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date: 27 April 2017

19th-Century Southern Literature

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Defined by cultural vibrancy and widespread poverty, and marked by a long and complex history of trade, migration, cultural exchange, and slavery, the literature of the U.S. South is born of the intricacies of a complex, polymorphous history and culture. The 19th century was a particularly tumultuous period, as the region experienced the rise and fall of chattel slavery through a loss in 1865 that left in its wake a devastated country, a generation of decimated white males, widespread poverty and physical destruction, the ruin of a agricultural economy that once offered the promise of cotton as “king,” and a legacy of explosive racial rage that would continue throughout the 20th century. Against these social, political, and economic changes, the dominant literatures that emerged reflected stratified life across color lines: a white pastoral tradition that celebrated the plantation and mourned for a past that never was, and a literature of slavery and resistance that envisioned a different future for African Americans.

Cloaking in romance their fervent beliefs in class stratification and enlightened upper-class rule, Confederate poets such as Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, and William Gilmore Simms positioned white mastery as the natural outcome of chivalry, while Joel Chandler Harris, John Pendleton Kennedy, and Thomas Nelson Page spun nostalgic fantasies of antebellum plantation life that reinforced myths about the continuing docility and inexpensiveness of the South’s black workforce. As blacks began to protest new forms of subjugation—the “Jim Crow” legislation that prohibited racial intermingling in public spaces, the recourse to lynching to terrorize African Americans—plantation fiction increasingly came to form an imagined defense against the new racial realities that would unfold over the course of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, black voices during the period offered a powerful alternative to white command, repudiating seductive myths of plantation life. The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington revealed a system infested with greed, inhumanity, deception, and cruelty. Slave writers George Moses Horton, Hannah Crafts, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and post-Civil War poets Albery A. Whitman, George M. McClellan, and Joseph S. Cotter, Sr. wrote skillfully about racial and nonracial topics in ways that powerfully demonstrated black agency and subjectivity against a white rule that sought to strip them of it, while the work of Charles Chesnutt, William Wells Brown, and other writers drew on black vernacular language and folklore.

Entangled and enmeshed by a color line that would soon be singled out by W. E. B. Du Bois as a resistant and virulent problem for the nation at large, white and black southerners, as the literature of the 19th century American South testifies, alternately struggled to evade and express the demands of racism's intimate psychological consequences and the polyvalent power of interconnected ideologies of class and gender formed in this era.