Friday, 22 November 2013

A Gentleman from Mississippi by Thomas A. Wise, 1910

For Friday’s Forgottern Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“Senator Langdon is picked out by dishonest men in Washington to be used as their tool in the Senate. But the ‘tool’ proves to be sharp at both ends and cuts the men who mean to cheat the people.”

 A Gentleman from Mississippi, a post-Civil War novel by writer-actor Thomas A. Wise, is based on a successful play of the same title produced by Joseph Rhode Grismer and William A. Brady in 1908-09. Grismer and Brady were stage actors and were closely associated with theatre. The play was acted out 407 times at the Bijou Theatre in Tennessee. There is, however, some confusion over the authorship of the book which, aside from Wise, is credited to two other gentlemen named Frederick R. Toombs and Harrison Garfield Rhodes. My edition of the ebook had only Wise’s name.

Colonel William H. Langdon, a wealthy plantation owner from Mississippi, is elected to the United States Senate through the influence of James Stevens, his close friend and senior Senator from the state, Martin Sanders, head of the seven counties, Senator Peabody of Pennsylvania, and Charles Norton, a junior Congressman from Mississippi. They have conspired to send ‘Big Bill’ Langdon to the Upper House of the Congress because of a misplaced conviction that he will serve their vested interests.

While Langdon is ecstatic on his election to the Senate and dreams of serving his countrymen with honesty and sincerity, he is no puppet. He refuses to fall prey to the political intrigues and machinations in Washington, spearheaded by corrupt and unscrupulous politicians and lobbyists like Peabody, the powerful Boss of the Senate.

The story revolves around the siting of a new hundred-million dollar naval base in the South. Peabody and his cronies nominate Langdon on the powerful Committee on Naval Affairs in the hope that he will vote as they dictate, in favour of Altacoola instead of Gulf City. They have bought acres of land in Altacoola and stand to make a killing on their investment. But Langdon is no pushover. The proud and feisty Southern planter takes the ‘crooks’ head-on with help from an unlikely quarter, Bud Haines, an intrepid New York journalist whose cynicism of Washington politics and its politicians is overturned by this simple and sincere man from Mississippi. Together, Langdon and his faithful ally turn the tables on Peabody and company.

There are some interesting elements in this story. For instance, Langdon is crestfallen when he finds out that his son, Randolph, and daughter, Carolina, have conspired against him by investing his money in Altacoola. His daughter is engaged to the scheming Charles Norton who has convinced the two impressionable youngsters to cast their lot with him and work towards getting the Colonel and Haines separated. Another daughter, Hope Georgia, realises Haines is a good man and falls in love with him. Langdon is distraught over his children’s behaviour and shows them the error of their ways with an impassioned talk on the importance of righteousness above all things.

Final word
A Gentleman from Mississippi is the delightful story of a kind and genial old man who puts his moral principles—right against wrong, honesty against corruption—above power and pelf and any gains through ill-gotten means. Colonel William H. Langdon is a proud and an honourable man who still believes that politics is a career for gentlemen, a necessity for the service of his state or his country, in spite of his initial brush with unprincipled men like Peabody. In some ways Thomas A. Wise has painted the planter as a na├»ve and an innocent man but by no means foolish. As Langdon says, “No doubt, it won't be all plain sailing in Washington for an old-fashioned man like me, but I believe in the American people and the men they send to Congress.” He aims to be one of those men.

Colonel Langdon is an excellent byproduct of the South, honest, hardworking, and conscientious, an aspect that the author repeatedly weaves into his narrative. Langdon, the current patriarch of a long line of wealthy Langdons, is proud of being a Southerner and now that the war is over, he wants to enter public life for the benefit of the South, his own state of Mississippi, and the country as a whole.  

Thomas A. Wise has written a powerful character-driven novel that is as relevant to politicians and the people who elect them into office today as it was over a hundred years ago.

The author
Interestingly, Thomas A. Wise was an English-born American stage actor who starred in some half-a-dozen films including A Gentleman from Mississippi, 1914, in which he played the role of William H. Langdon. He had a successful stage career, including on Broadway, spanning over forty years.

14 comments:

  1. A time-honored narrative theme in American fiction of that period and later. Ironically, there are many of the same disposition who contribute to the current crisis in national politics.

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    1. Ron, that's an interesting point. I've often felt that Indian politicians with a "Mr. Clean" image (and we have a few) could do a lot more for the country. Their indifference is blamed on political compulsions like coalition politics.

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  2. I wonder if the Bijou Theatre you mention is the one in Knoxville or Nashville? If the former, I've performed on that stage, and it has a fascinating history.

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    1. Kelly, the Bijou Theatre referred to is the one in Knoxville. Having performed there, you're a now a part of its fascinating history.

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  3. Sounds great Prashant - more and more I realise that the Western / historical genre is one I must sample more - thanks chum,

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    1. Sergio, I enjoy reading such books. They're often full of idealism which I don't mind since I rarely come across it in Indian polity. I like westerns against a historical backdrop and there are many I haven't read yet.

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  4. I like the description of this very much. I'm in the mood to read about someone with integrity.

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    1. Charles, it's a nice book although it would be hard to imagine a politician with an impeccable character record like Colonel Langdon in any country.

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  5. It does sound interesting. Very nice review. And lovely book covers featured here. Coincidentally, I am reading a book set in Mississippi right now although with a contemporary setting.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. The covers had me confused since they didn't have the author's name. The one in the middle, I think, is a publicity cover for the actual play. I look forward to reading your review of the book set in Mississippi.

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  6. "... that politics is a career for gentlemen." You know, I doubt that was ever true. But I wanna believe and the book sounds like one that could convince me. Sidebar: lovely old covers.

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    1. David, I agree, those who enter politics are rarely gentlemen and even if they are, they don't remain so for long. I liked Colonel Langdon's character a lot. Unfortunately, he and his kind are always going to remain fictional characters.

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  7. Great review Prashant, I don't believe I will be hunting this one down though,

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    1. Col, thank you. Not a problem. The story is rather predictable and you know how it's going to end.

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