Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 entire section is 1276 words.)