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Introduction to
Belles-Lettres

by
William L. Barney,
Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Calling upon Southerners "to relieve ourselves from our degrading dependence upon our enemies for one of our chief sources of information and pleasure," the New Orleans-based De Bow's Review issued a challenge in the fall of 1861 for the creation of a distinctive literature written by and for Southerners. As if in response to that challenge, Southern authors of fiction, poetry, and broadside verse produced a sizeable body of literature during the brief existence of the Confederacy.

Stories of patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice were the staples of Confederate literature. Not surprisingly, the most best-selling foreign novel in the Confederacy was Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, which soon provided a nickname for the tattered rebel soldiers. The most popular Confederate author was Augusta Jane Evans [Wilson]. Published in 1864, her Macaria; or, Altars of Sacrifice was an incredibly popular work. Dedicated to the "patriotism and sublime self-abnegation of her dear and devoted countryman," Macaria is a tale of womanly sacrifice for the Confederate cause.

Although a good deal of Confederate literature made its way into the soldiers' camps, most of it was directed to the women on the home front, who comprised the largest and most accessible reading public. Often written by women themselves, this literature sought to assure Confederate wives and daughters that God was on their side, that their tribulations would not be in vain, that the greed of speculators would be exposed and punished, and that the slaves would remain loyal. Indeed, the slave as the faithful servant who placed loyalty to the South above empty Northern promises of freedom became a stock figure in both Confederate literature and art. Sampling this literature today can help us grasp how popular fiction became another vehicle for sustaining civilian morale and asserting the righteousness of the Confederate cause.