The Whisper of the River follows Porter Osborne, Jr. to college in the city of Macon, Georgia, in the late 1930s. It also follows Run with the Horsemen, the first book of Ferrol Sams’ semi-autobiographical trilogy.
Young Osborne, improbably known as Sambo, grew up as the only son of a planter in rural Georgia in the years just before and then during the Great Depression. The first book related Porter’s childhood with warmth and affection, but did not hide the feudal relations that governed the agricultural South of the time, nor the violence underlying those relations and the effects that violence, both repressed and expressed, had on the people of the farm and the region. Porter is smart and precocious, and by age 16 has exhausted what his high school has to offer.
It was imperative that one be Saved. By the end of high school every member of any graduating class would have acclaimed this verity. The boy, of course, had known it forever. In his culture, life eternal was assured. It was a given. … Everyone believed. No one was fool enough to put any desire ahead of being Saved.
It was just as important to be Raised Right. The child who had been Raised Right was not only Saved but had spent a large part of his formative years in the House of the Lord. Attendance at piano recitals did not count, but everything else did. From Sunbeams through BYPU, from Sunday school to prayer meeting … everything was counted. So was everybody. In the midst of all this scorekeeping, the concept of being saved by grace was a nebulous and adult bit of foolishness not to be contemplated with anything approaching the fervor accorded perfect attendance. A pin with added yearly bars swinging like a sandwich sign on an adolescent chest proclaimed indisputably to the world that its wearer had been Raised Right. A place called Nashville was the source of the Sunday school literature, but the more highly anointed preachers of the day came from a mystic place called Louisville. Elders may have thought that the seat of the Southern Baptist Convention was in Nashville, but to any Raised Right child, “Seminary at Louisville” had exactly the same ring as “Temple at Jerusalem.” Methodists probably could be Saved, but there was a question whether any of them had been Raised Right.
With that churchly background, Porter follows his father’s footsteps to Willingham University, a fictionalized version of Mercer University, in Macon, Georgia. In Run With the Horsemen, Sams had referred to his protagonist almost exclusively as “the boy,” a style that continued in the introductory paragraphs above, and in the first few chapters of The Whisper of the River. That choice helped to both universalize Porter, and to emphasize the small, bounded universe within which he moved. In and around his father’s farm, everyone knew who “the boy” was. As he moves out into the wider world, he uses his name, or more properly his names, more.
As the boy leaves for college, his grandmother admonishes him not to let anyone call him by his childhood nickname, Sambo. That lasts about five minutes after arrival, when his father gives him a checkbook, tells him to be responsible with it, and to sign his father’s name, appending “by Sambo” underneath.
“Sure. That’s what I’ve called you ever since you were born, ain’t it? Porter Longstreet Osborne, Jr., is a lot to write. In fact, it’s a lot to carry around.”
“Yessir, but Memaw was sure up on her dewclaws about me not getting called anything but Porter at college. You heard her, didn’t you?”
“Sure, but you don’t have to go around telling anybody what to call you. You know, my experience has been that you better watch a guy who’s gone all through life without a nickname. There’s bound to be something wrong with him. He’s usually lonely down inside and can’t unbend and make close friends. Anyhow, you sign the checks that way.”
Porter Longstreet Osborne, Jr. may be a lot to carry around, but it doesn’t seem to weigh on Sambo at all. His initial days on campus, half a century before my own at a different (but also small and religiously affiliated) Southern college, were very familiar: a rush of new people, a puzzling roommate, new routines of life, and a social landscape that’s unlike anything he has known before. He’s devout, a serious student, and more than a bit uptight, but also an irrepressible sixteen-year-old.
“Boston? That’s an unusual name. What’s your last name?” [Porter is speaking]
“Last name’s Jones. What you mean to say is that’s a funny name for a nigger, ain’t it?” …
“Certainly not. I was taught not to use that word.”
“Well, don’t get prissy bout it with me. Jest you saying that tells me more’n you think about yo’self. Lessee now. Must been raised around a heap of us if the subject come up enough for you to have to be taught. Spect yo pa be called Bossman a heapa times. Spect yo maw and maybe yo granmaw high bawn ladies if the go to the trouble to teach you that. None of yo women folks ever helt a hoe handle or done nothin more’n a little yard work. Prolly lay down an stretch out a while after dinner ever day. Uh huh, boy. You quality, an you raised on a cotton farm somers tween here ‘n Atlanta.”
“Boston, how in the world you know all that?”
“Gotta watch, gotta listen in this ole word, boy. Lemme tell you somepin else. My full name’s Boston Harbor Jones, an that is a crazy name for a nigger. Before you laugh, you tell me how come it ain’t funny for a white chile ain’t big as a bar of soap after a week’s washing be named Sambo?”
Boston tells Sambo a bit more about the college’s chief dietitian, under whose auspices the two of them first meet:
“I jest like to tease Mrs. Raleigh ever now an then. She ain’t never been around no colored much, and she bout half scared of us. Act like she think we some strange mix tween King Kong and Step’n’Fetchit. She talk sweet an kind all time out there in the dining hall, an then she holler when she git back here an talk to us. Bout oncet a day I try to do somepin dumb as she think I be so she won’t get herself disappointed. Now you watch. I give you a five dollar bill if she don’t look at yo plate and say, ‘Waste not, want not.’ You git to eatin and lemme help my brother-in-law git this ole kitchen clean up.”
She arrives shortly:
“Boston! You get busy and help Jesse clean the kitchen. Why do you always have to wait for me to tell you before you do anything? Land sakes, look at that plate. That’s enough food for three men to prime tobacco all day. One little boy can’t possibly eat it all. I’d think even you had more judgment than that, Boston. Think of the thousands of Chinese children starving right at this moment. Waste not, want not, I always say.”
Porter and Boston exchanged brief glances, but neither smiled. Boston even managed to look crestfallen and chagrined.
“Boston, I declare, I just despair of ever learning how to teach you anything. I know a soft answer turneth away wrath, but you’ve got to learn to think. This isn’t just waste, it’s stupidity. If Sambo doesn’t clean that plate, I’m going to charge you for two visitor’s lunch tickets and have Mr. Mullinax take fifty cents out of your check when I turn the time in. Come on, now. There is work to be done.”
Porter recognized a challenge and immediately involved himself. …
“Mrs. Raleigh, if it’s not too much trouble, could I please, ma’am, have a glass of milk to wash this down?”
With gusto he attacked the plate of food, abandoning all pretense to any table manners he had ever learned. He was the embodiment of famished impatience. He wolfed and bolted food with head almost in his plate and with a frenzy that would have earned at least six adult reprimands at home. He observed from the corner of his eye that he had Mrs. Raleigh’s attention. She watched disbelievingly as she scurried about her duties. He considered snapping and growling but decided that would be overacting. He sopped the plate clean with a morsel and popped it in his mouth with simulated relish. Mrs. Raleigh shook her head wearily as she left to rush [a slow-eating student]. Boston sat down beside him.
“Hoo whee, Sambo, that was somepin else. You go through that plate of vittles like a dog, or at least one nem yankee football players. Me an Jesse bout to bust open not to laugh over there. Mrs. Raleigh be confuse all after noon now, she liable to git a sick headache bout suppertime. Say she ain’t never had no headaches in her whole life till she commence workin round me an Jesse. Cain’t dock me no fi’ty cent now, an them Chinese chirren yet hungry, to. I glad come to school here, but me’n you together sho goan have to watch not to git in no trouble.” …
“What you talkin bout, Boston? I’m not planning on getting into any trouble. I came here to study. I’m a serious student.” He paused. “I want to make the Dean’s List, but that French is going to kill me.”
Boston cocked his head to one side and rolled his eyes at Porter. “Uh huh. I ain’t worry bout you an no Dean’s List. Jest watch you operate already, I spect you’n fool yo way in French good as anywheres else. I know a special person when I see one. …”
And Porter does remain a special person, the like of which Willingham has seldom seen. Fraternity men, sorority women, wealthy preachers, dusty professors and many more are a closely observed and uproariously described as Mrs. Raleigh and her kitchen team. Sams gives his readers a lot about the pre-WWII South, about its people and social structures, its religion and vices, but mostly what he gives readers is a lot of life. Over the course of the book and his four years at Willingham, Sambo slowly grows to be more Porter, his pranks more elaborate, his character still irrepressible but slightly more mellowed. Readers see him and the people around him mature, grow more adult without fully losing the foibles of the youth they brought with them.
It’s not a perfect book, few are, but it recreates a world now mostly lost, does so with affection, and fills it with people who will remain in a reader’s affectionate memory long after the last page is turned.