Southern Literature of the Reconstruction Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.