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Antebellum Era
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

Political and economic leadership in the South by the end of the 18th century had moved from Virginia to South Carolina, especially Charleston, when it became clear that raw cotton was to be that state's and the region's essential product and that slavery was therefore necessary to the future. For the first 50 years the southernmost outpost of the British empire in America, Charleston became a major commercial center and supported the development of a wealthy merchant and planter class, which in turn encouraged a lively cultural life including one of two newspapers published in the South, a library society, and bookstores. It was at one of these, Russell's Bookstore, that the members of the "Charleston School" gathered under the leadership of statesman and critic Hugh Swinton Legaré, editor and contributor to the Southern Review (1828-32). The group included among its membership romantic poet Paul Hamilton Hayne , editor of Russell's magazine (1857-60), and other lyrical sentimental poets of the pro-Confederacy school such as Henry Timrod, "Laureate of the Confederacy."

The most influential member of the group, and probably in his time the best-known southern writer, was William Gilmore Simms, editor during his career of 10 periodicals and author of over 80 volumes of history, poetry, criticism, biography, drama, essays, stories, and novels, including a series of nationally popular border romances about life on the frontier and historical romances about the American Revolution. He was one of the first to make a profession of writing. Simms's only serious rival as a writer in the South was Baltimore politician John Pendleton Kennedy, whose informal fictional sketches in Swallow Barn (1832) helped establish the plantation novel, which in its depiction of a mythic genteel past and an ideal social structure has found hundreds of imitators in American romance fiction.

Less-accomplished but talented fiction writers of the time, all of whom wrote historical romances heavily under the influence of Scott, Cooper, and Irving, and all Virginia born, were Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, William Alexander Caruthers, and John Esten Cooke. Two extremely popular southern sentimental novelists of the time were Augusta Jane Evans Wilson and Caroline Lee Hentz, both of whom succeeded where many men had failed—achieving financial independence as professional writers.

A southern-born slave, William Wells Brown, wrote the first novel by an American black, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), based on the rumor that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a daughter with one of his slaves. In writing what was, in essence, a novel of social protest, Brown established the mainstream tradition for black fiction in this country. Another important work of black protest was the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the work of a former slave who was America's leading abolitionist organizer, orator, newspaper editor, and political figure. The first book published by a black in the South was The Hope of Liberty (1829), which contained poems decrying the slaves' condition, by George Moses Horton of North Carolina.

The only writer of this period who, with the passage of time, was to rise to a level of national and international prominence was Edgar Allan Poe, whose relationship to his southern heritage may indirectly be seen in his work. Although he was raised in Richmond, attended the University of Virginia, and edited the Southern Literary Messenger (1834-64) in Richmond from 1835 to 1837, he turned away from regional materials for the most part in his poetry, fiction, and criticism to devote himself to a form of literary expression that aspired to universality in style and structure. His poetry in which sound and sensuality superseded sense, his fiction in which meaning or message was secondary to emotional impact, and his criticism in which independently and objectively derived standards are used in the evaluation of artistic success, would help shape, first in Europe and then in this country, the modern literary sensibility. Creative writing throughout the world was never the same after Poe.

So dazzling was the achievement of Poe from the modern point of view that the work of numerous contemporary southern poets pales in comparison. This includes the sentimental, romantic, lyric poetry of Irish-born Richard Henry Wilde of Georgia, Thomas Holley Chivers also of Georgia, British-born Edward Coote Pinkney of Maryland, Philip Pendleton Cooke of Virginia, Theodore O'Hara of Kentucky, and James Matthewes Legaré of South Carolina.

Outside of Poe, the most influential writing produced by the antebellum South was the work of a group of humorists who had no literary pretensions and therefore were free of the prevailing influences of the literary marketplace. They were lawyers, doctors, editors, politicians, and professional men who set down for the amusement of newspaper readers stories and tales they heard as they traveled through the frontier territories of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, or Louisiana—what was then called the Old Southwest. The sketches and fictional pieces they wrote were realistic, bawdy, vulgar, and often brutal, but they were written in a language and style close to the southern idiom and the point of view of everyday people. No one was more surprised than they when their sketches were collected between hard covers and soon constituted an impressive bookshelf of what would prove to be classics of southern humor: Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes (1835); William Tappan Thompson's Major Jones's Courtship (1843); Johnson Jones Hooper's Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845); Thomas Bangs Thorpe's edition of The Big Bear of Arkansas (1845), which included his famous title story originally published in an 1841 issue of the Spirit of the Times, where much of this humor first appeared; Henry Clay Lewis's Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor (1850); Joseph Glover Baldwin's The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853); and Charles Henry Smith's Bill Arp, So Called (1866). Related to this tradition in its uses of comic exaggeration and oral folklore was A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834) in which the part Crockett played as an author is uncertain.

The most accomplished of the humorists of the Old Southwest was Tennessean George Washington Harris, creator of the irascible Sut Lovingood, the liveliest comic figure to emerge from American literature before Huckleberry Finn. His first sketches were contributed to the New York Spirit of the Times and to Tennessee newspapers in the 1840s; however, the Lovingood stories were not collected until after the Civil War as Sut Lovingood, Yarns Spun by a "Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool" (1867). In masterful use of dialect, striking control of metaphor and imagery, and kinetic creation of explosive action, Harris was to have no match until Mark Twain and William Faulkner, both of whom read Harris with appreciation.

Through studying Harris and the other southern humorists, Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain, learned his trade, and his first published sketches, such as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (1865), belong to this school of humor. Born of southern parents in Missouri, and raised in the slaveholding community of Hannibal on the Mississippi River, employed as a steamboat pilot on the great river from St. Louis and Cairo down to New Orleans from 1857 to 1861, and enlisted briefly in the Confederate army before deserting to go with his brother to Nevada, Clemens and his formative experiences were more southern than western. His masterwork, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), is the most incisive satire ever written of southern attitudes, customs, and mores, aside from its central importance as a pivotal work of American literature. In Clemens, frontier humor was brought to a high level of literary artistry and through Clemens was transmitted to the majority of subsequent practicing humorists. Modern southern writers who have maintained this tradition include Guy Owen of North Carolina; William Price Fox, Jr., and Mark Steadman, Jr., of South Carolina; Robert Y. Drake, Jr., of Tennessee; and Roy Blount, Jr., of Georgia.