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Beginnings of Southern Literature
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.

One could argue that literature in the American South began as early as 1608 when the explorer and adventurer Captain John Smith published his promotional pamphlet A True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia, the first of a series of accounts, each of which became more embellished, to include finally the story of his rescue by Pocahontas. Or, to move ahead a hundred years, perhaps southern letters began with the secret diaries, character sketches, poems, and satiric prose of the true Renaissance gentleman in residence at Westover, William Byrd II. But because America as an independent nation did not exist until 1776 and neither Smith nor Byrd considered himself other than a British citizen, the most one can say is that they established the traditions of exaggeration, irony, wit, stylistic versatility, and experimentation with form that would characterize southern literature.

Despite general impressions to the contrary, the intellectual life of the colonists in what would become the southern states was rich and varied. In the political and cultural center of Williamsburg citizens attended the theater, gave concerts for each other, built well-designed houses with beautifully patterned gardens, collected selective but impressive libraries, wrote articulate and well-argued letters to friends at home and abroad, read classical authors in the original Greek and Latin, and engaged in political and religious debate. Colonial authors expressed themselves in poetry and prose, satire and invective, essays and pamphlets. Noteworthy published works of the period include the translation into heroic couplets of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1626) by George Sandys, Jamestown treasurer and director of industry and agriculture; a humorous prose account of colonial life interspersed with lively poetry, A Character of the Province of Maryland (1966), by indentured servant George Alsop; the engaging first history of Virginia, The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), written by a plantation owner and member of the House of Burgesses, Robert Beverley; The Sot-Weed Factor (1708), a verse satire by poet laureate of early Maryland, Ebenezer Cooke whose point of view and low-life subject matter were precursors of the southern humor tradition; the two very early novels written by the master of grammar school and professor at the College of William and Mary, Arthur Blackamore, The Religious Triumverate (1720) and Luck at Last; or, The Happy Unfortunate (1723); and the works of New Light Presbyterian minister and later president of Princeton University, Samuel Davies, who composed hymns, elegies, sermons, and poems, many of the last of which were collected in Miscellaneous Poems, Chiefly on Divine Subjects (1752).

During the revolutionary period lawyer, architect, educator, scientist, philosopher, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, vice president, and president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson served as the intellectual center of a burst of rational and enlightened thought about the American political state, the foundations of society, and the nature of man. The creative energy of Jefferson and such colleagues as Richard Bland, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and John Taylor was invested in political treatises, pamphlets, oratory, and cogent essays rather than belles lettres. Although he wrote only one full length book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), perhaps the most significant political and scientific work of its time, it was through his composition of the text of the Declaration of Independence (1776) that Jefferson had a lasting and profound impact on the subsequent history of the political, social, and cultural life of the South and the nation. It is, then, a literary document of the first order. Jefferson continues to arrest our attention as a man of great creative intellect through biographies, histories, plays, poems, and novels about his life and relationships.