Julia Davis Adams (1900-1992)
Information for this biographical summary was adapted from the Introduction by Bill Theriault, to “Harvest: Collected Works of Julia Davis,” Charles Town, WV: Arts & Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County and the Jefferson County Oral and Visual History Association, 1992.
Julia Davis was born in Clarksburg, WV, July 23, 1900, daughter to the famed lawyer and sometime candidate for President, John W. Davis. Her mother, Julia Leavell McDonald, from Media Farm, Jefferson County, died three weeks after giving her life. Julia’s resemblance to her mother would pain her shy yet brilliant father and burden their relationship for decades.
Julia Davis would observe: "He was always kindly, often abstracted, but I knew then, and I know still, that looking at me hurt his heart."
Julia Davis’ childhood was divided between summers at Media Farm amid a group of "unrepentant individualists" and a family that quite properly called itself a "clan" – and being taught at home by a stern grandmother in Clarksburg. "Certainly I was not unhappy with the Davises, where I received so much love and learned to love deeply in return. Certainly I do not quarrel with having been taught to use my mind. But I was solitary in that silent house."
“This was the grandmother who knew Greek and Latin, who debated politics and philosophy with her lawyer husband, and who fought off the pleas of her doctor and the preliminary pains of childbirth until she had finished reading a chapter from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
"For the child I was, Media meant joy and freedom, freedom from anxious supervision, from precocity, from loneliness, from all that in one way or another oppressed my spirit. Children were a commonplace on that farm. No one hung over me, no one seemed to care what I did. I expanded, running wild."
Bill Theriault writes in his essay “Julia Davis:” “Summers spent with scores of kids and farm animals, with uncles like John Yates McDonald, a dirt farmer with four college degrees. Summers with her raspy-voiced grandfather, Major Edward A. H. McDonald, an officer in Stuart's cavalry who took a bullet in the throat shortly before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
“He had kept himself from bleeding to death by sticking his finger in the wound and then endured six weeks of frequent hemorrhages and a fractured jaw before the bullet could be removed. This was a man who ran his farm with the discipline and precision he had shown in the service, except for his treatment of granddaughter Julia. He was incapable of punishing her.”
“As far back as she could remember, Julia Davis wanted to be a mother. When she found that she was unable to bear children of her own, she nurtured seven of them, and she shared her life with three husbands. She also wanted to be a writer, and when she took on the responsibility of raising children, she frequently struggled to balance the demands of her craft against those of the youngsters in her care. Her writing also reflects her separation from her natural parents, for the characters in her novels are frequently orphans, children separated from one or both parents by death or duty, and women who carry on alone while the men folks are off to war or on other adventures.”
She would study at Wellesley and graduate from Barnard in New York City, with a glamorous hiatus as the daughter of the ambassador to England in 1920, a time she wrote of in her book: “Legacy of Love” (1961).
Her writing career, according to Theriault, blossomed out of a project to translate the work of Saxo Grammaticus, while living in Copenhagen.
Recalling that first attempt to get a book published, she says, "I brought it back and went around with this portfolio of big pictures. I didn't know that wasn't how you sold a book. Well, I went around with these pictures from door to door of the publishers. And sometimes I'd have to walk twice around the block before I could kick myself in to say `Here I am and here's this possibility.'" She continues, "Eventually I saw the head of Dutton's junior department. And she thought it could be made into stories for young adults, that is teenagers."
Theriault writes: “She quit her job in the summer of 1927 and returned to the Davis home in Clarksburg for a few weeks. Melville Davisson Post, a friend of the Davises, lived nearby, and this West Virginia master of the detective story gave Julia a crash course in novel writing. Davis said: "He taught me more in six weeks than I had learned in all the English courses that I had taken at all the colleges. He really knew what he was doing. He would tell me, `You need a little more dialogue here. You've got to build this up. You've got to build that up.'" She continued, "Your dialogue was always either to advance the story or to enlighten people about the characters. It must always have a purpose. It must always move the story. I really learned how much cloth it takes to make a pair of pants with him in those six weeks."
In her long life she wrote 21 books, four plays, and innumerable essays and poems.
Her books include: “Stonewall Jackson” (1931); “Remember and Forget” (1931); “Peter Hale” (1932); "White Justice" (1933); "Two for One" (1939); “No Other White Men” (1938); “Cloud on the Land” (1950); “Bridle the Wind” (1951); “The Sun Climbs Slow” (1940), which Theriault calls “a quietly powerful novel that is probably her greatest work;” and “The Shenandoah” (1944), which is still in print.
Theriault writes: “She selected the historical novel as her niche, and her creations have combined careful historical research into source materials with a narrative style that eliminates the seams and wrinkles found in the fabric of more scholarly history.” He adds: “I really think her best writing has been about the family and the relations within the family. And I hope future literary historians will come to recognize that.”
Theriault writes that, during the same period that Julia Davis tackled the slavery issue in her writings: “John W. Davis was addressing the issue of integration in the U.S. Supreme Court (1954). Although his daughter and friends advised J.W. Davis against arguing South Carolina's case opposing the integration of public schools, he took the case anyway. South Carolina's governor was a close friend, and Davis believed he had the law and precedent on his side. Looking back on that period, Julia Davis noted that her father, as usual, decided to take the case on his own and didn't share his ideas with her. Likewise, Julia developed her exploration of slavery independently of her father, discussing this and other works with him only after publication.”
Theriault continues: “The death of Julia Davis' father in 1955 and husband in 1956 marked a hiatus in her career, and the loss of several members of the McDonald clan placed an additional burden on her to settle family affairs. During this period, she reflected that "Sometimes there comes a pause in life when the familiar forward motion no longer serves, when new direction must be sought." She was now the custodian of large amounts of materials documenting the history of the Davis and McDonald families.
Reading through this wealth of information, she recalls, brought her back to her roots.
Julia Davis said: “The older generations came again to life, this time in the round, not merely as seen by the young. Reading, I recalled my family in every sense of that good word, and found my signposts for the future.”
“She captured the essence of the relatives who raised her in ‘Legacy of Love’ (1961), a series of anecdotes that focus on her life in Clarksburg, Media, and London” wrote Theriault. “ ‘Mount Up’ (1967), based on the diary of her grandfather, Edward A. McDonald, recounts his exploits during the Civil War. ‘Never Say Die’ (1980) tells the story of Angus McDonald's flight to America after the Battle of Culloden and the growth of his branch of the McDonald clan on this continent. Much of this material deals with early life in Virginia, Ohio, and the area that would later become West Virginia.
Julia Davis once said: "I always wanted to write novels and raise children, and I've done both." Her father once told her, "You have a good mind, but your heart is mush." To that she would counter: "I wish he were alive today, because I would say `Father, the heart paid off better than the head . . . .The head might have paid better . . . . Maybe I could have written better if I had no other interests, but I could not have lived better. I couldn't have been happier."
Julia Dances Her Life Away
As told the editor by “Doc” Master, Charles Town, September 12, 2002.
“As I recall, it was the 20th the anniversary of the Opera House and it was down at the Cliffside. We had a banquet, ten to a table and - this is an aside Millie Shugart was 101 at that event. When she was about a hundred we had danced last at Chuck Kisner’s 60th down at the KOA. Mrs. Shugart got so hot she took off her wig and put it on my head and later willed me three wigs.
“At the 20th of the Opera House, I asked Millie to dance. She was at a table of ten.
“Julia said: ‘Don, I want the next dance.’
“I said: ‘Julia, you have it.’ It was ‘Take the A Train.’
“Julia said: ‘You know I’ve danced my life away in Paris, London, Copenhagen, all over Europe.’
‘Yes, Julia I’ve heard all those remarks in the last thirty years and I’ve enjoyed them all.’
“We got out on the floor. Gosh, I whirled her around a couple of times and she looked just simply beautiful, the most beautiful I had ever seen her in thirty years. The lights glanced off her eyes and she just looked great, just great. We made a couple more turns and then she said to me: ‘I think I’ve got to sit down.’ I said: ‘Fine.’
“We were walking back to her chair, Julia on my arm. She said to me: ‘Thank you, Don.’ A second later, I thought she tripped over the rug on my left, but she kept going down. She died right there, in my arms. I picked her up, took her out to the poolside, I laid her on the carpet. I put my ear to her chest. There was nothing.
“So the last words in her life – were: ‘Thank you, Don.’ Those were the final words of her life.
“We had some great times. And as sure as I am sitting here, Julia planned it that way.
That was a Friday or Saturday. The Tuesday before, she checked her self into a hospital and stayed a few days.”
(She told another friend two weeks before: “I’m finished. I’m ready to go.” And she did with her usual flair. – ED)
Media Farm, Flowing Springs Road, 1906-1912
By Julia Davis Adams
The following, in Julia Davis’ words, is the Preface to “Harvest: Collected Works,” reproduced here courtesy of its editor, Bill Theriault. It describes the summers young Julia spent at Media Farm along Flowing Springs Road near Charles town with the colorful McDonald branch of her family.
“Summer meant awakening to sunshine, to hearing doves and the wind rustle in the oaks. Trees have separate voices in wind: pines sigh like the sea; maples murmur; oaks rustle crisply. Of course, the sun did not always shine, but that is how I remember it. Children came to seven o’clock breakfast without being called, because the food was there - cereal, fruit in season (we lived without oranges), eggs, usually boiled; ham, cold or fried; possibly hash; hot rolls or biscuits or cornbread, coffee, tea, milk, water. There were no dietary regulations. Children rarely starve when food is available. Freedom.
“The basic family numbered nine and could rise to twenty-four. The mahogany tables could hold fourteen; after that children ate at a side table. These were not quiet people. At all meals they joked and laughed a lot. After breakfast The Major and three sons went to the fields or orchards wearing long sleeves and big straw hats against the sun. Male guests joined them, also the tenants from the small frame houses on the place.
“The youngest son, John, might be at some university getting one of his four college degrees. Individual tendencies were respected. The three older sons - two lawyers and a clergyman - lived in other states with their families, but visited frequently. Other grandchildren appeared. ‘The girls’ - two daughters and a niece - turned to more domestic duties so diverse that only washing dishes or making beds became repetitious. Each had a specialty. My first was sweeping some of the five porches. There, if I could not do much good, I could not do much harm. The chickens shared them. We fed the chickens, husked the corn, brought in the vegetables, cut up the fruit for eating and canning. ‘We’ was the pronoun we used, not ‘you’ or ‘I.’ If work was heavy, cooperative efforts would take care of it. Grandmother ruled the kitchen, produced three hearty and delicious, if seasonal, meals a day. When offered help, she would say: ‘You are honorably discharged.’ She wore a look often seen in mothers of large families (now a vanishing breed), a look of tenderness compounded with patience and resignation. Her strongest rebuke was ‘That is not the way to be happy.’ Much later she told me once that she had ‘had come to bread-making with tears.’ Tears had long ago been dried by facing reality. There were no complaints. She greeted every guest with open arms if related, with charming cordiality if a stranger, her good manners so integral a part of her that tragedy, deprivation or illness could not change them.
“The house lacked running water, electricity, central heating, labor-saving kitchen gadgets. Uncle Will made the fire in the wood stove that did all the cooking, when he went out to milk the cows at 5:30 AM, Grandmother followed him at 6 AM to bake the newly-risen bread. What the house had was an inviolable sense of home, of a refuge that could not be taken away, of family, of love. The Major ran his home with discipline as he had run his regiment, but the greatest sin was to distress the mother.