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.

IV. The New South: Lanier

§ 2. Susan Dabney Smedes

Worse even than stagnation was the hopelessness of the outlook. The leaders, the owners of plantations, were reduced from affluence to poverty. Many a family that had been comfortable or even rich was now thankful for a supper of cornmeal. Plantations were for sale at a song. The “richest estates” of North Carolina were at first to be bought for from one to ten dollars an acre. A hundred acres four miles from Macon, Georgia, the birthplace of Lanier, was offered for fifty cents an acre. The Southerner was convinced that the negro would not work in freedom. Two books give unforgettable pictures of the efforts of the planters to meet the new industrial situation. Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation by the daughter of Fanny Kemble, Frances Butler Leigh, details the childishness of the negro under the novel conditions of freedom. Mrs. Leigh can hardly be claimed as a Southern author, but Susan Dabney Smedes (1840– ) must take high rank as one. Her Memorials of a Southern Planter is an artless but absorbing picture of a class made extinct by the war. Without any of the theatrical effectiveness common in the older Southern prose, she relates in simple, dignified words the history of her father, Thomas Dabney, a planter of Mississippi. The war brought out in him such lofty nobility as is seldom seen in actual life. On laying down the volume Gladstone exclaimed “Let no man say, with this book before him, that the age of chivalry is gone, or that Thomas Dabney was not worthy to sit beside Sir Perceval at the ‘table round’ of King Arthur.” His struggle to keep the plantation ended in its sale. A like fate awaited others. It was only slowly through the years that the large holdings were broken up into small farms and reduced to a more intense cultivation by intelligent diversification of crops.

Hopelessness of the economic outlook was deepened to despair by political and social conditions. By 1870 the seceded states were nominally reconstructed. But the Republican measures were such as poured salt and iron filings into the open wounds of civil war. Negro soldiers were set over their former masters. The intelligent voters were disqualified. The state governments were handed over to Northern carpet-baggers and Southern scalawags, and the ignorant freedmen were given the right to vote. These former slaves marched through legislative halls on plush carpets, sat with their feet on mahogany desks, and spat into imported cuspidors. In one capital they resorted to a free and continuous lunch, with ample food and drink. All these luxuries were paid for out of the pockets of their former masters. This proud race, accustomed to generations of autocratic government, ground its teeth in silent rage. But by 1876 it had by fraud or violence overturned the inverted pyramid, and once more placed the state governments in the hands of responsible men, and returned many of its former leaders to the national Congress. The reins of government had been restored to the white man.

This atmosphere of turmoil was not conducive to a fine or vigorous literary product. Even so late as 1880 in Alabama “the assessed value of guns, dirks, and pistols was nearly twice that of the libraries and five times that of the farm implements of the state.” For there continued the race problem to set the Southerners apart as a peculiar people. In many neighbourhoods the blacks outnumbered the whites two to one, three to one, four to one, and in the Yazoo bottom lands of Mississippi as many as fifteen to one. Their presence was viewed as a peril. It continued to be viewed as a peril during the twenty years following 1880, though the South became more and more a modern industrial community.

During that period Northern capital flowed in to draw iron and coal from the South’s mines, to build factories along its streams, to spin a web of railways over its territory, to gather more and more its population into the humming hives of cities. The stagnation of the years immediately following the war gave way to an alerter life. Hopelessness and despondency waned gradually. With leisure and an interest in literature came visions of new beauty, a new-found joy in life, an impulse to share with others the creations of one’s mind and spirit. Yet it was even more due to the Northern periodical and the Northern publisher that in the seventies and still more in the eighties the South found a voice in literature. That voice, in prose, spoke at first in the sonorous accents of the antebellum orator. Only as means of publication were multiplied and made more available did it take on the natural tones of everyday use. Poetry in the seventies tended to give way to prose fiction.