Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Swallow Barn

Swallow Barn. Frank Meriwether’s plantation home on the southern bank of the James River in Virginia’s coastal tidewater region. Meriwether’s home combines the rustic and the elegant, embodying the hospitality, industry, and self-restraint of its owners through the previous century. The house has ample space without being pretentious. Family and friends visiting the house enjoy riding, fishing, eating, conversation, and song, all influenced by surrounding nature. The house’s inhabitants are favorably shaped by a type of environmental determinism similar to that described in the French writer Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Frank Meriwether explains that country life prevents people from being hollow-hearted and insincere like people in the city. His wife, Lucretia, exhibits a pattern of industry necessitated by the demands of supervising a large household. The couple’s daughters, Lucy and Victorine, make their way to womanhood in happy and guarded ignorance, avoiding ambition, vanity, and overstimulation.

In addition to leading to virtue and self-restraint, the country life also leads to the formation of the distinctive character of the Virginia cavalier. As the patriarch of Swallow Barn, Frank Meriwether exemplifies the “cavalier” tradition of plantation owner as regent of his estate. By that tradition, a cavalier benignly rules over a hierarchy that descends from family to associates—such as a parson or overseer—to the slaves at the bottom. Meriwether explains that even though slavery is not an ideal institution,...

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Swallow Barn Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bohner, Charles H. “Virginia Revisited.” In John Pendleton Kennedy: Gentleman from Baltimore. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961. Discussion of Washington Irving’s influence upon this collection of sketches, which accurately portray early nineteenth century domestic life in Virginia. The Southern plantation romance began with Swallow Barn, but Kennedy’s partial detachment from Virginia society allowed objectivity and irony.

Gwathmey, Edward M. John Pendleton Kennedy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1931. Evaluation of Kennedy’s strengths—descriptions, close observation of human nature, thoroughly grounded philosophical conclusions, and a wholesome view of life. Argues that Kennedy inaccurately records slave dialect but succeeds as a pioneer in regional fiction, presenting one of the earliest and most accurate portrayals of Virginia plantation life.

Hubbell, Jay B., ed. Introduction to Swallow Barn: Or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion, by John Pendleton Kennedy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929. Discusses Swallow Barn in its historical context—a transition period in which Virginia society was disordered by the American Revolution but not yet frightened by Nat Turner’s slave insurrection.

Ridgely, Joseph Vincent. John Pendleton Kennedy. New York: Twayne, 1966. A chapter on Swallow Barn discusses its structure and style, including excerpts from nineteenth century reviews. Although true to Virginia life, Swallow Barn employs stock devices and literary sources. Kennedy’s growing ambivalence toward the South precluded the possibility of a sequel.

Tomlinson, David O. “John Pendleton Kennedy.” In Fifty Southern Writers Before 1900: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Discusses major themes and surveys criticism. Argues that Kennedy was a nationalist who feared disunion and combined his intended satire with affection for his characters and dismay at some Virginia social customs.