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Literature in the South (Essay)

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 modern 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 ad-

dress 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,


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 text-

book. 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 kraut, 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 Wordsworth,

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 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 burst 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 XI

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 geo-

graphical 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 con-

fessed, 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 sub-

stratum 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 I, 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 book-

seller 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 dis-

gust 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 dis-

cover 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, Marryat, 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

thorogh 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 difficult

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, Gold-

smith 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 molded 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 Ethan Holliman

Copyright 2015 Georgia Regents University

All rights reserved