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Joseph G. Baldwin (Joseph Glover), 1815-1864
The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi. A Series of Sketches
New York; London: D Appleton and Co., 1854, c1853.

Summary

Joseph Glover Baldwin was born in Friendly Grove Factory, Virginia on January 21, 1815 to Joseph Clarke Baldwin, a mill owner, and Eliza Cook Baldwin. To help contribute financially to the family, Baldwin began working at an early age, leaving school at fourteen and becoming a deputy law clerk. Though his formal education at Virginia's Staunton Academy lasted only two years, Baldwin was surprisingly well read, due in large part to his mother's dedicated early instruction. Through study both on his own and in the law office of his uncle, Judge Briscoe G. Baldwin, "Jo" completed his legal training at the age of twenty, although he was forced to wait until age twenty-one before acquiring his license. During this interim, Baldwin worked as an editor (alongside his brother Cornelius) at the Advocate, a local paper in Lexington, Virginia, while also writing pieces for the Richmond Whig. Upon receiving his license to practice law and following the failure of the Advocate, Baldwin embarked on a journey to the southwestern frontier in early 1836. In April of the same year, he settled in DeKalb, Mississippi, where he became known as a criminal attorney. Relocating to Gainesville, Alabama in 1837, Baldwin opened a law practice with Jonathan Bliss. He married Sidney Gaylard White, daughter of Judge John White, in January 1840; the couple had six children.

Baldwin's 1843 successful run as a Whig candidate for the Alabama House of Representatives inaugurated his political career. Despite losing his 1848 bid for the U.S. Congress, he did become a delegate to the 1848 Whig National Convention in Philadelphia. Moving with his family to Livingston, Alabama in 1850, Baldwin entered the law practice of T.B. Whetmore. Most critics speculate that it was around this time that he began drafting his well-known sketches of the southwestern frontier that would first appear in the Southern Literary Messenger before being collected, expanded, and published under the title The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi in 1853. Enjoying his newfound literary reputation, he published Party Leaders, which included five sketches of American political dignitaries, in 1854. In the same year, Baldwin was once again enticed by the prospect of practicing law in an untamed land, this time swelled by the gold rush, and moved to San Francisco. Four years later in 1858, he was elected to the California Supreme Court as a Democrat and acted as an associate justice until 1862. During the Civil War, Baldwin traveled to Washington, D.C., seeking permission to visit his aging parents in Virginia. However, perhaps because he and his wife were presumed Confederate sympathizers (though Baldwin officially remained neutral), his request was denied. Returning to California, he resumed work on The Flush Times of California; however, the book was not published during his lifetime. Joseph Glover Baldwin died September 30, 1864.

Set during the 1830s and 1840s, the twenty-six sketches in Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi, which typically involve some aspect of the legal system, were drawn primarily from Baldwin's own experiences living, working, and traveling in the southwestern frontier states. Indeed in the frequently anthologized "How Times Served the Virginians" section, Baldwin's assessment of these "flush times"—the rowdy new era in which credit recklessly prevailed and "Commerce was king"—seems drawn from his first impressions as a young Virginian lawyer in this wild frontier. Baldwin's comic tales, written in the vein of other Southwest humorists such as Augustus Longstreet and George Washington Harris, are recounted by a sophisticated, bemused narrative voice that remains largely peripheral to the often-outlandish main storylines. For example in the opening sketch, "Ovid Bolus, Esq.," the narrator identifies Ovid's supreme vice to be his compulsive lying. A natural and notorious liar whose elaborate deceptions constitute a form of artistic genius, Ovid also emerges as a swindler extraordinaire. Other comical portraits include those of the unforgettable attorneys Cave Burton and Simon Suggs. And with raucous courtroom scenes as in "Assault and Battery" and tales of practical jokesters such as J.T. in "Squire A. and the Fritters" and Phillip Cousins in "Justification after Verdict," Flush Times appears firmly ensconced within the Southwest humor tradition.

Interestingly, there are moments in the collection when humorous interludes and the narrator's tongue-in-cheek observations yield to more serious commentary. For instance, though Baldwin may parody the legal biography form, he also offers frank assessments of two historical figures in Hon S. S. Prentiss and Hon. Francis Strother, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each attorney's private and public personas. Certainly "The Bar of the South-West," which opens with Baldwin's ruminations on the potential dangers of patriotism, gestures towards an implicit critique of American expansionism. Baldwin decries this insatiable greed for land, namely concerning the poor treatment of native people groups. As he writes, "And in INDIAN affairs!—the very mention is suggestive of the poetry of theft—the romance of a wild and weird larceny! What sublime conceptions of super-Spartan roguery! Swindling Indians by the nation!" (238). Thus Baldwin's Flush Times, though generally remembered for its amusing anecdotes of frontier life, appears tempered by a sobering realism and a subtle indictment embedded within the text's jocularity.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Knight, Lucian Lamar, comp., Biographical Dictionary of Southern Authors, 1929, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978; Ljungquist, Kent, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 48: Antebellum Writers in the South, Second Series, Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1978.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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