Georgia Scenes

by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet

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First published: 1835

Type of work: Short stories and sketches

Type of plot: Social history

Time of work: 1780-1830

Locale: Georgia

Critical Evaluation

It was an auspicious moment for American literature when the presses of the AUGUSTA STATE RIGHTS SENTINEL issued a collection of pieces that had appeared in that newspaper, for this book, born in obscurity, was GEORGIA SCENES, CHARACTERS, INCIDENTS, &C., IN THE FIRST HALF CENTURY OF THE REPUBLIC by "A Native Georgian." The author was not a professional man of letters but rather one of those wonderfully versatile gentlemen who flourished in nineteenth century America. Lawyer, judge, politician, Methodist minister, newspaper publisher, and educator (at various times president of Emory College, Centenary College, the University of Mississippi, and the University of South Carolina), Augustus Baldwin Longstreet was ideally suited to the task of writing an informal social history of the southwestern frontier. An educated man (Yale), but no scholar, his activities brought him into personal contact with the whole range of men and manners in the growing country. Although GEORGIA SCENES now enjoys a position as a minor classic, it appealed to its own times as a new and exciting vein of writing. Edgar Allan Poe heralded it as an "omen of better days for the literature of the South," and the reading public called for twelve editions by 1894.

GEORGIA SCENES is significant on several counts. It is a pioneer work of Realism and one of the milestones in the local-color movement. Longstreet's careful use of dialect foreshadows a whole school of writing that reached a culmination of sorts with Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus tales. As a humorist, Longstreet is intimately connected with the great tradition of rough-and-tumble frontier humorists. In this category, he is a real precursor of Mark Twain, and there is much in GEORGIA SCENES that would not be out of place in HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Finally, Longstreet wrote with satirical intent, and an argument can be made for his claim to a position among the forerunners of the revolt from the village movement.

Although he was not a literary theorist, Longstreet seems to have worked out a rough theory of Realism. It would be folly to consider GEORGIA SCENES an accidental combination of lucky hits. The preface to the first edition shows that the author's aim was to record accurately the details of the life he had observed:

They [the sketches] consist of nothing more than fanciful combinations of real incidents or characters.... Some of the sketches are as literally true as the frailties of memory would allow them to be.... The reader will find in the object of the sketches an apology for the minuteness of detail into which some of them run, and for the introduction of some things into them which would have been excluded were they merely the creations of fancy.

Longstreet, however, was a reporter with a purpose; he applied Realism as the handmaiden of social criticism. Like THE SPECTATOR , which he appears to have admired, Longstreet exposes the follies and vulgarities of his time for the purpose of reforming men and manners. A number of the sketches close with didactic tags. Yet the author was too much of "A Native Georgian" to advocate replacing good American social norms with foreign modes. He wishes to see a standard of natural, unaffected American manners prevail. Rarely, if ever, does Longstreet miss an opportunity to ridicule or scorn European manners or even imported culture. On the subject of greetings between women he remarks: "The custom of kissing, as practised in these days by the amiables, is borrowed...

(This entire section contains 1292 words.)

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from the French, and by them from Judas." The whole of a rather thin sketch, "The Song," is devoted to the horrors of Continental music and the absurdity of American girls who study it.

The nineteen sketches of GEORGIA SCENES are roughly divided into two groups—those dealing chiefly with men and those that deal with women. In their original periodical publication, the sketches appeared as two series signed with two pseudonyms. These general categories do not circumscribe the material. A whole world of rural and urban life is packed into the fairly slim volume: brawls, shooting matches, horse races, balls, inns, old wives, young bloods, country schools, high society, and blacks. As Longstreet noted in his preface, there is an abundance of detail, but it is not intrusive, for these are not tightly plotted stories. The term sketches describes them perfectly: generally brief descriptive pieces that excel at catching atmosphere, very much like the form of Washington Irving's SKETCH BOOK pieces.

The two best-known and most frequently anthologized sketches in GEORGIA SCENES are concerned with the cruder aspects of rural life. In "The Horse-Swap," a professional trader called the "Yallow Blossom" is outduped while trying to pass off a horse with a terrible sore under the saddle. In this sketch, Longstreet shows a sympathy for animals that is completely characteristic of the volume. Not only does he pity the suffering of dumb beasts, but he also sees that savage treatment of animals brutalizes the human beings who inflict it. There is probably nothing else in American literature, before Jack London, quite like "The Fight." In the story, two bully-boys who have always avoided an encounter are pushed into a brawl by a disagreement between their wives. During the course of the knock-down-drag-out fight, an ear, a finger, part of a nose, and part of a cheek are bitten off. A minor character in "The Fight" is of considerable interest. Ransy Sniffle is a diseased runt whose greatest delight is starting fights between other people. The brutality of fights is also scored in "Georgia Theatrics," which shows a man rehearsing all the parts in a bloody fight.

Although Longstreet never uses blacks as leading characters, he takes great pains to transcribe their speech, and in this respect, he was ahead of his time. The practical joker of "The Character of a Native Georgian" asks a black woman to sell him half a live chicken, and she protests: "Name o' God! what sort o' chance got to clean chicken in de market-house! Whay de water for scall um and wash um? ... Ech-ech! Fedder fly all ober de buckera-man meat, he come bang me fo' true. No, massa, I mighty sorry for your wife, but I no cutty chicken open." Longstreet is equally careful to reproduce the dialect of backwoods whites. In "A Sage Conversation," he records the talk of three old women sitting by the fire: "Indeed, I have a great leanin' to sweats of verbs, in all ailments sich as colds, and rheumaty pains, and pleurisies, and sich; they're wonderful good." This interest in colloquial speech is closely associated with the author's interest in folk customs, as can be seen in "The Turn Out," which describes the custom of giving pupils a holiday if they can turn out (barricade out) the teacher.

Longstreet's crusade against the barbarity of rural sports is most evident in "The Gander Pulling" and "The Turf." In the latter, a black jockey is killed, and the comment Longstreet puts into the mouth of a woman spectator is worthy of Mark Twain at his bitterest: "I declare, had it not been for that little accident, the sport would have been delightful."

One sketch in GEORGIA SCENES is not by Longstreet. "The Militia Company Drill," by Oliver Hillhouse Prince, gives an account of a wildly undisciplined muster. It is as good as the other pieces and merits inclusion in the volume.

After Longstreet mounted the ladder of respectability, he came to feel that GEORGIA SCENES was an undignified work. Though he continued to write, he wrote nothing else that has survived; only one book gives him a literary eminence he probably never expected.