Literature in the South
by Henry Timrod
We do not think that we are exaggerating the embarrassments which surround the Southern writer. It cannot be denied that on the surface of newspaper and magazine literature there have lately appeared signs that his claims to respect are beginning to be acknowledged. But, in spite of this, we must continue to believe, that among a large majority of Southern readers who devour English books with avidity, there still exists a prejudice— conscious or unconscious—against the works of those authors who have grown up among themselves. This prejudice is strongest, indeed, with a class of persons whose opinions do not find expression in the public prints; but it is on that account more harmful in its evil and insidious influence. As an instance, we may mention that it is not once, but a hundred times, that we have heard the works of the first of Southern authors alluded to with contempt by individuals who had never read anything beyond the title-pages of his books. Of this prejudice there is an easy, though not a very flattering, explanation.
The truth is, it must be confessed, that though an educated, we are a provincial, and not a highly cultivated people. At least, there is among us a very general want of a high critical culture. The principles of that criticism, the basis of which is a profound psychology, are almost utterly ignored. There are scholars of pretension among us, with whom Blair’s Rhetoric is still an unquestionable authority. There are schools and colleges in which it is used as a textbook. With the vast advance that has been made in critical science since the time of Blair few seem to be intimately acquainted. The opinions and theories of the last century are still held in reverence. Here Pope is still regarded by many as the most correct of English poets, and here, Kaimes, after having been everywhere else removed to the top shelves of libraries, is still thumbed by learned professors and declamatory sophomores. Here literature is still regarded as an epicurean amusement; not as a study, at least equal in importance, and certainly not inferior in difficulty, to law and medicine. Here no one is surprised when some fossil theory of criticism, long buried under the ruins of an exploded school, is dug up, and discussed with infinite gravity by gentlemen who know Pope and Horace by heart, but who have never read a word of Wordsworth or Tennyson, or who have read them with suspicion, and rejected them with superciliousness.
In such a state of critical science, it is no wonder that we are prudently cautious in passing a favorable judgment upon any new candidates for our admiration. It is no wonder that while we accept without a cavil books of English and Northern reputation, we yet hesitate to acknowledge our own writers, until, perhaps, having been commended by English or Northern critics, they present themselves to us with a “certain alienated majesty.” There is another class of critics among us— if critics they can be called— which we must not pass over. This class seem disposed to look upon literature as they look upon a Bavarian sour-krout, a Strasbourg pate, or a New Zealand cutlet of “cold clergyman.” It is a mere matter of taste. Each one feels himself at liberty to exalt the author— without reference to his real position in the world of letters, as settled by a competent tribunal— whose works afford him the most amusement. From such a principle, of course, the most fantastic and discordant opinions result. One regards that fanciful story, the Culprit Fay of Drake, as the greatest of American poems; and another is indignant if Tennyson be mentioned in the same breath with Longfellow. Now, it is good to be independent; but it is not good to be too independent. Some respect is certainly due to the authority of those who, by a careful and loving study of literature, have won the right to speak ex cathedra. Nor is that independence, but license, which is not founded upon a wide and deep knowledge of critical science, and upon a careful and respectful collation of our own conclusions, with the impartial philosophical conclusions of others.
In the course of these remarks, we have alluded to three classes of critics, the bigot, the slave, and we cannot better characterize the third, than as the autocratic. There is yet a fourth, which feels, or professes to feel, a warm interest in Southern literature, and which so far is entitled to our respect. But, unfortunately, the critical principles of this class are quite as shallow as those of any of the others; and we notice it chiefly to expose the absurdity of one of its favorite opinions, adopted from a theory which some years ago arose at the North, and which bore the name of Americanism in literature. After the lapse of a period commensurate with the distance it had to travel, it reached the remote South, where it became, with an intensity of absurdity which is admirable indeed, Southernism in literature. Now, if the theory had gone to the depth of that which constitutes true nationality, we should have no objections to urge against it. But to the understandings of these superficial critics, it meant nothing more than that an author should confine himself in the choice of his subjects to the scenery, the history, and the traditions of his own country. To be an American novelist, it was sufficient that a writer should select a story, in which one half the characters should be backwoodsmen, who talked bad Saxon, and the other half should be savages, who talked Choctaw translated into very bombastic English. To be an American poet, it was sufficient either in a style and measure imitated from Pope and Goldsmith, or in the more modern style and measure of Scott and Words- worth, to describe the vast prairies of the West, the swamps and pine forests of the South, or the great lakes and broad rivers of the North. It signified nothing to these critics whether the tone, the spirit, or the style were caught from European writers or not. If a poet, in genuine Scott, or genuine Byron, compared his hero to a cougar or grisly bear— patriotically ignoring the Asiatic tiger or the African lion— the exclamation of the critic was, “How intensely American!”
We submit that this is a false and narrow criterion, by which to judge of the true nationality of the author. Not in the subject, except to a partial extent, but in the management of the subject, in the tone and bearings of the thought, in the drapery, the coloring, and those thousand nameless touches, which are to be felt rather than expressed, are the characteristics of a writer to be sought. It is in these particulars that an author of original genius— no matter what what his subject— will manifest his nationality. In fact, true originality will be always found identical with true nationality. A painter who should paint an American landscape exactly in the style of Salvator or of Claude, ought scarcely to be entitled an American painter. A poet who should write a hymn to Niagara in the blank verse of the Ulysses or the Princess, ought not to be entitled an American poet. In a word, he alone, who, in a style evolved from his own individual nature, speaks the thoughts and feelings of his own deep heart, can be a truly national genius. In the works of such a man, the character which speaks behind and through him— as character does not always speak in the case of men of mere talent, who in some respects are usually more or less under the sway of more commanding minds— will furnish the best and highest types of the intellectual character of his countrymen, and will illustrate most correctly, as well as most subtly— perhaps most correctly because most subtly— the nature of the influences around him. In the poetry of such a man, if he be a poet, whether its scenes be laid in his native country or the land of faery, the pines of his own forests shall be heard to murmur, the music of his own rivers shall swell the diapason, the flowers of his own soil shall bud and bursty though touched perhaps with a more ethereal and lasting grace; and with a brighter and more spiritual lustre, or with a darker and holier beauty, it will be his own skies that look down upon the loveliest landscapes of his creation.
We regard the theory of Southernism in literature as a circumscription, both unnecessary and unreasonable, of the privileges of genius. Shakespeare was not less an Englishman when he wrote Antony and Cleopatra, than when he dramatized the history of the kings of England. Sir Walter was not less a Scotchman when he drew the characters of Louis XL and Charles the Bold, than when he conceived the characters of Edie Ochiltree and Balfour of Burley. We do not suppose that until this theory germinated in the brain of its foolish originator, it ever occurred to an author that in his selection of subjects, he was to be bounded by certain geographical limits. And if in addition to the many difficulties which he has to overcome, the Southern author be expected, under the penalty of being pronounced un-Southern in tone, and unpatriotic in spirit, never to pass the Potomac on one side, or the Gulf on the other, we shall despair of ever seeing within our borders a literature of such depth and comprehensiveness as will ensure it the respect of other countries, or permanence in the remembrance of posterity. No! the domain of genius is as wide as the world, and as ancient as creation. Wherever the angel of its inspiration may lead, it has the right to follow— and whether exhibited by the light of tropic suns, or of the Arctic morning, whether embodied in the persons of ancient heroes, or of modem thinkers, the eternal verities which it aims to inculcate shall find in every situation, and under every guise, their suitable place, and their proper incarnation.
We should not like to convey the impression that we undervalue the materials for prose and poetry, which may be found in Southern scenery, Southern society, or Southern history. We are simply protesting against a narrow creed, by means of which much injustice may be done to a writer, who, though not less Southern in feeling than another who displays his Southernism on the surface of his books, yet insists upon the right to clothe according to the dictates of his own taste, and locate according to the dictates of his own thoughtful judgment, the creatures of his imagination. At the same time we are not blind to the spacious field which is opened to the Southern author within his own immediate country. The vast aboriginal forests which so weightily oppress us with a sense of antiquity, the mountains, tree- clad to the summit, enclosing unexplored Elysiums, the broad belt of lowland along the ocean, with its peculiar vegetation, the live-oak, stateliest of that stately family, hung with graceful tillandsia, the historical palmetto, and the rank magnificence of swamp and thicket, the blue aureole of the passion flower, the jessamine, with its yellow and fragrant flame, and all the wild luxuriance of a bountiful Flora, the golden carpet which the rice plant spreads for the feet of autumn, and the cotton field white as with a soft, warm snow of summer — these are materials— and these are but a small part of them— from which a poet may draw an inspiration as genuine as that which touched with song the lips of English Thomson, or woke to subtler and profounder utterance the soul of English Wordsworth. Nor is the structure of our social life— so different from that of every other people, whether ancient or modern— incapable of being exhibited in a practical light. There are truths underlying the relations of master and slave; there are meanings beneath that union of the utmost freedom with a healthy conservatism, which, growing out of those relations, is characteristic of Southern thought, of which poetry may avail herself not only to vindicate our system to the eyes of the world, but to convey lessons which shall take root in the hearts of all mankind. We need not commend the poetical themes which are to be found in the history of the South; in the romance of her colonial period; in the sufferings and struggles of her revolution; in the pure patriotism of her warriors and statesmen, the sterling worth of her people, and the grace, the wit, the purity, the dignity, delicacy and self-devotion of her women. He who either in the character of poet or novelist shall associate his name with the South in one or all of the above-mentioned aspects, will have achieved a more enviable fame than any which has yet illustrated the literature of America.
We pass to a brief discussion of an error still more prevalent than the theory just dismissed. We know nothing more discouraging to an author, nothing which more clearly evinces the absence of any profound principles of criticism, than the light in which the labors of the poet and the novelist are very generally viewed at the South. The novel and the poem are almost universally characterized as light reading, and we may say are almost universally estimated as a very light and superficial sort of writing. We read novels and poems indeed, with some pleasure, but at the same time with the tacit conviction that we are engaged in a very trivial occupation; and we promise ourselves that, in order to make up for the precious moments thus thrown away, we shall hereafter redouble our diligence in the study of history or of mathematics. It is the common impression that while there is much practical utility in a knowledge of Euclid and the Calculus, no profit whatever is to be derived from works of poetry and fiction. Of two writers, one of whom should edit a treatise on the conic sections, and the other should give to the world a novel equal in tragic power and interest to the Bride of Lammermoor, the former would be considered the greater man by nine persons out of ten.
It would be from the purpose of this article to go into a minute examination of the prejudices upon which these opinions are founded. But we may be permitted a few words on the subject. What are the advantages which are supposed to result from the study of the mathematics— not, we mean, to those who are to devote their lives to science, but to that more numerous class who, immediately upon graduation, fling aside Playfair, and separate into doctors, lawyers, and politicians? The answer is, we believe, that the study of mathematics is calculated to accustom the student to habits of close reasoning, and to increase his powers of concentration. Some vague generality is usually added about its influence in strengthening the mind.
Now, it is a notorious fact that mathematicians are for the most part bad reasoners out of their particular province. As soon as they get upon topics which do not admit of precise definitions and exact demonstrations, and which they, nevertheless, invariably insist upon subjecting to precise definitions and exact demonstrations, they fall naturally enough into all sorts of blunders and contradictions. They usually beg the question at the outset, and then by means of a most unexceptionable syllogism, they come to a conclusion which, though probably false in fact, is yet, it must be confessed, always logically consistent with their premises.
Now, it will not be denied that such a method of reasoning is the very worst possible which could be employed by a lawyer or a politician. The laws, and their various interpretations, the motives, the objects, the interest in their thousand contradictory aspects, which must form the staple of the arguments of professional and public men, are not to be treated like the squares and circles of geometry. Yet that a familiarity with mathematical modes of proof does not lead to the error of using those modes of proof upon subjects to which they are wholly inapplicable, is evident to anybody who has noticed the style of argument prevalent among the very young orators who have not long cut the apron strings which tied them to a too strictly mathematical Alma Mater. They bristle all over with syllogisms, write notes in the form of captions, invariably open a speech (that is if it be not a fourth of July oration, and if they have anything to prove) with a statement, and end with Q. E. D. corollary and scholium. Not until the last theories have been erased from their memory, or until they shall have learned by repeated reverses the absurdity of which they are guilty, do they begin to reason like men of practical sense.
It must not be inferred that we are arguing against the study of the mathematics. It has its uses— though we think not the uses commonly assigned to it. These we cannot stop to particularize, but we may mention that if it could do nothing but furnish us with the clearest idea we have of the nature of absolute truths, it would still be an important study.
We shall probably be thought paradoxical when we say that we believe that the study of poetry as an art in conjunction with the science of criticism— and this not with the design of writing poetry, but merely to enable the student to appreciate and to judge of it— will afford a better preparative training than all the mathematics in the world, to the legal or political debater. Poetry, as Coleridge well remarks, has a logic of its own; and this logic being more complex, more subtle, and more uncertain than the logic of the demonstrative sciences, is far more akin than the latter can be to the dialectics of common life. And when we consider that while we are mastering this logic, we are at the same time familiarizing ourselves with the deepest secrets of the human heart, imbuing our natures with the most refining influences, and storing our minds with the purest thoughts and the loveliest pictures of humanity, the utility of poetry as a study seems to be established beyond a question.
It seems strange, that in this nineteenth century, one should be called upon to vindicate poetry from aspersions which have been repeatedly and triumphantly disproved. Nevertheless, so generally accepted at the South is the prejudice which degrades poetry into a mere servant of our pleasures, that upon most ears, truths, (elsewhere so familiar as to be trite ) upon which it bases a loftier pretension, fall with the startling novelty of paradox. How many look upon the imaginative faculty simply as the manufacturer of pretty conceits; how few know it as the power which, by selecting and combining materials never before brought together, in fact, produces pictures and characters in which there shall be nothing untruthful or unnatural, and which shall yet be as new to us as a lately found island in the Pacific. How many of us regard poetry as a mere creature of the fancy; how few appreciate its philosophy, or understand that beneath all the splendor of its diction and imagery, there is in its highest manifestations at least a substratum of profound and valuable thought; how very few perceive the justice of the eloquent definition of Coleridge: “That poetry is the blossom and fragrance of all human wisdom, human passions, learning, and language;” or are prepared to see, as it is expressed in the noble verse of Taylor, that
Poetry is Reason’s self -sublimed;
Tis Reason’s sovereignty, whereunto
All properties of sense, all dues of wit.
All fancies, images, perceptions, passions,
All intellectual ordinance grown up
From accident, necessity, or custom.
Seen to be good, and after made authentic;
All ordinance aforethought, that from science
Doth prescience take, and from experience law;
All lights and institutes of digested knowledge.
Gifts and endowments of intelligence
From sources living, from the dead bequests,—
Subserve and minister.
We hurry on to the comparative merits of history and fiction.
It is not generally understood that a novel may be more truthful than a history, in several particulars— but, perhaps, most of all in the delineation of character. The historian, hampered by facts which are not seldom contradictory, is sometimes compelled to touch and retouch his portrait of a character in order to suit those facts. Consequently, he will often give us a character not as it existed, but his idea of that character— a something, the like of which was never in heaven above, nor on the earth beneath. On the other hand, the novelist, whose only obligation is to be true to nature, at least paints us possible men and women, about whose actions we can reason almost with as much accuracy as if they had really lived, loved, acted and died. In doing this, he at once reaches a higher truth than is often attainable by the historians, and imparts to us lessons far more profitable. More of human nature can be learned from the novel of Tom Jones than from a History of the whole Roman Empire— written, at least, as histories are commonly written. Again, while it is to history we look for an account of the dynasties, the battles, sieges, revolutions, the triumphs and defeats of a nation, it is from the historical novel that we glean the best idea of that which it is infinitely more important for us to know— of the social state, the manners, morals, opinions, passions, prejudices, and habits of the people. We do not hesitate to say, that of two persons, one of whom has only read Hume’s chapter on Richard L, and the other only the Ivanhoe of Scott, the latter will be by far the better acquainted with the real history of the period.
We need not say that we are not quite so silly as to believe that it is possible, by any force of argument, to bring about a reformation in the tastes of the reading community. It is, unfortunately, not in the power of a people to confer together and say, “Come, now, let us arise, and build up a literature.” We cannot call meetings, and pass resolutions to this purpose, as we do with respect to turnpikes, railways, and bridges. That genuine appreciation, by which alone literature is encouraged and fostered, is a plant of slow growth. Still, we think something may be done; but in the meanwhile let it not be forgotten that, in spite of every disadvantage, the South already possesses a literature which calls for its patronage and applause. The fate of that literature is a reproach to us. Of all our Southern writers, not one but Poe has received his due measure of fame. The immense resources and versatile powers of Simms are to this day grudgingly acknowledged, or contemptuously denied. There have been writers among us who, in another country, would have been complimented with repeated editions, whose names are now almost forgotten, and whose works it is now utterly impossible to obtain. While our center-tables are littered with the feeble moralizings of Tupper, done up in very bright morocco; and while the corners of our newspapers are graced with the glibly versified common- -places of Mackey, and of writers even more worthless than Mackey, there is, perhaps, scarcely a single bookseller in the United States, on whose face we should not encounter the grin of ignorance, if we chanced to inquire for the Froissart ballads of Philip Pendleton Cooke.
It is not without mortification that we compare the reception which the North gives to its literature to the stolid indifference of the South. There, at least, Genius wears the crown, and receives the tributes which are due to it. It is true, indeed, that not a few Northern authors have owed in part their successes to the art of puffing— an art nowhere carried to such a height of excellence as in the cities of New York and Boston. It is true that through the magic of this art, many a Bottom in literature has been decked with the flowers and fed with the apricots and dewberries of a short-lived reputation. But it is also true, that there is in the reading public of the North a well-founded faith in its capacity to judge for itself, a not inconsiderable knowledge of the present state of Poetry and Art, and a cordial disposition to recognize and reward the native authors who address it.
We are not going to recommend the introduction at the South of a system of puffing. “No quarter to the dunce,” whether Southern or Northern, is the motto which should be adopted by every man who has at heart the interests of his country’s literature. Not by exalting mediocrity, not by setting dullness on a throne, and putting a garland on the head of vanity, shall we help in the smallest degree the cause of Southern letters. A partiality so mistaken can only serve to depreciate excellence, discourage effort, and disgust the man of real ability. We have regretted to see the tenderness with which a volume of indifferent poetry is sometimes treated— for no other reason that we could discover than that it was the work of a Southerner— by those few clever and well-meaning critics, of whom the South is not altogether destitute. The effect of this ill-judged clemency is to induce those who are indisposed to admit the claims of Southern literature upon their admiration, to look with suspicion upon every verdict of Southern criticism.
We have but one course to suggest to those who are willing, from a painful conviction of the blended servility, superficiality, and antiquated bigotry of criticism among us, to assist in bringing about a reformation. It is to speak the rude truth always. It is to declare war equally against the slaves of English and Northern opinions, and against the slaves of the conventional schools of the eighteenth century. If argument fail, perhaps satire may prove a more effective weapon. Everything like old fogyism in literature should be remorselessly ridiculed. That pert license which consults only its own uneducated taste, and that docility which truckles to the prestige of a foreign reputation should be alike held up to contempt. It should be shown in plain, unflattering language that the unwillingness with which native genius is acknowledged, is a bitterer slander on the country and its intellect than any of the falsehoods which defile the pages of Trollope, Dickens, Marryatt, or Basil Hall. It would be no injustice to tell those who refuse to credit that the South has done anything in prose or poetry, that in their own shallowness and stupidity they have found the best reasons for their incredulity; and they should be sternly reminded, that because a country annually gives birth to a thousand noodles, it does not follow that it may not now and then produce a man of genius. Nor should any hesitation be felt to inquire boldly into the manner in which the tastes of our youth are educated. Let it be asked on what principle we fill our chairs of belles-lettres; whether to discharge properly the duties of a critical teacher, a thorough acquaintance with English literature be not a rather indispensable requisite, and how it is that in one institution a learned professor shall maintain the Course of Time to be the greatest of English epics, and in another an equally learned professor shall deny, on the ground that he could never read it, save as a very disagreeable task, the transcendent merits of Paradise Lost. Is it not a fact, of which we may feel not unreasonably ashamed, that a student may pass four years under these misleaders of youth, and yet remain ignorant of that most important revolution in imaginative literature— to us of the present day the most important of all literary revolutions— which took place a little more than half a century ago. The influence of the new spiritual philosophy in producing a change from a sensuous to a super-sensuous poetry, the vast difference between the school represented by Wordsworth, and the school represented by Pope, the introduction of that mystical element into our verse which distinguishes it from the verse of the age of Shakespeare, the theory of that analytical criticism which examines a work of art “from the heart outwards, not from surface inwards!” and which deduces its laws from nature and truth, not from the practice of particular writers; these surely are subjects which, in an institution devoted to the purpose of education, may not be overlooked without censure. At the risk of exciting the derisive smiles of those who attach more value to the settlement of a doubtful accent, or a disputed quantity, than to a just definition of the imaginative faculty, or a correct estimation of the scope and objects of poetry, we avow our belief that a systematic study of English literature, under the guidance of proper expounders— even at the expense of the curriculum in other respects— would be attended with the highest benefits to the student and the community. Such a course of study would assist more than anything else in bringing about that improvement in taste which we need so much, and for which we must look especially to the generation now growing up about us. We do not expect much from those whose opinions are already formed. It is next to impossible thoroughly to convert a confirmed papist; and there are no prejudices so difiicult to overcome as the prejudices of pedantry and age. After all, the chief impediment to a broad, deep, and liberal culture is her own self-complacency. With a strange inconsistency, the very persons who decry Southern literature are forever extolling Southern taste. Southern learning, and Southern civilization. There is scarcely a city of any size in the South which has not its clique of amateur critics, poets and philosophers, the regular business of whom is to demonstrate truisms, settle questions which nobody else would think of discussing, to confirm themselves in opinions which have been picked up from the rubbish of seventy years agone, and above all to persuade each other that together they constitute a society not much inferior to that in which figured Burke and Johnson, Goldsmith and Sir Joshua. All of these being oracles, they are unwilling to acknowledge the claims of a professional writer, lest in doing so they should disparage their own authority. It is time that their self-complacency should be disturbed. And we propose satire as the best weapon, because against vanity it is the only effective one. He who shall convince this, and every other class of critics to which we have alluded, that they are not in advance of their age, that they are even a little behind it, will have conferred an incalculable benefit upon them, and upon the South.
We shall not admit that in exposing the deficiencies of the Southern public, we have disparaged in the slightest degree the intellect of the South. Of that intellect in its natural capacity none can conceive more highly than ourself. It is impossible not to respect a people from whom have sprung so many noble warriors, orators and statesmen. And there is that in the constitution of the Southern mind, in the Saxon, Celtic and Teutonic elements of which it is composed, and in the peculiar influences amidst which these elements have been moulded together, a promise of that blending of the philosophic in thought with the enthusiastic in feeling, which makes a literary nation. Even now, while it is in one place trammeled by musty rules and canons, and in another left to its own unguided or misguided impulses, it would be unjust to deny it a quickness of perception, which, if rightly trained, would soon convert this essay into a slander and a falsehood. We will not believe that a people with such a mental character can remain much longer under the dominion of a contracted and illiberal culture. Indeed, we think the signs of a better taste may already be noticed. The circle of careless or prejudiced readers, though large, is a narrowing circle. The circle of thoughtful and earnest students, though a small one, is a widening circle. Young authors are rising up who have won for themselves at least a partial acknowledgment of merit. The time must come at last when the public shall feel that there are ideas characterizing Southern society, as distinguished from Northern and English society, which need the exposition of a new literature. There will be a stirring of the public mind, an expectation aroused which will ensure its own gratification, a demand for Southern prose and poetry, which shall call forth the poet and prose writer from the crowds that now conceal them, and a sympathy established between author and public, which shall infuse inspiration into the one, and heighten the pleasure and profit of the other. Then, indeed, we may look for a literature of which we shall all wear the honors. We shall walk over ground made classic by the imaginations of our poets, the thoughts we speak shall find illustration in verse which has been woven by Southern hearths; and the winds that blow from the land, and the waves that wash our level coast, shall bear to other nations the names of bards who know how to embody the spirit of their country without sinking that universality which shall commend their lessons to all mankind.
“Literature in the South”
By Henry Timrod
Read by Guy William Molnar
Directed by Rhonda Armstrong
Copyright 2013 Georgia Regents University
All rights reserved