Thomas Nelson Page Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Page, Thomas Nelson 1853-1922

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and poet.

Page is widely regarded as the most significant writer of the Southern plantation tradition. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Page penned nostalgic stories of a glamorous and harmonious plantation life, capturing the imagination of both Northern and Southern readers. For a war-worn nation disillusioned by the struggles of Reconstruction, Page popularized the myth of an antebellum South with vast, lush plantations, benevolent masters, happy-go-lucky blacks, beautiful belles, and gallant cavaliers. Part of the local color movement, Page faithfully recorded the minutiae of Southern life with meticulous attention to dress, local customs, setting, and speech. His sentimental stories are remarkable for their skillful use of a black narrator whose dialect, although nearly incomprehensible today, contributed to the charm and authenticity of his stories for his contemporary readers. The most important feature of his writing, however, was his reliance on the code of Southern heroism; in his most memorable and enduring collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia; or Marse Chan, and Other Stories (1887), Page created the Southern gentleman hero who exemplifies the virtues of honor, loyalty, military discipline, chivalry, patriotism, and devotion to an idealized lady. Other writers of the Southern plantation tradition, such as John Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, and John Esten Cooke, similarly employed the antebellum South and its code of heroism as a framework for literature, yet Page's oeuvre is recognized as the culmination of this tradition; the end of the gracious and noble social order is depicted by him as a loss to the entire nation. In portraying the vanished culture of the South as a lost Golden Age, his tales are, as one critic wrote, "the epitaph of a civilization."

Biographical Information

Page was born at Oakland Plantation, Hanover County, Virginia, in 1853, to John and Elizabeth Burnwell Nelson Page. The descendant of Thomas Nelson, the founder of Yorktown, Virginia; another Thomas Nelson, governor of Virginia and a signer of the Declaration of Independence; and John Page, a Revolutionary leader, Page was proud of his colonial ancestors, whom he saw as heroic figures embodying the solid virtues of aristocracy. His quiet childhood at Oakland ended with the Civil War, as Hanover County became the site of important battles; several of his stories written for children present the war through the eyes of a Southern boy. Page's father returned from the war to a ruined plantation, and his family, never prosperous, suffered poverty during the Reconstruction period. Page entered Washington College (now Washington and Lee College) in 1869 but left without graduating. He tutored the children of his cousins, and when he had earned enough money, studied law at the University of Virginia and passed the bar in 1874. Settling in Richmond, he practiced law and wrote occasionally for newspapers. His first published piece, the dialect poem "Uncle Gabe's White Folks," appeared in 1877, and between 1884 and 1886 he sold his best-known stories to the Century Magazine. In 1886 he married Anne Seddon Bruce, who provided Page with a model of proper Southern womanhood. Her death two years later stunned him and deprived him of a valuable editor as well. In 1893 he married Florence Lathrop Field and retired from law to write and lecture full time. Established in Washington, D.C., Page wrote several novels, short stories, essays on Southern issues, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908. He became active in politics, and in 1913 Woodrow Wilson appointed him ambassador to Italy, where he served for six years. Page died at Oakland in 1922.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Page was prolific, writing poetry, novels, children's stories, sketches, essays, and literary criticism, but he is best known for his short stories. In these tales, as in all that he wrote, he espoused traditional Southern values and eulogized the Southern way of life before the Civil War. In "Marse Chan," his first and most acclaimed story, a former slave, now a servant, recounts the noble deeds of his former master and recalls the glorious days of a vanished era to a Northern visitor. The device of the black narrator and the themes of Southern heroism, tragic love, and reconciliation which Page employed in his first story reappear in the later stories "Meh Lady" and "Unc' Edinburg's Drowndin'." His short stories "Unc' Edinburg's Drowndin'" and "Ole 'Stracted" are significant contributions to the development of the local color movement for their strong evocation of place and their portrayal of Southern social and political attitudes before the Civil War. In 1887, these four stories, with the addition of "No Haid Pawn" and "Polly," were collected under the title In Ole Virginia, which Theodore Gross described as "the author's lasting contribution to American literature.... [His] major themes are formulated and fully realized in this first published work." Of his later short stories, only "Two Little Confederates," "The Burial of the Guns," "Little Darby," and "The Gentleman of the Black Stock" employed with success the themes that had served him so well in his early stories. The stories collected in Under the Crust and The Land of the Spirit represent a new direction for Page, for these non-Southern stories do not glorify a vanished past; rather, they protest social injustices and reveal his scorn for modern commercialism. Lacking the charm and local color of his plantation tales, his last stories had little contemporary appeal, and they are generally ignored today.

Critical Reception

Page was fortunate to write at an auspicious time for the local color movement. Nostalgia for the romantic Old South governed literary taste; Northerners were fascinated by the plantation civilization that they had destroyed, and Southerners were eager to justify and champion their former way of life. Accordingly, Page's chivalric tales of Southern heroes set in a glorious past found immediate acclaim. With the publication of In Ole Virginia and the lecture series he subsequently undertook to promote his stories and views, Page became the literary spokesman of the South. His editors were eager to publish what he sent them, and reviewers were largely appreciative of his work, commenting favorably on his depth of feeling and warmth of characterization. But as the local color movement surrendered to literary realism by the end of the century, Page's writing fell gradually into disfavor. His late stories, in which he experimented with new themes and techniques, were submitted to unreceptive editors, and he abandoned fiction-writing entirely by 1910. Although often overlooked today, Page remains an important figure in the history of Southern literature; contemporary Southern writers have noted the impact of his work on their own. As the novelist Grace King wrote in her memoirs: "It is hard to explain in simple terms what Thomas Nelson Page meant to us in the South at that time. He was the first Southerner to appear in print as a Southerner, and his stories, short and simple, written in Negro dialect, and, I may say, Southern pronunciation, showed us with ineffable grace that although we were sore bereft, politically, we had now a chance in literature at least." In his time, Page was the most successful author of the plantation tradition, and the popular image of the Old South which he created in his best short stories endures today.