Literature of the New South Essay - Critical Essays

Literature of the New South


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.

Representative Works

James Lane Allen
Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances (short stories) 1891

George Washington Cable
Old Creole Days (short stories) 1879
The Grandissimes (novel) 1880
John March, Southerner (novel) 1895

Charles Waddell Chesnutt
“The Goophered Grapevine” (short story) 1887
The Conjure Woman (short stories) 1899
The Wife of His Youth (short stories) 1899

Kate Chopin
Bayou Folk (short stories) 1894
A Night in Acadie (short stories) 1897
The Awakening (novel) 1899

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)
The Adventures of Tom...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Criticism: Overviews

James W. Sewell (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: Sewell, James W. “A Closing Summary.” In Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies. Vol. 2, pp. 379-92. Nashville: Publishing House of the M. E. Church, 1903.

[In the following essay, Sewell assesses the work of several Southern fiction writers of the late nineteenth century.]

With the period of recuperation and readjustment which came soon after the Civil War, there began a sort of literary revival in the South. After Sidney Lanier had sung out his life amid barren and unappreciative surroundings, and Irwin Russell, almost unknown, had opened the rich vein of negro dialect and song, the world began to take notice of the possibilities of Southern...

(The entire section is 2698 words.)

Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Rubin, Louis D. Jr. “Southern Writing, 1865-1920: Introduction.” In Southern Writing, 1585-1920, edited by Richard Beale Davis, C. Hugh Holman, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 635-46. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Rubin surveys Southern literature of the post-Reconstruction period, concentrating on the local color movement, literary depictions of blacks, and the state of poetry.]

In 1873, Scribner's Monthly sent the journalist Edward King southward to prepare a series of articles for its readers, describing the people and scenes of a region which, its editors said, was “almost as little known to the Northern States of the...

(The entire section is 5497 words.)

J. V. Ridgely (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ridgely, J. V. “The New South: The Past Recaptured.” In Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature, pp. 89-111. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

[In the following essay, Ridgely presents an overview of Southern literature between 1879 and 1899, emphasizing major figures and works in the era of local color.]

The South's strong resistance during Reconstruction to a complete reordering of its way of life was less valorous than its wartime performance, but it was more successful. As the scars of occupation faded, its writers embarked upon a popular program of sectional justification that would have astonished the editors of scores of dead little...

(The entire section is 9976 words.)

Thomas Richardson (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Richardson, Thomas. “Local Color in Louisiana.” In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 199-208. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Richardson describes the work of the major local color writers of the New South.]

When the journalist Edward King visited New Orleans in early 1873 as representative of “The Great South” series for Scribner's, he discovered more for his Northern audience than he or his editors, J. G. Holland and R. W. Gilder, could have expected. “Louisiana to-day is Paradise Lost,” he wrote. “In twenty years it may be Paradise Regained. … It is the...

(The entire section is 4314 words.)

Richard Gray (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Gray, Richard. “The New South, the Lost Cause, and the Recovered Dream.” In Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region, pp. 75-121. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Gray concentrates on developments in the literature of the New South from the romance and nostalgia of early writers, to the cultural expressions of Sidney Lanier's poetry and the autobiographical satire of Mark Twain.]


If there was one thing most travellers in the South were agreed on just after the Civil War, it was that the old economic and political system of the region had...

(The entire section is 14749 words.)

Kenneth Wayne Howell (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Howell, Kenneth Wayne. “Dixie Historiography Unchained: Old South, New South, or No South?” Southern Studies 7, no. 4 (1996): 21-52.

[In the following excerpt, Howell summarizes modern historical assessments of the New South, focusing on such themes as Southern distinctiveness, identity, industrialization, economics, populism, and race relations.]

The history of the New South is a diverse and ever growing field of study that continues to capture the attention of scholars and laymen alike.1 Historians have labored diligently to explain why the South seems to be distinctively different from the rest of the United States. In their efforts to...

(The entire section is 4872 words.)

Criticism: The Novel In The New South

Lewis P. Simpson (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Simpson, Lewis P. “Mark Twain: The Pathos of Regeneration.” In The Man of Letters in New England and the South: Essays on the History of the Literary Vocation in America, pp. 150-66. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Simpson comments on the contemporary, politicized interpretation of Mark Twain as the novelist of a regenerate America.]

“What are the Great United States for, sir,” pursued the General, “if not for the regeneration of man? But it is nat'ral in you to make such an enquerry, for you come from England and you do not know my country.”


(The entire section is 5494 words.)

Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Rubin, Louis D. “Politics and the Novel: George W. Cable and the Genteel Tradition.” In William Elliott Shoots a Bear: Essays on the Southern Literary Imagination, pp. 61-81. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Rubin examines George Washington Cable's novel John March, Southerner as it illustrates the limitations of the genteel, local color tradition that dominated Southern fiction in the last decades of the nineteenth century.]

My subject is the rather broad and, happily, permissive one of the various ways in which works of literature can be affected by, and also can affect, the politics of a time and a...

(The entire section is 6823 words.)

Michael Kreyling (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Kreyling, Michael. “After the War: Romance and the Reconstruction of Southern Literature.” In Southern Literature in Transition: Heritage and Promise, edited by Philip Castille and William Osborne, pp. 111-25. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Kreyling appraises the literary tastes of the New South in relation to three novelists: Lafcadio Hearn, Grace King, and George Washington Cable.]

The southern writer in the closing decades of the nineteenth century faced pressures at once more powerful, enticing, and subtle than had ever faced him in, for example, the furious years of the sectionalist crisis of the 1850s....

(The entire section is 5697 words.)

Miriam J. Shillingsburg (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Shillingsburg, Miriam J. “The Ascent of Woman, Southern Style: Hentz, King, Chopin.” In Southern Literature in Transition: Heritage and Promise, edited by Philip Castille and William Osborne, pp. 127-40. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Shillingsburg studies representative works by Caroline Hentz, Grace King, and Kate Chopin as they reflect women's changing views in the late nineteenth-century American South.]

When one considers the “role of woman” in nineteenth-century America, various stereotypes come to mind: the bustling New England matron, the political activist, and the plantation belle on a pedestal, to name...

(The entire section is 5181 words.)

Robert O. Stephens (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Stephens, Robert O. “Genealogy of a Southern Family Saga.” In The Family Saga in the South: Generations and Destinies, pp. 14-39. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Stephens probes the literary precursors of George Washington Cable's novel The Grandissimes and discusses the work as the first fully-realized family saga in Southern literature.]

When George Washington Cable produced the first authentic southern family saga in 1879, his book had a long literary lineage. As a family saga, The Grandissimes had early forebears such as the English country-house poems and country-house sketches, as well as...

(The entire section is 10848 words.)

Richard Gray (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Gray, Richard. “‘To Escape from the Provincial’: Ellen Glasgow, the Matter of Virginia, and the Story of the South.” In Southern Aberrations: Writers of the American South and the Problems of Regionalism, pp. 36-95. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Gray addresses historical and biographical elements at work in the early fiction of Ellen Glasgow.]

Ellen Glasgow was reluctant to think of herself as a Southern writer. She wanted, she declared, “to escape … from the provincial to the universal;” and her subject was human nature in the South, not the Southern nature. Like Poe, however, she was happy to...

(The entire section is 10236 words.)

Criticism: The Myth Of The Old South In The New

Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: MacKethan, Lucinda Hardwick. “The South as Arcady: Beginnings of a Mode.” In The Dream of Arcady: Place and Time in Southern Literature, pp. 1-17. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

[In the following introduction to her book-length study, MacKethan details the post-Reconstruction literary vision of the Old South as a pastoral paradise.]

In 1863 a fifteen-year-old printer's apprentice, living on a quiet plantation in Georgia, published a brief essay on the charms of rural life in his employer's journal, The Countryman. The boy was Joel Chandler Harris; the theme of his rather light descriptive piece was one to which he would return...

(The entire section is 6778 words.)

Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: MacKethan, Lucinda Hardwick. “Plantation Fiction, 1865-1900.” In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 209-18. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, MacKethan explores the rhetorical and structural techniques used by writers of the New South in their representation of old plantation myths.]

The literary phenomenon of the Old South, centered in the image of plantation culture, was the creation of writers pursuing careers in a very different South, dubbed “new” in economic, social, and political as well as literary structures. Thomas Nelson Page, the most durable of the post-Civil...

(The entire section is 4383 words.)

Lee Glazer and Susan Key (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Glazer, Lee and Susan Key. “Carry Me Back: Nostalgia for the Old South in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture.” Journal of American Studies 30, no. 1 (April 1996): 1-24.

[In the following essay, Glazer and Key analyze popular depictions of the Old South plantation pastoral in the late nineteenth century.]

In simple truth and beyond question there was in our Virginia country life a beauty, a simplicity, a purity and uprightness, a cordial and lavish hospitality, warmth and grace which shined in the lens of memory with a charm that passes all language at my command.

George W. Bagby, “The Old Virginia...

(The entire section is 7339 words.)

Caroline Gebhard (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Gebhard, Caroline. “Reconstructing Southern Manhood: Race, Sentimentality, and Camp in the Plantation Myth.” In Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, edited by Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson, pp. 132-55. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

[In the following essay, Gebhard enumerates culturally subversive qualities in otherwise sentimental representations of white Southern gentlemen in the literature of the New South.]

[Colonel Grangerford] was a gentleman all over. … His hands was long and thin, and every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so...

(The entire section is 9728 words.)

Further Reading


Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “The Literature of the New South.” In Fifteen American Authors Before 1900: Bibliographic Essays on Research and Criticism, edited by Robert A. Rees and Earl N. Harbert, pp. 401-12. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.

Bibliographic record of scholarship treating Southern literature in the period 1865 to 1900.


Arbery, Glenn Cannon. “Victims of Likeness: Quadroons and Octoroons in Southern Fiction.” The Southern Review 25, no. 1 (January 1989): 52-71.

Mentions George Washington Cable's story concerning miscegenation, “Madame...

(The entire section is 390 words.)