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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

III. Poets of the Civil War II

§ 19. Davidson; Living Writers of the South

All these anthologies had appeared with but little introductory material or notes regarding the lives of the writers or the circumstances under which the poems were written. They were all practically a conglomeration of poems with little to aid the student of literary history. In 1869 James Wood Davidson’s Living Writers of the South was published in New York, with salient facts as to the biographies and bibliographies of some 241 writers—166 men and 75 women. Of these he puts down 112 as having written “verse” and eight as having written “poetry.” He adds:

  • Some of these specimens are poor enough, in all conscience,—some inartistic of course; and some, it may be, frivolous,—but each in its way and all together have their use in the general design. Some of the writers have talents and character, with corresponding results, which enable them to stand in the front rank of American authorship. Some have limited ability. And some have none.
  • These words are typical of the judgment and sense that run through the volume. There are, for instance, critical estimates, biographical sketches, and bibliographies of Simms, Hayne, Mrs. Preston, Flash, and Randall, and surprisingly short ones of Ticknor and Lucas. It required courage on the author’s part to characterize the poems of the veteran Simms as “prosaic, commonplace, and Tupperesque.” After citing some sixty-five titles of his books of all kinds he remarks: “He has not written an epic; why, I have no idea, but we may be infinitely grateful that he has not.”

    In his criticism of Flash, for whom he shows much enthusiasm, Davidson puts his finger upon the cardinal defects of many of the Southern poets. Flash, he says, “has never written anything which was not finished at a single sitting, and has never been more than two hours writing anything he has ever published.” He wrote his poem on Polk when his foreman told him that he lacked six or seven inches for the makeup of The Daily Confederate. “You have written about Zollicoffer and Jackson, you might as well write about Polk, who was killed the other day.” Flash quickly responded to the suggestion, and in five minutes the poem was in the hands of the composer, and in twenty minutes was being printed. Paying full tribute to Flash’s good qualities, the author warns him that without work there is not the remotest chance for an enduring reputation, and at the same time makes the same suggestion to others who may have acquired “a reverence for inspiration so called, and a contempt for the art of versification.”

    Apart from his critical judgment Davidson shows the ability of a careful editor in weighing evidence as to the authorship of All Quiet Along the Potomac—a poem that all Southerners had claimed as the work of Lamar Fontaine. Davidson publishes Fontaine’s letter claiming positively the authorship, but side by side with it is one from Joel Chandler Harris, who was at that time, according to the editor, planning an edition of Southern poems, and who after much deliberation expresses the opinion that Mrs. Beers is the author of the poem. He quotes also a letter to the same effect from the editor of Harper’s Magazine. While he himself does not express an opinion, it is not difficult for the reader to be convinced by the reasoning submitted by Joel Chandler Harris. The mention of Harris suggests that in this volume he himself appears as the author of several poems which are as unlike his later writings as anything could well be. Davidson has the credit too of publishing for the first time in this volume McCabe’s Dreaming in the Trenches and Christmas Night of ’62, and certain recent poems of Maurice Thompson and Sidney Lanier. He also has much to say of poems that do not relate to the war.