The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939


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A Bibliographical Guide to the Sociology of Literature

The epic historical novel, exemplified by Alex Haley's Roots , traced the freedom struggle back to its historical beginnings in the middle passage and the cotton and rice plantations of the Old South.


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Like Stowe's novel, these works offer emotional dramatizations of slave life within a sweeping episodic structure designed to convey both a sense of past history and present urgency. The slave narrative genre, like Stowe's novel, has continued for over a century to generate fiction that draws upon its distinctive formal features. Beginning in the s, writers as disparate as Ishmael Reed and William Styron , Octavia Butler and Charles Johnson have brought the first-person slave narrator's voice into dialogue with modern practices of racial discrimination through the genre of "neo-slave narrative.

The categories enumerated below reflect the great variety of literature produced out of the fugitive-slave and slaveowning South, beginning within the period of to and extending down to the present. In each genre we see how persistently the South's identity, within and beyond its literature, was formed by and remains tied to its " peculiar institution " and its moment of attempted nationalism.

Pleasant Valley, New York. Bottom , Anti-slavery Liberty Bell print, Boston, Engraving by J. Published by National Anti-slavery Bazaar. The North American Slave Narrative began as a rhetorical form commandeered by the abolitionist movements in both Great Britain and America. The rhetorical situation was well-defined: freed slaves or those who had escaped their owners were asked to tell of their experiences within bondage, emphasizing trials and tribulations, the cruelty of masters, the depths of their suffering, and the strength of their desire to be free.

Slave narratives were potent weapons in the abolition arsenal, especially with the rise of organized abolition societies in the s. No other rhetorical design had as much power as these eyewitness accounts to move opinion against the institution of slavery.

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Accuracy in the slave narrative was paramount. The few fictionalized accounts, when discovered, provoked accusations from the South's defenders that all of these publications were suspect. Thus the factual accounts almost always included extensive prefatory endorsements from well-regarded white sponsors. The slave narrator him or herself was encouraged to leave inner revelations, such as expressions of self-discovery and individuality, in the background and to foreground the verifiable facts of representative slave experience, without adornment.

Today we recognize in slave narratives both their didactic function as evidence in the abolitionists' cause and their artistic and expressive functions for the slave author whose identity as writer was especially ambiguous. The slaves' claims to humanity, to authority, to self-determination were enacted in taking up pen and paper, yet the tale to be told was pressed into a conventional format, and the generic plot returned them to the status of chattel.

Most of these narratives were produced during the first great era of American literature — , side by side with such classics of American self-fashioning as Thoreau's Walden , Whitman's Leaves of Grass , and Melville's Moby-Dick. Once Stowe had published Uncle Tom's Cabin , Douglass in his My Bondage and My Freedom and Harriet Jacobs in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl adopted novelistic techniques such as extensive dialogue between "characters" and thematic chapter headings.

One especially intriguing example of the novelization of the slave narrative has been uncovered by Henry Louis Gates. In he re-published a novel by a slave woman probably named Hannah Crafts, entitled " The Bondwoman's Narrative ," first published, again probably, in New Jersey sometime between and The narrative is named fiction and uses many fictional elements including "borrowings" from Charles Dickens.

Gates has pieced together fascinating speculations concerning the African American woman who wrote the fictional account of a slave woman's life and her final attainment of freedom. The definitive study of this genre is William L. He chose for inclusion in his study "all the forms of first-person retrospective prose narrative that came from the mouths or pens of American blacks between and The Historical Romance and the Domestic Novel. Plantation fiction as a rubric for southern literature has often included, even emphasized, literature written by local color writers after the Civil War.

Yet we will be considering that grouping in a different light because its use of the "trappings" of the plantation served purposes related to the Reconstruction South 's racial agenda, and not the institutionalization of slavery itself. The plantation fiction described below belongs to the antebellum period and was ideologically motivated to render a vision of southern society as a slavocracy in all its relations.

The novels of the early nineteenth century were often labeled " romances " by the men who wrote them George Tucker , John Pendleton Kennedy , William A. Caruthers , and William Gilmore Simms. These works usually dealt with very specific historical moments Bacon's Rebellion , the Revolutionary War and stressed what has become known as "the cavalier myth" which touted the heroics of aristocratic types. The plantation was most often a backdrop, but a crucial one—a credential indicating the nobility of class that paralleled the nobility of spirit that the heroic male character must exemplify.


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In both the mid-nineteenth century North and South, women writers were not long in entering the book-writing business. Their works almost always bear the labels "domestic" or "sentimental," and those labels have usually been pejorative. Still it is important to see, in southern white women's antebellum fiction, the political value of the plantation as a social organization involving the ideal of slavery as a "domestic institution.


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  6. Southworth , Caroline Gilman , and Augusta Jane Evans Wilson were interested in white upper-class women's experience within this ideal of planter society, just as the male romancers were interested in upper-class masculinity within the same paradigm. The fictional worlds of both white southern men and women writers privileged the lives of slaveholders, even if plantation settings and slaves are seldom center-stage.

    Kennedy's Swallow Barn are the most explicit of this genre in exploring directly the workings of the plantation as a theme. In these novels the plantation is the ideal home, where slaves and slaveholders are part of one patriarchally ordered family that combines economic and social responsibilities. African American writers Frederick Douglass, in The Heroic Slave , William Wells Brown in Clotel or The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States , and Frances Watkins in fictional narratives such as " The Slave Mother: A Tale of the Ohio " rebuke the genre and gender positions of plantation literature in dramatic ways, appropriating virtues associated with the cavalier hero and the plantation belle for African American characters who actively work against or who are victims of the slave system.

    The Anti-Tom Novel. Before the last installment of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in The National Era in , and before the ink was dry on the book version that came out in March of , southerners were sharpening their pens into knives. The South found no shortage of writers of both genders eager to refute Stowe's villainization of slave owners and her romantization of slaves. Dozens of works of fiction and epic narrative poems were published in counter-attack before the end of the Civil War.

    For many years after the war had settled the book's major question, white southerners continued to try to undo the damage to their social image that her novel had inflicted.

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    John P. Kennedy and William Gilmore Simms, the South's two most well known romancers, might be said to have anticipated Stowe more than directly confronted her. Kennedy brought out a second edition of his popular plantation work, Swallow Barn , in , adding a chapter in which the kindly master details his plan to make slavery, a necessary evil even to him, more equitable for the slave.

    William Gilmore Simms's Woodcraft was published originally as The Sword and the Distaff only a few months after Uncle Tom's Cabin 's debut in book form, but it contains some discussions that are clear refutations of Stowe's views. Set at the end of the Revolutionary War, Woodcraft embellishes the career of a colorful character, army officer Captain Porgy, to develop a plot hinging in part on the master's close relationship to his manservant notably named Tom.

    In appeared two of the most significant novels to directly take on Stowe's arguments: Thomas B. The vision that these novels promote is of a South in which slaves and masters enjoy a mutually supportive, familial bond that is only severed by the ignorant or greedy machinations of abolitionists. The North's capitalistic labor structure is indicted, while the master is cast as the enlightened descendant of the southern heroes of the Revolution, and the guarantor of the rights of land and slave owning man.

    None of the refutations had anywhere near the persuasive impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet the huge popularity of an early twentieth century southern novelist, Thomas Dixon , who followed Stowe's footsteps as a master propagandist, reflects an ironic, even tragic, shift in public will.

    Thomas Dixon made use of many of Stowe's effective fictional and rhetorical strategies in his white supremacist novels , works such as The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots that found wide audiences, especially when D. Griffith transformed them into the landmark film Birth of a Nation in Of the many literary works that grew out of the civil rights movement of the s and 70s, one interesting group is the epic novels that return to slavery for plots and characters in order to give the struggle for African American political freedom and socioeconomic justice an extensive historical dimension.

    African American writers Margaret Walker in Jubilee , Ernest Gaines in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman , and Alex Haley in Roots published sweeping historical novels that covered the freedom struggle across generations beginning with a realistic portrayal of their heroes' early lives in slavery. A forerunner to these is Arna Bontemps 's novel, Black Thunder , which drew upon Gabriel Prosser's abortive slave rebellion near Richmond in William Styron argued that his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner grew out of his own personal wrestling with civil rights issues.

    As a narrative cast within the first-person voice of the slave Nat Turner, Styron drew, as did the writers considered below, upon the slave narrative form, although his novel shows much less awareness of the original slave narratives than do other neo-slave narrative fiction writers. Neo-Slave Narratives are first-person fictional novels that adopt the form of the pre-Civil War, first-person retrospective slave narratives.

    Like the civil rights epics, they have grown primarily as a response of African American writers to the s political struggles for equal opportunity. Some of these novels are set completely within the historical period of slavery, while others use features of science fiction time travel Octavia Butler 's Kindred or magic realism techniques allowing fantastic, often anachronistic plot elements Charles Johnson 's Oxherding Tale ; Ishmael Reed 's Flight to Canada The neo-slave narratives are usually very self-conscious in their imaginative borrowings of the actual slave autobiographies, which constitute a kind of parent form for all African American literature.

    William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner draws from the wording of the slave revolt leader's Confession , taken from and published by his lawyer after the revolt. Styron's work, a white writer's appropriation and fictionalizing of a major African American figure's life, was very controversial. African American writers and critics objected strongly to Styron's lack of research into the actualities of slave life and more particularly to his distortions of the known facts of Turner's life. The Confessions of Nat Turner heightened the awareness both within and beyond the African American community of the need for well-grounded efforts to recover and interpret the slave's experience in history and literature.

    Sherley Anne Williams 's novel Dessa Rose , in response to what she called Styron's "travesty," took up this challenge with a plot that follows the life of a woman slave who, after an unsuccessful slave rebellion, is able to escape and take charge of her life. The neo-slave narrative celebrates the forceful witness of the fugitive slaves, particularly their will to freedom and their courage in escaping and confronting oppressive, racist institutions, and applies their perspectives to contemporary African American life. The rural ordering of southern life well into the twentieth century influenced many of its ideological positions, and these positions in turn made the classical genre of pastoral a congenial form for many southern writers.

    The pastoral is a genre that, standardized by Virgil in his Eclogues , served writers seeking to resolve the tension between memories of a simpler past, associated with nature and rural society, and experience in a more complex present world. Pastoral literature historically has flourished in times of dramatic change.

    Writers undergoing a dislocation from a familiar home world turn to the conventions of the pastoral to envision that simpler locale from the vantage point of inevitable loss and removal. In pastoral, then, the past looms large, not so much as a particular historical time and place as an idealized, mythologized lost realm such as Virgil's Arcadia. The past of pastoral is associated with the natural world imaged as the "good earth" or "the garden" and with community shepherd and flock, extended family, village, or homeland.

    However, such a version of the past tends inevitably towards nostalgia and fatalism, and potentially towards paralysis. In the South the idealization of the rural past is made even more dangerous, and more complicated, because the white South's Arcadia was predicated upon slavery. The pastoral became a congenial genre for southern writers even before the Civil War, in large part through its ties to agrarian idealism. Thomas Jefferson 's s invocation, in Notes on the State of Virginia , of the "cultivators," those who "till the earth" as "the chosen people of God," was his attempt to stand against the encroachments into his idyllic Virginia of the trade and manufacturing economy that was already enlisting the enthusiasm of northern colonies.

    In the next century, John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn was the evocation of a city dweller a Baltimore businessman and lawyer who created a James River plantation setting both to praise and satirize the country life of his childhood. Both Jefferson and Kennedy lived in the whirlwind of a complex, changing South, far removed from the cultivators they idealized, with intentional or unintentional irony, in their writing.

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    Herein lies the impetus of the pastoral: its creation of the rustic inhabitants of the good earth always grows out of a consciousness steeped in the effects of inevitable change and displacement. With the end of World War I, Tate intoned, "the South reentered the world—but gave a backward glance as it slipped over the border" "The New Provincialism. Essays of Four Decades. Chicago: Swallow, Beneath Tate's singling out of World War I as a dividing line responsible for a pastoralized literary consciousness was an awareness of the Civil War as another cataclysmic moment of change and separation responsible for summoning up, in some southern minds, the "backward glance.

    The complex literature of the Fugitive-Agrarians Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson and Southern Modernists epitomized by William Faulkner explores, with more guilt, tension, and ambivalence, the emotions of pastoral that we recognize in earlier, and especially white male local color, writers. In their tendency to return to a mythic past, we can connect the more ironic response of Southern Renascence writers to the responses of Local Colorists publishing in the years following "Surrender" and novelists from that time forward who have used the Civil War as the specific historical dividing line between ideal past and real present.

    Local Color, Civil War, Agrarian, and Modernist classifications of southern literature all involve evoking a sense of loss through the allure of the threatened natural environment and juxtaposing fading ideals of the past against painful realities of the present. Local color writers of the South were encouraged by northern markets to make plantation and village southern settings into the "good lost land" of pastoral, in part to satisfy the longings of readers increasingly removed in the late nineteenth century from any real experience of country life.

    The plantation was mythologized in local color writing more than it had been in antebellum fiction, with slavery ironically now an acceptable feature of the idealization. Following World War I, southern writers confronted historical pressures forcing the South irrevocably from its rural and agricultural base.

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    Certainly in relation to immediate post-Civil War writers, these modern writers saw the past through a glass darkened by shades of guilt and irony that are missing in some Local Colorists, who were trying to win with their pens the war that had been lost at Appomattox. Nevertheless, the tension between mythologized past and diminished present that characterizes all pastoral is embodied in southern writing of many different places and times: from Jefferson's Monticello and Kennedy's tidewater Virginia, to Grace King's New Orleans and Joel Chandler Harris's middle Georgia, to Ellen Glasgow's Civil War battle grounds and Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County , to Jean Toomer's Georgia and Zora Neale Hurston's south Florida.

    It is a tension involving the ominous threat of change in southern locales that always function only precariously and ambivalently as havens held sacred out of time. Southern writers, particularly after the Civil War, saw the advantage of devising a literary agenda to advance a political one and found in local color writing a successful formula for this program, especially during the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era, roughly from to Southern white writers, both men and women, made local color fiction a convenient tool for insinuating racial paternalism into pastoral evocations of a traditional society of the past.

    Popular taste dictated many of the properties of the genre: quaint locales, attention to details of dress, manner, and speech, colorful vernacular dialects, marriage plots which both highlight and overcome difference between families, classes, and regions.

    Many of the most popular local color works of white male writers Thomas Nelson Page in In Ole Virginia , Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus tales , James Lane Allen in his many short stories used the mechanism of the frame narrator who speaks in a detached, non-vernacular voice that controls the portrayals of quainter but also less sophisticated narrators in the "inside" story.

    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939
    The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939 The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939

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