Brainard Cheney was a twentieth-century novelist, political speechwriter, and essayist from the wiregrass region of south Georgia. During a writing career that spanned four decades, Cheney published four novels—Lightwood (1939), River Rogue (1942), This Is Adam (1958), and Devil’s Elbow (1969)—that depict the social transformation of south Georgia between 1870 and 1960. These novels contain accounts of Cheney’s own coming of age (Devil’s Elbow) as well as land feuds (Lightwood), timber rafting (River Rogue), and race relations (This Is Adam) in the area where he grew up. Along with his wife, Frances Neel Cheney, he was a member of a community of writers that included Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, and Flannery O’Connor.
Born in Fitzgerald on June 3, 1900, to a family with considerable land holdings in the area, Brainard Bartwell Cheney moved with his family to Lumber City, in Telfair County, when he was six years old. His father died when he was eight, and his mother reared him and his two sisters on their farm near Lumber City. Cheney attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, sporadically between 1920 and 1925, becoming friends with many of the Fugitive and Agrarian writers associated with the Vanderbilt English department in the 1920s and 1930s. After leaving school he worked for the Nashville Banner from 1925 to 1942, serving as reporter, editor, feature writer, and editorialist. After a series of political appointments and public relations positions, he served as public relations director for Tennessee governor Frank Clement from 1952 to 1958.
Throughout his newspaper and political careers Cheney continued to work on his own novels and maintained a voluminous correspondence with his literary friends, especially Tate, Gordon, Lytle, and Warren. In 1953, through the sponsorship of Tate and Gordon, he and his wife became members of the Roman Catholic Church. Living primarily in Nashville and at their home,”Idler’s Retreat,” in Smyrna, Tennessee, the Cheneys (Lon and Fannie to their friends) remained for many years at the center of a lively literary circle. Cheney died in 1990 at the age of eighty-nine; his wife died in 1996, also at the age of eighty-nine.
In 2016 Cheney was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Cheney’s published novels reveal his sympathy with the Agrarian themes of individualism, tradition, anti-industrialism, and harmony with nature. They express the romance of a return to the land, and his authorial character, Marcellus Hightower, indicates his support of a patriarchal social system. Yet as a political pragmatist, Cheney differed from his Agrarian counterparts in significant ways. He supported New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his novels reflect a more liberal attitude toward racial integration and social change. The protagonist of River Rogue, an independent, alienated young white man, lives and works openly with a Black family in the swamps of south Georgia. In This Is Adam Cheney makes his title character the mixed-race overseer of a farm much like the one on which he grew up. In all of his novels Cheney’s acute political ear and his awareness of the complexities of a changing society create a graphic and memorable portrait of a region.