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Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature

Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature

J. V. Ridgely
Copyright Date: 1980
Pages: 144
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hpg1
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  • Book Info
    Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature
    Book Description:

    Few inhabitants of the South in 1800 thought of it as a "region" or of themselves as "southerners." In time, the need to defend the entire southern way of life became obsessive for many writers, too often precluding efforts at originality in form or style. Especially after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, southern identity and southern nationalism emerged as the grand themes, and literature became subservient to regional interests. The devastation of the Civil War and the collapse of the Confederacy, instead of pointing southern writers in new directions, only intensified their preoccupation with a now-dead past.

    The popular genres of the time -- historical romance and "local color" writing -- became tools to voice this preoccupation and have been important influences on America's view of the South and on American literature in general. The myth of the idyllic plantation South has had an extraordinary pervasiveness in the American consciousness. J.V. Ridgely speculates on the ways in which this tarnished but durable myth helped to produce the powerful Southern Renascence of the twentieth century in this concise survey of the literature of America's most distinctive region during a crucial formative period.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6433-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Editor’s Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    Charles P. Roland
  4. PROLOG The Southron
    (pp. 1-2)

    “Oh, who am I?” The words open Robert Penn Warren’s novelBand of Angels,the tale of a southern belle who learns that she is part black, is sold into bondage, and at last achieves a selfhood out of the inherited division of her being. The theme of the quest for one’s true identity is, of course, universal; self-definition is a primary need. But in American literature the problem has had a peculiar resonance. For the first English settler on the coastline was a man who was as yet without a country. Severed from close ties with a homeland, bereft...

  5. ONE The New World and the Southern Garden
    (pp. 3-16)

    There was no “America”—only a few stabs into a long and largely unmapped seacoast—when English explorers began to report on the prospects of settlement in the more southerly regions. It was inevitable that much of this early writing would be promotional literature, calculated bait to lure more adventurers to a newfound land which was still as much legend as fact. The motives behind the drive to colonize an area whose extent could only be guessed at were complex, and it would be risky to judge what drove any individual to make the arduous and frequently costly attempt. English...

  6. TWO The Growth of Southern Separatism
    (pp. 17-31)

    The pressures culminating in the assertion of nationhood, the dynamics of a separatist outlook, can never be fully comprehended. Individual beliefs—the unit ideas which fuse into a complex whole—may be tabulated; the why of their being is less easy to determine. What happened in the South between the creation of the United States and the formation of the Confederacy is one of the great dramas of the habitation of the North American continent. But who wrote the script? How were the actors assembled and how did they realize their roles? One overwhelming fact confronts us: southerners had been...

  7. THREE The Southern Romance: The Matter of Virginia
    (pp. 32-49)

    Readers of magazines like theMessengerwere often treated to nostalgic glimpses of olden times; the sight of the ruined church tower at Jamestown was good for any number of columns of sentimental posturing, and the fate of the red man, now that he was no longer any real peril, was a natural theme for weepy elegiac verse. But the full-scale revivification of southern history was the province of the writers of long romances, and they quickly developed a gratifying thesis: a noble past prefigured a glorious future. William Gilmore Simms would make a hyperbolic claim for the genre in...

  8. FOUR The Southern Way of Life: The 1830s and ’40s
    (pp. 50-61)

    William Gilmore Simms was the South’s one–man literary movement. Born in Charleston in 1806, he was for several decades his region’s most powerful and prolific representative in national letters; he alone, in a culture which accorded low social status to the litterateur, aspired to make himself a true professional. Though he was quite popular in both North and South, he never gained the financial independence of an Irving or a Cooper; at his death in 1870 he was a broken, bankrupt, and defeated old man. In 1865 stragglers from Sherman’s army had burned his plantation, with his extensive library...

  9. FIVE On the Eve of War: The Crucial Decade
    (pp. 62-76)

    The demand for the preservation of southern institutions was the dominant theme in regional oratory and literature during the last decade before the Civil War. Voices grew edgier, more defiant; to the North’s boast of industrial might, the chant came back: “Cotton is King.” Deeds, too, were more daring; attempts were made to take over Cuba and other Latin territories, in the hope of extending a slave empire. In the political arena the goal of a permanent accommodation between the two sections crumbled. It took but a decade to move from the Compromise of 1850, in which the North accepted...

  10. SIX The Confederacy and the Martyred South
    (pp. 77-88)

    The lines are from “Ethnogenesis,” by Henry Timrod, the Charleston poet who set them down as the first Confederate Congress met in Montgomery in February 1861. The mood was exultant as the realization swept over the South: “A nation among nations.” As the geologist Joseph Le Conte later recalled in hisAutobiography,he had at first opposed the secession movement and dreaded the inevitable conflict; but, he added, “gradually a change came about—how, who can say? It was in the atmosphere; we breathed it in the air; it reverberated from heart to heart; it was like a spiritual contagion...

  11. SEVEN The New South: The Past Recaptured
    (pp. 89-111)

    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 southern journals. For northern editors were now not merely tolerating writing from the South; they were demanding it. And they not only sought it; they bought it. This episode in American literature is usually called the emergence of the “local color” school. Not only the South...

  12. EPILOG The Legacy
    (pp. 112-118)

    What had “the South” meant? What were the portents for its future? As the nineteenth century ebbed away, the problem of maintaining a regional identity engaged a number of commentators who were now taking retrospective sweeps across the preceding decades. The question of continued support of “Southern literature” in particular taxed the pens of those who had recently founded what have proved to be two of the most distinguished and long-lasting of southern periodicals, theSewanee Reviewand theSouth Atlantic Quarterly.The latter editorially took a fairly pragmatic line, repeating arguments that Poe and Simms would have found familiar:...

  13. Bibliographical Note
    (pp. 119-124)
  14. Index
    (pp. 125-128)