Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1838
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes covers such a remarkably wide variety of behavior that he largely succeeds in his ambition to be a social historian. He vividly pictures men involved in such noble occupations as “The Horse-Swap,” “The Fight,” “The Militia Company Drill,” and “The Foxhunt.” He portrays women as charming their beaux with an impromptu concert in “The Song,” engaging in polite battles of status and manipulation in “The Ball,” or simply gossiping into the wee hours in “A Sage Conversation.” Longstreet structures some “scenes,” less typical but often more interesting, around elaborate practical jokes: “The Character of a Native Georgian” follows Ned Brace through an involved series of capers that bewilder dozens of people; in “The Debating Society,” two young men confound their peers by putting up for discussion a completely incomprehensible question; and in “The Wax-Works,” a group of touring rowdies try to swindle enough for their tavern bill by masquerading as wax figures at an exhibition.
Longstreet combines many of these elements in the book’s brief opening sketch, “Georgia Theatrics.” The narrator begins in uncharacteristically precise fashion: “If my memory fail me not, the 10th of June, 1809, found me, at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, ascending a long and gentle slope in what was called ‘The Dark Corner’ of Lincoln [County].” In a kind of thematic prelude to the volume as a whole, he explains that the corner was “Dark” from a “moral darkness” which, he avers, by “wonderful transitions,” has been dispelled in the past quarter century. The narrator takes care, however, to distinguish the area’s former “moral condition” from its “natural condition.” The latter, in terms of physical contours, trees, streams, birds, flowers, he characterizes as idyllic. Early in the sketch, as the narrator mounts a slope, the aura of Edenic grace shatters with a concatenation of “loud, profane, and boisterous voices,” the source hidden in the undergrowth. Violent oaths give way to sounds of muffled blows and terrific thrashings; the narrator watches the largely obscured back of one man rise briefly, then plunge heavily, “and at the same instant I heard a cry in the accent of keenest torture, ‘Enough! My eye’s out!’” The victor rises bragging until he sees the narrator, then looks “excessively embarrassed.” The narrator orders the swaggering bully to help him aid the horribly maimed victim, but the young victor defiantly replies that there has been no one else involved: “I was jist seein’ how I could ‘a’ fout.” He then bounds over to a plough that he had left in a fence corner several yards off. The narrator surveys the battlefield; in the soft dirt, he sees two thumbprints, about as far apart as a man’s eyes; would you believe it, gentle reader? his report was true. All that I had heard and seen was nothing more nor less than a Lincoln rehearsal, in which the youth who had just left me had played all the parts of all the characters in a court-house fight.
The brief sketch effectively introduces several of the book’s dominant motifs: violence, crude humor, cultural conflict, close attention to physical detail, and a style that abruptly alternates between the narrator’s polite affection and the powerful dialect of the lower classes.
Many of these elements reach a sort of climax in “The Gander-Pulling,” a sketch which none of the others can top for sheer crudity and high spirits. Longstreet sets the scene in 1798, just beyond the outskirts of Augusta proper and not far from three very close satellite “towns.” He opens reprinting an “advurtysement” for the gander-pulling, a notice every bit as enthusiastically unconventional in its phrasing as in its spelling. After elaborately describing the general area and petty rivalries of the neighboring towns, he details the immediate scene of action. The locals have outlined a circular path about forty yards in diameter around which the entrants will ride their horses. At one point on each side of the path, about ten feet apart, stands a post; between the posts a rope is slung loosely enough that a gander attached can vibrate in an arc of four or five feet. The gander-pull impresario, Ned Prator, first passes a hat into which each contestant tosses twenty-five cents, the sum to be the victor’s prize. He next proceeds to bind the gander’s feet and then to coat the bird’s neck liberally with goose grease—inspiring in the narrator an ironic paean to the gander’s former mate. Finally Prator attaches the gander to the rope directly over the path, stations men at the posts to whip any horse inclined to dawdle, arranges in a rough line the contestants mounted on their increasingly spooked horses, and sets them off.
The riders make three raucous but uneventful rounds until one man, riding a horse aptly named Miss Sally Spitfire, finally makes a solid grab, jerks the gander’s neck close to his startled horse’s head, while at the same instant each of the two lashers lays on with all his might. The crazed horse gives one look at the gander, feels both lashes, and bolts through the crowd carrying along a circus worth of bawling dogs, alarmed and belled cattle, and three tobacco-rollers, hauling over all in her path until she arrives at not just one airborne gander but a whole flock immediately at her feet. She stops suddenly enough to convert her rider into an unguided projectile. Gridiron, a second and rather more coolly rational horse, ignores his rider’s whoops, kicks, and lashings, while he pauses to examine and consider Miss Sally Spitfire’s experience, and then heaves a deep sigh.It was plain that his mind was now made up; but, to satisfy the world that he would do nothing rashly, he took another view, and then wheeled and went for Harrisburg as if he had set in for a year’s running. Nobody whooped at Gridiron, for all saw that his running was purely the result of philosophic deduction.
One of two of the remaining contestants seems most certain to win on each succeeding round, especially after one breaks the neck, but finally a third jerks away the head to win the prize. He brags and struts outrageously, but, as he and his audience are all aware since he triumphed through luck rather than skill, his vaunting puts the whole crowd in a high good humor—except for one little man who lost his bet of six quarts of huckleberries: “He could not be reconciled until he fretted himself into a pretty little piny-woods fight, in which he got whipped, and then he went home perfectly satisfied.”
Much of the piece’s charm derives from the relaxed focus which easily shifts from the advertisement to the area’s history to the field of competition to the organizer to the gander to the competitors to the horses to the victor and on to the end, no one element taking precedence over another. Longstreet focuses where and how he pleases to gain maximum local effect from each element of his sketch—which is precisely the sum of its parts. What the sketch does not have is a controlling fictional perspective that can compel the piece to do more than merely sum up its parts, more than exploit a fascinating, bizarre, and self-sufficient surface. Longstreet vividly represents the gander-pulling but merely represents it rather than significantly developing a meaningful experience arising out of that activity; consequently, he produces here one of his typical sketches rather than a story.
In the final section of Georgia Scenes, “The Shooting-Match,” Longstreet does produce a genuine short story, although—compared to earlier pieces in the book—in some ways a rather bland one. About a year ago, the narrator tells the reader, traveling on business in Northeastern Georgia, he encountered a small man carrying a massive old rifle and bound for a shooting-Match. The native, Billy Curlew, learns that this well-dressed stranger (the narrator) is the same person who, years ago as a child barely large enough to hold a shotgun, had earned a lasting reputation in a shooting-match—and incidentally a fine silk handkerchief for Billy’s father who had bet on the boy. The narrator admits that the shot years before had been pure luck, but Billy talks him into coming along to see the fun.
When they arrive, Billy, unreservedly a partisan of the man who won his father’s bet so long ago, startles the narrator by arranging for him to have a shot in the match, but none of the locals fear much from the strange dude. The narrator then vividly details the rules, target, prizes, contestants, and finally the shifting fortunes of all in the match. Hoping to delay his humiliation as long as possible, the narrator insists on shooting last. The dreaded time arrives, his arms cannot hold the ponderous rifle without trembling, and he paradoxically begins bragging (quite unconvincingly) to relieve somehow his own acute embarrassment. Finally, on impulse he halfheartedly fires and amazes absolutely everyone—except Billy—by making the second best shot of the day, missing first prize (won by Billy) by only fractions of an inch. Except for a handful of agnostics, the narrator converts the whole crowd, who promise to vote for him no matter what office he is seeking. When he objects that he is seeking no office, they insist he let them know when he does, for they would all back him to the death. “If you ever come out for anything,” Billy vows, “jist let the boys of Upper Hogthief know it, and they’ll go for you to the hilt, against creation, tit or no tit, that’s the tatur.”
The story capitalizes on some nice ironies: Generous backwoods Billy seems fated to share in the narrator’s humiliation but has judged better than anyone else. The narrator’s nervous bragging during his ludicrous preliminaries ironically helps him to carry the day once he fires his shot. The narrator deserves a rich load of backwoods contempt for his lack of manliness but winds up with a whole region ready to back him to a man. Here Longstreet uses a fine rhetorical sensitivity to prepare, develop, and capitalize on his climactic surprise. Unlike a typical Georgia “scene,” this story has no extraneous characters, no long descriptions or discussions of purely local interest, and no digressions to include bizarre comic incidents. Longstreet focuses not, as usual, on broadly representing typical scenes, characters, or actions, but more narrowly on re-creating the narrator’s experience, an experience which encompasses his sympathy for the sympathetic Billy Curlew. Here Longstreet has created a genuine story by concentrating, uncharacteristically, on form at the expense of content. Later frontier humorists and local-color writers learned techniques which allowed them the best of both dimensions, but they could hardly have written as well as or as intelligently without the pioneering example of Georgia Scenes.