Augustus Baldwin Longstreet Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.

“Georgia Theatrics”

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.

“The Gander-Pulling”

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...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)