Thomas Nelson Page Essay - Critical Essays

Page, Thomas Nelson

Introduction

Page, Thomas Nelson 1853-1922

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and poet.

Page is widely regarded as the most significant writer of the Southern plantation tradition. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Page penned nostalgic stories of a glamorous and harmonious plantation life, capturing the imagination of both Northern and Southern readers. For a war-worn nation disillusioned by the struggles of Reconstruction, Page popularized the myth of an antebellum South with vast, lush plantations, benevolent masters, happy-go-lucky blacks, beautiful belles, and gallant cavaliers. Part of the local color movement, Page faithfully recorded the minutiae of Southern life with meticulous attention to dress, local customs, setting, and speech. His sentimental stories are remarkable for their skillful use of a black narrator whose dialect, although nearly incomprehensible today, contributed to the charm and authenticity of his stories for his contemporary readers. The most important feature of his writing, however, was his reliance on the code of Southern heroism; in his most memorable and enduring collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia; or Marse Chan, and Other Stories (1887), Page created the Southern gentleman hero who exemplifies the virtues of honor, loyalty, military discipline, chivalry, patriotism, and devotion to an idealized lady. Other writers of the Southern plantation tradition, such as John Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, and John Esten Cooke, similarly employed the antebellum South and its code of heroism as a framework for literature, yet Page's oeuvre is recognized as the culmination of this tradition; the end of the gracious and noble social order is depicted by him as a loss to the entire nation. In portraying the vanished culture of the South as a lost Golden Age, his tales are, as one critic wrote, "the epitaph of a civilization."

Biographical Information

Page was born at Oakland Plantation, Hanover County, Virginia, in 1853, to John and Elizabeth Burnwell Nelson Page. The descendant of Thomas Nelson, the founder of Yorktown, Virginia; another Thomas Nelson, governor of Virginia and a signer of the Declaration of Independence; and John Page, a Revolutionary leader, Page was proud of his colonial ancestors, whom he saw as heroic figures embodying the solid virtues of aristocracy. His quiet childhood at Oakland ended with the Civil War, as Hanover County became the site of important battles; several of his stories written for children present the war through the eyes of a Southern boy. Page's father returned from the war to a ruined plantation, and his family, never prosperous, suffered poverty during the Reconstruction period. Page entered Washington College (now Washington and Lee College) in 1869 but left without graduating. He tutored the children of his cousins, and when he had earned enough money, studied law at the University of Virginia and passed the bar in 1874. Settling in Richmond, he practiced law and wrote occasionally for newspapers. His first published piece, the dialect poem "Uncle Gabe's White Folks," appeared in 1877, and between 1884 and 1886 he sold his best-known stories to the Century Magazine. In 1886 he married Anne Seddon Bruce, who provided Page with a model of proper Southern womanhood. Her death two years later stunned him and deprived him of a valuable editor as well. In 1893 he married Florence Lathrop Field and retired from law to write and lecture full time. Established in Washington, D.C., Page wrote several novels, short stories, essays on Southern issues, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908. He became active in politics, and in 1913 Woodrow Wilson appointed him ambassador to Italy, where he served for six years. Page died at Oakland in 1922.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Page was prolific, writing poetry, novels, children's stories, sketches, essays, and literary criticism, but he is best known for his short stories. In these tales, as in all that he wrote, he espoused traditional Southern values and eulogized the Southern way of life before the Civil War. In "Marse Chan," his first and most acclaimed story, a former slave, now a servant, recounts the noble deeds of his former master and recalls the glorious days of a vanished era to a Northern visitor. The device of the black narrator and the themes of Southern heroism, tragic love, and reconciliation which Page employed in his first story reappear in the later stories "Meh Lady" and "Unc' Edinburg's Drowndin'." His short stories "Unc' Edinburg's Drowndin'" and "Ole 'Stracted" are significant contributions to the development of the local color movement for their strong evocation of place and their portrayal of Southern social and political attitudes before the Civil War. In 1887, these four stories, with the addition of "No Haid Pawn" and "Polly," were collected under the title In Ole Virginia, which Theodore Gross described as "the author's lasting contribution to American literature.... [His] major themes are formulated and fully realized in this first published work." Of his later short stories, only "Two Little Confederates," "The Burial of the Guns," "Little Darby," and "The Gentleman of the Black Stock" employed with success the themes that had served him so well in his early stories. The stories collected in Under the Crust and The Land of the Spirit represent a new direction for Page, for these non-Southern stories do not glorify a vanished past; rather, they protest social injustices and reveal his scorn for modern commercialism. Lacking the charm and local color of his plantation tales, his last stories had little contemporary appeal, and they are generally ignored today.

Critical Reception

Page was fortunate to write at an auspicious time for the local color movement. Nostalgia for the romantic Old South governed literary taste; Northerners were fascinated by the plantation civilization that they had destroyed, and Southerners were eager to justify and champion their former way of life. Accordingly, Page's chivalric tales of Southern heroes set in a glorious past found immediate acclaim. With the publication of In Ole Virginia and the lecture series he subsequently undertook to promote his stories and views, Page became the literary spokesman of the South. His editors were eager to publish what he sent them, and reviewers were largely appreciative of his work, commenting favorably on his depth of feeling and warmth of characterization. But as the local color movement surrendered to literary realism by the end of the century, Page's writing fell gradually into disfavor. His late stories, in which he experimented with new themes and techniques, were submitted to unreceptive editors, and he abandoned fiction-writing entirely by 1910. Although often overlooked today, Page remains an important figure in the history of Southern literature; contemporary Southern writers have noted the impact of his work on their own. As the novelist Grace King wrote in her memoirs: "It is hard to explain in simple terms what Thomas Nelson Page meant to us in the South at that time. He was the first Southerner to appear in print as a Southerner, and his stories, short and simple, written in Negro dialect, and, I may say, Southern pronunciation, showed us with ineffable grace that although we were sore bereft, politically, we had now a chance in literature at least." In his time, Page was the most successful author of the plantation tradition, and the popular image of the Old South which he created in his best short stories endures today.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

In Ole Virginia; or Marse Chan, and Other Stories 1887

Befo' de War: Echoes in Negro Dialect 1888

Two Little Confederates 1888

Among the Camps, or Young People's Stories of the War 1891

Elsket, and Other Stories 1891

The Burial of the Guns 1894

Pastime Stories 1894

The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock 1897

Santa Claus's Partner 1899

Bred in the Bone 1904

Under the Crust 1907

Tommy Trot's Visit to Santa Claus 1908

The Land of the Spirit 1913

Other Major Works

On Newfound River (novel) 1891

The Old South: Essays Social and Political (essays) 1892

Red Rock (novel) 1898

Gordon Keith (novel) 1903

The Negro: The Southerner's Problem (essays) 1904

The Coast of Bohemia (poetry) 1906

The Novels, Stories, Sketches, and Poems of Thomas Nelson Page: The Plantation Edition. 18 vols. (collected works) 1906-1912

The Old Dominion: Her Making and Her Manners (essays) 1908

Robert E. Lee, the Southerner (biography) 1908

John Marvel, Assistant (novel) 1909

Robert E. Lee, Man and Soldier (biography) 1911

Italy and the World War (essays) 1921

Dante and His Influence: Studies (criticism) 1923

Washington and Its Romance (essays) 1923

The Red Riders (novel) 1924

Criticism

The Nation (essay date 1887)

SOURCE: A review of In Ole Virginia, in The Nation, Vol. 45, No. 1160, September 22, 1887, p. 236.

[In the following review of In Ole Virginia, the critic praises Page's creation of the Southern hero and use of Negro dialect.]

Collectively, Mr. Page's tales entitled In Ole Virginia form an epic historical and tragic. After reading them we see one figure with the certainty and distinctness of actual vision. Called by no matter what name, that figure is always the same—a young man, exquisitely fine of nature, gentle, chivalrous, hot-blooded, at once the pink of courtesy, courage incarnate, and honor's self. He can think no evil, much less do it....

(The entire section is 625 words.)

The Nation (essay date 1894)

SOURCE: A review of "Polly" and The Burial of the Guns, in The Nation, Vol. 59, No. 1539, December 27, 1894, p. 483.

[In the following review, the critic derides the excessive sentimentality of "Polly, " but praises the realism and feeling of "The Burial of the Guns" and "My Cousin Fanny. "]

Mr. Page's publishers have supplied a new example to the old adage concerning fine feathers and fine birds. They have put his short story "Polly" into a delicate cover of small folio form, and have printed it on paper with a glaze so high that, no matter at what angle the volume is held, it never leaves the print undisputed possession of the field of vision; and they have...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Edwin Mims (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: "Thomas Nelson Page," in Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Sources, Volume II, M. E. Church, 1903, pp. 120-51.

[Mims, one of the first scholars of Southern literature, provides a contemporary assessment of Page's popularity and achievements.]

Different from the poet and the critic is the romancer who finds in the past the inspiration of his art, and would fain preserve the traditions and legends of a bygone age. Mr. Page, by birth, training, temperament, is in thorough sympathy with the ante-bellum South, and in the new life springing up all about him he has endeavored to preserve what is most noteworthy in a civilization that seems to him "the...

(The entire section is 3135 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: A review of The Plantation Edition, in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. XII, No. 3, January 19, 1907, p. 27.

[In this review occasioned by the publication of The Plantation Edition, the critic assesses Page's contribution to the literature of the South.]

Since the appearance in the early eighties of "Marse Chan," the first and best of his stories, Thomas Nelson Page has been the recognized interpreter of the South—the old South—to the rest of the country. Indeed, it would hardly be too much to say that most people of the younger generation who live north of Mason and Dixon's line have built their conception of what the South before the war...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Outlook (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: A review of Under the Crust, in Outlook, Vol. 131, August 16, 1922, pp. 742-43.

[In the excerpt below, the critic admires Page for his traditional values and his protest against vulgarity in Under the Crust.]

[Page] has the American temperament and the American point of view; he believes instinctively in the best things, and he has the courage of a great hope. A Virginian of the Virginians, he has been the secretary and recorder of a form of social life which had the charm of lavish hospitality, of gracious manners, of a generous habit of life, and of a keen sense of personal dignity. Of that old order there are no more charming reports than "Meh Lady"...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Rosewell Page (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "His War Experience," in Thomas Nelson Page: A Memoir of a Virginia Gentleman, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923, pp. 31-42.

[Rosewell Page, Page's younger brother, tells of Page's Civil War experiences and their influence on his writing.]

Young Page's first experience of war was in the spring of 1861, when he saw his father and Ralph, the son of his brother's black mammy, ride off to join the Confederate army, and a few days later saw his uncle William ride off with Nat upon the same errand. He saw Nat brought home demented after the considerate order of the master allowing him to ride on the caisson across the Potomac was countermanded by another officer, and the...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Robert Underwood Johnson (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "Thomas Nelson Page," in Commemorative Tributes of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1905-1941, Spiral Press, 1942, pp. 134-38.

[Johnson, one of Page's editors at The Century Magazine, defines Page's contribution to American literature.]

One day in 1881 there came to the editorial office of Scribner's Monthly, afterward the Century Magazine, the manuscript of a story destined to be of large significance in American fiction. It was a tale of Virginia during the Civil War and was entitled "Marse Chan," and it was signed by a name not known to the editorial staff, that of Thomas Nelson Page. The editor-in-chief, Richard Watson Gilder,...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

Hugh M. Gloster (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Backgrounds of Negro Fiction," in Negro Voices in American Fiction, Russell & Russell, 1948, pp. 3-22.

[Gloster claims that Page's writings are partially responsible for the South's success in curtailing the rights of black citizens.]

Among . . . post-bellum writers . . . Thomas Nelson Page stood out as the leading portrayer of what E. C. Stedman sentimentally termed "the unspeakable charm that lived and died with the old South." In such volumes as In Ole Virginia, or Marse Chan and Other Stories (1887), The Old South: Essays Social and Political (1892), and Social Life in Old Virginia (1897), Page, adopting a condescending and smiling...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Jay B. Hubbell (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Thomas Nelson Page," in The South in American Literature, 1607-1900, Duke University Press, 1954, pp. 795-804.

[Hubbell, a pioneer and leader in Southern literature studies, describes Page's relationship with his editor and literary advisors.]

More than his fellow Southerners, the Virginian is regarded as a glorifier of times past, perhaps because—as a Virginian might reply to such a charge—his state has a longer and more magnificent past to boast of. Thomas Nelson Page was among the writers of the New South the stoutest defender of the old regime. Like most of the other Virginian writers of fiction, he belonged to a family with a distinguished ancestry,...

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John R. Roberson (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The Manuscript of Page's 'Marse Chan,'" in Studies in Bibliography, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, Vol. 9, edited by Fredson Bowers, Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1957, pp. 259-62.

[Roberson discusses the revisions made to "Marse Chan" before its publication in 1884 by the editors of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.]

Thomas Nelson Page's volume of short stories, In Ole Virginia, was first published in 1887. Page's autograph drafts of the six stories which constitute the book are contained in the collection of literary manuscripts given to the Alderman Library by Clifton Waller...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Edmund Wilson (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Novelists of the Post-War South," in Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 529-616.

[Wilson, one of the nation's foremost literary critics, notes that Page's popularity derives from his ability to soothe the Northern conscience and to stir Southern pride. ]

One can trace very clearly in the pages of the Century the modulating attitude of the North toward the South. The stories of the Virginian Thomas Nelson Page began appearing in the magazine in 1884, at the moment when the resentment against [George W.] Cable in the South was reaching its most rabid point. "It is hard to explain...

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Theodore L. Gross (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Old South," in Thomas Nelson Page, Twayne Publishers, 1967, pp. 39-77.

[Gross, Page's biographer, assesses three late stories in which Page illustrates the poignant aftermath of the Civil War. ]

"The Burial of the Guns," although a weak story, reveals most clearly Page's over-all attitude toward the South and the Civil War. The guns that are buried (by a company of Confederate soldiers) are of course Southern guns, and the burial is that of the South's hopes for ever winning the war. As Page describes these weapons, they seem almost human and animistic; they certainly are more human than the characters themselves. This observation is not surprising, for in...

(The entire section is 3736 words.)

Kimball King (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in In Ole Virginia; or, Marse Chan, and Other Stories by Thomas Nelson Page, University of North Carolina Press, 1969, pp. ix-xxxvi.

[King argues that Page's development of the Southern plantation tradition presents a contradiction between intent and outcome; his panegyrics of the antebellum South inadvertently reveal the fatal weaknesses of the plantation system. ]

The appearance in 1887 of Thomas Nelson Page's first collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia; or, Marse Chan and Other Stories, marked a new era in the plantation literary tradition. . . .

While Page was the most effective author to extol the virtues of...

(The entire section is 5789 words.)

Theodore L. Gross (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Thomas Nelson Page and the Postbellum Writers," in The Heroic Ideal in American Literature, The Free Press, 1971, pp. 105-11.

[Gross discusses the protagonist of "Marse Chan" as Page's most fully delineated Southern hero. ]

Nowhere in postbellum Southern literature is [the] formal perpetuation of Southern chauvinism more clearly articulated than in the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page; indeed Page's conception of character and place and time is controlled by his slavish dedication to an idealization of the code of Southern heroism. He fuses the sentimental literary tradition and the glorification of the Southern past, and gives them a special significance, a...

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Harriet R. Holman (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Magazine Editors and the Stories of Thomas Nelson Page's Late Flowering," in Essays Mostly on Periodical Publishing in America, Duke University Press, 1973, pp. 148-61.

[Holman focuses on the non-Southern stories collected in Under the Crust, which found inhospitable magazine editors because they did not conform to Page's earlier local color stories of Southern chivalry. ]

Like his enemies, the stories a writer has trouble selling are one measure of the man; they also tell the reader of a later generation something of his time and place, and they make a useful gauge of his editors. The stories of Thomas Nelson Page's late flowering [published in...

(The entire section is 5168 words.)

L. Moody Simms, Jr. (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Corra Harris on the Declining Influence of Thomas Nelson Page," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 505-09.

[Simms quotes at length an astute critic who recognized and identified the causes of Page's declining popularity and influence.]

By the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922) was the chief spokesman of the plantation literary tradition. Achieving fame as a local-color writer of the New South, he depicted life in the Tidewater region of the Old Dominion both before and after the Civil War. Most of his essays, stories, and novels celebrate the chivalric ways of pre-Civil War Virginians and lament the passing...

(The entire section is 1629 words.)

Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Southern Literature and Southern Society," in Southern Literary Study: Problems and Possibilities, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and C. Hugh Holman, University of North Carolina Press, 1975, pp. 3-20.

[Rubin, a leading scholar of Southern literature, argues that Page's "No Haid Pawn, " like many Southern works, implicitly acknowledged the possibility of black insurrection.]

Now ordinarily the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page might be the last place anyone would think to look for critical insights into what the antebellum South really thought about slavery, since Page's whole literary career would appear to have been based on the uncritical, eulogistic defense of...

(The entire section is 2282 words.)

Robert B. Downs (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Moonlight and Magnolia: Thomas Nelson Page's In Ole Virginia," in Books That Changed the South, University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pp. 176-85.

[Downs argues that Page showed no artistic growth as a writer and succeeded only in creating stereotypes, but he also states that Page's work is, nonetheless, important to understanding Southern literary history.]

An eminent Baltimore Sun editor, Gerald W. Johnson, a native Tar Heel, declares that "the greatest enemy of the late confederacy was certainly not Ulysses S. Grant, or even William T. Sherman. . . . Far more lasting damage was done it by men whom the South adores: at the head of the list...

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Lucinda H. MacKethan (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Thomas Nelson Page: The Plantation as Arcady," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 314-32.

[MacKethan relates how Page created his Arcadian vision of the antebellum South from his conflicted awareness that the Old South was forever destroyed yet still a symbol of strength and pride for the New South.]

Thomas Nelson Page, the elder son of a Virginia aristocrat living on a gracious plantation, could watch with pride as his father rode out in bright uniform and flowing cape to defend the Confederacy. Yet in later years, he would remember his father's homecoming even better than his grand departure. What was most vivid to his memory...

(The entire section is 4887 words.)

J. V. Ridgely (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The New South: The Past Recaptured," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, University Press of Kentucky, 1980, pp. 89-111.

[Ridgely focuses on Page's attempts through literature and lectures to prove the rightness of the Southern Cause.]

Page's forte, like [Joel Chandler] Harris's, was the tale told in Negro dialect. However embarrassing (and sometimes difficult to comprehend) such a rendering of dialog may seem to the reader of today, it was vital in giving the ring of "reality" to his favorite characters, the faithful black servants who knew—and would not give up—their places. The wide success of the book suggests how easily his readers could accept the...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

Lucinda H. MacKethan (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Plantation Fiction, 1865-1900," in The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and others, Louisiana State University Press, 1985, pp. 209-18.

[MacKethan comments on how Page unconsciously reveals the weaknesses of the plantation system through his use of black narrators who embody the tensions of the master-slave relationship.]

The literary phenomenon of the Old South, centered in the image of plantation culture, was the creation of writers pursuing careers in a very different South, dubbed "new" in economic, social, and political as well as literary structures. Thomas Nelson Page, the most durable of the post-Civil War plantation...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)

Clyde N. Wilson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in In Ole Virginia by Thomas Nelson Page, edited by M. E. Bradford, J. S. Sanders & Company, 1991, pp. xi-xxi.

[In this essay, Wilson reassesses Page's role in American literary history and argues against seeing Page as outdated and a racist defender of the ignoble plantation tradition. ]

In Ole Virginia is a memorable portrait of the Old South before its destruction and one of the small company of truly enduring achievements in nineteenth century American literature. Its author, Thomas Nelson Page, was the most popular and most representative Southern writer of his time and one of the few Southern writers of any time to achieve the...

(The entire section is 3873 words.)