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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

American Literature: The South and West: I. Southern Literature

By Daniel Kilham Dodge (1863–1933)

Colonial Period (1607–1765)

IT is inevitable that the story of the literature of the South should repeat in part the tale of Colonial literature. The early settlements were made, not where the centre of population subsequently developed, but where the necessities of colonization, the vagaries of weather, or the invitation of the coast, encouraged a landing that grew, through varied fortunes, into a permanent dwelling-place. A brief review of the main literary facts of the Colonial period is necessary to preserve the continuity of the literary history of this section of America.

The literature produced in the Southern colonies during the seventeenth century begins, and, so far as the modern reader is concerned, practically ends with that valiant soldier and explorer and rough and ready writer, John Smith (1580–1631). His various books and pamphlets, while not finished contributions to literature, present a vivid picture of the everyday life of the first English colony established in the new world. Although Smith remained only two years in Virginia his warm interest in it continued, and his book was concerned with this colony as well as with New England.

John Smith became a leader not only in civil and military affairs but also in the pursuit of literature. Although none of his followers equal their master, several of them deserve mention. William Strachey’s ‘The Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates’ (1610) is of special interest as having probably served Shakespeare as a model for a portion of ‘The Tempest.’ George Alsop’s ‘A Character of the Province of Maryland’ (1666), Robert Beverley’s ‘History of the Present State of Virginia’ (1705), William Bird’s ‘History of the Dividing Line’ (1729), and W. Stith’s ‘History of Virginia’ (1747) are the most important later accounts of the colonies. Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ (1784), although it properly belongs to the following period, may be mentioned here, as the last of this series.

George Sandys’s translation of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ made in large part between 1621 and 1624, while the translator was living in Virginia, is the only classical translation in the colonies during the seventeenth century. Ebenezer Cook, in ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’ (1708), produced the earliest example of social satire. Between these dates, and for a long time afterwards, no poetry of importance appeared in the South. Even the struggle for independence did not inspire any poems of enduring merit.

Although his only contribution to literature is a volume of sermons, James Blair (1656–1743) played so important a part in the cultural life of the time that he cannot be ignored. As founder of and first President of William and Mary College, he did more than any other man to raise the intellectual standard of Virginia, and his influence, both private and official, was felt throughout the colony. He may be regarded as a worthy forerunner of Jefferson.

Chronological Table

  • 1607Landing at Jamestown
  • 1608Smith’s ‘A True Relation’ published
  • 1609Smith returned to England
  • 1612Smith’s ‘A Map of Virginia’ published in Oxford
  • 1616Smith’s ‘A Description of Virginia’ published
  • 1626Sandys’s ‘Translation of Ovid’ published
  • Revolutionary Period (1765–1800)

    The Revolutionary period, so far as literature is concerned, is represented almost wholly by the oration. With the exception of Washington and Jefferson, all of the leading public men of the time seem to have excelled as orators, and on such an occasion as his farewell to his officers, even Washington reached a high level of eloquence.

    The superiority of New England over the Southern colonies in the intellectual field disappears for a time with the new assertion of national consciousness. For pure eloquence first place is generally assigned to a son of Virginia, Patrick Henry (1736–1799). Even now, when separated from the charm of his personal magnetism, his speeches appeal to us with irresistible force. The only Southern leader of this period to show a strong literary bent is Thomas Jefferson, who, like Burke, may be regarded as a political philosopher. Although he is best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, he exerted an immense influence upon the social and educational life of his period and deserves a place by the side of Franklin as an independent thinker and practical reformer. In his plans for the establishment of the University of Virginia he showed remarkable breadth and insight, and in his successful efforts on behalf of religious tolerance in Virginia he made an important contribution to the cause of intellectual liberty in this country. James Madison is represented in literature by his contributions to ‘The Federalist,’ and John Marshall (1755–1836), by his ‘Life of Washington.’

    Although a considerable amount of poetry was produced in the South during this period, there was no poet of the importance of Freneau in New York. Some professional men wrote graceful verses in their moments of leisure, and the war inspired others to compose patriotic songs. Of prose fiction there is no record.

    Chronological Table

  • 1765Henry’s Resolutions in the Virginia House of Burgesses
  • 1774First Continental Congress
  • 1776The Declaration of Independence
  • 1783Treaty of Paris
  • 1796Washington’s Farewell Speech
  • Reading Recommended

    Early Nineteenth Century (1800–1865)

    The early nineteenth century in American Literature stands out in bold relief by reason of one name, that of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), in the opinion of many foreign critics, at least, by far the most important name in the whole range of the literature of this continent. Although he was born in Boston and passed much of his later life in New York and Philadelphia, Poe regarded himself as a Virginian, and by the literary historian he is always given a place among Southern writers. He differs from all other early writers of the South, however, in showing no trace of his environment in his writings, and he seems to have had but little sense of nationality or of civic responsibility. In this respect he is in striking contrast to all other American writers. This characteristic of his may partly account for the strong appeal that he makes to European readers. The appearance of ‘Tamerlane and Other Poems’ (1827) marks an important event in the history of American poetry, and Poe’s greatness as a short-story writer, in the opinion of most critics, far surpassed his poetical achievements. His influence may still be felt in the special field of the detective story.

    The most important figure in Southern ante-bellum literature after Poe is William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870). He was a voluminous and versatile writer, often suggesting Cooper, yet always preserving his individuality. Though he appeared in 1827, the year of Poe’s literary début, with a volume of poems, he subsequently turned to the historical romance dealing with the South and Southwest, by which he is chiefly remembered, though he also found time to write biographies, histories, essays, and plays. Besides contributing so richly to literature, Simms exerted a marked influence upon younger writers, and for years held a position in Charleston strikingly similar to that filled by Washington Irving at Sunnyside. Simms is the only early Southern writer except Poe who may be regarded as a professional man of letters.

    Contemporary with Simms is John P. Kennedy (1795–1870), of Baltimore, whose graceful essays are reminiscent of Addison and Steele by way of Irving. In contrast to Simms, Kennedy, who took an active part in public life, treated literature as his chief avocation, and his finished style and careful study of material mark him as being anything but an amateur. He is probably more typical of the period, while Simms in many respects anticipates the tendencies of a later time. Kennedy was a sympathetic observer of Southern conditions and serves as an interesting link between the distinctly non-literary annalists of the Colonial period and the finished, delicate writers of a later generation. Kennedy’s ‘Life of William Wirt’ (1849) is the most successful biography produced in the South during the first half of the century.

    The leading poets of this period are Paul Hamilton Hayne (1830–1886), who has been given the title of ‘Poet Laureate of the South,’ and Henry Timrod (1828–1867), both of whom have the faults and virtues typical of their time and of their section. Lacking Tennyson’s strength, they show much of his spirit and his high conception of the poet’s calling.

    The tradition of Southern eloquence is brilliantly continued during this period by John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), Thomas H. Benton (1782–1858), Robert Y. Hayne (1791–1839), Henry Clay (1777–1852), and Alexander H. Stephens (1812–1883).

    The pioneers in the treatment of Southern humorous types, so marked a feature of the later literature, are Joseph G. Baldwin (1815–1864), author of ‘Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi’ (1853), and Augustus B. Longstreet (1790–1870), author of ‘Georgia Scenes’ (1835). These writers were keen observers of human nature and they were scrupulously exact in recording what they observed. Their chief importance in the history of Southern literature, however, is in preparing the way for the later humorists. Longstreet is the more important in this respect, as he exerted a direct influence upon Richard Malcolm Johnston (1822–1898), whose ‘Georgia Sketches’ (1864) suggests its literary model even in title. Johnston is best represented by his ‘Dukesborough Tales,’ the first of which appeared in 1871.

    Chronological Table

  • 1806Simms born
  • 1809Poe born
  • 1814‘The Star-Spangled Banner’
  • 1827Poe’s ‘Tamerlane’ published anonymously
  • 1830Hayne born
  • 1834Wirt died
  • 1834‘The Southern Literary Messenger’ established
  • 1845Poe’s ‘The Raven and Other Poems’ published
  • 1848Gayarré’s ‘Romance of the History of Louisiana’ published
  • 1849Poe died
  • 1850Clay’s Speech on Compromise
  • 1852Clay died
  • 1860Timrod’s ‘Poems’ published
  • Reading Recommended

    Post-Bellum Period (1865–1900)

    The Civil War divides the new South from the old in an intellectual quite as markedly as in a social and political sense. Indeed, the literature of the period is simply an expression of its life, as all true literature must be. If there is a tendency to assume an apologetic attitude when describing the earlier Southern literature, it is no less difficult to avoid expressing enthusiasm when dealing with the rich and varied product of later years. Before the war, a Northerner might have been tempted to paraphrase the sneering words of the English reviewer and ask, “Who reads a Southern book?” but in the early eighties, especially in the field of the short story, there started a veritable Southern invasion of the magazines of Boston and New York, and the triumph of this new literary movement was as immediate as it was complete.

    The question naturally suggests itself how this sudden change could have occurred, a change as radical as that from slavery to abolition, or as that of the transformation of the cotton-growing states into industrial centres. The great gold discoveries in California in 1848 had been followed a few years later by the discovery of a still richer metal, the nature of which was first shown to the world by Bret Harte. Few realized that a far richer and more varied deposit of literary ore lay hidden in the bayous of Louisiana and the mountains of Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

    All the conditions for the production of a native Southern literature were present, and the producers were not lacking. Even the disadvantage under which the earlier Southern writers labored, the absence of an important publishing centre, was overcome by the cordial attitude of Northern magazines—especially the Atlantic and Scribner’s—towards these new Southern producers of fiction. The closer literary relations of the North and the South were also in part a result of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which, by bringing together people from all sections of the country to the birthplace of American liberty, had a remarkable effect in deepening the national consciousness. The opening in the same year of Johns Hopkins University, the first Southern university to make a broad national appeal, exerted a further influence in the direction of national homogeneity.

    Following geographical lines, we may begin with the most picturesque portion of the South, Louisiana. The historian of this district, Charles Gayarré, blazed the way. What was said of him by Maurice Thompson, “He has indicated what might be done by a gifted fiction-writer with the picturesque legends and traditions therein heaped together in luxuriant confusion,” was first realized by George W. Cable (1844–1925), in his short stories and novels of Creole life. The markedly French setting of these tales is quite different from anything in earlier American writings and they often appear more like translations from the French than original works. Cable’s first book of tales is ‘Old Creole Days’ (1879) and it was followed by his first and best novel, ‘The Grandissimes’ (1880). Cable has been severely criticized for his treatment of the Creole type, which, in the opinion of many, is not true to life; but in the North, at least, he is still regarded as the foremost exponent of this picturesque Anglo-French culture. Two others have followed Cable’s model in the writing of short stories: Grace E. King (1852–1932), in ‘Balcony Tales’ (1893), and Mrs. Kate Chopin (1851–1904), in ‘Bayou Tales’ (1894), of whom the latter has bettered her instruction. Her contributions to the short-story type are perhaps the most distinguished since the appearance of Poe.

    Kentucky, long famous for its whisky, fast horses, and beautiful women, can now lay claim to literary distinction. One of its writers, James Lane Allen (1849–1925), may be described as one of the most finished and brilliant of leaders in the new school of fiction. At times his art is almost too evident, but nothing more delicate and sympathetic than ‘Flute and Violin’ (1891) and ‘A Kentucky Cardinal’ (1894) can be found in recent fiction. More virile but less elegant is John Fox (1863–1919), who in ‘A Cumberland Vendetta’ (1895) has treated the rough mountaineers, a favorite type with later writers.

    The mountains of Tennessee have found their chief interpreter in Mary N. Murfree (pseud. Charles Egbert Craddock, 1850–1922), whose first book, ‘In the Tennessee Mountains’ (1884), created a sensation on its appearance in the Atlantic Monthly. Miss Murfree differs from the other writers of this group in depending more upon scenic effects than upon character development. She excels in elaborate descriptions of nature on a grand scale. Her later attempts in the field of the analytical novel were not favorably received and the early promise of a brilliant success has not been fulfilled. Her most popular novel is ‘The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains’ (1885).

    The most striking single feature of the post-bellum fiction is its sympathetic treatment of the Southern negro. In ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852), Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe had depicted the negro from the outside, as he appeared to the Northerner. The whole book is a study in black and white, lacking the fine shading that results from a close and intimate observation of the material. Uncle Tom is too good to be true, as Legree is too bad. It would be foolish at this late date to deny that this book is a notable addition to our national literature, but it cannot be regarded as a successful treatment of either the colored type or Southern life. The hero owes his importance not to the fact that he adequately represents his race but that he conveys a message.

    It has often been claimed that in real life the negro is fully understood only by the people of the South. The exaggerated and distorted minstrel type is a Northern creation, as is also much of the sentimental poetry associated with it. The real discovery of the literary value of the Southern negro must be credited to Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908), whose volume of sketches, ‘Uncle Remus,’ appeared in 1880. The earlier Georgia humorists, Longstreet and Johnston, had concerned themselves mainly with the Georgia “Crackers,” to whom the negro is distinctly subordinated. Harris, for the first time, delved into negro folk-lore and in the narrator of the primitive tales he has succeeded, as Professor Pattee has said, in creating “one of the few original characters which America has added to the world’s gallery.” As an interpreter of a single novel character type, Harris challenges comparison with Rudyard Kipling as the spokesman of the native of India.

    The later Georgia writers have followed in the footsteps of Longstreet and Johnston, none of them venturing to compete with Harris in the domain of negro folk-lore. The most important of these later writers are H. S. Edwards (1855–1938) and Sarah Barnwell Elliott (1848–1928).

    The Virginia spirit is best represented by Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922) and his most notable contributions are his short stories, especially those contained in his first book, ‘In Ole Virginia’ (1887). This shows the most skillful use of the negro dialect since ‘Uncle Remus’ and its success did much to establish the remarkable vogue of dialect fiction during the remainder of the century, not only in the South but in all parts of the country. Like most of his contemporaries, Page is less successful in the novel than in the short story. Although Page, like Harris, makes frequent use of the negro dialect, he approaches his subject from a wholly different angle. Educated mainly in a newspaper office and entering literature by the way of journalism, Harris is distinctly democratic, representing an entirely new force in Southern literature. Page, on the other hand, both by birth and education, represents the aristocratic prejudice of the early South. To Page the negro is the picturesque, faithful servant of the white man, as he appeared before the war; to Harris Uncle Remus’s animal figures stand for the mingled pathos and humor of the colored race after the war, with its combination of helplessness and cunning.

    These two currents, the aristocratic and the democratic, constantly appear, the one or the other predominating according to the temperament of the individual author. Perhaps the finest and most familiar figure of the aristocratic Virginian, brought into sharp contrast with the democratic and commercial tendencies of the North, is the hero of F. Hopkinson Smith’s ‘Colonel Carter of Cartersville’ (1891).

    Chronological Table

  • 1867Reconstruction Act, Lanier’s ‘Tiger Lilies’ published
  • 1870Scribner’s Monthly established
  • 1872General Amnesty Bill
  • 1876Johns Hopkins University opened
  • 1879Cable’s ‘Old Creole Days’ published
  • 1880‘Uncle Remus’ published
  • 1881Lanier died
  • 1886Paul Hamilton Hayne died
  • 1887Page’s ‘In Ole Virginia’ published
  • 1892‘The Sewanee Review’ established
  • 1898Richard M. Johnston died
  • 1908Joel Chandler Harris died
  • Reading Recommended