Adventures in Romance
William Alexander Caruthers:
A Virginia Liberal
In the early thirties came the transition in Virginia from the essay-sketch that had prevailed since the appearance of The British Spy, to the full-blown romance of love and adventure. The older type had been a blend of nature description, social observation, character sketches, with somewhat injudicious portions of sentiment and moralizing, and with frequent resort to the old letter-form of fiction that lingered out a surprising old age. Not only is the transition revealed in the work of John P. Kennedy, whose Swallow Barn, written in 1832, was followed in 1835 by Horseshoe Robinson, but quite as strikingly in the work of Dr. William Alexander Caruthers, whose Kentuckian in New York, or, the Adventures of Three Southerners, published in 1834, was followed at once by The Cavaliers of Virginia, 1834-35.
Dr. Caruthers was a genial and cultivated Virginian from the Piedmont region, with a ready wit and a clever pen, who had pretty well rid himself of the intense and narrow parochialisms that restricted the sympathies of Beverley Tucker. He was a Virginia liberal of the older school, before the renaissance of the slave cause transferred southern leadership to the South Carolina group, and he shared none of Tucker's partisanship for Calhoun. He had traveled widely both south and north, and had discovered that human nature was much the same on both sides of Mason and Dixon's line. This experience qualified him to become a shrewd and kindly interpreter of both sections of the country, and his Kentuckian in New York was an excellent contribution to the cause of intersectional goodwill. He sends two young South Carolinians just out of college on a trip north, who fall in with a Kentuckian on the way, and together they enjoy life in New York City, lose their hearts and meet with divers romantic and amusing adventures. A fourth character, a young Virginian, he sends to South Carolina, likewise to lose his heart and encounter adventures; and the copious letters that travel between them are filled with intelligent comment on unfamiliar ways. The writers are generous-minded young liberals with keen eyes, and their observations still make excellent reading after nearly a hundred years.
The South Carolinian who falls romantically in love with a New York girl is far from a Calhoun Fire Eater. He can see good even in the Yankee, whom he defends against the common southern prejudice by arguing that Yankee chicanery has resulted from a niggardly environment and the competition that comes with over-population, a competition that Virginia has been spared by the draining off of her population west; and as for the Yankee "canting and sniveling," "tell me," he remarks, "if you have not, in the very bosom of your great valley, as genuine Presbyterians and Roundheads as ever graced the Rump Parliament, or sung a psalm on horseback? And to give the devil his due, these same Presbyterians are no bad citizens of a popular government" (Vol. I, p. 72) . Virginia has judged the North out of her prejudices rather than knowledge, and the advice Caruthers gives his Virginia neighbors, as an antidote to the suspicions of Beverley Tucker, is to travel beyond the boundaries of the Old Dominion.
Every southern should visit New-York. It would allay provincial prejudices, and calm his excitement against his northern countrymen. The people here are warm-hearted, generous, and enthusiastic, in a degree scarcely inferior to our own southerners. Many of these Yorkers are above local prejudices, and truly consider this as the commercial metropolis of the Union, and all the people of the land as their customers, friends, patrons, and countrymen. Nor is trade the only thing that flourishes. The arts of polished and refined life, refined literature, and the profounder studies of the schoolmen, all have here their distinguished votaries,--l say distinguished, with reference to the standard of science in our country. (Vol. I, p. 181.)
The material prosperity of the North contrasts painfully in his mind with the condition of his native Carolina, and there is a note of apprehension in his comment:
The more I see of these northern states, the more I am convinced that some great revolution awaits our own cherished communities. Revolutions, whether sudden or gradual, are fearful things; we learn to feel attachments to those things which they tear up, as a poor cripple feels attached to the mortified limb, that must be amputated to save his life. A line of demarkation in such a case is distinctly drawn between the diseased and the healthy flesh. Such a line is now drawing between the slave and free states, I fear. God send that the disease may be cured without amputation, and before mortification takes place. I know that this latter is your own belief. What think you now, since you have seen the greater extent of the disease? (Vol. I, p. 165.)
The question is addressed to another young man on his travels, a young Virginian who has gone south, and who is even more troubled at what he finds. He cannot bring himself to think well of the sacred institution as he sees it in South Carolina. There it is laid bare in all its naked exploitation. The hhumanerelations between the races that he has known in Virginia have been destroyed by the absentee system with its drivers and overseers= "to these animals," he says, "I have always had an utter aversion. " The evils of the large-scale system have carried farther; slavery in the Carolinas has destroyed the middle class of yeomen, unduly exalted the aristocracy and utterly debased the poor white. The single spot he heartily approves in the two commonwealths is Salem, a Moravian settlement where no slavery exists, where all work, and where education is thought so well of that the daughters of the first southern families go there for their schooling. In Salem he found an answer to the southern problem far more competent than Nullification.
Here, then, is a triumphant answer-an answer in deeds, instead of words-in the happiness, and the substantial wealth of these simple and primitive Moravians. Here . . . is an industrious, intelligent, and healthy community, in the very heart of all the misery I have described. Let us then improve by the lesson, seek out the sources of their prosperity, find the point where their plans diverge from ours, and, my word for it . . . we become a great, a flourishing, and a happy people. (Vol. I, p. 880)
To the problem of slavery he returns constantly, and his views may perhaps be sufficiently understood from the following passages:
The poor of a slave-country are the most miserable and the most wretched of all the human family. The grades of society in this state are even farther apart than in Virginia. Here, there is one immense chasm from the rich to the abject poor. In the valley of Virginia, or in the country where you are, there are regular gradations. The very happiest, most useful, and most industrious class of a well-regulated community, is here wanting. Their place is filled up by negroes; in consequence of which, your aristocrats are more aristocratic, and your poor still poorer. The slaves create an immeasurable distance between these two classes, which can never be brought together until this separating cause be removed. You know I am no abolitionist, in the incendiary meaning of the term; yet I cannot deny from you and myself, that they are an incubus upon our prosperity. This we would boldly deny, if a Yankee uttered it in our hearing; but to ourselves, we must even confess it. If I am, therefore, an abolitionist, it is not for conscience-sake, but from policy and patriotism. (Vol. I, pp. 76-77.)
With us [in Virginia] slavery is tolerable, and has something soothing about it to the heart of the philanthropist; the slaves are more in the condition of tenants to their landlords-they are viewed as rational creatures, and with more kindly feelings.
Here slavery is intolerable; a single individual owning a hundred or more, and often not knowing them when he sees them. The slaves here are plantation live-stock; not domestic and attached family servants, who have served around the person of the master from the childhood of both . . . Here, besides your white overseers, you have your black drivers;-an odious animal, almost peculiar to the far south. It is horrible to see one slave following another at his work, with a cow-skin dangling at his arm, and occasionally tying him up and flogging him when he does not get through his two tasks a day . . . I do not observe much difference between the North and South Carolinians, except in the case of those who inhabit the most southern portions of the latter state. There your rich are more princely and aristocratic, and your poor more wretched and degraded; but to tell you the plain truth, many of your little slaveholders are miserably poor and ignorant; and what must be the condition of that negro who is a slave to one of these miserable wretches? (Vol. 11, pp. 115-119.)
To the solution of the difficult problem Caruthers offers no easy plan. He cannot go with the northern "enthusiasts" who propose immediate emancipation. They do not comprehend the complexity of the problem. "We cannot set slaves free among us. Such a course would dissolve the social compact. It would set at defiance all laws for the protection of life, liberty, and property, either among them or the whites." He foresaw clearly what happened during the unhappy days of reconstruction. "Would it be any reparation of an hereditary wrong, to plunge the subjects of that wrong, with ourselves, into irretrievable ruin, to attain nominal justice?" The free Negroes would constitute a menace more serious than the northern city mobs, which latter Caruthers had no liking for. "These city mobocracies, composed as they are, princi pally of wild Irish, are terrible things"; how much worse would be a Negro mobocracy? A confirmed agrarian, he finds his chief hope in a vigorous yeomanry, and until the South shall develop that, matters must go ill with it. In the midst of the Carolina system his thoughts return fondly to his native state. He is under no illusion in regard to the tidewater region of Virginia. It has lived a generous life, but spendthrift and wasteful, and has come to evil days. But in the West, beyond the mountains, a newer and more vigorous age is rising that "will sweep away the melancholy vestiges of a former and more chivalrous and generous age."
Poor, exhausted eastern Virginia she is in her dotage. Her impassable roads protect her alike from the pity and contempt of foreign travellers; but with all her weakness, with all the imbecilities of premature age upon her, I love her still. (Vol. II, P 194.)
Of this more vigorous age the prototype is the title-hero of the volume, the stalwart Kentuckian whose native intelligence and racy speech delight the Carolinian. This free son of the untamed West -is portrayed with bold strokes, and if his talk leans somewhat heavily on the current convention'of frontier humor, if Montgomery Damon in his picturesque exaggerations suggests Davy Crockett, the result is none the less salty. Caruthers does not descend to caricature, but writes with gusto, and the Kentuckian's single letter is a little masterpiece in the vein of the free frontier humor that was competing with the cavalier romantic for popular approval. His whimsicalities, Caruthers tells us, he hopes will encourage "a smile of good-humor" so that this maiden product of the author's pen may find its way into the good graces of the reader-a course reckoned "the more necessary by a southern aspirant, as there is evidently a current in American literature, the fountainhead of which lies north of the Potomac, and in which a southern is compelled to navigate up the stream if he jumps in too far south" (Vol. II, p. 218).
The Cavaliers of Virginia, or the Recluse of Jamestown, announced in the postscript to the Kentuckian in New York, and published soon afterwards, is a full-fledged historical romance, with Bacon's Rebellion for a background and a somewhat melodramatic figure of a recluse warrior for its romantic hero. There is brisk action, dramatic Indian fights, much ruffling of young cavaliers, and a fine aristocratic swagger, but Caruthers' sympathies seem to incline to the more democratic elements and in the end his rebellious hero proves himself a match for the brisk young blades. There is excellent reading in it, as there is in his last work, The Knights of the Horse-Shoe; a Traditionary Tale of the Cocked Hat Gentry in the Old Dominion, published in 1845, and reissued as late as 1909 a genial story of Governor Spotswood's time. Caruthers deserved a better fate than fell to his lot. In spite of his excellent work surprisingly little is known about him; even the spelling of his name and the date of his death are matters about which there is disagreement. From a slight sketch contributed to The Knickerbocker Magazine for July, 1838, Climbing the Natural Bridge, it is known that he was a student at Washington College, now Washington and Lee, at Lexington, Virginia, in the year 1818, and the signature affixed carries only one "r." He seems to have removed later to Savannah, Georgia, an enthusiastic description of which he gives in The Kentuckian in New York. No doubt he there practiced medicine and died in his prime, perhaps in the year 1846. Virginia historians have inconsiderately neglected a cultivated and open-minded writer who embodied the finer spirit of the Old Dominion and whose stories have contributed their portion to the plantation tradition.
JOHN PENDLETON KENNEDY: A Southern Whig
A far more prosperous course was run by John P. Kennedy, whose sympathies drew him north rather than south, and who early learned that it is better to serve a rising than a decaying order. Very like Caruthers in temperament and gifts, a liberal in all his sympathies, he found the ties that bound him to the Old Dominion more fragile, and the drift of circumstance carrying him with the stronger current. It was a kindly fate that took him in charge, bringing him abundant prosperity and contemporary fame.
One of the most attractive figures of his generation was this son of a Maryland father and a Virginia mother. A gentleman of much personal distinction, high-minded and of wide culture, endowed with a pleasant wit, easy manners and generous nature, he is an agreeable representative of the ante bellum Southerners, an American Victorian of the Cobden-Bright school, standing midway between the northern radical and the southern Fire Eater. Like Henry Clay, he was a Whig engrafted on a Jeffersonian root. Born and educated in Baltimore, he was a son of the borderland, with strong ties of kinship and love that drew him to the Old Dominion, and even stronger ties of intellectual, social and financial interests that drew him towards Philadelphia and New York, Saratoga and Newport. As a young man he found his inspiration in the life of William Wirt, whose biography he afterwards wrote. Like Wirt, he dreamed of combining law and letters and adopting the life of a southern gentleman; but he discovered little that was congenial in the exactions of the law, and in spite of considerable success as attorney for certain Baltimore interests, he largely abandoned the profession. He loved his Chaucer and Shakespeare more than his Coke and Blackstone: he was more interested in Dickens and Thackeray and Carlyle and Irving and Scott than in John Marshall's decisions, and he followed the more congenial path. He tried his hand likewise at politics. He was a member of Congress for six years, was Secretary of the Navy during the last months of President Fillmore's administration, and was of service to the Whig party as spokesman on dignified occasions. But he was never a practical politician, and the rough and tumble of political life he found utterly distasteful. As he grew older he unconsciously drew further away from his southern antecedents. In his later years there was little to distinguish him from Irving and Robert C. Winthrop and other northern friends. He had left the world of Beverley Tucker far behind him. He had severed all ties with Virginia and South Carolina, and during the Civil War he was a militant Unionist, though it cost him much grief and the loss of old friendships.
Kennedy's life ran an unusually placid and prosperous course, greatly unlike that of Gilmore Simms. His father was a Scotch-Irish merchant of Baltimore who married Nancy Pendleton, daughter of an excellent Virginia family with many honorable connections. His early years were not unlike Irving's--a little Latin and Greek and much outdoor life, with a desultory education got from vagrant books. The course of study at the local college afforded far less intellectual stimulus than Tristram Shandy, over which he pored of evenings, dissecting the prose style to discover the secret of its charm, and filling his notebooks with elaborately colloquial sentences, highly seasoned with dashes and exclamation points. Graduating at eighteen, he enlisted in a Baltimore regiment to fight the British, who were preparing their raid on Washington. He went through the campaign as a summer lark, emerging unscathed from the single skirmish. The field was lost, but whether the honor of the crack Fifth was left on the battle ground may be judged from Kennedy's humorous comment. "Soon we had the famous `trial of souls'-the battle of Bladensburg. The drafted militia ran away at the first fire, and the Fifth Regiment was driven off the field with the bayonet. We made a fine scamper of it. I lost my musket in the melee while bearing off a comrade" (Tuckerman, Life of Kennedy, p. 79).
Throughout his twenties Kennedy was a studious dilettante in letters and politics and law. He married but lost his wife and son within the year; with his friend Peter Hoffman Cruse he published a series of Baltimore sketches in two volumes entitled The Red Book, and at the age of thirty-four married again. His second wife was the daughter of Edward Gray; a wealthy Baltimore cotton-spinner who at the age of eighteen had emigrated from northern Ireland to Philadelphia, became a bank clerk and a Federalist simultaneously, adopted Washington and Hamilton-whom he occasionally met in a professional way-as his particular heroes; prospered greatly, purchased the Ellicott Mills a few miles out of Baltimore, and set up a half feudal estate vastly attractive to discriminating visitors like Irving.
Kennedy's marriage to Elizabeth Gray in 1829 seems to have been the turning-point of his life. Before this he had been a disinterested liberal in his views, concerning himself in a political way with such humanitarian issues as the repeal of the brutal debtor laws. He had never been an avowed Jeffersonian like William Wirt and many of his Virginia connections, but the Jeffersonian idealism must have appealed to the generous sympathies of the young man. Immediately upon being taken into the Gray family he adopted its ample scale of living, its genial hospitality, its social and political philosophy. The influence of the masterful Edward Gray was thenceforth a dominant creative factor in Kennedy's life; and he followed faithfully in the footsteps of his father-in-law. The profits of the Ellicott Mills had been greatly increased by the tariff act of 1824. Naturally Edward Gray was an ardent protectionist, and Kennedy frankly espoused the same policy. He accepted Henry Clay as his political leader, was sent to Congress on a protectionist platform, lectured before Workingmen's Institutes on the advantages of industrial development, and gained a very considerable reputation as an expounder of the American Plan. After the war he became a Republican, voted for Grant, and adopted extreme nationalist views. That the family income was dependent on tariff favors is a detail which only a more realistic generation would suggest in explanation of his political course; the fact
remains, nevertheless, that the youthful disciple of William Wirt adopted the new philosophy of prosperity, became president of the board of directors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, invested in West Virginia coal lands, and was by way of becoming a captain of industry. The break with his southern antecedents was complete and final; he went with his native city in preferring the industrial to the plantation economy.
Baltimore in Kennedy's day was a thriving port with a growing trade to the West Indies and Europe. It had long been a convenient market for the tobacco of Virginia, and with the development of the clipper service its over-sea commerce expanded greatly. Unlike Charleston, the mercantile interests predominated over the planter. Middle-class ideals, to be sure, were still tempered by the dignified decorum that lingered on from the eighteenth century. Merchants still emulated the gentry and strove for personal distinction. They professed benevolent ideals and their talk was much of public spirit and the progress of the town. They adopted the romantic faith of their class in the beneficent processes of trade and industry in furthering social well-being, and they endowed Mechanics Institutes and founded public libraries and museums with all the ardor of converts. In this agreeable work of expounding the gospel of progress, Kennedy joined heartily. It satisfied the latent idealism of his nature and recompensed him for the loss of his Virginia heritage. Intellectually he was too honest to pervert the gospel of progress to selfish class interest and seek to hide the perversion behind sonorous platitudes, as his friend Robert C. Winthrop of Boston was guilty of doing. He had too much love for the English language to misuse it even in defense of the family income. He could not contract his mind to the compass of a Whig politician's. His defense of industrialism, in consequence, embodies the spirit of the best English liberalism as that liberalism was interpreted by Victorian Englishmen. He seems to have been honestly convinced that the future well-being of America was dependent upon the development of an industrialism to provide an economic balance between manufactures and agriculture.
Like his friend Irving, Kennedy was a devout romantic, with a love of the old-time picturesque; but as a consistent Whig he would spin and weave his romance out of domestic materials, refusing to import. He was a child of the effervescent days following 1812, when the static eighteenth century was breaking up and an ebullient romanticism was permeating the land. Of this youthful period his thought reveals the clear impress. Washington Irving from long pottering over the old-world picturesque had become English romantic, with an inveterate dislike of all innovation. The vulgar nineteenth century was destroying for him the charm of the eighteenth; he would have had the world remain as it was before the American and French revolutions had despoiled life of picturesque feudal ways. Whereas Kennedy, sharing in a romanticism that was economic and social-that was creating a wonderful America of the future out of the raw materials of life-was content to remain native, at home in the land of his birth. He might turn to the past for the figures and scenes of his stories, but he discovered in the activities of the present materials for romance quite as fascinating. He was wholly Victorian in his genial optimism. He was receptive to new ideas and promising ventures. He listened sympathetically to inventors and scientists and promoters. He was instrumental in securing, Congressional aid to erect Morse's telegraph line between Washington and his native city. As Secretary of the Navy he provided for Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan, and the expedition to search for Dr. Kane in the Arctic regions. But unfortunately his economic romanticism gradually undermined his literary romanticism; he outgrew his earlier literary ambitions, and the romances of his later life never got written. In the end the gospel of progress was his undoing.
That the generous comfort in which he lived afforded him leisure, means of travel, contact with distinguished people, goes without saying; but that it was favorable to letters is far from clear. Divided interests consumed his energies and kept him an amateur to the last. His literary development was an evolution from a sketchy and humorous Addisonian, with its echoes of the eighteenth century, to the full Victorian romantic. The foreign elements from an earlier time slowly settled to the bottom of the vat and left the pure wine of romance. But it took time. Like other amateurs he was influenced by current literary successes, and was much given to following the changing fashions. His three best-known books, written between the ages of thirty-six and forty-five, are unlike enough to have been written by different men. Swallow Barn, like the youthful sketches of The Red Book, is Irvingesque, and the Irving influence crops out again in a late book Quodlibet; but Horseshoe Robinson is substantial Revolutionary romance, done in sober narrative with touches of realism; and Rub of the Bowl is light and whimsical cavalier romance, all atmosphere and small talk, utterly unlike Irving. It is in this latter book, perhaps, written in 1838 at the age of forty-two, that Kennedy really found himself; he seems to move through the scenes more easily and with greater delight than in any other of his pages.
That the leisurely sketches of Swallow Barn belong to the school of Irving is a fact as obvious as Kennedy's love for the idling plantation life. Quite too much, however, has been made of this imitativeness-it is an imitativeness rather of method than of theme or style. If it was not quite a pioneer work in the field of local description, it was amongst the earliest. Paulding had dealt with Dutch colonial life, and Timothy Flint and James Hall had begun the descriptive literature of the West; but little else had been done at the time Swallow Barn appeared. Longstreet's Georgia Scenes came out two years later. Intrinsically as well as historically the work is curiously suggestive. Nowhere else does the plantation life of the Old Dominion in the days before its decline appear so vividly as in these discursive pages: "the mellow, bland, and sunny luxuriance of her old-time society-its good fellowship, its hearty and constitutional companionableness, the thriftless gaiety of the people, their dogged but amiable invincibility of opinion, and that overflowing hospitality which knows no ebb."
Like Irving, Kennedy went back to the old home, but that old home was Virginia and not England; and there he found still lingering on the great plantations charmingly romantic anachronisms that had disappeared elsewhere -a spontaneous romanticism of temperament that gave color and zest to the daily routine. The aloofness of plantation life had bred in the Virginia gentry a piquant individuality, a distinction as of old morocco or calfskin. Philly Wart, the shrewdly humorous fox-hunting lawyer; old Mr. Tracy of The Brakes, "turning a little sour with age" and resembling "that waterish, gravelly soil that you see sometimes around a spring, where nothing grows but sheep-sorrel," who cherishes a hereditary boundary dispute, pursuing his hypothetical rights through all the law courts and discovering, when the matter has been amicably settled by arbitration, that much of the zest has gone out of his life; the heroine Bel Tracy, a frank wholesome girl with a dash of Di Vernon in her romantic affectations that lead her to play at hawking: such figures fit as naturally into the background as the pampered house servants, the horseback riding, the constant visiting, the abundant dinners. Especially the dinners, when the neighborhood is invited in. The table spread with opulent hospitality and careless profusion-the baked ham at one end and the saddle of roast mutton at the other, with fried chicken, oysters, crabs, sweet potatoes, jellies, custards-a prodigal feast that only outdoor stomachs could manage, and all by way of preliminary to the dusty wine-bottles and easy stories that hold the men long after the ladies have withdrawn. Surely the romance of Old Virginia, preserved in these light-hearted discursive pages, is worth remembering by later generations who have forgotten how to live so genially.
In 1832 when Swallow Barn was written, the southern mind was just at the turn in its attitude towards slavery, and Frank Meriwether, a Virginian Sir Roger de Coverley, bled in the humanitarianism of the older liberals, accepts the institution as a present evil that is in a way of natural extinction. Slavery in Swallow Barn is kept in the background. There are slaves, of course, on the plantation, many of them; but they are in the tobacco fields or the quarters, far from the mansion; and not till near the end of the book does Kennedy's curiosity induce him to' visit the cabins and draw out Frank Meriwether in talk on slavery. The result is what one could have foreseen. The plantation master was the victim of a benevolent romanticism that vaguely looks for a solution to colonization schemes that will return the Negro to Africa; but like other southern gentlemen he is somewhat testy at the suggestion of outside interference. Slavery he regards as an exclusive southern problem, to be solved by those who understand its complex domestic implications. It would be better for everybody if Abolition busybodies would mind their own affairs and cease stirring up feelings where no good can come of it. To prove that Virginia gentlemen are aware of their responsibility, Meriwether offers a half humorous suggestion that Negro emancipation might well follow the example of English villeinage, with a slow break-up of the system, the emancipated Negro to remain in a protective feudal relation to his master. It was an amiable notion to play with, and it fitted the feudal psychology of the plantation.
In these early sketches Kennedy revealed an easy knack at writing that gave promise of excellent work later. He has lightness, grace, refinement, an eye sensitive to picturesque effects, delight in line and texture and color, an agreeable wit and playful sentiment, a relish for English idiom and the literary colloquial. In Horseshoe Robinson, written three years later, he abandoned the essay-sketch and turned to the school of historical romance then in full swing. The story is done in the orthodox manner of the thirties; it is compounded of equal parts gentry and commoners, the former providing respectability and the latter dramatic interest, the whole garnished with a few historical figures. There is quite obvious concern for authentic reality. The title-hero, a shrewd homespun scout, is carefully drawn from life; the background of bushwhackings and forays and onsets, and the numerous company of blackguards and honest folk, are painted in skillfully; and the whole conducts to a dramatic finale in the battle of King's Mountain. It is an excellent tale, quite worth reading today, but scarcely comparable in vividness and brisk action-in picaresque realism which any true war story must embody-with The Partisan of Gilmore Simms, written in the same year of 1835. Realism was not Kennedy's forte and after Horseshoe Robinson he abandoned the field of the Revolution which offered so rich an opportunity for the robuster genius of the Charleston romancer.
In Rob of the Bowl Kennedy opened a promising vein that he never adequately explored-the vein of the cavalier romantic. Temperamentally he was ill fitted to deal with rollicking action or picaresque adventure; he preferred the leisurely, discursive romantic, subdued to gentle raillery or humorous tenderness. One trembles to think what Simms would have made of the materials that Kennedy brought together in this tale of old St. Mary's in the days of Charles II. Here is the raw stuff of a true bloody-bones thriller: a gentlemanly blackguard with the stumps of his legs bound in a huge rocking trencher and moving about with the help of crutches, who is deep in the contraband trade; a swaggering young pirate, a Brother of the Bloody Coast, who falls in love with the daughter of the Collector of the Port and kidnaps her from her fathers house; a romantic lover, slender and clerky, but skillful with the rapier, who turns out to be the son of Rob; a haunted house that covers the smuggling operations of Rob and Captain Cocklescraft; and all this set against a background of partisan struggle between Roundhead and Cavalier, Protestant and Catholic, in the early days of the Maryland settlement.
But in the handling the story is far removed from a bloody-bones tale. The action is deliberately subdued to the humoresque; atmosphere is studiously created; adventure is held in strict subjection to the whimsical; and a mellow old time flavor is imprisoned in the leisurely pages. Kennedy had an appreciative eye for picturesque characters, and in Rob of the Bowl he has gathered a choice group, limned-as he would choose to say-with a partial hand. Garret Weasel, the garrulous pot-valiant innkeeper, and Dorothy his termagant spouse; Captain Jasper Dauntless, the cogging, wheedling swordsman who twists Dame Dorothy about his fingers and inveigles his host into undue commerce with his cups. These to be sure are stock characters, but they are done with excellent vivacity. Their abundant talk is well seasoned, and if the action sometimes drags, the company is good and the drinking is a sufficient end in itself. All the while he is writing Kennedy keeps half an eye on Elizabethan literature to assure himself of the exact turn of phrase. His vocabulary is saturated with the homely old speech, and his characters talk as if they had culled all the simples of English cottage gardens to garnish the staple of their wit. He has a keener delight than Simms in the picturesque archaic. He far surpasses Irving in easy mastery of the old-fashioned colloquial, as indeed he surpasses all our early novelists. He delights in the courtly wit of the Cavalier equally with the humors of Dogberry and Falstaff and Captain Bobadil, and he quite evidently is seeking to cross the sparkle of Congreve with the robustness of the Elizabethans. The result may sometimes appear a bit self-conscious; his phrases too often seem to be on dress parade; but he can plead his precedents in justification. In its fondness for the literary colloquial his prose style almost suggests Thackeray, and it is this suggestion, perhaps, that gave rise to the tradition that Kennedy wrote for the former a certain chapter of The Virginians. That he supplied Thackeray with materials for his Virginia backgrounds may be accepted as true, but the indebtedness probably went no further.
Rob of the Bowl is certainly Kennedy's best work, as it is one of the most finished and delightful of our earlier romances. Although it ran to six editions, the latest in 1907, it has scarcely received the recognition its lightness of touch deserves. But instead of opening the vein further he turned away to venture in new fields. Quodlibet, written in 1840, is a surprising successor to Rob--a satire on Jacksonian democracy, done with a light touch and great good humor.1
In those acrimonious days when Old Hickory's attack on the Bank so embittered its Whig partisans, Kennedy kept his temper, tipped his shafts with laughter and sent them neatly between the joints of the Democratic armor. Against such amusing satire fustian is helpless. The book is keen, vivacious, sparkling. The supposed follies of Jacksonianism--its deification of the majority vote, its cant of the sovereign people, its hatred of all aristocrats, its demagoguery and bluster and sheer buncombe--are hit off with exuberant raillery. The story professes to be an account of the rise to prosperity of the Borough of Quodlibet, under the beneficent smile of Democratic finance. Mean and insignificant before the coming of Jackson, with the removal of the "Deposites," "like Jeshurun, it waxed fat," with its rows of brick shops built on speculation and its Patriotic Copper Plate Bank that issued an unlimited supply of beautifully engraved notes as a stimulus to enterprise. To be sure the bank broke and the cashier absconded with his family to Europe, but its untoward end was attributed by all Jacksonian New Lights to the vile machinations of the Whigs. It was certainly Nick Biddle and the Barings, with their hatred of Old Bullion Benton's democratic gold coinage, that were the devil in the pot to spill the people's porridge.
Yet even in its laughter Kennedy's political bias is sharply and narrowly partisan. The satire is a capitalistic counter to the agrarian attack on the rising money power, and it is colored by the chagrin of gentlemen who find themselves displaced by plebeians. Something of the old aristocratic contempt for the plain man functioning as a political animal lingers in its pages, which the bubbling humor does not wholly conceal. In Jackson's onslaught on the Bank, Kennedy discovers only an impudent demagoguery; it is selfish and stupid, turmoiling the country for partisan ends and seeking to cover its petty spite with the mantle of patriotism. The Old Hero cuts a sorry figure in these brisk pages, and Van Buren a still sorrier one. The satire sparkles amusingly, but it is drawn from the old Federalist vintage and it preserves the flavor of a time when gentlemen frankly resented the rule of the unwashed majority. For that very reason Quodlibet is an unusually interesting document. It is the most vivacious criticism of Jacksonianism in our political library, one of our few distinguished political satires, and it deserves a better fate than to gather dust on old shelves.
After Quodlibet Kennedy did little else. The last twenty years of his life were largely wasted. His dignified life of William Wirt, published in 1849, seems to have met with approval, for it ran to six editions. Our grandfathers liked stately narrative that portrayed their subjects in full dress; and Kennedy gave them an impeccably respectable work in which all the rugosities of character were ironed out neatly and a fine starchy effect achieved. It is hard to understand how a writer so keen to detect the whimsical should have drawn so lifeless a picture of the genial Attorney-General. Perhaps the memory of Wirt's reputed greatness rested too heavily upon him; or it may have been that a lawyer in old Virginia lived as colorless a life as the narrative suggests; at any rate the novelist who never had failed to breathe life into the characters of his fiction, somehow failed in depicting this excellent gentleman of the old school. During the Civil War Kennedy contributed to the northern cause his Letters of Mr. Paul Ambrose on the Great Rebellion in the United States, in which he again showed that he could keep his temper and argue calmly. It was a difficult theme for which he was inadequately equipped. His constitutional argument is not impressive and it makes an ill showing when set over against Alexander H. Stephens' Constitutional View of the War between the States. He was a man of letters rather than a lawyer, and if he had eschewed politics and law and stuck to his pen our literature would have been greatly in his debt. Few Americans of his day were so generously gifted; none: possessed a lighter touch. He has been somewhat carelessly forgotten even by our literary historians who can plead no excuse for so grave a blunder.
EDGAR ALLAN POE: Romantic
It is from this slovenly background of aristocratic Virginia, with its liberalisms and conservatisms running at cross purposes, that the enigmatical figure of Poe emerged to vex the northern critics. In so far as any particular environment determined his highly individual and creative nature, it was the indolent life of the planter gentry, shot through with a pugnacious pride of locality, with a strong dislike of alien ways, with haughtiness, dissipation, wastefulness, chivalry. In his proud, irascible individualism that went out of its way to pick a quarrel, there is something of the spirit of John Randolph of Roanoke, but pied and streaked with unfortunate qualities that to many observers seemed the marks of the mere charlatan. As a southern gentleman he imbibed the common dislike of New England, and this dislike was aggravated by its diverse conception of the functions of art, and by the misfortunes that attended his literary career. An aesthete and a craftsman, the first American writer to be concerned with beauty alone, his ideals ran counter to every major interest of the New England renaissance: the mystical, optimistic element in transcendentalism; the social conscience that would make the world over in accordance with French idealism, and that meddled with its neighbor's affairs in applying its equalitarianism to the Negro; the pervasive moralism that would accept no other criteria by which to judge life and letters--these things could not fail to irritate a nature too easily ruffled. The Yankee parochialisms rubbed across his Virginia parochialisms; and when to these was added a Yankee preemption of the field of literary criticism, when a little clique engaged in the business of mutual admiration puffed New England mediocrities at his expense, the provocation was enough to arouse in a sensitive southern mind an antagonism that rivaled Beverley Tucker's. In his unhappy pilgrimage through life Poe was his own worst enemy, but he took comfort in charging his ill fortune upon the malignancy of others.
Southern though he was in the deep prejudices of a suspicious nature, his aloofness from his own Virginia world was complete. Aside from his art he had no philosophy and no programs and no causes. He got from Virginia what was bad rather than good, and his alienation from the more generous southern ideals did him harm. It was perhaps harder to be an artist in that slack southern society than in New England--harder to be a romantic concerned only with twilight melancholy. It would have been hard enough anywhere in Jacksonian America. His romanticisms were of quite another kind than those his countrymen were pursuing; and the planter sympathized with them no more than did the New York literati, or the western men of letters. In a world given over to bumptious middle-class enthusiasms, there would be scant sympathy for the craftsman and dreamer. There was no unearned increment to be got from investments in "the misty mid-region of Weir," which Poe threw on the market. The technician concerned with the values of long and short syllables would find few congenial spirits in a world of more substantial things; and the purveyors of shoddy tales would not take it kindly if their shortcomings were pointed out and a more competent craftsmanship insisted upon. And so, like Herman Melville, Poe came to shipwreck on the reef of American materialisms. The day of the artist had not dawned in America.
So much only need be said. The problem of Poe, fascinating as it is, lies quite outside the main current of American thought, and it may be left with the psychologist and the belletrist with whom it belongs. It is for abnormal psychology to explain his "neural instability amounting almost to a dissociated or split personality," his irritable pride, his quarrelsomeness, his unhappy persecution complex, his absurd pretentions to a learning he did not possess, his deliberate fabrications about his life and methods of work, his oscillations between abstinence and dissipation, between the morbidly grotesque and the lucidly rational, his haunting fear of insanity that drove him to demonstrate his sanity by pursuing complex problems of ratiocination. Such problems are personal to Poe and do not concern us here. And it is for the belletrist to evaluate his theory and practice of art: his debt to Coleridge and Schlegel; the influence of the contemporary magazine on his conception of the length of a work of the imagination; the value of his theory of the tyrannizing unity of mood in the poem and short story; the provocation to the craftsman of the pretentiousness of contemporary American literature, jointed to a flabby and crude technique; the grossness of the popular taste and the validity of his critical judgments. Whatever may be the final verdict it is clear that as an aesthete and a craftsman he made a stir in the world that has not lessened in the years since his death, but has steadily widened. Others of greater repute in his day have fared less prosperously in later reputation. He was the first of our artists and the first of our critics; and the surprising thing is that such a man should have made his appearance in an America given over to hostile ideas. He suffered much from his aloofness, but he gained much also. In the midst of gross and tawdry romanticisms he refused to be swallowed up, but went his own way, a rebel in the cause of beauty, discovering in consequence a finer romanticism than was before known in America.
1.The characteristic title is Quodlibet: Containing some Annals thereof, with an Authentic Account of the Origin and Growth of the Borough and the Sayings and Doings of Sundry Townspeople: Interspersed with Sketches of the Most Remarkable and Distinguished Characters of that Place and its Vicinity. Edited by Solomon Secondthoughts, Schoolmaster, from original MSS. Indited by him, and now made Public at the Request and under the Patronage of the Great New Light Democratic Central Committee of Quodlibet.