James Saxon Childers Educator, newspaperman, author, and publisher, James Saxon Childers (1899-1965) was a prolific writer of novels, biographies, and travel books based on his own extensive travels before, during, and after World War II. Although most of his life was spent in the American South, he used the region as a setting in only three of his works of fiction.
Born in Birmingham to Hayden Prior and Patti Undine Childers on April 19, 1899; the youngest of five children, Childers was educated in that city’s public schools and, on a fellowship from the Danforth Foundation, completed a bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1923, Childers entered Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, completing a second bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. From 1925 to 1942, he was a faculty member in the English Department of Birmingham-Southern College.
Childers’s education and academic experiences provided the subject matter for much of his early fiction. Laurel and Straw (1927), for example, tells the story of an American Rhodes Scholar at Oxford who tries to conform to upper-class English mores without embracing their elitism. Hilltop in the Rain (1928), set at a small southern college, depicts the growing frustrations of a young man whose inner life is more important than his job or marriage. Childers’s later and best-known novel, published in 1936, bears the generic but intriguing title A Novel About a White Man and a Black Man in the Deep South. It was, for a college professor in Alabama at the time, a bold effort to address institutionalized racism in southern society.
Childers’s other fiction encompassed a broad range of themes and characters, not always with great success. Although his novels never received more than a mildly favorable response from reviewers, his travel literature was highly praised and widely read. Sometimes referred to as “travel studies,” they include Through Oriental Gates: The Adventures of an Unwise Man in the East (1930), From Siam to Suez (1932), Sailing South American Skies (1936), and Mumbo, Jumbo, Esquire: A Tale About the Two Africas (1941). During this time, Childers also worked as a part-time reporter, columnist, and book reviewer for the Birmingham News.
Childers served in the military in World War I and World War II and later used his assignments as an aviator and intelligence officer in his 1942 spy novel Enemy Outpost and in the 1943 War Eagles, an informal account of the American Eagle Squadron attached to Great Britain’s Royal Air Force. Also in 1942, he married Maurine White. After the war, the couple lived near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Childers wrote full-time for the next five years, although he did not publish anything of significance in this period. In 1951, Childers took a job as an editor with the Atlanta Journal; however, he was forced to resign in 1956 after a conflict with the publisher for his progressive views on race relations. He then took a job with the U.S. State Department lecturing on Asian cultures. In 1959, Childers became president of the Atlanta book publishing company Tupper and Love, Inc., and produced several more nonfiction works. Childers died of cancer on July 17, 1965, in Atlanta and was buried in Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Selected Works by John Saxon Childers
Laurel and Straw (1927)
Hilltop in the Rain (1928)
The Bookshop Mystery (1930)
Through Oriental Gates: The Adventures of an Unwise Man in the East (1930)
God Save the Duke (1933)
A Novel About a White Man and a Black Man in the Deep South (1936)
Mumbo, Jumbo, Esquire: A Tale About the Two Africas (1941)
Enemy Outpost (1942)
Erskine Ramsay: His Life and Achievements (1942)
War Eagles: The Story of the Eagle Squadron (1943)
The Nation on the Flying Trapeze: The United States as the People of the East See Us (1960)
Listen to Leaders in Business (editor, 1963)
Listen to Leaders in Engineering (editor, 1965)
“James Saxon Childers Papers, 1918-1965,” Archives Department, Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama.
“James Saxon Childers Papers,” Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
McWilliams, Tennant S. “James Saxon Childers and Southern Liberalism in the 1930s.” Introduction to A Novel About a White Man and a Black Man in the Deep South by James Saxon Childers. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Parker, Julia. “James Saxon Childers: A Bio-Bibliography.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1959.