19th-Century Southern Literature
Summary and Keywords
Defined by both 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 military loss in 1865 that left in its wake a devastated country, a decimated generation, widespread poverty and physical destruction, the ruin of an 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 hierarchy 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 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 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 nineteenth 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.
Introduction to 19th-Century Southern Literature
The conservatism and proslavery ideals of much antebellum Southern literature have not endeared it as a popular object of contemporary study. Until recently, critical overviews have focused on telling a largely white masculine story of the period, and contemporary readers, rather than reckon with the unchecked racism that defines much of the period’s rhetoric, have seen the 19th century as a literary and political embarrassment. Growing levels of sectionalist sentiment, informed to a significant extent by Southern dependence on slave labor and the region’s opposition to the industrial and progressive North, influenced the literary output of the Southern states during the 19th century. Primarily concerned with the political and legal means to protect those social norms “peculiar” to the Southern region, white Southern writers in the early decades of the 19th century rarely pushed the boundaries of literary norms, largely preferring the familiarity of genres such as the historical romance and a genteel narrative style thought to quell simmering anxieties about race, sexuality, and power.
However, as Paul Christian Jones points out in Unwelcome Voices: Subversive Fiction in the Antebellum South (2005), the period is more complicated than scholars credit, and its literature cannot be reduced to mere stereotypes about aristocratic cavaliers, beautiful belles, and happy slaves. Drawing on the work of Michael O’Brien and Michael Kreyling, Jones argues that the flattening of 19th-century Southern literature to a handful of stock characters and plots stems from the ideological work of New Critics and Southern Agrarians like Allen Tate and their backformation of the Old South as intellectually desolate in contrast to the Southern Renaissance. As Jones argues, we must “move beyond the invented literary history of the region, to begin to revise the familiar story, and to recover a vision of the South as a diverse region.”1 His call for a recovery of the period means that a much more complex story of the region’s internal diversity, national importance, and global role must be told, ushering in a more nuanced narrative at odds with lingering myths of Southern backwardness, inferiority, and insularity.
Attuned to the period’s anxious articulations of race, gender, and class, scholars of Southern literature have approached the 19th century with renewed intellectual vigor, unfolding the region’s continued hold on the contemporary American imagination. Understanding the formation of white Southern self-consciousness in the 1830s, the ideological legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the rise of (later) Agrarian fantasies of Southern identity are crucial in assessing the region’s lingering cultural and political influence on American identity. Furthermore, the plantation, as both labor structure and ideology, has also been a renewed site of interest as scholars trace links between it and histories of indentured labor, debt slavery, and contemporary mass incarceration. In this way, the 19th century generated not just lingering ideological tension about very different “Souths” but, as we see in our contemporary political moment, very different visions of America.
The Formation of a Regional Identity
Throughout American history, a pervasive idea that the South is a region both distinct from and integral to the nation persists. In The Burden of Southern History, C. Vann Woodward posits that such distinctness is a result of the region’s similarities with fledgling, formerly colonial foreign nations, qualities against which the United States at large seeks to define itself. Building upon this framework, Jennifer Rae Greeson investigates the South in the American literary imaginary as part of and as simultaneously separate from the nation. The region, she explains, “serves as a remarkably fertile spatial nexus of the domestic and the foreign, marking both the limit of the nationalizing early republic and, increasingly across the 19th century, the continental and hemispheric horizon toward which U.S. imperial desire projects.”2 Tracing the development of Southern literature across the 19th century then involves the recognition of the region as both foreign and interior to the nation and an examination of regional identity formation during the early republic.
The perception of the U.S. South as distinct within the American imaginary is in many ways traceable to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. This session saw the drafting of a U.S. Constitution that sought to replace the Articles of Confederation and centralize power in the federal government. Within this debate about the necessary power of a central government to oversee commercial issues and foreign affairs, Southern delegates quickly identified themselves as distinct from members of Northern states and sought maximum representation in Congress. This struggle for power between the North and South led to the infamous compromise that included the “three-fifths clause”: the number of Representatives allocated to each state would be based on the amount of free citizens of the state as well as the population of slaves. Each slave would be measured as equal to three-fifths that of a free citizen. In this way, slaveholding states quickly garnered representational power over free states in the northeast and were apportioned additional taxes according to this method of recording the population. The resulting tension between the industrial North and the agrarian South grew in 1819 when Missouri requested admission as a new slave state that would disrupt the equal number of slave and free states in the Union. As sentiments of sectionalism increased, the 1820 Missouri Compromise struck a bargain that attempted to assuage such tensions by granting the admittance of Maine as a free state to balance the representative power of Missouri. While this bipartisan agreement temporarily relieved a certain amount of tension between the budding capitalist cities of the North and the cotton-dependent plantations of the South, the issue of slavery only continued to gain attention in the national conversation.
The legacy of political and legal composition in the Southern states is in many ways rooted in the revolutionary era. Southern writers at the end of the 18th century such as James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson laid the foundation for American political and legal discourse. In his 1774 essay, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson outlined both his support for the rights of the individual and his estimation that citizens who couple these rights with ingenuity and self-reliance are equipped to build a great nation not plagued by a despotic, centralized seat of power. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), he laid out his views concerning political and social issues that would dominate Southern discourse for the next century. In particular, his support for an agrarian economy ruled by a local, limited government would serve as an initial sketch of the predominant beliefs of the Southern states. Other Virginians such as James Madison, George Wythe, George Mason, and Patrick Henry helped propel Americans forward in their fight for independence and popularized the use of discursive means for social change. These writers rarely produced literary texts but instead wrote works calculated to persuade readers concerning a particular social or political cause. Their writings helped solidify an emerging regional and national identity that would influence future essayists and political figures such as James Henry Hammond who, in 1844, wrote “Letter to an English Abolitionist.” The letter, written by the former governor and representative to an English abolitionist named Thomas Clarkson, outlines central arguments supporting the institution of slavery that, like the writings of predecessors such as Jefferson and Madison, are deeply influenced by the epistemic foundations and discursive features of the Enlightenment. The final decades of the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th century witnessed a spirit of sectionalism that would threaten to divide the nation over concerns of commerce and the institution of slavery.
These debates shaped the early tone of Southern literary criticism, which took on a politicized role. Following the War of 1812, a discussion among American literary critics began concerning the need for a literary style distinctive to the young republic. Throughout the subsequent decades, regionalist sentiments began to enter the American literary community, threatening the development of a unified artistic idiom. This national fissure may be attributed to the diverging sectionalist and nationalist ideals that, while temporarily held together by Northern and Southern writers in the early decades of the century, proved volatile as regional identities supplanted unifying national identities. Perceiving the Northern literati to be exclusionist in its assessment of America writing and opposed to the South’s social frameworks, Southern literary critics and writers began their quest to present a distinctly regional literature that illustrated the superiority of its cultural, political, and economic ideals. For a time, writers found success in not focusing their work upon topical content, but the tensions leading to the Civil War ultimately found their way into the poetry and prose of American writers. In response to the criticism of Northern writers, Southern critics in journals such as the Southern Literary Messenger (1834–1864) called for a sectional literature that would celebrate the region and respond to critics outside its domain. The influence of these early writers would contribute to the argumentative frameworks of future writers. Informed by these earlier Southern voices, those authors who took up the mantle of Southern essentialism and regional identity would ultimately imbed these moralistic elements within literary texts.
Within the imaginative landscape of the white American South of the 19th century, three entities are inextricably intertwined: the fantasy of the plantation as a site of white mastery, the idea of white Southern womanhood, and the image of the African American, whether slave or freedman, as subhuman. These interdependent representations are reflective of an economy that organized labor and wealth by class, gender, and race. The first of these icons, the plantation, metonymically signifies race-based exploitation of labor. Given the plantation’s centrality in imaginative mythologies of the antebellum South and its function today as a site of historical romance and historical erasure, it is fundamental to understand how plantation ideology, as fundamental to colonial and imperial development, is reflected in literature, and to note how these representations resonate in contemporary investment in (neo)plantation ideology on a national and global scale.
As a material structure, a system of labor, and a manifestation of white supremacist fantasy, the plantation both conferred power on white masters and created black subjects with the potential for revolt and revolution. As such, representations of the plantation often reflect its ambivalent, overdetermined status as a site both of order and disorder, master narratives and contested histories. One of the earliest American plantation novels is George Tucker’s The Valley of the Shenandoah (1824). Tucker, a member of the House of Delegates from 1815–1816 as well as a lawyer, historian, economist, and philosopher, produced in this text an image of the South that included the plantation as a central part of the cruel practice of slavery. Yet his portrait of the plantation does not include romanticized accounts of an ideal economic institution. Instead, he cultivates an image of the plantation as a central location for the oppression of African-American people. By thus directly acknowledging the black labor upon which plantation life depends, his work does not easily fit into later texts that present this world as idyllic fantasy. A man who both owned slaves and condemned the institution as evil, Tucker creates a dark, negative portrayal of a region beset by the evils of slavery. Still, by the end of his life, Tucker would transform himself into an apologist of Southern slavery. His capitulation is accredited to his immense dislike of abolitionists and the belief that emancipation was an impractical method for ending slavery. Instead, Tucker argued, the institution of slavery would fail naturally and should therefore not be abruptly dismantled. The Valley of the Shenandoah (1824) stands, then, as an important precursor to the rosy moonlight and magnolias model of the plantation novel made popular in the years following its publication.
Any discussion of the plantation in American literature must necessarily include John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn: Or, a Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832). His depiction of plantation life, while not without its notes of irony, became in many ways a guide for conservative representations of Southern culture. As the novel proceeds, Kennedy’s narrator gradually transforms from a northern moderate with abolitionist sympathies into a staunch supporter of slave society, mirroring a model of the “converted” northern visitor readily found in many of the period’s proslavery fictions. Furthermore, moving beyond the use of the plantation as mere setting, Kennedy casts it instead as the symbolic foundation of an idyllic, chivalric society. As a space both domestic and commercial, the plantation directly reflects, as Kennedy presents it, the economy in which it operates, and it becomes a framework predicated upon the exploitation of human labor and the subjugation of a race. This dependence upon the labor of the enslaved is captured in a chapter entitled “The Quarter.” Here, Kennedy presents a portrait of slavery colored by moral indignation yet coupled with a reluctance to radically alter the current social hierarchy. Swallow Barn’s (1832) complex commentary on the institution of slavery illustrates its value as a chronicle of the diverse opinions and assumptions concerning slavery held by Southern writers at this time. Likewise, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker’s fiction similarly follows conservative writing conventions and themes, as is evidenced in his best-remembered work, The Partisan Leader (1836). Set in Virginia in 1849, the text outlines a future war fought between heroic Southern guerillas and a megalomaniacal federal government led by Martin Van Buren who has proclaimed himself the dictator of the United States. As the rest of the states in this imagined South have already seceded from the union, the plot concerns the fight of these armed forces to free Virginia from the despotic control of the central government. Tucker’s pro-slavery rhetoric and haunting calls for the secession of Southern states decades before the onset of the Civil War add considerable weight to the reputation of the text and its polarizing effects upon current readers.
In contrast to this problematic but complex view of the antebellum South are texts located within the genre of plantation literature that responded to the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) with arguments supporting slavery and idealizing the institutions of the South. Novels such as Caroline Lee Hentz’s The Planter’s Northern Bride (1852) romanticize the plantation and sanitize it of its oppressive foundations. While her early output is morally instructional, her later works demonstrate a strict intent to write to preserve a traditionalist, slavery-centered, agricultural Southern society. Her most popular novel, The Planter’s Northern Bride (1852), openly defends the institution of slavery and acts as a direct response to and rebuttal of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
Other novels such as V. G. Cowdin’s Ellen; or, The Fanatic’s Daughter (1860) work to undermine or directly attack the reputation of abolitionist groups and organizations such as the Underground Railroad while declining to present a defense of slavery. While a common thread of these works is the narrative of loyal slaves and their benign masters, works such as William M. Burwell’s White Acre vs. Black Acre (1856) venture from these well-trodden paths. In this novel, the loyalties and diligence of free workers are pitted against their more loyal, enslaved counterparts. Although the novel does not work to enchant its audience with descriptions of the Southern seat of power, the plantation, this icon nevertheless overshadows the conflict between the two systems of labor. The text presents an allegory in which the side that must rightfully win, represented by the “black acre” tilled by the hands of slaves, is the most economically viable option, predicated upon the labor hierarchy of the plantation house. Other key publications that serve to romanticize the South while condemning the abolitionist ideals of Stowe’s novel include: Philip J. Cozans’s Little Eva: The Flower of the South (1853); Robert Criswell’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Contrasted with Buckingham Hall, the Planter’s Home (1852); Mary Henderson Eastman’s Aunt Phillis’s Cabin: or, Southern Life As It Is (1852); Martha Haines Butt’s Antifanaticism: A Tale of the South (1853); G. M. Flanders’s The Ebony Idol (1860); Sarah Josepha Hale’s Liberia: or, Mr. Peyton’s Experiments (1853); and Charles Jacobs Peterson’s The Cabin and Parlor: or, Slaves and Masters (1852). Generally, these texts focus upon the plantation as a site of Southern power and argue for the benefits of slavery in direct opposition to the portrayals of Southern life found in abolitionist literature.
Far more than a mere big farm, the plantation is situated at the epicenter of the Southern imaginative landscape, a cultural imaginary that, in seeking justification for its economic and social institutions, relies heavily upon the fantasy of white supremacy. When the model of its labor regime was recreated in the wake of the Civil War amid efforts to revitalize and modernize the region, the plantation, far from being banished in battle, would find an afterlife in an American political economy reliant upon debt peonage, class stratification, and structural segregation.
White Southern Womanhood and Race
To justify the plantation’s rule by domination, certain formations of race and sexuality were mobilized as a means to justify and naturalize white mastery. The hierarchy of the South in the 19th century is observable through the distribution of power across social groups. White male members of the gentry class possessed the greatest degree of strength due to their ownership of property and status. White females occupying this class, such as the plantation mistress and Southern belle, absorbed power from their male counterparts but were compelled to perform tasks of labor for no compensation and, according to the ideologies of Southern womanhood, submit, not unlike the slave, to the will of the plantation owner. This role restricted the affluent female Southerner from taking part in the management or ownership of the plantation. In this way, white women’s status was dependent upon their allegiance to white heteropatriarchy. White lower-class men possessed significantly less power than did their affluent counterparts. Meanwhile, white lower-class women were denied credit for their work in the home and offered only a limited range of domestic positions, such as those of seamstress or millworker. Black women were treated as sexual objects available for exploitation or as sexless mammies utilized as a negative contrast to white female purity. And black men, their status tied to their ability to provide the hard labor needed to run the plantation, would increasingly be impacted by the white fantasy of the sexually violent “black beast” that would fuel lynching campaigns toward the end of the 19th century. While there was little or no chance of upward mobility in this gendered and raced caste system, there did exist many opportunities for downward mobility as a repercussion of challenging these social boundaries.
Within this social system, the issues of women’s rights and abolition began to converge in distinct ways. While Southern intellectuals predominantly denied any moral dilemma regarding the institution of slavery, influential suffragists and women writers began to recognize and highlight the struggles and oppressive forces common to both slavery and the subjugation of women. Recognizing the restrictions placed upon them in a legal system that denied their rights to property, these women found truth in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s wry assessment that “there is no slave, after all, like a wife.”3 Still, other women writers worked against these challenges to Southern social practices and attempted instead to perpetuate the myth of the benevolent master and the dependent slave. Writers such as Augusta Jane Evans worked against social norms, opposing the education of women while supporting the institution of slavery. Such a position naturally affected her interpretation and perpetuation of the cult of white Southern womanhood. Her first published text, Beulah (1859), and its focus upon the education of women denotes the beginning of a prolific literary career that wed the ideas of white Southern womanhood to the preservation of the South’s cultural practices and disregarded the moral conundrums posed by slavery. In her most successful work of Civil War propaganda, Macaria (1864), Southern women are compelled to sacrifice themselves for the Confederate cause. Such focus upon the honor of the Southern female and her symbolic role in saving, preserving, or restoring the honor of the Confederacy quickly became a common trope of Southern literature.
Two of the first suffragists to advocate mutually for the rights of women and the abolition of slavery, Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Emily Grimké, worked tirelessly in their roles as educators, orators, and writers. Sisters raised in a slave-holding family in South Carolina, they eventually relocated to Pennsylvania where their faith and connection to the Quaker community informed their beliefs in gender equality and the immorality of slavery. Publishing their thoughts in the form of tracts, edited collections of newspaper stories, and letters, the sisters tirelessly worked to spread dissenting views on race and gender. Angelina Grimké’s tract “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” (1836) outlines her pleas for Southern women to join the abolitionist cause and reinforces these exhortations with principles she identifies from the United States’ Declaration of Independence and biblical teaching. Other publications such as Sarah Grimké’s “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States” (1836) caused considerable controversy; ultimately, the Grimké sisters’ insubordination to the societal rules preventing women from publicly inciting activist action led to their departure from speaking circuits. Their persistence did not wane in their final years. Instead, they focused on educating others and continuing their fight for gender and racial equality.
Biographical and autobiographical texts from the Civil War era demonstrate the efforts of white Southern women to subvert Southern norms of gender and racial oppression. The Civil War, as Drew Gilpin Faust argues in Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (1996), “made thousands of white women of all classes into authors—writers of letters and composers of journals recording the momentous and historic events as well as creators of published songs, poetry, and novels.”4 Not all of this work was politically insightful, of course; much of it confirmed white patriarchal order and worked in the service of revisionist history. But many of these texts reveal the inner tensions of women’s lives, revealing intersecting complications of class, gender, and race issues that can be seen as both informing and complicating white feminine feeling about the secessionist and pro-slavery rhetoric ubiquitous in the South in the mid-19th century. In her journal (posthumously published in 1905), Mary Boykin Chesnut of South Carolina presents an acute analysis of the class system of the South during the Civil War. Her journal, which includes entries from February 18, 1861, to June 26, 1865, details gender roles and class-based struggles to survive during a time of social upheaval and violence. Critical of the complications brought on by slavery, Chesnut focuses especially upon the abuse of black women and the power granted white men. One of her chief concerns is the fathering of mixed-race children by white male planters and the problematic networks of power and sexuality embedded in such a relationship. Another diarist, Phoebe Yates Pember, recounts her role as a Chief Matron of the Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War in A Southern Woman’s Story (1879). While largely avoiding controversy and treating the war as a backdrop for the experiences and ideals of upper-class Southern Jewish women during the war, Pember nevertheless produces a rendering of how women during wartime transgressed gender norms and obtained power not usually made available to them. In her position as one of five Chief Matrons at the hospital, Pember occupied a position rarely available to women prior to the war. In recounting her work, Pember charts her efforts to escape oppressive forces that worked to restrict her social mobility because she was both a Jew and a woman.
Some notable literature of the Confederacy remained largely unknown for a generation or longer, hidden away in journals, letters, and diaries, such as those by Sarah Morgan Dawson and Kate Stone. Published posthumously in 1913 under the title A Confederate Girl’s Diary, Dawson’s personal account of the war years in Baton Rouge and New Orleans is structured by her keen eye for detail; likewise, Stone’s memoir Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone (1955), which recalls life in a northern Louisiana plantation, is also marked by a facility for realistic description, as she chronicles everyday details of life from 1861 to 1868, narrating not only details about plantation management, farming, and slave conduct but also the intricacies of her domestic and imaginative life. Other diaries and memoirs belatedly brought to light include Cornelia Peake McDonald’s wartime diary, published posthumously as A Woman’s Civil War (1992), which presents the complex relationship of such women to their homeland as they negotiate feelings of patriotism and moral indignation during a time of social strife and upheaval. While demonstrating loyalty to her state of Virginia, McDonald also considers it her obligation to condemn slavery as both immoral and archaic. Additionally, she articulates her fears that her own affluent social position will be threatened by large-scale changes to the economic framework of the South. Likewise, Mary Berkley Minor Blackford’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (1954) provides a record of the struggles of a white woman of high social standing working to instill in her five sons an animosity to both slavery and secessionist sentiments. The text, composed by Blackford’s grandson and based upon letters and other family documents, traces her activist and humanitarian efforts in the fight for abolition and racial equality. As a founding member of the American Colonization Society, she offered to pay the fare of any freed African American who desired to return to Africa, and she pushed for the education of former slaves. Her children adopted her views, and her family liquidated their estates to avoid the use of slave labor.
Through their work, these authors illustrate the vast range of attitudes toward race and gender prevalent in the 19th-century South. While some leading female voices of this period, such as the Grimke sisters, boldly supported suffragist and abolitionist policies, others, such as Augusta Jane Evans, called for the rights of women while overlooking the oppressive qualities of the slave industry. The writings of Cornelia Peake McDonald add further complexity to this historical lens as she presents her negotiations of ethical dilemmas regarding race, her fear that she will lose her class standing upon the alteration of the slave economic system, and her loyalty to the state of Virginia. What is evident then is that, while formations of race and sexuality were employed as a means to naturalize the social order of the region, attitudes toward such socially constructed hierarchies were far from ubiquitously positive.
In contrast to romantic plantation literature, humor writing explored the comical, grotesque, and unruly possibilities of the Southern frontier. In this quickly vanishing wilderness, stereotypes such as the frontiersman and black minstrel emerged, forming tropes that would significantly influence American humor writing. As a result, Southern humor writing in many ways challenged common conventions of literature in the region during the first half of the century. One of the key texts from this period is Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes (1835). Drawing upon his experiences in rural Georgia, Longstreet crafted a text in the realist tradition that celebrates the dialect and local color of the region. Typically credited as the first successful Southern humor text, the collection also produced a widespread comic device that focused on the humorous interactions between two deeply contrasting characters, such as the respectable farmer and his counterpart, the rough-necked backwoodsman. Incorporating sketches illustrating the comical interactions of rural characters, Longstreet captured humorous scenes of Southern life that, while less popular in the South, were widely accepted by readers outside the region.
Writing in a style deeply influenced by Longstreet, lawyer, newspaper editor, and humorist Johnson Jones Hooper drew from personal experiences in his own comical writings. Upon moving from Wilmington, North Carolina to Dadeville, Alabama in 1835, Hooper began work on what would become his first published story, “Taking the Census in Alabama” (1843). Acclaimed for its humorous portrayal of the citizens of Tallapoosa County, the story brought Hooper into the national spotlight. Following this success, Hooper began publishing comical stories involving his most popular character, Simon Suggs. Eventually the stories of the mischievous Suggs garnered enough popularity to necessitate a collection, resulting in the publication of The Adventures of Simon Suggs (1845). Continuing the comedic tradition led by Longstreet that democratized depictions of Southern life and challenged gender and class assumptions of the region, Hooper created in Simon Suggs a timeless trickster and exemplar of the various strains of thought and ideals often concealed in Southern texts. Another writer within this school of Southern humor is George Washington Harris, whose collection of stories, Sut Lovingood’s Yarns (1867), focuses upon the cultural norms and local colors of East Tennessee. In following the antics of prankster Sut Lovingood, the text lampoons the prejudices of city dwelling citizens toward their rural counterparts. Such humorous critical commentary moves beyond this scope to challenge ideals of social, religious, and political authority. Shrugging off socially constructed ideals of morality and respectability, Sut lives according to those natural desires his fellow citizens deride and seek to control. Accepting of his own shortcomings and flaws, he works to expose the hypocrisies of those who seek to patrol morality. In this way, the characters of Hooper and Harris, at times uncouth or even vile, strongly impacted humorous sketches of Southern life in subsequent American fiction.
While containing some elements common to the humor writing of Harris, Longstreet, and Hooper, the works of attorney and author Joseph G. Baldwin in many ways move beyond this scope of writing. Couching indictments of political and social practices in humorous contexts, his most popular work, The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi: A Series of Sketches (1853), illustrates the possibilities the genre provides for serious social commentary. Drawn from Baldwin’s experiences, his sketches often focus upon the law, economics, and commerce. His reflections on such topics, in turn, include his opinions concerning the state of American affairs. “The Bar of the South-West” (1853), for example, criticizes the dangers of western expansion, unbridled patriotism, and the maltreatment of Native Americans. Similarly, his criticism of the “flush times,” characterized by the author as a time of poorly regulated credit and unrestricted commerce, illustrates his ability to embed within humorous conventions sobering thoughts on current affairs. Although his writings fit him well within the tradition of American humor, his use of the genre as a tool for discussions of larger social issues creates for him a unique place within the literary canon.
Yet the inclusion of social commentary within humor writing is not limited to progressive critical reflections. Works such as Joel Chandler’s Harris’s stories of Uncle Remus brought southwest humor and local color conventions together in their revisionist accounts of life, especially that of African Americans in the antebellum South. In the widely popular collection, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Harris presents didactic stories he claimed to have gathered from the slaves he met while working on a plantation as a young man. Although many readers at the time understood the collection to be a sympathetic, unprejudiced account of African-American folktales, contemporary audiences object to several aspects of the text. The stereotypical nature of the storytelling character as an “old uncle” and the accompanying dialect in which he speaks enforce the perception of the text as inherently demeaning and racist. Beyond the text, Harris’s own comments concerning the antebellum South and the connection he perceived to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) demonstrate his problematic, revisionist approach to the region’s history. Believing her seminal text to be a “wonderful defense of slavery as it existed in the South,” he wished that his collection of short stories would work as a supplement that would support a new vision of the Confederate states prior to the Civil War.5 Recognizing the controversial nature of Stowe’s text, Harris qualifies his position, stating “Mrs. Stowe, let me hasten to say, attacked the possibilities of slavery with all the eloquence of genius; but the same genius painted the portrait of the Southern slave-owner, and defended him.”6 Harris thus highlights his own efforts to reimagine the Southern plantation as a space in which differences of race and power work together and the ruling slaveholder is benevolently paternalistic, not malevolent. Using humor to present a sanitized portrait of American slavery, he demonstrates the possibilities for ideological proselytization provided by the humor-writing genre.
The Rise of Local Color
Some of the characteristics prevalent in the works of Southern humor writers later rose to prominence as a literary style in the years following the Civil War, achieving dominance in the 1870s and 1880s. This style, generally referred to as local color fiction, focused upon the dialect, perspectives, and landscapes of the Southern region. Its popularity across sections in the United States is attributable in many ways to regional curiosity and feelings of reconciliation that followed the Civil War, emotions that fueled the production and publication of local color fiction as northern periodicals sought local tales of Southern life for their curious audiences. These portraits of Southern life focus on the antebellum spaces of the plantation and farm but include a notable shift in perspective from those texts published in the years leading up to the Civil War. In local color texts, defensiveness is often minimized and, in contrast to the broader conventions of antebellum literature, focus is given to those individuals situated at the bottom of the social hierarchy, including slaves, former slaves, and impoverished white Southerners. In this way, writers of local color fiction crafted portraits of the South that satisfied the desires of a national audience and adapted to the new expectations of a national market. Yet, despite this tendency, some of these writers did, in fact, attend to the social problems plaguing the region.
Foremost among the local colorist writers was an author who only later would be recognized as one of the most important in American literature, Mark Twain. Through the publications of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865) in the New York Saturday Press, several pieces of travel literature, and his nonfiction piece “Old Times on the Mississippi” (1876) in The Atlantic Monthly, Twain introduced himself to the public as a master wordsmith and chronicler of Southern attitudes and culture. In the immediate years that followed, Twain garnered critical acclaim with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and subsequently published The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and the travel text A Tramp Abroad (1880). It was the publication of his next work of fiction, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), that, for many critics, solidified his place within American literature. Capturing the moral conundrums experienced by a young boy in the Antebellum South, Twain imbeds within local color fiction complex questions concerning race and the legitimacy of social moral frameworks. Through this approach to issues of Southern culture, Twain demonstrates how radical ingredients of social critique were possible for a typically conservative genre of fiction. Later works such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) reveal his increased interest in developing critical and often satirical representations of social norms. In mocking romantic ideals of chivalry and the historically tense relationship between religion and science, for example, he assumes the role of iconoclast, exposing the hypocrisies of prevailing social narratives. Twain’s mastery of local dialects, imagery, customs, and topography adds considerable value to his accounts of life in the South, and his inclusion of individualistic ideals and social critique provides a crucial radical element.
While many local color writers avoided controversial matters in their writing, authors other than Mark Twain caused controversy in their critiques of Southern society. A significant example of such political and activist writing exists in the works of George Washington Cable. A local color writer who focused his energies upon Creole culture in New Orleans, Cable became perhaps the most significant Southern writer at the turn of the century. Initially garnering popularity with novels and short fiction collections chronicling the cultural practices of Creole New Orleans, Cable was the author of pieces and collections, both fictional and nonfictional, including Old Creole Days (1879), The Grandissimes (1880), Madame Delphine (1881), and Dr. Sevier (1884), which captured scenes of New Orleans life in the final decades of the 18th century and the early 19th century. Generally considered the most powerful voice in Southern literature at the end of the 19th century, Cable, often recognized for his progressive views toward race, was in many ways torn between his love of Southern culture and his abhorrence of its ubiquitous racist ideologies. His novel The Grandissimes (1880), for example, analyzes the roles of prejudice and racial pride in the decline of Creole culture. In criticizing Creole attitudes concerning skin tone, Cable connects such systems of prejudice with the white supremacist values of the larger Southern culture at the time. While his fictional works question the normative values of Southern culture, Cable became a controversial figure after publishing several collections of progressive essays concerning race relations and civil rights in the South. Texts such as The Silent South (1885) and The Negro Question (1890) outline Cable’s support for racial equality and opposition to Jim Crow and, subsequently, garnered widespread criticism and resentment from a white Southern readership. As a result, Cable relocated to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he continued chronicling Southern culture in texts such as Bonaventure (1888), Strange True Stories of Louisiana (1890), John March, Southerner (1894), and Lovers of Louisiana (1918). In this final, ambivalent segment of his career, his works included essays that advocated for reform of the region and, conversely, romantic works of fiction focused upon an illusory, idealized past in Southern history.
Responses to Cable’s polemical texts took shape in varying forms. A particularly creative response by fledgling local colorist, Grace King, utilized the fictional mode of writing in responding to Cable’s views concerning Creole culture and prejudice in New Orleans. The resulting text, “Monsieur Motte” (1886), charts the story of a freed quadroon whose loyalty to her former owners symbolizes what, to the author, constitutes nobility. In many ways a direct counterpoint to the works of Cable, King’s fiction utilizes the locales, dialect, and culture of Louisiana to present conservative, traditionalist views on society and morality. The aforementioned short story, later developed into her first novel, Monsieur Motte (1888), reimagines the relationship between slave and master as a natural, benevolent arrangement. In the revisionist tradition, King defends the legacy of slavery by romanticizing the legacy of the antebellum South. While her work includes a large range of local color elements, they frequently move beyond the exotic to include themes of womanhood, voice, and female experiences, both black and white. Her interest in examining black and white experiences was further developed in a second novel, The Pleasant Ways of St. Medard (1916). In following two impoverished families on opposing sides of the color line, the text considers the struggles of survival during Reconstruction. As a historian, cultural critic, writer, and cultural ambassador, King drew from her experiences during and after the Civil War to produce texts that, while historically placed within the region, in many ways revise history.
As seen in the works of Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and Grace King, some local colorists utilized the genre as a framework for introducing ideals from progressive and traditional political and social perspectives Still, many practitioners of this writing style avoided controversy in their literary careers. James Lane Allen, for example, worked to satisfy the desires of popular audiences with his apolitical and noncontroversial material. His focus upon nature and his belief in its role, in the tradition of romanticism, as provider of spiritual provisions, led him to a deep interest in the landscapes of his home state, Kentucky. His works, including Flute and Violin (1891), The Blue-Grass Region of Kentucky (1892), A Kentucky Cardinal (1894), Aftermath (1895), Summer in Arcady (1896), and The Choir Invisible (1897) include sympathetic portraits of Kentucky and a reverence for nature traceable to transcendentalist ideologies. Likewise, writer Mary Noailles Murfree focused her attentions upon themes native to her state of Tennessee that celebrated local culture and lacked critical reflection. Specifically, her works focus on the lives of mountain-dwelling Tennesseans in the latter half of the 19th century. Her portrayal of these societies operates within the conventions of local color as it presents as exotic a segment of Southern society to a larger, national audience. After initially publishing articles in Lippincott’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly, she garnered a substantial readership and published her collected stories under the title In the Tennessee Mountains (1884). Using her knowledge of mountaineer dialects and culture, she developed stories that reflected her central belief that such communities were fascinating because they remained untouched by modern civilization.
Intimate knowledge of a region, such as Allen’s adoration for the Kentucky wilderness or Murfree’s fascination with the dialects and cultures of Tennessee mountaineers, equips the local colorist to develop a type of authenticity in writing. The unique experiences of Kate Chopin, for example, thoroughly prepared her for a successful career as a writer of this style. Personal experiences such as her upbringing in a family with strong French and Irish influences, her childhood and youth spent growing up in St. Louis, and her life with husband Oscar Chopin in New Orleans all informed her ability to develop cultural sketches of varying locales. Upon Oscar’s death and her subsequent return to St. Louis in 1884, she began utilizing this gift as a means to avoid financial ruin. By the early 1890s, she found success writing articles, translations, and short stories for periodicals including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Vogue. Yet critics of her work often qualified their praise as being strictly for her gifts as a local color writer. However, with the publication of two story collections, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), she gained a substantial national audience. Set in Louisiana, the first collection focuses on the people of the Cane River country and the economic and social boundaries against which they revolt. Hinting at the radical elements that would greatly affect the popularity of her later works, Chopin, in “Désirée’s Baby” (1893), interrogates the ambiguity of the color line. When Désirée and her husband, Armand, recognize the racial ambiguity of their child, her familial lineage is eventually blamed. The later disclosure of Armand’s equally ambiguous ethnicity hints at the constructed nature of race and the subsequent arbitrariness of racial borders. These collections were followed by her controversial second novel, The Awakening (1899). While her first novel, At Fault (1890), was generally unnoticed by the public, this second work, set in New Orleans and invested in complex moral issues, was widely condemned for its perceived immoral and vulgar themes. Focused on the development of the protagonist’s self-consciousness, Edna Pontellier, the text explores themes of female sexuality, infidelity, gender norms, and motherhood. In charting the radical actions of a woman within an oppressive patriarchal society, Chopin captured in her fiction feminist ideals that, while rejected in her lifetime, brought the resurrection of her work during the mid-20th century. Recognized posthumously as a classic author and voice of feminist concerns, Chopin demonstrates in her work the powerful pairing of social and politically aware consciousness with the dialect, rich descriptions, and cultural distillations of local color fiction.
The Civil War Era and the Advent of the Lost Cause
Revisionist writers have long reimagined the antebellum South as a location not of exploitation, violence, and racial subjugation but rather as a site of ideal womanhood, chivalry, and a spiritual connection to the land. These efforts to reconfigure the region’s history in positive terms reify the racial logic so problematic to the South by making invisible the untold suffering of those who were subjugated for the benefit of its economic system. Such efforts are most visible in the decades following the war. These revisionist works sought to reimagine the South’s defeat in the Civil War as the loss of an ideal culture based upon chivalry, white womanhood, and servitude. Such ideologies constitute the cult of the Lost Cause that dominated Southern literature in the latter decades of the 19th century. To fully comprehend its significant within the postbellum period, it is necessary to first consider those authors who, while writing during the Civil War, acted as precursors to this apologist aesthetic.
Writers of the brief Confederate era are largely unknown to contemporary audiences. While their absence from popular thought has a great deal to do with their support for slavery and secession, their historical fall from public light was not simply a moral issue. In the decade following the Civil War, the infrastructure of the region was devastated and publishing houses were largely unavailable. Consequently, popular authors immediately before and during the war such as William Gilmore Simms, John Esten Cooke, Paul Hamilton Hayne, and Henry Timrod fell from public view. Although their devastation following the war was in many ways economical, their moral positions insured their obscurity in contemporary considerations of Southern literature.
Novelist, poet, historian, and politician William Gilmore Simms’s works are set in a range of American historical locales including the pre-colonial and colonial eras. He achieved widespread acclaim with novels such as The Yemassee (1835), The Lily and the Totem, or, The Huguenots in Florida (1850), and The Cassique of Kiawah (1859). In addition to these fictional imaginings of the earliest episodes of American history, he also placed his stories within the American War for Independence of which he had heard stories from his grandmother as a child. Among his works concerning the American Revolution are The Partisan (1835), which was arguably his most popular novel, The Kinsmen (1841), and Joscelyn (1867). While Simms was able to cultivate a national audience in his early and middle years as a writer, his sectionalist and proslavery views ultimately limited the breadth of his American audience. Serving in the South Carolina Legislature from 1844 to 1846, Simms worked with prominent planters, politicians, and lawmakers to sway the future of the region. In this position, he influenced agricultural policies, developed supportive positions on slavery and secession, advocated the annexation of Texas, and, during the Civil War, advised Southern politicians and the military. During the war, Simms wrote Paddy McGann (1863), a text often derided for its propaganda-like approach to the topic of the American conflict. While notable for its use of dialect and humor, its episodic order and simplistic treatment of race contributed to its poor critical reception. Simms, who died in 1870, wrote feverishly in the years following the war for economic sustenance. Yet his works from this era are largely forgotten; instead, his political action and support for racist and secessionist causes in many ways define his part within Southern history.
While Simms exercised considerable influence over political policies during the Civil War, his contemporary, John Esten Cooke practiced his own influence inside the conflict as a historical writer serving in the Confederate Army. A novelist, historian, and poet, Cooke published thirty-one books and hundreds of articles and poems. His historical novels, primarily focused upon events within Virginia, brought him considerable acclaim. Texts such as The Virginia Comedians (1854) and The Wearing of the Gray (1867) draw from his experiences in a militia unit, the Richmond Howitzers, and the Confederate military. Following the conclusion of the war, Cooke tried his hand at biographical texts. While the publication of Stonewall Jackson: A Military Biography (1876), attracted criticism for its factual errors and embellishments, later biographical attempts such as A Life of General Robert E. Lee (1883) and Colonel Ross of Piedmont (1892) were better received and considered more accurate accounts of the lives of their subjects. While his works do not reflect the caustic tone of Simms’s ideals and writings, his works nonetheless underscore a defensive attitude toward the region that seeks to justify the nature of its inequities and violence.
Two major poets of the Civil War era enjoyed careers that, while varying in poetic focus, were, in many ways, interconnected. The first of these poets, Paul Hamilton Hayne, utilized long narrative styles, the ballad form, and romantic aesthetics to record his worshipful thoughts of and adoration for nature. Deeply influenced by William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, John Keats, and Geoffrey Chaucer, his work includes detailed descriptions of the natural settings of the South. While his contemporary critics contended that his poetry lacks the force and potency of these earlier, canonized figures, he enjoyed widespread fame in his career and was considered by many to be the Southern poet laureate. This fame in many ways allowed him to provide support for fellow poet Henry Timrod, whose use of lyricism and nationalistic sentiments brought him vast acclaim. Timrod is in many ways a rare voice from the Civil War era who, although considered a secondary figure in 19th century American literature, continues to receive critical attention. Due to ailments stemming from tuberculosis, Timrod struggled financially through much of his life. To relieve such an economic burden and equip the poet with time for creative production, Hayne provided financial security for Timrod and his family. Perhaps Hayne’s even greater service was his preservation and publication of Timrod’s poetry in 1872, which introduced to the public important works such as “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead” and “The Cotton Boll.” Over time, critics have bestowed upon each figure varying accolades: for Timrod, these include recognition as an important poet while, for Hayne, such honors regard his importance as an editor. What the writings of these Civil War writers and their contemporaries, including William Gilmore Simms and John Esten Cooke, commonly possess is a devout respect for and loyalty to the Confederate cause. Such devotion proved vastly influential in the literature of the region following the conclusion of the war.
In the years directly following the Civil War, the South was, as in earlier decades of the 19th century, preoccupied with defending its cultural norms from the attacks of its external critics. Due to this form of reactionary apologetics, a substantial amount of publications from the region worked as propaganda and is widely considered to be of little literary value. Returning in many ways to what W. J. Cash considers the “savage idea” under which “dissent and variety are completely suppressed,” the former Confederate states produced, in place of heterogeneous works of artistic merit, a large array of works that served a common purpose: to further the myth of a lost, ideal Southern culture.7 This belief, generally labeled the cult of the “Lost Cause,” dispersed conservative ideals concerning race and slavery and idolized the role of white Southerners in the supposedly rightful social hierarchy of the South. Concurrently, Reconstruction took place from 1867 to 1877 and, by the beginning of the next decade, the region reincorporated systemic forms of racism via the implementation of Jim Crow legislation and the economic slavery of sharecropping. By the final decade of the century, segregationist policies and political disenfranchisement insured the subjugation of the former slaves in the 20th century. While a complex network of power led to the eventual deconstruction and reconfiguration of racial politics in the South following the war, Jim Crow and segregation policies have their roots in the Lost Cause literature that gained momentum in the immediate onset of the postbellum South.
A prominent proponent of the Lost Cause banner, Thomas Nelson Page composed nonfiction works defending the racial logic of the South and novels situated within the conventions of local color and the plantation romance. Born in Beaverdam, Virginia, in 1853, Page was a child at the onset of the Civil War and witnessed the impoverishment of his family during the conflict and the subsequent period of Reconstruction. As an adult, he was admitted to the Virginia Bar and practiced law from 1876 to 1893 in Richmond. During this time, he began what would be a fruitful writing career. Producing eighteen volumes, Page presented in his fiction a sanitized portrait of the Southern plantation based upon his personal experiences. Such accounts included benevolent masters and their loyal slaves who made up a symbiotic, natural relationship. For example, in his short story collection, In Ole Virginia (1887), the antebellum South represents a chivalric society with a foundation of moral fortitude. In a manner common to Lost Cause authors, Page glosses over the violence inherent in slavery practices. “Marse Chan,” (1884) perhaps his most widely read story, utilizes the author’s talent in using dialect in the service of promoting a revised vision of the South in which the former slave mourns the loss of an ideal civilization. Such attempts to revise history inform the racial logic Page outlines in his works of nonfiction including The Old South (1892) and The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem (1904).
The revisionist ambitions common to the Lost Cause ideology also permeate the writings of Margaret Junkin Preston. While born outside the South, Preston came to be a central proponent of the Confederacy and the romanticization of its historical defeat in the Civil War. Born in Milton, Pennsylvania in 1820, Preston later relocated to Virginia where her husband, John Thomas Lewis Preston, taught at the Virginia Military Institute. Her experiences in the South, her marriage to a Confederate officer, and her sister’s marriage to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson informed her attitude toward the region at the conclusion of the war. Upon her death in Baltimore in 1897, her literary output spanned the years after the war to the final decade of the 19th century. In works such as Beechenbrook: A Rhyme of War (1865) and Colonial Ballads, Sonnets, and Verse (1887), Preston commemorates the role of the Confederate states in the Civil War and, like her contemporaries, laments the downfall of antebellum society.
The ability to use regional locales and dialects in the service of presenting a conservative, historically disjunctive narrative proved valuable to those writers supporting the cult of the Lost Cause. Poets such as Abram Joseph Ryan, Daniel B. Lucas, Sidney Lanier, Irwin Russell, and Madison Cawein present in their work common attitudes toward the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. The collected poetry of Irwin Russell, for example, represents a powerful, immensely influential output that in many ways is the predecessor of the local color Lost Cause poetry of Page and Joel Chandler Harris. Although his poetic output was limited, his presentations of local dialects such as those of African-American, Irish, and poor white Southerners brought him popularity and solidified his position within Southern literature. Contemporaries such as Harris recognized Russell as a literary guide in the development of local dialects in Lost Cause poetry. Another influential revisionist writer, Abram Joseph Ryan, was a former chaplain during the Civil War and a priest of the Catholic Church. In his career, he contributed works that sought to sanitize Southern history and romanticize its culture. Considered the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,” he drew upon themes of bravery, invasion, and honor in his writings. Lamenting the devastation of an idyllic land at the hands of an external, conquering enemy, works such as “C.S.A.,” (1884) “The South,” (1880) and “The Sword of Robert E. Lee” (1884) contribute to a problematic estimation of the Confederacy as an exceptional society. While a large amount of his poetry concerns his religious faith, his pro-Confederacy texts, such as his most famous work, “The Conquered Banner” (1865), gained him recognition as a leading figure of the Lost Cause movement. Father Ryan, as he was generally known, possessed characteristics common to members of this revisionist movement. One of his contemporaries, lawyer and poet Daniel B. Lucas, for example, shares several of these common qualities. A Civil War veteran and lawyer, Lucas fit well within the affluent, privileged demographic of the Lost Cause writer. In collections such as The Wreath of Eglantine (1869) and Ballads and Madrigals (1884), he venerates the antebellum South and laments its loss. In poems such as “The Land Where We Were Dreaming” (1865), “Song of the South” (1869), and “Jefferson Davis” (1869), Lucas memorializes figures of the region during and before the Civil War. Consequently, his poetry was often commissioned for memorial dedications such as the Confederate Monument in Charlestown, West Virginia, and the Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia. As a prominent lawyer, veteran, and poet, Lucas played an active part in the shaping of the postbellum South and facilitated the continuation of Lost Cause sentiments.
Similarly influential in the revisionist movement was musician, poet, author, and scholar Sidney Lanier. As an educated Civil War veteran, lawyer, educator, and writer, Lanier possessed the qualities common to the literary proponents of the Lost Cause banner. His conservative social ideals paralleled his traditionalist opinions of literary subjects and his poetry, as a result, focuses upon local dialects, class, and the Civil War as a Southern tragedy. In contrast to the conservative nature of such subjects as adventure, cultural customs, and war, he experimented extensively with the form and style of his works. Over time, Lanier produced a poetic meter that sought to connect poetry to musical notation, developed texts in the logaoedic meter, and eventually produced prose-like poetry within a mutable, free-form framework. While these formal experiments demonstrate his interest in groundbreaking, innovative aesthetics, his traditional, romantic treatments of the South position him centrally within the Lost Cause mentality. Writing in a form varying from that of Lanier, poet Madison Cawein embedded his works in poetic frameworks strongly influenced by the romantic poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Such poetic language and rich descriptions of Kentucky locales led to him being labeled the “Keats of Kentucky.” Within a vast literary output that included 1,500 poems are collections emblematic of the Lost Cause literary movement such as Lyrics and Idyls (1890), Moods and Memories (1892), and Kentucky Poems (1902). Both Lanier and Cawein, regardless of their varying formal techniques in writing, promulgated common ideals of regional identity and Southern exceptionalism in their poetry. The desire to reconstruct the antebellum South as an idyllic society that justly fought in the Civil War to protect a benevolent form of slavery, chivalrous masculinity, and pure white womanhood was widespread in Reconstruction. Yet a change in attitude among Southern writers would soon threaten the legitimacy of these Lost Cause sentiments.
The Rise of the Critical Spirit
In the years following Reconstruction, voices arose in Southern literature that challenged popular notions of the region. Disavowing the Lost Cause ideology, these writers chose to critically assess the cultural practices and ethical values of Southern culture. Rejecting the romantic lens of revisionist writing, these artists brought into question long-held assumptions concerning race relations, Southern identity, and morality. Casting doubt upon conservative aesthetics and beliefs, these writers paved the way for the Southern Renascence of the 20th century. Edgar Allan Poe, an earlier but well-known Southern writer emblematic of the critical spirit, famously claimed that writers such as poet Edward Coote Pinkney suffered the “misfortune” of having “been born too far south,” framing a Southern birthright as a literary curse.8 As his observations in “The Poetic Principle” (1850) correctly point out, many Southern writers in the early and middle decades of the 19th century were forced to contend with embattled cultural and political systems that did not welcome alternative ideologies but instead drew on unpalatable racist and reactionary ideals. Yet, as ongoing work in Southern and American studies makes apparent, this does not mean that the resulting literature, which often weds politics and style, is barren of cultural critique. Despite his assessment of Southernness in “The Poetic Principle,” Poe’s harnessing of the gothic resulted in the development of a genre that functioned as a type of “anti-romance” able to puncture dominant ideologies. While his own politics were often reactionary, Poe’s work exposed some of the South’s deepest anxieties about race, gender, and the fragility of white mastery in work such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “Hop-Frog” (1849), “The Oval Portrait” (1842), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), and his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838).
In the final decade of the 19th century, female writers signaled a major shift in Southern writing and proved to be powerful if contentious voices in American literature. The source of such controversies stemmed from their departure from sentimentalist local color fiction in favor of realistic portrayals of Southern life and the experiences of women and lower class citizens in the region. Ellen Glasgow, for example, focused her attention on the development of unsentimental portrayals of Southern life that, in opposing the regressive, aggrandizing historical works of fiction popular at the time, worked to chart a south in flux. Keenly interested in the plight of lower class Southerners, she traces in The Voices of the People (1900) and The Deliverance (1904) multifaceted forces subjugating lower income workers in the years following the Civil War. Focusing her critical eye upon the subjugation of women and the cult of Southern womanhood, Glasgow anonymously published The Descendant (1897), a novel following the exploits of a liberated woman whose interests are in pleasure and not respectability and marriage. In this way, Glasgow introduced critical female voices within the Southern literary landscape. Such challenges to cultural and aesthetic conservative ideologies hint at the Southern Renascence that would occur during the early 20th century.
African-American Literature and the Slave Narrative
Amid forces of oppression and subjugation, African-American voices, both enslaved and free, fought for a platform upon which they could enter national conversations concerning race, slavery, and the south. The region’s increased dependence upon slave labor in its sugar and cotton industries signaled its commitment, in turn, to silence those same voices. In response, African-American orators and writers began radically exposing the violence of American slavery and challenging the racist logic upon which it stood. Following the conclusion to the Civil War, a new generation of African-American voices continued this work in the postbellum South, confronting issues of systemic racism and subjugation in the Jim Crow era. Their work contemplates paths forward for improving the social position of African Americans. Across these texts, a spirit of resilience and radical subordination exists, demonstrating the profound dedication of each writer to the cause of freedom.
Early examples of this radical writing are the poetry of George Moses Horton and the prose of William Wells Brown. Horton, a slave from North Carolina who was not freed until the end of the war, published one of the earliest known poetry volumes by an African American in the American South, The Hope of Liberty (1829). In this volume and others such as Poems by a Slave (1837), The Poetical Works of George M. Horton (1845), and Naked Genius (1865), Horton distilled into poetic form his lamentations for the vast mechanisms of oppression at work around him. Equipped with a righteous longing for freedom, a desire informed by his Christian faith, he transgressed the social borders that dictated the roles of slaves by teaching himself to read and write, and by publishing work that condemned the institution of slavery. Likewise, the works of abolitionist, novelist, historian, and playwright William Wells Brown depict the devastating effects of slavery on the character of the United States. His first novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853) is widely considered the first novel published by an African American. Following the fictional lives of two slave daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the text explores the problematic effects of slavery on the family and the predatory nature of the relationship between master and servant. In many ways, the works of William Wells Brown and George Moses Horton serve as poetic counterparts to the narratives and essays produced by former slaves and leading intellectuals in the latter parts of the century.
These narratives of black experience and slavery were perhaps the most influential texts authored by African Americans during the 19th century. Brown himself published multiple accounts of his experiences in such works as Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself (1847), The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), The Negro in the American Rebellion; His Heroism and His Fidelity (1866), and The Rising Son, or The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race (1873). These texts cover a vast breadth of topics, including the experiences of a former slave, the promise of freedom in Europe following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the complications of advancing people of color at the conclusion of the Civil War. The popularity of such accounts hints at a broad national attraction at this time to the narratives and the radical ideals and human testimony they presented. Generally considered the most famous of these narratives, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) similarly recounts the famous orator’s life as a slave and his fight for freedom. Relating in horrific detail the ordeals and violent episodes he endured as a slave in Maryland, Douglass provides for his reader a realistic account that charts his escape to freedom and subsequent activist work for the abolitionist cause. Finding common ground between feminist and abolitionist causes, Douglass was present at the historical Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The only African American to attend the women’s rights convention, Douglass spoke there as a proponent of women’s suffrage. In addition to writing multiple autobiographical texts that record his struggles, achievements, and ideals concerning race in the United States, Douglass worked as an orator and activist until his death in 1895.
The slave narrative genre includes key texts centered upon the female experience. These accounts, such as those of Harriet Jacobs and Hannah Craft, provide a unique portrait of systemic oppression from the vantage point of enslaved women of color. Published during the first year of the Civil War, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) was one of the first narratives to focus upon the struggles of female slaves. Documenting her struggle to free herself and her children from bondage, Jacobs worked to outline the evils of slavery for a northern audience not fully aware of the evil realities of the oppressive system. Central to her analysis of slavery is her focus upon the gendered exploitation of women of color. In the text, Jacobs recounts her sexual abuse at the hands of those in power and the effects of slavery upon the African-American family. Subjected to sexual advances and the whim of the master regarding the fate of her family members, the female slave, as Jacobs portrayed her, must endure countless abuses particular to her gender. In contrast to Jacobs’s text, Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2002) was not distributed in the lifetime of the author and was only recently discovered and subsequently published. The text is unique in its combination of the slave narrative and realist genres. Composed between 1855 and 1869, the novel consists of fictionalized accounts of her biographical experiences as a female slave in the South. As a maid on the plantation of John Hill Wheeler in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, she observed and later recorded the inner workings of the plantation and the Wheeler family. Her insights offer a rare portrait of race relations and family life in the upper plantation class of the South during the Civil War. Drawing from the traditions of poetry, fiction, and slave narratives, she constructed an inspired work of fiction that worked to undermine romanticized retellings of American slavery.
With work spanning before the Civil War and after, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), a poet, fiction writer, and journalist from Baltimore, became known as the mother of American journalism while publishing numerous collections of poetry, including Autumn Leaves (1845), Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), Sketches of Southern Life (1872), and novels such as Iola Leroy (1892). In the decades following the Civil War, former slaves, bolstered by their newfound access to education, gradually gained a voice and platform for expressing their thoughts concerning the African-American experience. Albery Whitman, the African-American poet, minister, and orator born into slavery a decade before the Civil War, attended Wilberforce University and became an influential voice within religious and literary circles. He quickly garnered praise for publications such as Not a Man, and Yet a Man (1877), The Rape of Florida (1884), and An Idyl of the South: An Epic Poem in Two Parts (1901). His poetry, influenced heavily by English romanticism, moves beyond the conservative ideologies and sentimental elements so prevalent among his contemporaries. Considered by his peers to be the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race,” Whitman was an early, emboldened voice among the newly freed slave population who garnered influence through his abilities as an orator, leader, and poet. Along with Harper, he represents the rise of a new African American intellectual base in the years following emancipation.
Among this new crop of black intellectuals were other writers such as Joseph S. Cotter, Sr., Booker T. Washington, and Charles W. Chesnutt. Although these figures possessed distinct interests in an array of fields including performance art, poetry, community organization, education, essays, novels, short stories, and politics, a uniting theme among them is the progress of African Americans toward equality and political representation. Joseph S. Cotter, Sr., a poet, playwright, writer and community organizer, was one of the first black playwrights published. Born in Kentucky on February 2, 1861, only months before the start of the Civil War, Cotter grew up in poverty during a time of emancipation and great social change. While not formally educated until he was an adult, he became an impassioned teacher and advocate for black education. Additionally, his talent as a writer resulted in nine publications, including four volumes of poetry: A Rhyming (1895), Links of Friendship (1898), A White Song and a Black One (1909), and Collected Poems (1938). In addition to these poetry collections, Cotter also published two collections of prose, a collection combing prose and poetry, and numerous articles submitted to periodicals such as the Louisville Courier-Journal and Voices of the Negro. His writings, which praise humility, diligence, education, and racial pride, worked to advance the cause of black Americans.
Any mention of efforts supporting the advancement of people of color following the Civil War requires the recognition of Booker T. Washington. His influential role in the realms of politics, education, and race relations brought him national attention and made him a dominant voice in the African-American community. In this leadership position, he espoused a gradual acceptance of black Americans into arenas of power and knowledge. In place of the classical liberal arts education, he valued an “industrial” education focused on the acquisition of skills usable in the predominantly agricultural economy of the South. In what would later be known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” he called for Southern blacks to submit to white rule in payment for guaranteed access to basic education and due process in law. In this way, he supported and outlined a strategy for blacks to gradually attain political, civil, and educational rights and attracted condemnation from fellow leaders, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who noted that such a form of education would restrict African Americans from key channels of power such as politics, higher education, and civil rights, and who instead called for a radical challenge to segregation and the oppressive disenfranchisement of African Americans. While not void of controversy, the ideals Washington espouses in works such as The Story of My Life and Work (1900), Up from Slavery (1901), The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (1909), My Larger Education (1911), and The Man Farthest Down (1912) proved widely influential in discussions of race, politics, and power.
Political activist, lawyer, author, and essayist Charles W. Chesnutt explored the complex issues of race and identity in the postbellum South from a unique vantage point. As a person of mixed race and predominantly white ancestry, Chesnutt was able to “pass” as white and, subsequently, had the rare chance, in many states, to choose the race with which he most identified. In choosing to be considered black, Chesnutt forewent the legal protections and immense social opportunities associated with whiteness. His works reflect the complexities of a life lived along what Du Bois would describe as the “color line,” representing the unequal, prejudiced relationship “of the darker to the lighter races of men.”9 These complex experiences are reflected in works such as the short story collections The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales (1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line (1899), and novels such as The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). Drawing upon personal experience, Chesnutt presents a vision of the South at the turn of the century dependent upon the patrolling of racial categories. The House Behind the Cedars (1900) explores the consequences of challenging this structured racial binary and concealing identity markers related to categories of race. These subjects, combined with the depiction of interracial relationships in the text, caused considerable controversy. Sharing an attribute held by those slaves, former slaves, social activists, orators, and essayists who similarly fought for the civil liberties of African Americans in the 19th century, Chesnutt continued to write, speak, and teach tirelessly in support of the advancement of people of color.
This tireless commitment to the liberation and advancement of African Americans unites the writings of black authors across the decades of the 19th century. Initially striving to chronicle the brutality and violence of slavery, these voices fought to overturn this system of labor exploitation. Upon emancipation and the eventual end of Reconstruction, these activists turned their attention toward the newfound cruelty and subjugation brought on by the Jim Crow laws. Ultimately, these texts reinforce progressive ideals of race and class while radically rejecting those social systems working to subordinate and disenfranchise people of color.
Review of the Literature
The advent of postcolonial studies, gender and sexuality studies, ecocriticism, Native American studies, critical race studies, and comparative hemispheric and global studies, among other theoretical developments in the last few decades, have definitively shifted the study of the 19th-century South beyond the limits of new critical formalism to emphasize the way that the region has both constructed and unsettled national and global narratives. As such, Southern studies has seen a new critical emphasis on issues of empire, diaspora, immigration, cosmopolitanism, multilingualism, and cultural exchange. The resulting comparative studies of the U.S. South and other “Global Souths” have sought to understand how Southern literary culture, and its relations to global systems of economics, politics, religion, and history must be studied as a function of extra-regional dynamics as well as internal events.
Work in American studies, such as Paul Giles’s The Global Remapping of American Literature (2010), and in what has come to be called “new Southern studies,” eschews essentialized and holistic assertions about the region to instead represent a more nuanced, diverse range of ethnic, subregional, and trans-spatial perspectives that operate to undercut or complicate traditional modes of perceiving the South. Approaches, such as those by George Handley in Postslavery Literatures in the Americas (2000), and Deborah Cohn in History and Memory in the Two Souths: Recent Southern and Spanish American Fiction (1999), as well as by the authors included in Cohn and Jon Smith’s edited volume Look Away!: The U.S. South in New World Studies (2004) that underscore the region’s hemispheric positioning and its relationship with other Global Souths, have worked to reorient the North–South axis along which the narrative of regional identity has long been oriented. Focus on what Paul Gilroy terms “the Black Atlantic,” and the interconnections of the U.S. South to Latin America and the Caribbean, spaces which share a climate and labor history with the U.S. South, have moved Southern studies out of familiar nationalistic and historical paradigms, placing events such as the Haitian Revolution of 1804 into central focus as an event that shaped the 19th century’s fear of black rebellion and its defensive, racially anxious narratives.
Informed by such theoretical shifts, rather than see the U.S. South as exceptional to the nation at large, or as defined by its “aberrance,” scholars now seek to position it as a key category of thinking about persistent effects and developments in capitalism and neoliberalism, and as a site to locate the structural sources of entrenched racial ideologies. In exploring the impact of slave culture on national literature, studying the way fictions of the South exhibited the transnational dynamics of western labor and capital, and surveying the national color line in U.S. literature, work such as Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014), Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014), Leigh Anne Duck’s The Nation’s Region (2006), and Jennifer Rae Greeson’s Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature (2010) position the South as fundamental rather than exceptional, and central rather than peripheral, to a national American story of being and belonging. As Greeson writes, “A concept of the South is essential to national identity in the United States of America . . . it is an internal other for the nation, an intrinsic part of the national body that nonetheless is differentiated and held apart from the whole.”10 With a focus on how from 1775 to 1900 “our South” was narrated as the nation’s “internal other,” Our South is a key text for rethinking the role that region plays in early story of the United States.11 Greeson suggests that the plantation South was dominant in defining the South during the early republican period, and her study examines how an emergent literary nationalism worked to privilege cultural production in the Northeast, while denigrating Southern letters as peripheral to an emerging national narrative. As the North became associated with democratic virtue, and the South figured as a foil in texts, such as J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), the North, as she writes, increasingly served as “center and norm, while ‘South’ stands as deviation, in need of intervention and reform from without.”
Other key texts for updated critical perspective on 19th-century Southern literature include Barbara Ladd’s Nationalism and the Color Line in George W. Cable, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner (1996). Ladd argues that writers like Cable, Twain, and Faulkner cannot be read solely within the context of a nationalistically defined “American” literature but must also be understood in relationship to the broader global and historical context of French and Spanish colonialism, which had a lasting influence on how these writers conceptualized race, color, and nationality. In analyzing texts such as Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880), Ladd locates hidden fissures of racial discord hidden within the white reconciliation romance ostensibly presented. Coleman Hutchison’s Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America (2012) also presents a fresh perspective on sectional literature long ignored. Building upon work such as Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962), Hutchison argues that the paucity and transience of Confederate literature “allows us to trace the development of a national literature both in process and in miniature.”12 Finally, Brook Thomas’s The Literature of Reconstruction: Not in Plain Black and White (2016) revisits the contested era of Reconstruction to examine how its literature anticipates and responds to concerns still part of contemporary life, including state versus federal authority, the government’s role in education, the growing power of banks and corporations, the paternalism of social welfare, efforts to combat domestic terrorism, and questions of historical memory. As scholars of the U.S. South continue to explore the region’s rich literature, the 19th century remains fertile ground for working through questions of power, memory and race key to the culture of the United States as it exists today.
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(1.) Paul Christian Jones, Unwelcome Voices: Subversive Fiction in the Antebellum South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005), 6.
(2.) Jennifer Rae Greeson, Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 3.
(3.) Mary Boykin Chesnut and Catherine Clinton, Mary Chesnut’s Diary (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 59.
(4.) Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina University Press, 1996),161.
(5.) Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1921), 9.
(6.) Harris, Uncle Remus, 9.
(7.) W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Random House, 1991), xvii.
(8.) Edgar Allan Poe, “The Poetic Principle,” in Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 83.
(9.) W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), 11.
(10.) Greeson, Our South, 1.
(11.) Greeson, Our South, 1.
(12.) Coleman Hutchison, Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3.