Literature of the New South Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Literature of the New South

By the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period in 1877, a few Southern politicians, thinkers, and writers had begun to critically examine the continued problems of the American South. Looking forward rather than to the past, these individuals expressed a progressive ideology that came to be known as the New South idea. Among the most recognizable proponents of this concept was the influential editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Henry W. Grady, who in the 1880s offered a vision of the modern, industrialized, and prosperous South that Reconstruction had failed to achieve. With a gradually more sympathetic attitude to the North and its commercial concerns, Southerners looked to Grady and other editorial advocates of the New South, such as newspapermen Francis W. Dawson, Richard H. Edmonds, and Henry Watterson, to lead the way. In his 1886 address entitled “The New South” Grady spoke to a national audience on the possibilities of reconciliation between North and South, improved race relations, the diversification of Southern agriculture, and an expansion in Dixie industry. Meanwhile, new developments were occurring in Southern literature that coincided with the rise of the New South concept. Principal among these was the vogue of local color writing, which celebrated the diversity and unique character of the South through the use of regional dialect and atmospheric description. This period also witnessed the ascent of The Century, an important literary magazine that published works by all of the major local color specialists, and the rising influence of its prominent editor, Richard Watson Gilder, who presided over the Genteel Tradition that governed Southern fiction until the mid-1890s. Playing to the tastes of its mostly female subscribers, The Century, and similar “Genteel” magazines, refused to print anything that might ruffle delicate sensibilities, publishing nothing that could be construed as coarse, unseemly, or distasteful. Outside the aesthetic limitations of Genteel writing, however, the New South period also featured a new critical trend in fiction, embodied in the single writer of international stature from this era, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Fiction writing in the New South was dominated by the local color movement, which offered a proud, nostalgic look back at the old glories of the past while extolling the promise of the present. Its most noted proponent was George Washington Cable, whose stories and novels treated the lives of Louisiana Creoles, the descendents of European settlers in the region. Cable's first collection of tales, Old Creole Days (1879), blends the sentimental and the exotic as it recounts the declining existences of once-dignified Louisianans. More thematically ambitious and political than his stories, Cable's 1880 novel The Grandissimes confronts the problem of racial inequality and injustice in Southern society by implicitly comparing attitudes around the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 with those of his own day. Aside from Cable, other prominent local color writers included Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, Grace King, Mary Noailles Murfree, and James Lane Allen. The enormous popularity of their Southern local color fiction even spread northward, where readers were eager to enjoy the quaint customs and attitudes of Southerners now that the threat of secessionism and violence were gone. The movement took full advantage of the geographical and cultural variety of the South, from the old plantations of Virginia and coastal Carolina, to the rugged Appalachian Mountains (featured in the writings of Murfree) and the vibrant life of New Orleans (in works by Cable, King, and others). After Cable, one of the most renowned local color writers of the period was Thomas Nelson Page. Page's collection In Ole Virginia (1887) features the tale “Marse Chan,” an effective if propagandistic work that defends the aristocratic presumptions and racially ordered society of the Old South. The story's narrator, an aging ex-slave named Sam, recalls his former master, who was killed in the Civil War before he could return to marry his beloved Anne. In his writing, Page followed popular tradition by reiterating old stereotypes: loyal former slaves, Southern belles, predatory carpetbaggers, and honorable Southern gentlemen populate his collected stories and poetry. The Negro dialect songs and tales of Joel Chandler Harris were also widely popular in the 1880s and 1890s. While Harris offered a small improvement on the conventional depiction of black characters with his fictionalized narrator, the charming Uncle Remus, much of the docile “Uncle Tom” mannerisms remained. Nonetheless, Remus's humorous tales of the Brer Rabbit and his adventures in the Brer Patch delighted readers. Though Harris is chiefly remembered for his literary creations, he also devoted twenty-five years of his writing career to journalism as a member of the editorial staff of the Atlanta Constitution, frequently publishing insightful articles on race relations and the racial injustice of his time. A more restrained champion of racial progress in the New South, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, another of the local color writers, also made his debut during this time. Although his race was not revealed to the readers of The Atlantic, the magazine that published his early stories, Chesnutt was among the first black writers to receive serious recognition from critics. Appropriately, Chesnutt refused to portray Negro characters in his fiction according to the obdurate and demeaning racial stereotypes of the period. Local color additionally influenced versification in the New South, with writers such as Page and Irwin Russel making use of Negro dialect in their poetic works. Russel's popular “Christmas Night in the Quarters” (1878) is representative, critics have noted, of the tendency to sublimate white anxieties about ex-slaves by viewing them as idealized icons of lost innocence and simpler times past.

While sympathetic portrayals of the South such as those of Page, Harris, and the other local colorists were popular, the movement also contained within it the desire to express a more critical evaluation of the South, both Old and New. Kate Chopin began her career by writing local color tales featured in her collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). However, it is for her second novel, The Awakening (1899), a forthright study of a woman's sexual desire and psychological conflict within a stultifying culture, that she is generally remembered. Although this novel was given scant regard by her contemporaries, it has since been recognized by modern critics for its sustained avoidance of the gender stereotypes generally associated with fiction of this period. Another woman writer, the Virginian Ellen Glasgow, occasionally demonstrated her ability to critique the rather worn romanticism that had dominated Southern literature for decades. While at its heart a family romance, Glasgow's Civil War novel The Battle-Ground, published in 1902, aims its sights at the injustices of the war era, as perpetrated by Southerners and Northerners, whites and blacks alike. A developing consciousness of the limitations and inadequacies of women's status in Southern society also informs Glasgow's other novels of the period. In addition to Glasgow and Chopin, the New South produced unquestionably one of greatest figures in Southern fiction, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain. Twain's writing developed out of the tradition of the southwestern humorists, but his mature work offered a satirical voice—sometimes brutally so—that other literature in the New South was mostly missing. While the child-like nostalgia and melodrama of his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was in keeping with his contemporaries, the critically-acclaimed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) held up the ingrained hypocrisies of Southern society to scathing ridicule. Confronting the fictional tropes of plantation culture and deep-rooted racism against blacks, the novel follows its young narrator, Huck Finn, along the Mississippi River, detailing his efforts to help his friend Jim, an escaped slave, obtain his freedom. Outside the realm of fiction, Twain's memoirs, contained in Life on the Mississippi (1883), represent another side of his critique of the South. Accompanying his picturesque evocation of the Southern landscape in the work, Twain presents a derisive attack on the Southern state of mind, which he claims is afflicted with a critical torpor and a hazy romanticism that clings to outdated and inhibiting myths of pastoral legend and chivalric honor.

Despite demonstrating some literary innovation, many writers of the New South period continued to look back contentedly to the Old South with a view of its enduring, mythic status as a pastoral paradise. Works that captured the popular imagination especially, like Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales or Thomas Nelson Page's stories of Old Virginia, offered a glimpse of this golden age of Southern tranquility that never was. Even writers like George Washington Cable would still frequently recall this romantic dream of a glorified Dixie, now lost. While these evocations continued to capture the imaginations of readers to the end of the nineteenth century and beyond, subsequent critics have acknowledged that the New South period also represents the birth of a new, analytic attitude in Southern fiction, rarely demonstrated before. Modern commentators have also pointed to important developments in local color writing, the rise of serious women writers such as Glasgow and Chopin, and the clear significance of a major writer like Twain, but most agree that more scholarly attention is needed before a critical consensus can be reached on the transitional period after Reconstruction and prior to the high point of Southern literature in the first half of the twentieth century.