Literature of the Antebellum South Essay - Critical Essays

Literature of the Antebellum South


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.

Representative Works

F. Colburn Adams
Our World; or, The Slaveholder's Daughter (novel) 1855
Justice in the By-Ways (novel) 1856

Washington Allston
The Sylphs of the Seasons, with Other Poems (poetry) 1813

Joseph G. Baldwin
Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (short stories and sketches) 1853

William Wells Brown
The Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (slave narrative) 1847
Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (novel) 1853
The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (drama) 1858

William Alexander Caruthers
The Cavaliers of Virginia; or, The Recluse of Jamestown, an...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Criticism: Overviews

Thomas Nelson Page (essay date 1892)

SOURCE: Page, Thomas Nelson. “Authorship in the South Before the War.” In The Old South: Essays Social and Political, pp. 57-92. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892.

[In the following essay, Page discusses the paucity of a truly Southern literature prior to the Civil War and summarizes the principal Southern novelists, short story writers, and poets of the antebellum period.]

Discussion of Southern literature during the period which preceded the late war naturally resolves itself into a consideration of the causes which retarded its growth, since the absence of a literature at the South during a period so prolific in intellectual energy of a different kind, is...

(The entire section is 8552 words.)

C. Alphonso Smith (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: Smith, C. Alphonso. “Literature in the South.” In Southern Literary Studies, pp. 44-70. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1927.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as an address in 1908, Smith surveys a number of enduring poems by minor pre-Civil War poets and analyzes the reasons for the lack of literary productiveness in the South before the war.]

I should belie the feelings that are uppermost in my heart tonight if I did not at the outset express my sense of appreciation and privilege at being permitted to speak to this audience on so vital a theme as that which your partiality has assigned me. The spectacle of the American people trying to...

(The entire section is 5753 words.)

R. S. Cotterill (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: Cotterill, R. S. “Literature.” In The Old South: The Geographic, Economic, Social, Political, and Cultural Expansion, Institutions, and Nationalism of the Ante-bellum South, pp. 293-314. Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1939.

[In the following essay, Cotterill disparagingly assesses the writing of the Old South, from newspaper journalism to fiction.]

It is more than probable that in the field of literature the people of the Old South deserved to be ranked as consumers rather than producers. It was not that they neglected to cultivate the literary field; they did, with diligence and fine determination. But the net result of the labor which they...

(The entire section is 6769 words.)

C. Hugh Holman (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Holman, C. Hugh. “Southern Writing, 1800-1865: Introduction.” In Southern Writing, 1585-1920, edited by Richard Beale Davis, C. Hugh Holman, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 309-13. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Holman stresses the economic and cultural grounds for the dearth of accomplished Southern literature during the years 1800 to 1865, seeing Edgar Allan Poe, William Gilmore Simms, and Henry Timrod as the only professional writers of merit in the Old South and Poe as its only artist of genius.]

To understand the literature produced in the South between 1800 and 1865, it is important to keep certain characteristics of the...

(The entire section is 2121 words.)

Lewis P. Simpson (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Simpson, Lewis P. “The Southern Novelist and Southern Nationalism.” In The Man of Letters in New England and the South: Essays on the History of the Literary Vocation in America, pp. 201-28. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Simpson considers the development of the myth of the Old South as a spiritually redemptive community.]

The Civil War, Richard M. Weaver says in his essay entitled “The South and the American Union,” confirmed in the South “the feeling that it was in spirit and needs a separate nation.” Weaver continues: “It [the South] might be viewed as an American Ireland, Poland, or Armenia, not...

(The entire section is 9124 words.)

Craig Werner (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Werner, Craig. “The Old South, 1815-1840.” In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 81-91. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Werner presents an overview of early nineteenth-century Southern literature, arguing that the Old South played a crucial role in the cultural growth of the fledgling United States despite producing few writers of enduring significance during this time.]

Literature written in the South around 1815 shared most of the basic concerns of that written in the North. By 1840 the increasing divergence of economic, political, and social conditions had created a...

(The entire section is 4588 words.)

Mary Ann Wimsatt (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Wimsatt, Mary Ann. “Antebellum Fiction.” In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 92-107. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Wimsatt surveys the mostly romantic prose fiction of the pre-Civil War American South.]

Antebellum Americans, especially in the South, relished the popular romance as it had developed from the mid-eighteenth century onward, given great impetus by the historical novels of Walter Scott; and it is to the romance tradition and its several offshoots, Gothic, sentimental, and domestic, that we may trace the main features of the fiction produced between 1830 and...

(The entire section is 6778 words.)

G. R. Thompson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Thompson, G. R. “Edgar Allan Poe and the Writers of the Old South.” In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott, pp. 262-77. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Thompson contrasts the typically regional focus of nineteenth-century Southern writers with that of Edgar Allan Poe, whose work consistently transcends the literary tropes and stereotypes of his contemporaries.]

One of the most striking features of Southern literature is the contrast between writing of the late nineteenth and the twentieth century and that of the long preceding era. Before the war between the states, despite a powerful...

(The entire section is 7201 words.)

Criticism: The Culture Of The Old South

Guy A. Cardwell (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Cardwell, Guy A. “The Duel in the Old South: Crux of a Concept.” South Atlantic Quarterly 66 (1967): 50-69.

[In the following essay, Cardwell presents the subject of dueling as an important element in the “aristocratic” culture of the Old South, one frequently treated by writers of the period.]


The idea of the gentleman assumes the existence of class distinctions and often assumes as well that gentlemen, men superior in courtesy and courage, are privileged to engage in extralegal mutual slaughter according to a code. Dueling seems never to have gone unchallenged, however. In America, where street affrays and Western shoot-outs...

(The entire section is 7671 words.)

Carl N. Degler (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Degler, Carl N. “The Foundations of Southern Distinctiveness.” The Southern Review 13, no. 2 (April 1977): 225-39.

[In the following essay, Degler outlines the economic and historical sources of Southern cultural distinctiveness, maintaining nonetheless that differences between Northerners and Southerners in the first half of the nineteenth century were a matter of degree, not kind, and that both groups shared an essential worldview.]

Whether one is interested in the early antebellum South or the modern South, the agricultural character of the region is fundamental. If today the South is the most rural region of the nation, in the years before the War for...

(The entire section is 5929 words.)

Criticism: Antebellum Fiction: Pastoral And Heroic Romance

J. V. Ridgely (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ridgely, J. V. “The Southern Romance: The Matter of Virginia” and “The Southern Way of Life: The 1830s and '40s.” In Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature, pp. 32-49, 50-61. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Ridgely observes myth-making qualities in the novels of the Old South—romantic works that elaborate themes of Southern uniqueness, manifest destiny, and separatism.]


Readers of magazines like the Messenger were often treated to nostalgic glimpses of olden times; the sight of the ruined church tower at Jamestown was good for any...

(The entire section is 9542 words.)

Jan Bakker (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Bakker, Jan. “Time and Timelessness in Images of the Old South: Pastoral in John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn and Horse-Shoe Robinson.Tennessee Studies in Literature 26 (1981): 75-88.

[In the following essay, Bakker probes John Pendleton Kennedy's subtle critique of the pastoral ideal in Swallow Barn and his subsequent reaffirmation of this myth in Horse-Shoe Robinson.]

An American scholar-critic has written that time is a “frightful entity” for many Southern writers. It is seen in a bad light in the works of such twentieth-century authors as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, James Dickey, Ellen Glasgow, William Styron, and...

(The entire section is 5751 words.)

Michael Kreyling (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Kreyling, Michael. “The Hero in Antebellum Southern Narrative.” The Southern Literary Journal 16, no. 2 (spring 1984): 3-20.

[In the following essay, Kreyling highlights the typical adherence of the antebellum novel to the conventions of heroic romance.]

We lack a tradition in the arts; more to the point, we lack a literary tradition. We lack even a literature. We have just enough literary remains from the old regime to prove to us that, had a great literature risen, it would have been unique in modern times.

—Allen Tate, “The Profession of Letters in the South”


(The entire section is 7356 words.)

Jan Bakker (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Bakker, Jan. “Some Other Versions of Pastoral: The Disturbed Landscape in Tales of the Antebellum South.” In No Fairer Land: Studies in Southern Literature Before 1900, edited by J. Lasley Dameron and James W. Mathews, pp. 67-86. Troy, NY: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1986.

[In the following essay, Bakker traces the pattern of pastoral and anti-pastoral impulses in four narrative romances of the Old South.]

                              They will bring
Forbidden sounds into the silent brake,
          And banish thence the birds, and blight
                    the spring. …

William Gilmore Simms, “The Widow of the Chief” (1839)...

(The entire section is 7313 words.)

Richard Gray (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Gray, Richard. “Holding the Line in the Old South.” In Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region, pp. 31-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Gray studies the antebellum novels of William Gilmore Simms and his contemporaries as they valorize the South while occasionally depicting the region as slowly but continuously disintegrating.]


At the time when people like [John C.] Calhoun, [Jefferson] Davis, and [Alexander] Stephens were attempting a political defence of their region, another group of men were responding in a...

(The entire section is 9377 words.)

Charles S. Watson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Watson, Charles S. “Simms and the Civil War: The Revolutionary Analogy.” The Southern Literary Journal 24, no. 2 (spring 1992): 76-89.

[In the following essay, Watson illuminates William Gilmore Simms's comparison of Revolutionary America with the antebellum South in his novels of the 1850s and 1860s.]

In the first part of his career, William Gilmore Simms, the leading novelist of the antebellum South, commemorated the great war for independence by recounting exciting battles and heroic deeds.1 After the sectional conflict worsened, he retained his principal subject, but with a radical difference. Now he used the American Revolution to guide the...

(The entire section is 5782 words.)

Jan Bakker (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Bakker, Jan. “Twists of Sentiment in Antebellum Southern Romance.” The Southern Literary Journal 26, no. 1 (fall 1993): 3-13.

[In the following essay, Bakker emphasizes Caroline Lee Hentz's and E. D. E. N. Southworth's manipulation of conventional sentimental devices in their early romances for the purpose of disclosing “unpleasant truths” about life in the South.]

This discussion of some twists of sentiment in antebellum Southern romance is limited to two first works by female writers of the time and place: Lovell's Folly (1833), by Caroline Lee Hentz (1800-1856); and Retribution; or, The Vale of Shadows. A Tale of Passion (1849), by Emma...

(The entire section is 4425 words.)

Criticism: The Role Of Women: A Subdued Rebellion

Anne Firor Scott (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Scott, Anne Firor. “Discontent.” In The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930, pp. 46-79. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970.

[In the following essay, Scott documents the dissatisfaction of many Southern women with the restrictive roles assigned to them in the Old South.]

Open complaint about their lot was not the custom among southern ladies; yet their contented acceptance of the home as the “sphere to which God had appointed them” was sometimes more apparent than real. Most southern women would not have tried, or known how, to free themselves from the system which was supposed to be divinely ordained, but there is...

(The entire section is 9894 words.)

Minrose C. Gwin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Gwin, Minrose C. “‘A Lie More Palatable Than the Truth’: Fictional Sisterhood in a Fictional South.” In Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature, pp. 19-43. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Gwin suggests thematic affinities between Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mary H. Eastman's pro-slavery response Aunt Phillis's Cabin, especially in terms of the feminist subtext in both novels—Southern women as a whole standing against the dominant male power structure.]

… literature and sociology are not one...

(The entire section is 10872 words.)

Jan Bakker (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Bakker, Jan. “‘… The Bold Atmosphere of Mrs. Hentz’ and Others: Fast Food and Feminine Rebelliousness in Some Romances of the Old South.” Journal of American Culture 21, no. 2 (summer 1998): 1-6.

[In the following essay, Bakker explores the theme of hesitant or repressed rebellion by women in the writings of Caroline Lee Hentz, Caroline Gilman, and Eliza Ann Dupuy.]

In the romances of the female authors of the Old South, there is no myth-making on the theme of the lost American Eden such as appears in the adventure fiction of their male counterparts. What the women wrote were indoor, triumph-of-love domestic romances that reveal suppressed...

(The entire section is 4741 words.)

Karen Tracey (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Tracey, Karen. “Caroline Hentz: Counterplots in the Old South.” In Plots and Proposals: American Women's Fiction, 1850-90, pp. 49-75. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Tracey examines the “double-proposal” novels of Caroline Lee Hentz as works that critique the position of privileged women in antebellum society while reinforcing the overall values of the Old South.]

… [Elsewhere] I argue that the double-proposal plot is inherently likely to destabilize readers' notions of love and marriage, since by its very structure it calls into question easy clichés of “the right suitor” and “true love.” And I argue...

(The entire section is 11960 words.)

Criticism: Slavery And The Slave Narrative

Harold Woodell (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Woodell, Harold. “Justice Denied in the Old South: Three Novels by F. Colburn Adams.” Southern Literary Journal 11, no. 1 (fall 1978): 54-63.

[In the following essay, Woodell describes three unusual novels by the little-known Charleston writer F. Colburn Adams that attack Southern hypocrisy and the institution of slavery.]

Francis Colburn Adams, a stage manager-novelist who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the decade preceding the Civil War, offers us an unusual perspective on the Old South with three works of fiction, Manuel Pereira (1853), Our World (1855), and Justice in the By-Ways (1856). This author's unflinching dissection...

(The entire section is 3484 words.)

Raymond Hedin (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Hedin, Raymond. “The American Slave Narrative: The Justification of the Picaro.” American Literature 53, no. 4 (January 1982): 630-45.

[In the following essay, Hedin concentrates on the new literary strategies of nineteenth-century slave narratives which grafted morality, political awareness, and irony to the simpler, eighteenth-century picaresque narrative tradition.]

If “well begun is half-done,” a bad start can also mean a bad finish. Beginnings establish a momentum that later stages tend to continue or at least need to confront. Hence the appropriate fascination of scholars with origins—of culture, political movements, personality development. Our...

(The entire section is 6052 words.)

Thomas Doherty (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Doherty, Thomas. “Harriet Jacob's Narrative Strategies: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.The Southern Literary Journal 19, no. 1 (fall 1986): 79-91.

[In the following essay, Doherty comments on Harriet Jacobs's skilled application of the narrative conventions of the popular sentimental novel to her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.]

In 1853, the fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs confided her literary ambitions to the poet and abolitionist Amy Post. “Don't expect too much of me, dear Amy,” she cautioned, “You shall have truth but not talent” (Sterling 79). Jacobs' modest opinion of the work that became Incidents in the Life of a...

(The entire section is 5261 words.)

Richard Yarborough (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Yarborough, Richard. “Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass's ‘The Heroic Slave.’” In Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, edited by Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson, pp. 159-84. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

[In the following essay, Yarborough contends that Frederick Douglass's reinterpretation and exaltation of a slave rebellion in his novella The Heroic Slave is subverted by the underlying prejudices of the white, masculine worldview.]

Sir, I want to alarm the slaveholders, and not to alarm them by mere declamation or by mere bold assertions, but to...

(The entire section is 9735 words.)

Further Reading


Bain, Robert, and Joseph M. Flora, eds. Fifty Southern Writers Before 1900: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, 601 p.

Short, bibliographic essays on the major writers of the South who published before 1900.

Green, Fletcher M., and J. Isaac Copeland, eds. The Old South. Arlington Heights, IL: AHM Publishing Corporation, 1980, 173 p.

Generalized, mostly non-literary bibliography of the Old South organized by topic.

Holman, C. Hugh. “The Literature of the Old South.” In Fifteen American Authors Before 1900: Bibliographic Essays on Research and...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)