Applewhite, James: The Essences Of Things

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"Listening to History" has been reprinted with permission from The News & ObserverCopyright 1998-2008.

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James Applewhite: The Essences Of Things

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 3/11/2001. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Born in Stantonsburg, in Wilson County, in 1935, James Applewhite is one of our nation's most acclaimed poets and an English professor at Duke University. At his home by the Eno River, he told me about his beloved grandfather, W.H. Applewhite. The story of his grandfather's life captures that moment around World War II when the South teetered between the old ways and the new, mules and tractors, a rural past and hell-bent future. It speaks to what was gained, and lost, in that world's passing.

In James Applewhite's words: 

James Applewhite. Photo by Chris Seward, 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.

During all the time I remember being still at home, my grandfather would make this kind of monthly procession down to Seven Springs to get his bottled water, and I would go with him. There was originally a hotel there, and it operated as a spa probably right up until sometime before World War II. People would go and take a kind of cure in drinking the waters. There was a springhouse there, latticed over like a gazebo, with the springs coming up within it, all seven within one little octagonal area no bigger than 20 feet maybe.

The owner of the spring and the hotel -- Gilbert Maxwell was his name -- would be there, and they had a regular ritual of cleaning out the bottles with a brush, rinsing them out with water they'd dip up with a big silver pitcher from places where the overflow gathered, almost like a trough. They would fill the two big glass demijohns, and then everybody would drink a lot of water! It was very good water.

I think I perceived it when I was a kid, without articulating it to myself, that this was part of the slightly set apart, sacramental way that my grandfather lived. During all the times I remembered him, he was living a life of pious retirement. He had been one of the movers and shakers in the town early on. He started the sawmill, and he started the general store that still bore his name during all my time in Stantonsburg.

A sort of Faulknerian fall had occurred during the Depression. The family story was that Capt. W.H. -- as he was sometimes called locally -- had not the heart to take people's land for debts, but that his bookkeeper, W.R. Rogers, was not so squeamish. During the Depression, the ownership of much land in the county and the store passed into the hands of Mr. Rogers.

We lived right across the street from my grandfather and his wife, so I was in and out as a kid just like a second home. He would spend a good part of every day reading his favorite passages from the Bible. He would be sitting there with his white hair and his leather-covered Bible, this sort of image of serene piety. He was gentle, and yet somewhat awe-inspiring, but he did not have any bluster. He was just, you might say, grave. The man inspired reverence.

He was extremely religious. On Friday or Saturday, he would walk the streets distributing Upper Rooms -- you know, the little Methodist pamphlet -- to, as we like to say, "widders and shut-ins." And he rigorously gave away a tenth of what he had to the church and orphanages and whatever good cause would come along.

The house that he had built when he moved into town around 1910 was like a little bit of the farm brought into town, with the chicken yard and the garden. The things he did there seemed to me to have a kind of sacramental care about them. I mean, there was this little round of things to be done. We would go out, and I would help him to collect the eggs out from under the setting hens. I would feel them warm and he would hold the basket, and it would be important for me to put that egg carefully in the sort of crystal lattice of the other eggs in the basket. He would let me scatter the corn for the hens. But there was always a sense of doing it calmly, and almost meditatively.

For me, it was a kind of a magical little world presided over by these two benign spirits who didn't talk a lot, but were very comforting in their stability. Having started the service station and garage, my father was always busy and in motion. He was often too busy to be home much. But my grandfather was always there.

He had faults -- I really believe they were opposed to change, both he and my grandmother. They kept a wood-burning range in the kitchen, long after everybody else in town had either an oil stove or an electric stove. They had an old woman, a black woman named Aunt Eliza, who would go up and down those tall back steps with difficulty to go to that outside toilet that they made her go to, because she wasn't allowed to go to the toilet inside. From my point of view, it was, in actuality, a world that was already gone that they were determinedly living in, and sort of instructing me in.

There seemed something a little anachronistic about Capt. W. H. and Nannie, because the times were changing. If, in the older South, genteel poverty was a virtue, it was ceasing to be in the post-World War II era. Some of the other landowners were engaging in conspicuous consumption. They had wall-to-wall carpeting and awnings over the windows and the glittering appurtenances of money.

My grandfather wasn't hard-handed in extracting money from the farm. He wasn't hard with his tenants. He didn't believe in any kind of investment more than a CD. Different people would have invested the money he gave away, and they would have been more aggressive about the farming.

So they lived a fairly meager life. In the larger picture, it was because of the whole agrarian pattern coming out of the Depression, and his reluctance to adapt to new times -- not getting a tractor as soon as others. Or if you did get a tractor, you got a little secondhand tractor and you still used the mules. You didn't aggressively expand and rent other land like people were doing. It was more of a static, "let's preserve what we have, and let's preserve the past" world, is what it amounted to.

The attitude they gave to me was of ignoring modernity: resolutely living in what amounted to a kind of time capsule. On Sunday evenings, my dad and Aunt Virginia would be over there in the parlor, and Aunt Virginia would be playing hymns and my grandfather would be singing "Sunrise Tomorrow" in his sort of hoarse, cracked tenor. They were living in this world of religion and piety that did not give the modern world a whole lot of credit. From their point of view it was meretricious and almost beneath notice.

Like going to Seven Springs for water. The town water was perfectly good. It came out of a deep well. But to go down there and get this special water was part of a way of life that seemed to value the qualities and essences of things. When we brought back this water and I drank a glass of it on the back porch, it seemed like water with a capital W. It seemed like the paradigm of water! You appreciated the meaning of things.

David Cecelski is the Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at East Carolina University.

David Cecelski explores North Carolina's history, one person at a time.

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "James Applewhite."  Photograph. 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer. 

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