Southern Literature of the Reconstruction Essay - Critical Essays

Southern Literature of the Reconstruction


Southern Literature of the Reconstruction

Identified with the government policy of Reconstruction in the post-Civil War American South, the period of roughly fifteen years between war's end and the rise of local color writing in the late 1870s is considered one of the low points in the history of Southern literature. Throughout this period, the United States continued to be deeply divided on fundamental issues. The cultural values and economic underpinnings of the largely agricultural and slavery-dependent South had been devastated, and Southern literature at this time is marked by only scattered attempts to come to terms with this loss. Rather than face arduous realities, many Reconstruction-era writers instead desired to look back on the past glories of the South, to celebrate its mythic status as a pastoral paradise, or to elaborate a theme of noble defeat in a romantic Lost Cause. Despite a few notable exceptions, critics have generally observed the lack of first-rate Southern writers at this time, and overall much of the Southern literature of this period has been characterized as didactic, defensive, polemical, nostalgic, and propagandistic. However, the postwar era also witnessed some important new developments in Southern writing. Whereas the professional man and woman of letters were virtually nonexistent in the Old South, postwar authorship began to connote an elevated, even honorable status in an honor-bound culture. The period also saw the ascent of one of the South's finest poets, Sidney Lanier, as well as the birth of local color fiction, which was to reinvigorate Southern letters in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

Following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces to the Union army at Appomattox in 1865 and the consequent end of the American Civil War, the defeated South entered a transitional phase in its history. Even before the war had ended, President Abraham Lincoln had unveiled a plan to begin the reconciliation of the nation's embattled regions and to expeditiously restore those states willing to renounce slavery to the Union. Lincoln's assassination in April of 1865 prevented his proposed Reconstruction plans from being implemented, although Congress eventually imposed a similar plan. The ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865 abolished slavery throughout the nation, and the congressional system allowed for the defeated Confederate states to reenter the Union once new state constitutions, which recognized the citizenship and rights of newly freed black slaves, had been drafted and approved. Likewise, before reunification, these states also had to ratify the fourteenth amendment, which granted suffrage to adult black males and barred former Southern political leaders from participating in state governments. Though the actualities of black political representation in the Reconstruction era were limited, they did signify a marked improvement. Increased violence and terror by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, however, prevented, more than nominal gains. Political Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, and blacks quickly lost even the limited reforms they had briefly enjoyed in the previous decade. Meanwhile, unsupported Northern politicians (derisively called ‘carpetbaggers’) were expelled, and white Southerners returned to political power.

The consequences of the War Between the States, as it is frequently called in the South, proved to be supreme in the fiction of the Reconstruction era. A well-known writer of the antebellum period, John Esten Cooke, reinvigorated his career following his service as a Confederate soldier. He capitalized on the conflict and his personal contact with such luminous military figures as J. E. B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson in a series of romantic war novels, including Surry of Eagle's-Nest; or, the Memoirs of a Staff Officer Serving in Virginia (1866) and Mohun; or, the Last Days of Lee and his Paladins (1869). Like Cooke, few writers of fiction opted to look closely at the current problems of the Reconstruction South. When they did, the result was typically a defensive response to the Confederate defeat and the South's subsequent dominance by Northern interests. Instead, most writers chose to focus on romantic, sentimental, or nostalgic themes. Writers of domestic fiction, likewise, continued in this vein. The writings of best-selling author Augusta Jane Evans are representative of a Southern appetite for melodrama and sentimentality. The domestic novelist E. D. E. N. Southworth introduced a small but noticeable thread of proto-feminism in her fiction, though she generally produced a financially successful amalgamation of adventure and sentimentality in such works as her Civil War novel, Britomarte, the Man-Hater (1868-69). Another female author, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, published a popular novel, The Gates Ajar (1868), which explored the spiritual impact of the war on the defeated South.

The Civil War prompted poetic outpourings as well as fictional ones. The noted antebellum novelist and poet William Gilmore Simms collected this verse, much of it celebratory, in his anthology War Poetry of the South (1867). Critics have observed, however, that such patriotic effusions failed to resound, especially in view of the South's defeat. Some poets, however, struck a more elegiac tone, as did Father Abram Joseph Ryan, whose hymn “The Conquered Banner” (1878) echoes the important new theme of the Confederate Lost Cause. Hailed as the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,” Henry Timrod belongs principally to the Civil War period. Before the war, Timrod had produced a little-regarded volume of romantic verse and had discussed the woeful position of the Southern writer in his 1859 essay “Literature in the South,” in which he lamented the state he shared with his fellow authors: unread by Southerners if he published in the South and denounced if he sought publication in the North. As the war approached, however, Timrod's tone changed significantly. His poem “Ethnogenesis” (1861) enthusiastically heralds the birth of the Confederate nation. Paul Hamilton Hayne, a friend and former classmate of Timrod's in Charleston, also wrote poetry in celebration of the Confederacy. After Timrod’s death in 1867, Hayne filled his place in the minds of many Southerners as their representative poet. Yet, by far the leading figure in Southern poetry during this period was Sidney Lanier. A former Confederate soldier and passionate devotee of the South and secessionism, Lanier began his career by publishing an allegorical novel in 1867, but subsequently concentrated his literary efforts on poetry. His 1875 piece “Corn” is an impassioned call to Southern farmers to expand from a sole reliance on cotton, while many of his works of Georgia dialect verse express a vision of a new South transformed by hard work. “The Marshes of Glynn” (1879), among Lanier's most admired works, demonstrates his combined belief in the essential musical rhythms of poetry (later explored in his 1880 essay on prosody, The Science of English Verse) and in the transcendent qualities of nature. Much of the remaining poetry composed during this era was generally substandard in quality, and critics have acknowledged that even the work of Timrod and Lanier frequently failed to stir the readers of the Reconstruction South, let alone audiences outside this region.

Noting the general lack of literary innovation during Reconstruction, a number of critics have turned to cultural assessments of the era, with scholars struggling to reach a consensus or to elucidate a central theme in Southern literature. Some have observed that the theme of the Lost Cause became a central component of Southern writing at this moment in history, with poets and novelists attempting to expiate the collective guilt of the defeated South by creating a myth of the long-suffering region as a source of future redemption. Others have focused on the theme of historical continuity in the South, pointing to stabilizing trends in the ideological assumptions of the region. Indicative of the hardline, conservative, and unrepentant quality of some Southern writers, William Tappan Thompson—who had achieved fame before the war with his humorous sketches of Georgia life—voiced the view of adamantly rebellious Southerners. As editor of the Savannah Morning News, Thompson was relentless in his criticism of the North, ambivalent toward the Ku Klux Klan, and scoffed at the social and political restructuring of the Old South during Radical Reconstruction. Critics have since recognized that the position represented by Thompson and like-minded conservatives in the South insured that Northern-directed political and social reforms would be overturned by the end of the 1870s, if not as points of law, then as tacit realities.

Representative Works

John Esten Cooke
Surry of Eagle's-Nest; or, the Memoirs of a Staff Officer Serving in Virginia (novel) 1866
Mohun; or, the Last Days of Lee and his Paladins (novel) 1869

John W. De Forest
Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (novel) 1867

Augusta Jane Evans
St. Elmo (novel) 1867

George Washington Harris
Sut Lovinggood's Yarns (tales and sketches) 1867

Paul Hamilton Hayne
Legends and Lyrics (poetry) 1872
The Mountain of the Lovers: With Poems of Nature and Tradition (poetry) 1875
Poems (poetry) 1882

Sidney Lanier
Tiger-Lilies (novel) 1867
“Corn” (poetry) 1875
“The Marshes of Glynn” (poetry) 1879
The Science of English Verse (poetic theory) 1880

S. Weir Mitchell
“The Case of George Dedlow” (short story) 1866

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
The Gates Ajar (novel) 1868

Father Abram Joseph Ryan
“The Conquered Banner” (hymn) 1878

William Gilmore Simms
War Poetry of the South [editor] (poetry) 1867

Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth
Britomarte, the Man-Hater. 2 vols. (novel) 1868-69

Maurice Thompson
A Tallahassee Girl (novel) 1878

Henry Timrod
The Poems of Henry Timrod (poetry) 1873

Criticism: Overview

SOURCE: Cash, W. J. “Of the Frontier the Yankee Made.” In The Mind of the South, pp. 141-44. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941.

[In the following excerpt, Cash recounts the birth of a new literature in the Reconstruction South.]

There is one curious and apparently paradoxical fact here which must be considered … I mean the fact that it was in [the post-Civil War] period that the South began at last to have a literature—or at least that it began to have a number of people who devoted themselves to the writing and publishing of novels, stories and sketches, and poetry.

But the actual amount of paradox involved is very small. Set Sidney Lanier to...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Criticism: Reconstruction Literature: The Consequences Of War

J. V. Ridgely (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ridgely, J. V. “The Confederacy and the Martyred South.” In Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature, pp. 77-88. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

[In the following essay, Ridgely studies the literature of a culturally-isolated South during the Reconstruction era.]

Hath not the morning dawned with added light?
And shall not evening call another star
Out of the infinite regions of the night,
To mark this day in Heaven? At last, we are
A nation among nations; and the world
Shall soon behold in many a distant port
                    Another flag unfurled!

The lines are from “Ethnogenesis,” by Henry Timrod, the Charleston poet...

(The entire section is 4661 words.)

John M. Grammer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Grammer, John M. “Conclusion: After the Lost War.” In Pastoral and Politics in the Old South, pp. 159-67. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Grammer examines the myth of the pastoral South as it is represented in the literature of the Civil War period and after.]

In June, 1862, as northern troops menaced Richmond, the Confederate cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart led his command on their famous four-day “reconnaissance in force” all the way around George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac. The ride was instantly transformed into legend (as Stuart no doubt hoped it would be), but the most memorable thing about...

(The entire section is 2949 words.)

Lisa A. Long (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Long, Lisa A. “‘The Corporeity of Heaven’: Rehabilitating the Civil War Body in The Gates Ajar.American Literature 69, no. 4 (December 1997): 781-811.

[In the following essay, Long contends that Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's 1868 novel The Gates Ajar offers an early symbolic analysis of “the inadequacy of traditional belief systems” in the post-Civil War era.]

In July 1866 a remarkable short story appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.1 The anonymous author, young Army surgeon S. Weir Mitchell, would later attain fame—and infamy—as the inventor and implementor of the “Rest Cure” for turn-of-the-century neurasthenics....

(The entire section is 12318 words.)

Edward L. Ayers and Bradley C. Mittendorf (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Ayers, Edward L., and Bradley C. Mittendorf. “The Civil War and Its Consequences.” In The Oxford Book of the American South: Testimony, Memory, and Fiction, edited by Edward L. Ayers and Bradley C. Mittendorf, pp. 111-12. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Ayers and Mittendorf consider the effects of the Civil War on the lives of Southerners and the literature of the American South.]

The Civil War was the most important event in the history of the South. Free or slave, black or white, male or female, rich or poor, the war changed the landscape of people's lives. From the moment it began, the war unleashed changes few could...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Karen Tracey (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Tracey, Karen. “Britomarte, the Man-Hater: Courtship during the Civil War.” In Plots and Proposals: American Women's Fiction, 1850-90, pp. 132-47. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Tracey explicates E. D. E. N. Southworth's novel Britomarte, the Man-Hater as it portrays social and ideological disruptions in gender roles caused by the Civil War.]

E. D. E. N. Southworth's post-Civil War serial Britomarte, the Man-Hater, published in two volumes as Fair Play; or, The Test of the Lone Isle (1868) and How He Won Her (1869), includes the typical features of Southworth's best-selling novels:...

(The entire section is 7364 words.)

Criticism: Old South To New: Continuities In Southern Culture

Clement Eaton (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Eaton, Clement. “What Happened to Culture in the Confederacy.” In The Waning of the Old South Civilization, 1860-1880's, pp. 79-109. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Eaton evaluates the impact of the Civil War on Southern culture.]

The founding of the Southern Confederacy, young Sidney Lanier predicted, would inaugurate a new and glorious era of culture in the Southern states. Having freed themselves from the galling bondage of the old Union, the Southern states would experience a rejuvenation, a sudden burst of prosperity and culture. Macon, Georgia, his birthplace, would become an art center, its streets lined with...

(The entire section is 11074 words.)

Rayburn S. Moore (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Moore, Rayburn S. “The Old South and the New: Paul Hamilton Hayne and Maurice Thompson.” Southern Literary Journal 5, no. 1 (fall 1972): 108-22.

[In the following essay, Moore chronicles the correspondence of poet Paul Hamilton Hayne with author and critic James Maurice Thompson, particularly as their writing touches upon the theme of postwar reconciliation between North and South.]

Paul Hamilton Hayne belonged to a prominent Carolina family, several members of which had made important contributions to the history of the state. One of these, Robert Y. Hayne, governor, senator, and proponent of Nullification, was Paul Hayne's uncle and guardian after the...

(The entire section is 5427 words.)

Arlin Turner (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Turner, Arlin. “Dim Pages in Literary History: The South Since the Civil War.” In Southern Literary Study: Problems and Possibilities, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and C. Hugh Holman, pp. 36-47. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Turner comments on the diversity of the American South, and on the need for further study of lesser Southern authors of the post-Civil War period.]

It would be possible, I suppose, to speak of the American South and mean only a portion of the globe bounded by such and such coordinates of longitude and latitude. I sometimes say to a class or seminar in southern literature that the...

(The entire section is 4213 words.)

Carl R. Osthaus (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Osthaus, Carl R. “From the Old South to the New South: The Editorial Career of William Tappan Thompson of the Savannah Morning News.The Southern Quarterly 14, no. 3 (April 1976): 237-60.

[In the following essay, Osthaus documents the career of William Tappan Thompson, an influential writer and Savannah journalist who voiced the opinions of conservative, white supremacist, and non-appeasement Southerners throughout the Reconstruction era.]

In 1882 newspapers all over the South reported the death of Colonel William Tappan Thompson, editor of the Savannah Morning News for almost thirty-two years. The New York Times, one of the few...

(The entire section is 9591 words.)

Michael O'Brien (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: O’Brien, Michael. “Modernization and the Nineteenth-Century South.” In Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History, pp. 112-28. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, O'Brien surveys historical treatments of the South from the prewar decades to Reconstruction, emphasizing the theme of historical continuity.]

Students of the South have not infrequently arrived late to historical theory about to go, or just gone, into disrepute. Modernization theory is no exception. Southern historians have begun to flirt with it just when it has come to seem little more than the natural successor...

(The entire section is 7861 words.)

Thomas B. Alexander (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Alexander, Thomas B. “The Dimensions of Continuity Across the Civil War.” In The Old South in the Crucible of War, edited by Harry P. Owens and James J. Cooke, pp. 81-97. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Alexander discusses political continuity and historical change that occurred over the Civil War period.]

… It does not take one long to discover that not only is consensus lacking about the essence of Southernism but that one line of argument denies the existence of anything uniquely Southern and concedes only that Southern traits were exceptional, if at all, in being slight exaggerations of American traits. As...

(The entire section is 5824 words.)

Further Reading


Bain, Robert and Joseph M. Flora, editors. Fifty Southern Writers Before 1900: A BioBibliographical Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, 601 p.

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


Ellis, Michael. “Literary Dialect as Linguistic Evidence: Subject-Verb Concord in Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature.” American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage 69, no. 2 (summer 1994): 128-44.

Linguistic analysis of nonstandard subject-verb agreement in the dialect works of such antebellum fiction writers as William...

(The entire section is 170 words.)