Swallow Barn (American History Through Literature)
John Pendleton Kennedy (1795870) published Swallow Barn; or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion, his first and finest novel, in May 1832. He left his name off the title page, allowing his first-person narrator, Mark Littleton, to stand in as author. But Kennedy was already well established as a man of letters, and knowledge of his authorship of Swallow Barn spread quickly. The novel met with widespread acclaim. As a contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger noted some years later, Swallow Barn was "read and enjoyed, from the Chesapeake to the Ohio" (p. 764). Actually, the popularity of the work extended even further. A London edition appeared in August 1832, and a two-volume Swedish translation was published in Stockholm in 1835. Swallow Barn is considered the foremost example of a minor genre of antebellum American literature known as the plantation novel.
The narrator begins the story of his sojourn in Virginia with an introductory epistle to a friend back in his home state of New York. Kennedy thus situated Swallow Barn in a tradition of travels through the South written by northerners that included such works as Letters from the South (1817), by James Kirke Paulding (1778860). In its literary style, its closest antecedent is Bracebridge Hall (1822) by Washington Irving (1783859). Implicitly, Kennedy uses his narrative to bridge the gap between sectional differences and to inform northerners of the delights of Virginia.
The casual tone and leisurely pace of the introductory epistle prepare readers for the narrative to follow. Over the first hundred pages of the book, he introduces all the major characters who people the James River plantation known as Swallow Barn: Frank Meriwether, the master of the plantation; Lucretia, his dutiful and affectionate wife; Prudence, the eccentric spinster sister; Parson Chub, the stereotypical cleric who is fond of food, drink, and books; Ned Hazard, the cousin who has invited Mark Littleton to Swallow Barn; Bel Tracy, the neighboring beauty whom Ned loves; Carey, the banjo-playing slave who is described as "a perfect shadow of his master" (p. 36); and numerous other characters who visit the plantation during Mark's stay.
One of the most delightful episodes in the book concerns Frank Meriwether's library. Since the seventeenth century, Virginia gentlemen had been known for having fine collections of books. When Parson Chub suggests a book-buying expedition, Frank likes the idea and agrees to finance the parson's excursion to New England. After Parson Chub returns with great masses of old folios, he and Frank retire to the library every evening for long hours of undisturbed study. Or so it would seem. One evening, Ned discovers their secret upon entering the library accidentally:
When he entered the library, both candles were burning in their sockets, with long, untrimmed wicks; the fire was reduced to its last embers, and, in an arm-chair on one side of the table, the parson was discovered in a sound sleep over Jeremy Taylor's Ductor Dubitantium; whilst Frank, in another chair on the opposite side, was snoring over a folio edition of Montaigne. And upon the table stood a small stone pitcher containing a residuum of whisky-punch, now grown cold. (P. 67)
When Swallow Barn first appeared, praise of the novel was almost universal in the southern press. Remarkably, the book received many positive comments from northern reviewers as well. Noticing the book for the staid Boston quarterly the North American Review, Edward Everett (1794865) began with a pronouncement: "This is a work of great merit and promise" (p. 519). Not all northerners appreciated Swallow Barn, however. The reviewer for the New-England Magazine thought the author was satirizing plantation life and called the book "a gentle satire on the pride, aristocratic feeling, and ignorance of a certain class, rather numerous in the south. ...His principal characters are humorously conceited, pompous, ignorant and dogmatic. He has succeeded admirably in showing them in a ridiculous light" (p. 76).
Kennedy's next novel, Horse-Shoe Robinson (1835), gave reviewers the opportunity to cite his previous one, and the success of Horse-Shoe Robinson reinforced the critical appreciation of Swallow Barn. Edgar Allan Poe (1809849), to name the book's most distinguished contemporary reviewer, recalled reading Swallow Barn with great fondness. Speaking in the editorial plural, Poe observed, "We have not forgotten, nor is it likely we shall very soon forget, the rich simplicity of dictionhe manliness of tonehe admirable traits of Virginian manners, and the striking pictures of still life, to be found in Swallow Barn" (p. 648).
REVISIONS AND LATER EDITIONS
Two decades later, Kennedy significantly revised his plantation novel. G. P. Putnam and Company published the new edition of Swallow Barn in 1851. Kennedy made his most significant alterations in the later portions of the work. The first edition had contained a lengthy appreciation of Captain John Smith (1580631) toward its end, a digression that, though heartfelt, greatly taxed the reader's patience at a point when the story was already starting to seem too long. Kennedy greatly abbreviated his discussion of Smith for the revised edition. In a chapter entitled "The Quarter," which describes life among the slaves, Kennedy also sharpened his defense of the practice of slavery to suit the 1850s. The new edition was illustrated by David Hunter Strother (1816888). Contemporary readers appreciated Strother's illustrations, but his depiction of a plantation peopled by barefoot, wide-eyed, happy-go-lucky slaves now seems cloyingly racist.
The revised edition was received with much enthusiasm. The introduction to a prepublication extract in the International Magazine, for example, called Kennedy "the best painter of manners who has ever tried his hand at their delineation in America" and Swallow Barn "one of the most charming compositions in the literature of the present time" (p. 151). The Putnam edition went through numerous reprints in the 1850s and stayed in print through the nineteenth century, though its popularity waned considerably after the Civil War. But many Swallow Barn enthusiasts could still be found after Reconstruction, even in the North. Writing in the 1870s, Robert C. Winthrop (1809894) said that the novel's "sketches of Virginia life and manners, including a very notable chapter on Slavery, entitled 'The Quarter,' furnish the best picture we have even now of that section of the Union at the period to which they relate, and possess not a little of historical interest and permanent value" (p. 71).
The Putnam edition went out of print in the first decade of the twentieth century, and Swallow Barn remained out of print until 1929, when Harcourt, Brace published a new edition with an introduction by Jay B. Hubbell (1885979) as part of its American Authors series. This new edition reinforced the status of Swallow Barn as a classic of American literature, and some readers were grateful for the opportunity to reread it. Edward M. Gwathmey (1891956), for one, commented,
We greet Kennedy's Swallow Barn upon its republication with the same pleasure that we feel in greeting a friend of our youth who has been absent from our midst for a long time and who suddenly reappears. . . . It is a book to be read for relaxation. In it Kennedy does not burden his readers with an intricate plot; so that it may be read with equal pleasure either in parts or in its entirety. I can think of no book which I should prefer to have for a traveling companion on a wearisome journey. (P. 225)
DEPICTION OF SLAVERY
Not all shared Gwathmey's enthusiasm, however. Many have found Swallow Barn difficult to read, not only because of its leisurely pace and lengthy digressions but also because of Kennedy's partisan defense of slavery. Some passages of the book are hard to receive with anything but scorn today. In "The Quarter," for example, Kennedy identifies slavery as a transition state between savagery and civilization, observing that "no tribe of people have ever passed from barbarism to civilization whose middle stage of progress has been more secure from harm, more genial to their character, or better supplied with mild and beneficent guardianship, adapted to the actual state of their intellectual feebleness, than the negroes of Swallow Barn" (p. 453).
The novel is now recognized more as a cultural artifact than a classic work of literature. Beginning in the 1960s, Swallow Barn was largely read for its depiction of African American life and culture and, as a result, was more often denigrated than appreciated. Later, however, some scholars recognized Swallow Barn as an important reflection of American attitudes toward family, community, and place. The international reputation promised by the early Swedish translation never materialized, but a Russian study written by Louisa P. Bashmakova in the late 1990s found that Swallow Barn exemplifies the role of the South as the cradle for a poetic mythology central to the American literary imagination.
See also Proslavery Writing
Kennedy, John Pendleton. Swallow Barn; or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion. 1832. Edited by Lucinda H. MacKethan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
Bakker, Jan. "Time and Timelessness in Images of the Old South: Pastoral in John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn and Horse-Shoe Robinson." Tennessee Studies in Literature 26 (1981): 758.
Bashmakova, Louisa P. Pisateli Starago Iuga. Krasnodar: Ministerstvo Bysshego i Professional'nogo Obrazovaniia Possiia Federatsii, 1997.
Bohner, Charles H. John Pendleton Kennedy, Gentleman from Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961.
[Everett, Edward.] "Swallow Barn." North American Review 36 (1833): 51944.
Gwathmey, Edward M. Review of Swallow Barn. American Literature 1 (1929): 22526.
Hare, John L. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Family and Sectionalism in the Virginia Novels of Kennedy, Caruthers, and Tucker, 1830845. New York: Routledge, 2002.
"Literary Notices." New-England Magazine 3 (1832): 769.
"Notices of New Books." Southern Literary Messenger 17 (1851): 764.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Essays and Reviews. Edited by G. R. Thompson. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Romine, Scott. The Narrative Forms of Southern Community. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
"Rural Life in Virginia: The Swallow Barn." International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science 4 (1851): 15156.
Winthrop, Robert C. Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions, from 1869 to 1879. Boston: Little, Brown, 1879.
Kevin J. Hayes