Literature of the Antebellum South Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Literature of the Antebellum South

The historical epoch concerning the American South from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the eruption of the Civil War in 1861 is usually designated “antebellum,” or simply referred to as the period of the Old South. While the region stretching north to south from Virginia to Florida and east to west from Georgia to Texas represents a vast area of considerable geographical diversity, in the first six decades of the nineteenth century it was bound by a number of important social, economic, and political factors. Principal among these was the existence of black slavery, a practice that sustained the primarily rural and agricultural South. After about 1820, few in the Southern experience could avoid the presence of slavery. Cotton, the region's largest cash crop, was grown throughout the expanse of the South on enormous plantations and required vast amounts of inexpensive labor in order to be profitable for planters. As slavery became an established institution, it began to elicit concern in the remainder of the United States where it was illegal. Additional regional differences, such as the decentralized, agrarian existence of the Old South, which differed sharply from that of the more industrialized, urbanized, and commercial North, also divided the nation. Antebellum writers made much of these dissimilarities by describing the South's economic and cultural “distinctiveness,” creating myths of the region's pastoral splendor and tirelessly defending the values of Southern society and the institutionalized practice of slavery. Such ideas eventually found their way into the prevailing fictional forms of the antebellum South: the historical romance, the domestic and sentimental novel, and the tale of backcountry humor. Meanwhile, Southern poetry at this time was generally the province of amateur gentlemen-poets and frequently expressed only conventional themes and forms. Because of these limitations, many subsequent commentators have observed that the antebellum period was remarkable for its lack of significant literary production. Nevertheless, a few writers are considered exceptional, including Edgar Allan Poe, acknowledged as the Old South's sole writer of genius; William Gilmore Simms, the prolific and representative antebellum author; and Henry Timrod, a gifted poet of the Civil War era.

The cornerstone of antebellum fiction was the historical romance. Novels concerning plantation life, sentimental love affairs, and backwoods adventures dominated the interest of the Southern reading public for decades. The historical romance genre owes an enormous debt to the wildly popular Waverley novels of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, whose romantic narrative style spawned innumerable imitators in Europe and America. Among these novelists in the South, the Virginian George Tucker set the standard with The Valley of Shenandoah; or, Memoirs of the Graysons (1824), a somewhat melodramatic family saga featuring exaggerated language and conventional characters. Tucker's formula proved successful, and many other novelists, including William Alexander Caruthers, Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, John Esten Cooke, and John Pendleton Kennedy, produced works in a similar manner. Of these writers, Kennedy is generally recognized as the most gifted. His prototypical plantation romance Swallow Barn; or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832) defined the tropes of this picturesque and popular form that would endure well into the twentieth century. Like Tucker's novel, Swallow Barn took much from older fictional traditions. Its narrative features a Northern traveler who records his generally delighted reactions to the South—a device used effectively by Tucker as well as William Wirt in his popular 1803 volume of fictionalized essays entitled The Letters of the British Spy. In his subsequent novels, Kennedy also made skilled use of the elements of the historical adventure genre; his two novels Horse-Shoe Robinson (1835) and Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe's (1835) look back romantically to Revolutionary War-era South Carolina and seventeenth-century Maryland, respectively. William A. Caruthers's The Cavaliers of Virginia; or, The Recluse of Jamestown (1834-35) fits a similar mold as it recounts the historical Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, while adding the familiar trappings of Gothic fiction. In The Knights of the Horseshoe (1845), Caruthers returned to colonial Virginia for another lively, heroic adventure. Of Beverly Tucker's major novels, George Balcombe (1836) is a frontier romance mostly set in backcountry Missouri, while The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future, published secretly in 1836, is an imaginative, allegorical look thirteen years hence after the Confederacy has seceded from the Union. While describing entertaining adventures and presenting a host of conventional types—the gentleman planter, the Southern belle, the opportunistic Northerner—the romances of George and Beverly Tucker, Kennedy, Caruthers, Cooke, and others conveyed to audiences the major themes of the Old South experience. Principal among these was one of the resounding and most enduring myths in Southern fiction: the image of the South as a pastoral paradise and a spiritually regenerative community. Likewise, as war with the North approached at mid-century, these and other apologetic writers increased their efforts to glorify and idealize the agrarian values of plantation life, facilely juxtaposing them with the greedy, materialistic, and commercial ethos of the North.

Antebellum short fiction was primarily the domain of the southwestern humorist. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet was probably the most renowned of these writers. His Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, Etc. in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835) achieved national prominence as it amusingly described life in the South's hinterlands. Other important humorist collections include William Tappan Thompson's Major Jones's Scenes in Georgia (1843), James Jones Hooper's The Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845), and Joseph G. Baldwin's Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853). These compilations of popular, exaggerated, sometimes preposterous, but witty sketches of the Southern backcountry regions first appeared in local newspapers and regional periodicals but later were printed in national magazines such as the Southern Literary Messenger and the New York journal Spirit of the Times. Most of these humor writers were skilled amateurs who considered themselves professional lawyers, politicians, or journalists first, and authors second. One exception to the typical, Old South rule of literary amateurism, however, was William Gilmore Simms, a devoted writer who, critics have discerned, was a prominent literary spokesman for his region and age. Simms's collected works of fiction, poetry, criticism, and history comprise more than eighty volumes. Taken as a whole, these works are suffused with the antebellum spirit and feature Simms's fervent support of Southern values and culture. The Yemassee (1835) is generally regarded as his finest novel, detailing events of the early eighteenth-century wars between European settlers and Native Americans in Carolina. The subjects of Simms's historical romances range from the American Revolution (The Partisan, 1835) to life on the Southern frontier (Guy Rivers, 1834). Usually told with a directness that some commentators found distasteful, Simms's works were well known throughout the antebellum period, and if not esteemed as the most innovative publications of their age, continue to be regarded as the embodiment of regional Southern writing in the middle of the nineteenth-century.

The most influential literary periodical of the Old South was undoubtedly the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger. Published between 1834 and 1864, the Messenger established literary tastes for more than a decade longer than its closest competitor, the Southern Quarterly Review, in an age that saw scores of periodicals come and go. The Messenger published the work of the established poets of the early antebellum period, including Richard Henry Wilde, Edward Coate Pinkney, Thomas Holley Chivers, and Philip Pendleton Cooke. The verse of these writers was rather conventional and artificial, bound to earlier traditions rather than original in form or content. Still, critics have observed that a few of these poetic expressions, such as Wilde's romantic lyric “Lament of the Captive,” demonstrate both technical and aesthetic proficiency. Other writers, including William Gilmore Simms, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Timrod, also made significant contributions to the poetry of the Old South. Simms, most notably in his evocative “The Edge of the Swamp,” shared much in terms of style and sensibility with his earlier counterparts. Edgar Allan Poe, meanwhile, stands apart from his contemporaries of the Old South as the writer who demonstrated unrivaled artistic skill and a transcendent literary genius. While critics unquestionably perceive Poe as a writer of world significance, some contention does remain as to his “Southernness.” Though born in Boston, he considered himself a Virginian. Unlike Simms and many of his contemporaries, however, Poe generally eschewed political and ideological endorsements of the South, focusing his efforts on the aesthetic qualities of composition in order to produce haunting poetry and enigmatic, psychological short fiction. As a lyric poet he created such renowned pieces as “To Helen” and “The Raven.” Poe's brilliance in fiction can be seen in his mastery of the short story form, his seminal contribution to the detective genre (notably “The Gold Bug,” 1843), and his manipulation of the symbolic and grotesque to achieve heightened thematic and visceral effects, perhaps best illustrated in his 1839 tale “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe also worked briefly as an editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, contributing to a four-fold increase in the periodical's readership. After Poe, Henry Timrod is generally considered the finest of the antebellum poets. Many of his greatest works were composed to glorify the birth of a new nation, the Confederacy, at the dawn of the Civil War, and are now seen as moving elegies to Southern defeat.

Women writers also made significant contributions to the literature of the antebellum South, acknowledged now by modern critics after decades of relative neglect. Although born in the North, Caroline Howard Gilman adopted Charleston, South Carolina, as her home and lived there throughout her literary career. She established and edited a literary magazine, Southern Rose, wrote poetry, and produced several notable works of fiction, including two sentimental novels, Recollections of a [New England] Housekeeper (1834) and Recollections of a Southern Matron (1838). Female novelists also offered their versions of the romance narrative, typified in the volumes of E. D. E. N. Southworth and Caroline Lee Hentz. Southworth's Retribution; or, The Vale of Shadows (1849) is an overblown tale of passion set on a Virginia plantation at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Other works by Southworth include The Curse of Clifton (1852) and a string of sensationalistic novels typically featuring melodramatic plots and dynamic heroines. Among Caroline Hentz's ten novels of the 1850s are such works as Ernest Linwood (1856), which examines the effects of unrestrained passion, and Eoline; or, Magnolia Vale (1852), a romance recounting the exploits of its independently minded young protagonist. Hentz's 1851 novel, The Northern Planter's Bride, is also included among her most well-known works, primarily because of its status as a fictional response to the Northern anti-slavery writings of the period.

Ubiquitous in the Old South, slavery was a significant subject for a number of antebellum Southern writers. The issue of enslaved blacks in the South had increasingly polarized the nation during the nineteenth century. The growing abolitionist movement in the North had a profound effect on Southern literature by mid-century, with writers penning numerous works of propaganda in order to combat the steady stream of anti-slavery material that was widely read and circulated in the North. While the white and generally affluent literary establishments of Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans continued to defend the South and its reliance on slave labor in fiction, speeches, and essays, an alternative and opposing form of expression crystallized in the new genre of the slave narrative, giving voice to former slaves who had escaped to freedom in the North. Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861) details her combined struggle as a woman, a mother, and a slave in the Old South and describes seven years spent living in her grandmother's tiny attic. The dismal and degrading existence of a slave was also recorded in The Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847). Brown went on to produce fictional works as well, notably his novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), based on the life of an illegitimate daughter of President Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves. Numbered among the most outstanding attempts by a former slave to impress the dehumanizing effects of slavery on white readers, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Himself (1845), remains a centerpiece of the slave narrative genre.