Literature in the South

Written Text

We think that at no time, and in no country, has the
position of an author been beset with such peculiar difficulties
as the Southern writer is compelled to struggle with from
the beginning to the end of his career. In no country in
which literature has ever flourished has an author obtained
so limited an audience. In no country, and at no period that
we can recall, has an author been constrained by the
indifference of the public amid which he lived, to publish with
a people who were prejudiced against him. It would scarcely
be too extravagant to entitle the Southern author the Pariah
of modem literature. It would scarcely be too absurd if
we should compare his position to that of the drawer of
Shakespeare, who stands in a state of ludicrous confusion
between the calls of Prince Hal upon the one side and of
Poins upon the other. He is placed, in fact, much in the
same relation to the public of the North and the public of
the South, as we might suppose a statesman to occupy who
should propose to embody in one code a system of laws
for two neighboring people, of one of which he was a
constituent, and who yet altogether differed in character,
institutions and pursuits. The people among whom the
statesman lived would be very indignant upon finding, as
they would be sure to find, that some of their interests had
been neglected. The people for whom he legislated at a
distance would be equally indignant upon discovering, as they
would [be] sure to fancy they discovered, that not one of
their interests had received proper attention. Both parties
would probably unite, with great cordiality and patriotism,
in consigning the unlucky statesman to oblivion or the
executioner. In precisely the same manner fares the poor
scribbler who has been so unfortunate as to be born South
of the Potomac. He publishes a book. It is the settled
conviction of the North that genius is indigenous there, and
flourishes only in a Northern atmosphere. It is the equally
firm conviction of the South that genius— literary genius, at
least— is an exotic that will not flower on a Southern soil.
Probably the book is published by a Northern house.
Straightway all the newspapers of the South are indignant
that the author did not choose a Southern printer, and
address himself more particularly to a Southern community.
He heeds their criticism, and of his next book,— published
by a Southern printer— such is the secret though
unacknowledged prejudice against Southern authors— he finds
that more than one half of a small edition remains upon his
hands. Perhaps the book contains a correct and beautiful
picture of our peculiar state of society. The North is inattentive
or abusive, and the South unthankful, or, at most,
indifferent. Or it may happen to be only a volume of noble
poetry, full of those universal thoughts and feelings which
speak, not to a particular people, but to all mankind. It is
censured at the South as not sufficiently Southern in spirit,
while at the North it is pronounced a very fair specimen of
Southern commonplace. Both North and South agree with
one mind to condemn the author and forget his book.

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

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

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

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