Bonnie Bryant the provincialist, her tiny lost town & the one and the many

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With the help of Tennessee author Bonnie Bryant, the mystery of “the one and the many” comes clearly into view.

Bonnie Bryant lived 63 years in a log cabin near Soddy Lake in North Hamilton County. The cabin appears in a painting by Susan Wilhoit, another Tennessean, that hangs over the sofa in her living room.

When Miss Bryant was studying library science at Peabody Library school in Nashville, she wrote a paper of Soddy folklore that she later published as a book.

She is puzzled at my questions about the “rivalry” between Soddy and Daisy before they merged in 1969 (they weren’t rivals, really, just different, she indicates). But Miss Bryant helps flesh out my suspicion that there are advantages to one’s having a sense of one’s origins and one’s past.

In an interview at her tree-shaded private house off Germantown Road, Miss Bryant talks about her life, her TVA engineer father, of her Scots-Irish ancestry  (a descendant was a fife boy in the colonial army defying the British) and how she came to write A Collection of Folklore from Soddy, Tennessee. We sit at a tiny table in the middle of her kitchen. We lean our elbows on two placemats next to a loaf of whole-wheat bread.

The preface tells how she created the the 74-page volume about Soddy with its folk history (“The Lime Kiln Mystery,” for example), ghost stories and ballads. A primary  “informant” for the original 1966 paper is Winnie Walker, a teacher and librarian at Soddy School. Every student of the school in the mid-20th century heard the tales Miss Walker collected. Miss Walker, whose 1974 Chattanooga Times obituary Miss Bryant reproduces, wrote out longhand all the stories her former student used.

Miss Bryant’s teaching career took her to retirement as librarian of Big Ridge elementary school in Chattanooga.

Advice for the rootless, wandering American

“But I was a young teacher and student, just trying to get a paper done and not particularly interested in preserving historical artifacts at that stage in my career,” Miss Bryant writes. But she nevertheless had a sense of the possible value in the anecdotes. She created a typed version of her teacher’s folklore — two of them. She gave one to the Chattanooga Hamilton County Bicentennial Library, which helped researchers and other writers.

Here’s some of what she says:

David You showed me the painting of the house in which you lived 63 years. Do you think that you have some benefit of soul that a modern American might not have who travels a lot, who relocates with the job, who’s constantly moving? What benefits do you have if, almost without cease, you are connected to a specific — what benefits are there?

Miss Bryant  A seated security.

David Is that seated, or ceded? Which one is it?

Miss Bryant That’s not a good choice of words. I just made that word up.

David Well, what are you trying to get at? You’re trying to get at something.

Miss Bryant  Well, I mean, you’re settled in a place. You’d have to be the kind of person who’d want to keep the status quo, because a lot of people, a lot of people in my family, moved. *** I think it’s a matter of personality and temperament.

David Well, I am a sort of uprooted person. And that brings character, but it can also bring weakness of character. And that weakness of character is perhaps encouraged — in my idea — by the lack of commitment to a place, the lack of identification —

Miss Bryant  — to a place. You are answering your own question.

David Well, I don’t want to answer my own question.

Miss Bryant  But you’re doing it.

David I was hoping you would help me out. I am here for you to help me, Miss Bryant.

Miss Bryant  [Laugher]

David I am here for you to help me. The question is: What are the benefits of soul from having a life that is sort of fixed?

Miss Bryant  Appreciation for your roots — for your past. Maybe it shows a laziness [laughter]. Some people have more of a need to branch out, don’t you think?

David Yes, ma’am.

Miss Bryant Am I going to get to read this when you get finished with it? *** I think some people have more a sense of the past than others. A lot people don’t even consider things. And at different times in your life —  like, when I put that book together, I was just trying to do a paper. I wasn’t thinking much about where I came from, where my family came from and that sort of thing.

Cultivated provincialism?

Mrs. Wilhoit, the artist known for her 50 watercolors of state capitols on display at Bryant College, in Dayton, Tenn., sings with Miss Bryant in a Bach chorale. She put the Bryant family cabin onto canvas before her friend sold it three years ago to a nephew.

“Growing up in a small community like Soddy-Daisy, she invested her life there,” Mrs. Wilhoit, of Dayton, says. “My idea of her, she is just a real local gal, and she was getting ready to move. She commissioned me to paint her family home, and it was a very difficult thing for her to move, Those were her roots. She has invested her whole life in that area, Soddy-Daisy.”

My quest to cultivate local economy and intelligent provincialism comes, with Miss Bryant, to an interesting sub-peak, one that gives a view of valleys below but also of yet higher mountains, ones that only now come into view beyond the massifs immediately in front.

Cultivated provincialism rests on a tension between God as creator and the created order itself, of which human life is a part. The elements that seize together to create this tension might be gently made limp, and separated along their intertwining strands if we can sketch out two opposing explanations.

Source of tension: the universal vs. the particular

A tension exists between the universal and the particular, the global and the local, the dictator and the individual. It exists between tyranny and rebellion, between the unitary state and the independent village. It exists between ideal on one side and matter on the other.

On one hand, the philosopher solves the religious problem with statism. His solution to disorder, chaos, individuality, material and distinction is to absorb all things into the one. The Marxist state and the modern socialist democracy are given as the solution to the problem of the one and the many. The many disappear into the one. Your family is nothing but a department of state. The church is a utility. Soddy, Tenn., is nothing to care about and is irrelevant. In this perspective, homogeneity is the way to solve the problem of sin.

At the other end of the spectrum is the individualist and the anarchist, whose solution is abolition of the state and of law. He is an atomist. He sees only the individual, and as a materialist seeks all for himself and the individual. For the individualist, sin is the impinging on the individual will of any organized or external force, whether it be of law, the father, the church, the judge. He rejects God as violative of atomised self-ownership. In this view, every folklore book about a small town becomes a treasure, an expression of holiness.

You are asking yourself, what do these distinctions have to do with Miss Bryant and Soddy tall tales?

Social order vs. individual liberty

The biblical teaching of the Three in One, and the One in Three, does a mighty work in helping solve the problem of social order and individual liberty. Miss Bryant is not a partisan in the battle directly, but we can sense the dynamics of the battle swirling about her as we feel in our bosoms her argument for particularity and belonging she raises with her work.

In the godhead are three persons — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There is relationship in the godhead, there is love in the godhead, there is service to the other in the godhead, and there are universality and particularity in the godhead. God is love only because the members of the Trinity love and adore one another.

G.K. Chesterton is a favorite author who explores the question poetically in popular publications. R.J. Rushdoony, in his history The One and the Many (1978), probably best explores it biblically. God is an uncreated being, and the universe is His creation and has meaning only in terms of Him since He is its creator and sustainer, Dr. Rushdoony says.

This triune God is the eternal One-and-Many as distinct from the temporal one and many. “In God the one and the may are equally ultimate. Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity in God is no more fundamental than unity. The persons of the Trinity are mutually exhaustive  of one another. The Son and the Spirit are ontologically on par with the father.” Moreover, “It is only in the Christian doctrine of the triune God, as we are bound to believe, that we really have a concrete universal. In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars. It goes without saying that if we hold to the eternal one and many in the manner explained above we must hold the temporal one and many to be created by God.” “ *** All aspects being equally created, no one aspect of reality may be regarded as more ultimate than another.”

How Christianity solves eternal problem

Rushdoony is relying here on the works of Cornelius Van Til, the Dutch theologian. A few more lines that will be helpful: “There is no need for the cultural yawing between destructive collectivism and an atomistic particularity. Both the one and the many are equally related and hence equally concrete — and equally under the absolute law of the eternal One-and-Many. Instead of cultural tension, for example, between state and man, there is a cultural unity as both are undergirded and have meaning in terms of the fundamental law of God, which governs and delimits all things” (italics in original).

My interest in provincial life, local economy, godly living and the doctrines of the Christian religion are not easily separable, though I hope we’ve been able to satisfy the emotional and intellectual tension that undergirds their interpenetrating relationships. Miss Bryant’s book, with its simple charm, brings to mind these great questions that I hope we can explore further, as providence allows, and in the particulars.

If you are interested in buying A Collection of Folklore from Soddy, Tennessee, the price is F$25. Contact Miss Bryant at soddyfox (at) aol.com.

Sources: Bonnie Bryant, A Collection of Folklore from Soddy, Tennessee (Walden, Tenn: Waldenhouse Publishers Inc.,  2011) www.waldenhouse.com

Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many (Fairfax, Va.: Thoburn Press, 1978), pp. 34, 35

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