Page, Thomas Nelson
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."
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.
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.
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 entire section is 166 words.)
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. Born to lordship, his life-path cut straight through gardens of roses that never fade almost before he comes to his own, his princedom is but an empty name: the roses are all thorns; he falls before the cannon's mouth, his dead fingers twined about his so-called country's flag. That is the beautiful figure by which, be it true to life or false, a capable story-teller has chosen to perpetuate the South that fought and died. That is the figure which vivifies all the incidents, serious, melodramatic, and comic, and illumines every picture of family and plantation life.
Mr. Page, like all who are notable in the rising host of Southern writers of fiction, does not recite the epic impersonally as an outside observer, nor does he...
(The entire section is 625 words.)
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 singled out for these distinctions a heroine who is not of the ilk of fair ones who are worth following under difficulties to the end of their fate. Polly is a young lady belonging south of Mason and Dixon's line; she has a choleric uncle breathing threats of disinheritance from a soft heart; and she has a lover who turns pale whenever he should, and has the facial play proper to his situation. She is also very fond of a drunken negro servant. She displays great variety of complexion herself, clasps her arms freely about her uncle's neck, and sets one wondering what in the world she will find to do with herself when, as in the course of nature she must, she leaves off "tears and sobs and caresses." If it is captious to pick flaws in a...
(The entire section is 641 words.)
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 sweetest, purest, and most beautiful ever lived." He would have us not "to forget the old radiance in the new glitter," believing with Burke that people will never look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors. He is perhaps aware of the limitations of that life—not so much as the poet or the critic—but seeing it with something of modern breadth, he loves it, idealizes it, and would preserve it as a record of the past and as an inspiration for the future. He may not have occupied some one field as well as Cable or Harris or Craddock, but more than any of the other story-writers he has taken for his field no less than the life of the people of the whole South. Himself a typical Southern gentleman, modest, generous,...
(The entire section is 3135 words.)
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 was likely largely upon the foundation furnished by Mr. Page's writings. They might, to be honest, have done worse. For though Mr. Page has but a middling literary talent, though his pictures are colored and softened out of the bald truth by an inveterate sentimentality, that very sentimentality was partly characteristic of the life he has taken as his crude material.
He tells you—and glows as he tells—of gentlefolk such as a certain school in the South used to dream all gentlefolk should be; he exalts certain virtues and glosses over certain vices; he paints you the black folk, likewise, as the South likes to remember them; he conjures up before admiring eyes a life—a wonderfully appealing sort of life—that is...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
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" and "Marse Chan," nor are these unaffected and deeply human interpretations of a vanished social order likely to be surpassed in the future. They give one that sense of finality which comes only from those things which are so adequately done that the imagination rests content in them. Mr. Page has written other stories which show the same qualities of insight, sympathy, humor, pathos, easy command of the resources of the short story, but these tales which have become American classics may stand as representative of the finest portraiture of the old-time Virginia gentlefolk and of the relations they held with their family slaves.
The charm of that society lay largely in the absence of the commercial spirit, the emphasis on...
(The entire section is 766 words.)
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 wading the stream brought on an illness which left the faithful man bereft of his reason. . . .
Deep and lasting was the impression made upon the boy, and from that time he became and thought himself endowed with the powers and duties of manhood. He saw armies pass up and down the highway during the next four years, for "Oakland' was in the track of the armies.". . .
The day after the battle of Fredericksburg young Page went with his uncle Robert Nelson, a clergyman, who had been for years before the war and was for many years after it a missionary in China, to find out about his dear ones who had been in that dreadful battle. The boy slept that night in the tent of his father, which was also that of his...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
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, being then in Europe, as a matter of routine it was first submitted to the "reader," Mrs. Sophie Bledsoe Herrick, who (so to speak) "discovered" it and passed it on to the present writer with a warm recommendation that it be accepted. It proved to be a story of such obvious merits that it fell into the class of manuscript that, in the lingo of the editorial office, "accepts itself." It had but one fault of importance, that of redundancy, the action being retarded by a surplusage of interesting detail. This is a fault not only far from infrequent in young writers but fortunately one easy to remedy. With the consent of the author, excision was made of this digressive material—perhaps a third of the original manuscript—and I believe that...
(The entire section is 778 words.)
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 attitude, creates an appealing plantation scene. On a broad canvas he paints a stately mansion presided over by lovely ladies and gallant gentlemen who wear imported finery, enjoy horse-racing and other gentle diversions, and dispense prodigal hospitality. The attitude of these cavaliers toward their slaves is cordial, kindly, benign, and sometimes devoted. The contented bondmen appear proudly engaged as servants in the big house or as laborers in the fields. Near the quarters are prankish pickaninnies romping gleefully in youthful abandon and black veterans resting comfortably in their declining years. Particularly emphasized is the loyal relationship between the master and the servant, the mistress and the maid, and the Negro mammy and...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
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, and, like them, he gave his heroes and heroines a line of ancestors comparable to his own. The great days of the Nelsons and the Pages, however, had come in the last half of the eighteenth century. "Oakland" plantation in Hanover County, where he was born, was not a prosperous estate in the fifties. Hanover County, which is north of Richmond, lay directly in the path of invading Union armies, and it was fought over repeatedly by the soldiers of McClellan, Grant, and Lee. John Esten Cooke, to whom Hanover County was a familiar battleground, saw little that was romantic about the war; but Page, who was only twelve when the war ended, always saw it as a romantic Virginian epic age. He looked back upon the old regime as a near approach to the...
(The entire section is 3057 words.)
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 Barrett. I have collated the first and most famous of them, "Marse Chan," as it appears in the manuscript, in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine for April, 1884, in the 1887 edition of In Ole Virginia, and in the Plantation Edition of Page's collected works (1906). The collation reveals that the editors of the Century made considerable revisions before the first publication, and that almost without exception Page let their changes stand when he brought out the story in book form. . . .
Page had a tendency, in his early days at least, to diffuseness. The greater part of the changes the editors of the Century made in the story were intended simply to shorten it. In the letter accepting "Marse...
(The entire section is 674 words.)
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 in simple terms," says Grace King in her memoirs already mentioned, "what Thomas Nelson Page meant to us in the South at that time. He was the first Southern writer 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." And Page was equally popular in the North. Having devastated the feudal South, the Northerners wanted to be told of its glamour, of its old-time courtesy and grace. That was what they had wanted of Cable. A rush of industrial development had come at the end of the war, and the cities of the North and the West, now the...
(The entire section is 1359 words.)
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 Burial of the Guns" the author is not really interested in people or guns but in what they represent, in the concept that they dramatize. In this case, the guns symbolize the Southern honor and duty and loyalty—in a word, the Southern heroism—that have been overcome but not destroyed.
The loss of the guns is the loss of great dignity and power—almost, the reader is made to feel, a sexual power. It is a loss that is greater than that of human beings, more significant and transcending than that of human beings; and as Page extols this superhuman quality, he himself grows curiously inhuman: "Most of the men who were not killed were retaken before the day was over, with many guns; but the Cat was lost. She remained...
(The entire section is 3736 words.)
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 Old South, a plantation tradition had flourished for decades before the young Virginia lawyer began to write. Page merely surpassed his predecessors in enhancing the image. The success of In Ole Virginia and the acceptance of Page's work by popular national magazines such as Scribner's Monthly was part of the phenomenon of local color writing which swept America in the two decades following the Civil War. The new "national consciousness" that the war produced somewhat paradoxically encouraged investigation of the recently unified country's component parts. Every area of America in the late nineteenth century soon boasted its share of local color writers. In the South the local color movement was especially significant. The...
(The entire section is 5789 words.)
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 special poignance, in the postbellum period when the South is suffering what he felt was the ignominy of Reconstruction. By idealizing the historical South and transmuting it into a civilization that is parochial and self-sufficient and intensely chauvinistic, Page makes the various types in his fiction—the gentleman, the lady, the Negro servant, the poor white—distinctly Southern. Throughout the stories of In Ole Virginia (1887), essays such as "Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War" (1892) and "The Old South" (1889), and novels like Red Rock (1898), Gordon Keith (1903), and John Marvel (1909), Page has the types represent that vanished era when the South was essentially a static society; and once he...
(The entire section is 2678 words.)
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 Under the Crust (1908), included also in the collected Plantation Edition, and The Land of the Spirit (1913)] are a case in point. They consist of eleven atypical stories employing characters, settings, techniques, and themes significantly different from Page's earlier stories of planation life in antebellum piedmont Virginia. Consideration of these stories and the correspondence relating to them suggests that Page was more than a writer of local-color stories and that after his initial success his editors too often proved prescriptive rather than perceptive, wholly concerned with the preference of their readers, inhospitable to innovation, and consequently more aware of the day's marketplace than of either literary values or the...
(The entire section is 5168 words.)
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 of the antebellum order.
In a time when critical standards were not particularly high, Page enjoyed favorable criticism of even his poorer stories of the 1890s. His work also appealed to the popular reader of the day. According to Rosewell Page, Red Rock, published in 1898, sold more than one thousand copies and ranked fifth in a list of best sellers. In 1903, Page's Gordon Keith appeared on a similar list.
Page did not have any real difficulty selling almost everything he wrote until around 1906. By that time, he had witnessed the surrender of the local-color movement to a more realistic literary treatment of life. It was during the following year that a critic wrote unsentimentally about...
(The entire section is 1629 words.)
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 Old South. But Page was a writer, and what writers know, they know best in their fiction, not in what they say about what it means. "Never trust the artist," as D. H. Lawrence puts it. "Trust the tale." In the 1880s Page tried his hand at what then was a popular magazine genre, the ghost story. He wrote one entitled "No Haid Pawn," and included it in his first book, In Ole Virginia, the volume that includes those classic and beautiful eulogies of the old regime, "Marse Chan" and "Meh Lady." The ghost story was based on a legend current in the antebellum Virginia neighborhood of Page's boyhood at Oakland. It involved a long-deserted plantation home in a swampy neck along the river. The slaves throughout the neighborhood...
(The entire section is 2282 words.)
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 Stephen Collins Foster. . . . Deceivers of the same kind were orators of Henry Grady's school and a long procession of literary gents, beginning with John Pendleton Kennedy and culminating in Thomas Nelson Page" [The Man Who Feels Left Behind, 1961].
Johnson goes on to comment that these men "meant no harm and, to do them justice, they told no lies." Instead, they created a legend, "informing and irradiating the landscape but distorting the vision and paralyzing the will."
The myth, Johnson believes "is, in fact, a recrudescence of the Arthurian legend, of loyalty, love and derring-do all compact—in short, romance." It is no more substantial than the "dream stuff that composed the walls and towers...
(The entire section is 2218 words.)
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 was the image of "his hand over his face, and his groan, ''I never expected to come home so.'" Out of such recollections, out of his sense of the discontinuity in memories of life before and after the Civil War, Page was to fashion for the South a definitive version of the dream of Arcady.
The cornerstone of Page's vision would be his dual focus of pride and loss; the strength of his fictional recreations of the Old South as Arcady would rest primarily in his ability to balance his belief in his idealizations with his awareness of threat and inevitable doom facing them. Nostalgia might win out over fatalism, yet the feeling that this golden world cast its glow from the center of impending peril is what makes its charm...
(The entire section is 4887 words.)
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 doctrine of paternalism—though, in fact, ex-slaveholders had been shocked by the "uppity" attitudes of their former property.
The opening story of In Ole Virginia, one of the most popular he ever composed, is an epitome of Page's world—and his appeal. The central narrative of "Marse Chan" is framed by a well worn device: a lone traveler on horseback meets a stranger, asks a few perfunctory questions, and is rewarded with a long and stirring narrative. . . .
The story is an unabashed tear-jerker which gains its effect—if it succeeds at all—by the reader's willingness to accept the fundamental goodness of the world which Sam, the black man, recalls so elegiacally. Marse Chan was the heir of a...
(The entire section is 1136 words.)
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 romancers, might assert that "the New South is . . . simply the Old South with its energies directed into new lines"; however, it was solely the newness of those lines that encouraged postbellum admirers of the plantation to turn a defeated way of life into a substantial legend. The design of images for a popular literature stocked with belles and cavaliers, courtships and duels, mansions and cotton blossoms, and, at the heart of the scene, wistfully reminiscing darkies, had to await the actual demise of the plantation world.
A predilection for local color dominated literary tastes in the major popular magazines of the North immediately following the Civil War, but this new way of dealing fictionally with regional material,...
(The entire section is 1350 words.)
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 fullest measure of recognition and worldly success in his own lifetime.
Page was born in 1853 at Oakland plantation in Hanover County, Virginia, the same county in which Patrick Henry and Henry Clay had been born. Four obvious influences can be seen in his origins.
First, an ancestral pedigree that reads like a roster of the First Families of Virginia. Second, a childhood spent in a region north of Richmond during the War between the States that was one of the most heavily fought-over areas of the continent. Third, reduced family circumstances, which gave a spur to industry and ambition. Fourth, a spinster lady relative (remembered in Page's sketch, "My Cousin Fanny," in the 1894 collection The Burial...
(The entire section is 3873 words.)
Gross, Theodore L. 'Thomas Nelson Page." American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 1 (Fall 1967): 90-2.
Provides a selective annotated bibliography of criticism on Page's writing.
Gross, Theodore L. Thomas Nelson Page. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967, 175 p.
An important critical biography by a prominent Page scholar.
Page, Rosewell. Thomas Nelson Page: A Memoir of a Virginia Gentleman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923, 220 p.
Page's younger brother recounts the writer's life in eulogistic fashion.
Blackall, Jean Frantz. "Literary Allusion as Imaginative Event in The Awkward Age." Modern Fiction Studies 26, No. 2 (Summer 1980): 179-97.
Notes briefly Henry James's probable indebtedness in The Awkward Age to Page's short story "The Prisoners."
Gross, Theodore L. "Thomas Nelson Page: Creator of a Virginia Classic." The Georgia Review XX, No. 3 (Fall 1966): 338-51.
Evaluates themes of reconciliation, heroism, and loyalty. Gross also defines Page's place in American literature.
Holman, Harriet. The Literary Career of Thomas Nelson Page. Dissertation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University, 1947, 226 p.
(The entire section is 409 words.)