Southern Literature: in American Literary Movement

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      PLANTATION LIFE AND ITS EFFECT UPON LITERATURE.—Before the war the South was agricultural. The wealth was in the hands of scattered plantation owners, and less centered in cities than at the North. The result was a rural aristocracy of rich planters, many of them of the highest breeding and culture. A retinue of slaves attended to their work and relieved them from all manual labor. The masters took an active part in public life, traveled and entertained on a lavish scale. Their guests were usually wealthy men of the same rank, who had similar ideals and ambitions. Gracious and attractive as this life made the people, it did not bring in new thought, outside influences, or variety. Men continued to think like their fathers. The transcendental movement which aroused New England was scarcely felt as far south as Virginia. The tide of commercial activity which swept over the East and sent men to explore the West did not affect the character of life at the South. It was separated from every other section of the country by a conservative spirit, an objection to change, and a tendency toward aristocracy.

Southern Literature in American Literary Movement
Southern Literature in American

      Such conditions retarded the growth of literature. There were no novel ideas that men felt compelled to utter, as in New England. There was little town life to bring together all classes of men. Such life has always been found essential to literary production. Finally, there was inevitably connected with plantation life a serious question, which occupied men's thoughts.

      SLAVERY.—The question that absorbed the attention of the best southern intellect was slavery. In order to maintain the vast estates of the South, it was necessary to continue the institution of slavery. Many southern men had been anxious to abolish it, but, as time proceeded, they were less able to see how the step could be taken. As a Virginian statesman expressed it, they were holding a wolf by the ears, and it was as dangerous to let him go as to hold on. At the North, slavery was an abstract question of moral right or wrong, which inspired poets and novelists; at the South, slavery was a matter of expediency, even of livelihood. Instead of serving as an incentive to literary activity, the discussion of slavery led men farther away from the channels of literature into the stream of practical politics.

      POLITICAL VERSUS LITERARY AMBITIONS.—The natural ambition of the southern gentleman was political. The South was proud of its famous orators and generals in Revolutionary times and of its long line of statesmen and Presidents, who took such a prominent part in establishing and maintaining the republic. We have seen (p. 68) that Thomas Jefferson of Virginia wrote one of the most memorable political documents in the world, that James Madison, a Virginian President of the United States, aided in producing the Federalist papers, that George Washington's Farewell Address deals with such vital matters as morality almost entirely from a political point of view. Although the South produced before the Civil War a world-famous author in Edgar Allan Poe, her glorious achievements were nevertheless mainly political, and she especially desired to maintain her former reputation in the political world. The law and not literature was therefore the avenue to the southerner's ambition.

      Long before the Civil War, slavery became an unusually live subject. There was always some political move to discuss in connection with slavery; such, for instance, as the constitutional interpretation of the whole question, the necessity of balancing the admission of free and slave states to the Union, the war with Mexico, the division of the new territory secured in that conflict, the right of a state to secede from the Union. Consequently, in ante bellum days, the brilliant young men of the South had, like their famous ancestors of Revolutionary times, abundance of material for political and legal exposition, and continued to devote their attention to public questions, to law, and to oratory, instead of to pure literature. They talked while the North wrote.

      In the days before the war, literature suffered also because the wealthy classes at the South did not regard it as a dignified profession. Those who could write often published their work anonymously. Richard Henry Wilde (1789-1847), a young lawyer, wrote verses that won Byron's praise, and yet did not acknowledge them until some twenty years later. Sometimes authors tried to suppress the very work by which their names are to-day perpetuated. When a Virginian found that the writer of

 "Thou wast lovelier than the roses  In their prime;  Thy voice excelled the closes  Of sweetest rhyme;"

      Was his neighbor, Philip Pendleton Cooke (1816-1850), he said to the young poet, "I wouldn't waste time on a thing like poetry; you might make yourself, with all your sense and judgment, a useful man in settling neighborhood disputes." A newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, kept a standing offer to publish poetry for one dollar a line.

      EDUCATIONAL HANDICAPS.—Before the war there was no universal free common school system, as at present, to prepare for higher institutions. The children of rich families had private tutors, but the poor frequently went without any schooling. William Gilmore Simms (p. 306) says that he "learned little or nothing" at a public school, and that not one of his instructors could teach him arithmetic. Lack of common educational facilities decreased readers as well as writers.

      Until after the war, whatever literature was read by the cultured classes was usually English. The classical school of Dryden and Pope and the eighteenth century English essayists were especially popular. American literature was generally considered trashy or unimportant. So conservative was the South in its opinions, that individuality in literature was often considered an offense against good taste. This was precisely the attitude of the classical school in England during a large part of the eighteenth century. Until after the Civil War, therefore, the South offered few inducements to follow literature as a profession.

      THE NEW SOUTH.—After the South had passed through the terrible struggle of the Civil War, in which much of her best blood perished, there followed the tragic days of the reconstruction. These were times of readjustment, when a wholly new method of life had to be undertaken by a conservative people; when the uncertain position of the negro led to frequent trouble; when the unscrupulous politician, guided only by desire for personal gain, played on the ignorance of the poor whites and the enfranchised negroes, and almost wrecked the commonwealth. Had Lincoln lived to direct affairs after the war, much suffering might have been avoided, and the wounds of the South might have been more speedily healed.

      These days, however, finally passed, and the South began to adapt herself to the changed conditions of modern life. In these years of transition since the Civil War, a new South has been evolved. Cities are growing rapidly. Some parts of the South are developing even faster than any other sections of the country. Men are running mills as well as driving the plow. Small farms have often taken the place of the large plantation. A system of free public schools has been developed, and compulsory education for all has been demanded. Excellent higher institutions of learning have multiplied. Writers and a reading public, both with progressive ideals, have rapidly increased. In short, the South, like the East and the West, has become more democratic and industrial, less completely agricultural, and has paid more attention to the education of the masses.

      It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that the southern conservatism, which had been fostered for generations, could at once be effaced. The South still retains much of her innate love of aristocracy, loyalty to tradition, disinclination to be guided by merely practical aims, and aversion to rapid change. This condition is due partly to the fact that the original conservative English stock, which is still dominant, has been more persistent there and less modified by foreign immigration.

      CHARACTERISTICS OF SOUTHERN LITERATURE.—The one who studies the greatest authors of the South soon finds them worthy of note for certain qualities. Poe was cosmopolitan enough to appeal to foreign lands even more forcibly than to America, and yet we shall find that he has won the admiration of a great part of the world for characteristics, many of which are too essentially southern to be possessed in the same degree by authors in other sections of the country. The poets of the South have placed special emphasis on (1) melody, (2) beauty, (3) artistic workmanship. In creations embodying a combination of such qualities, Poe shows wonderful mastery. More than any other American poet, he has cast on the reader

 "… the spell which no slumber
 Of witchery may test,
 The rhythmical number
 Which lull'd him to rest."

      After reading Poe and Lanier, we feel that we can say to the South what Poe whispered to the fair Ligeia:—

 "No magic shall sever
 Thy music from thee."

      The wealth of sunshine flooding the southern plains, the luxuriance of the foliage and the flowers, and the strong contrasts of light and shade and color are often reflected in the work of southern writers. Such verse as this is characteristic:—

 "Beyond the light that would not die
 Out of the scarlet-haunted sky,
 Beyond the evening star's white eye
 Of glittering chalcedony,
 Drained out of dusk the plaintive cry
 Of 'whippoorwill!' of 'whippoorwill!'"
 [Footnote: Cawein, Red Leaves and Roses.]

      In the work of her later writers of fiction, the South has presented, often in a realistic setting of natural scenes, a romantic picture of the life distinctive of the various sections,—of the Creoles of Louisiana, of the mountaineers of Tennessee, of the blue grass region of Kentucky, of Virginia in the golden days, and of the Georgia negro, whose folk lore and philosophy are voiced by Uncle Remus.

SUMMARY

      The lack of towns, the widely separated population, the aristocratic nature of the civilization depending on slave labor, the absorption of the people in political questions, especially the question of slavery, the attitude toward literature as a profession, the poverty of public education, the extreme conservatism and isolation of the South, and, finally, the Civil War, and the period of reconstruction after it,—were all influences that served to retard the development of literature in the South.

      The greatest name in southern literature is that of Edgar Allan Poe, the literary artist, the critic, the developer of the modern short story, the writer of superlatively melodious verse. He was followed by Simms, who was among the first in the South to live by his pen. His tales of adventure are still interesting and important for the history that they embody. Timrod's spontaneity and strength appear in lyrics of war, nature, and love. Hayne, a skilled poetic artist, is at his best in lyrics of nature. Lanier's poems of nature embody high ideals in verse of unusual melody, and voice a faith in "the greatness of God," as intense as that of any Puritan poet. Lanier shared with Simms, Hayne, and Timrod the bitter misfortunes of the war. Father Ryan is affectionately remembered for his stirring war lyrics and Father Tabb for his nature poems, sacred verse, and entertaining humor. The nature poetry of Cawein abounds in the color and warmth of the South.

      In modern southern fiction there is to be found some of the most imaginative, artistic, and romantic work of the entire country in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. Rich local color renders much of this fiction attractive. Harris fascinates the ear of the young world with the Georgia negro's tales of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. The Virginia negroes live in the stories of Page. Craddock introduces the Tennessee mountaineer, and Allen, the Kentucky farmer, scholar, and gentleman, while Cable paints the refined Creole in the fascinating city of New Orleans.

      Notwithstanding the use of dialect and other realistic touches of local color, the fiction is largely romantic. The careful analysis of motives and detailed accounts of the commonplace, such as the eastern realists developed in the last part of the nineteenth century, are for the most part absent from this southern fiction.

      A strong distinguishing feature of this body of fiction is the large part played by natural scenes. Allen shows unusual skill in employing nature to heighten his effects. If the poetic and vivid scenes were removed from Cable's stories, they would lose a large part of their charm. When Miss Murfree chooses eastern Tennessee for the scene of her novels, she never permits the mountains to be forgotten. These writers are lovers of nature as well as of human beings. The romantic prose fiction as well as the poetry is invested with color and beauty.

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