet of a lingering summer with no sound but the keening of cicadas, the stillness of winter with only the rifle-report cracking of branches breaking under the weight of ice sheaths in the surrounding forest–these engendered a tranquility undisturbed by the stench and clamor of today. It couldn’t last, and didn’t. 

We were part of a thing brief but of immense value. The literacy, the attention to language, was of one cloth with that of the English, whose  mastery has never been equaled and seldom approached. It has lasted in the family. In evenings with my grandfather at Hampden-Sydney, a parlor game was to call out three numbers–“746, 2, 7”–page 746, column 2, seventh entry of a huge dictionary on onion-skin paper–whereupon the caller-out had to spell the word, define it, pronounce it correctly, and give the etymology.

Tidewater was in the current of the English  stretching from at least Sir Philip Sydney through Lewis Carol, Milne, Galsworthy, Kipling, Tolkien, Churchill and  a hundred others. A thousand others. This virtuosity is now lost beyond redemption as American society, once determined from the top down, has come to be determined from the bottom up. Can you imagine an American politician writing—well, anything literate, but especially the equal of Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking People?

But we were speaking of the curious continuity of families. Come the war, Charles Scott Venable served on Lee’s staff, and Andrew Reid Venable on Jeb Stuart’s. This was a continuation of the aristocratic sense of duty. Their country was being invaded by alien people and they, like Lee, like Jackson, determined to defend it. Both were graduates of Hampden-Sydney, as am I, as were my father and uncle.

After the war Charles Venable was an astronomer and professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia. My grandfather processed mathematics at Hampden-Sydney and served as dean. My paternal uncle passed the bar but chose journalism, my father being a mathematician. I am whatever I am–for years I worked my way through math texts because I liked them–and my daughters are, aside from being smart, a musician and an artist. One of them popped ninety-ninth percentile in math on some standardized test and was invited to attend a math camp. A weird continuity.

The war bore little resemblance to accounts fed to an ignorant public declining both in schooling and in respect for even the idea of schooling. It is a triumph of American civilization that as the opportunity for education has expanded without limit, its practice has fallen to the level proper to peasants.

A consciousness of family was very much a part of Southside. We knew of family early on even in my generation, and in the height of Tidewater, family mattered. There are books, The Venables of Virginia, The Reids and Their Relatives, The Cabells and Their Kin (there being apparently a boom market in alliteration). People knew from whence they came, and cared.

C. S. Venable. The facial resemblance to the men in our line is strong. So is the character and cast of mind. He may not look to have spent years  in heavy combat, but he did.

Today one must be careful in calling the Cavaliers an aristocracy. The word once meant rule by the best, to the extent that it is possible by fallible human beings. It now implies snobbery, even a certain trashiness which is the opposite of what existed in Southside. It evokes the “elites” of today, who are not elite but merely rich. The Cavalier aristocracy involved more a sense of what one should be, how one in a position of responsibility should behave. It is largely gone. I am not sure that we would not profit by its return.

I do not really have twelve toes. 

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