Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature, First-Person Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Thomas Nelson Page, 1853-1922, Genevieve Cowles, b. 1871, and Maude Cowles, 1871-1905
Social Life in Old Virginia before the War
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897.

Summary

Thomas Nelson Page was born April 23, 1853 at Oakland, his family's plantation in Hanover County, Virginia. His parents, John Page and Elizabeth Burwell Nelson, both descendants of the old southern aristocracy, had suffered financially in the years following the Civil War. Though Page received a classical education while attending Washington and Lee College from 1869 to 1872, insufficient funds forced his departure before he received his degree. He later worked as a tutor and studied law at the University of Virginia (1873-1874), passing the bar in 1874. Page worked as an attorney until 1893, when his literary achievements allowed him to leave his successful Richmond law firm and devote himself entirely to writing.

Page wed Anne Seddon Bruce in 1866, but she died a short two years later. In 1893 he was remarried to Florence Lathrop Field, the widow of Henry Field, whose brother was the well-known department-store mogul Marshall Field. Moving that same year to Washington, D.C., the Pages soon became an integral part of Washington society. They often traveled abroad to Paris, London, Rome, and the Riviera. Active in Woodrow Wilson's 1912 presidential campaign, Page was appointed ambassador to Italy in 1913, a position he held for six years. Thomas Nelson Page died November 1, 1922 at Oakland.

Perhaps best known as a writer of short stories, Page also published novels, essays, children's stories, literary criticism, and poetry. In fact, his first publication, "Uncle Gabe's White Folks," was a dialect poem Scribner's Monthly printed in April 1877. Even so, Page did not receive national recognition until seven years later, with the appearance of "Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia" in Century Magazine. Subsequent publications in Century and Harper's New Monthly Magazine developed Page's reputation as a local colorist and compelling advocate for life in the Old South. His first collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia or Marse Chan and Other Stories, was published in 1887.

Printed in 1897 by Charles Scribner's Sons, Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War is a collection of essay-like musings on the organization and social practices of antebellum Virginia. In his introduction, Page argues that his sketch of "real life of the South in old times" challenges earlier fallacious accounts that misrepresent southerners as ignorant, uncultivated, and slovenly people. His description opens with a charming (albeit highly romanticized) image of the southern mansion, victoriously perched on a hill, shaded by glorious oak trees, and bathed in the wafting aroma of blooming lilacs and roses. Moving outward from the plantation house, Page depicts the thriving fields of corn, the flowering orchard, as well as the bountiful vegetable and flower gardens. In general, goodness and tranquillity abound.

Page devotes equal attention to the admirable inhabitants of the mansion, who reflect the moral perfection and godliness that permeate Page's characterizations of southern aristocratic life. Having already provided a brief account of the external social structure governing the "servants" who, he indicates, are referred to as "slaves" only in legal reports, Page presents the authoritative and devoted "Mammy," whose importance in running the house cannot be overestimated. Other honored family members include the butler and the carriage driver. These contented servants enjoy happiness and a "singular sweetness" throughout their lives. Page then briefly explains southerners' partiality for sports, including horse and foot races as well as the "great frolic" known as fox hunting.

Throughout Social Life, Page extols the old-fashioned southern virtues of kindness, honor, refinement, and sincerity. While predicting that the South necessarily must rise again to prosperity, he also mourns what has been lost. Page argues not that the Old South was a perfect society but instead suggests that its merits far outweighed its flaws. Furthermore, the South's enduring accomplishments within national and international spheres of culture and politics are a testament to its superior, civilizing force.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Kimbel, Bobby Ellen, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 78: American Short-Story Writers, 1880-1910, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

See also the entry for Thomas Nelson Page from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

Document menu