Sidney Lanier by Edwin Mims - HTML preview
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While Lanier was finding his place in the larger spheres of scholarship, of music, and of poetry, he constantly returned in thought and imagination to the South. Even after 1877, when he and his family became residents of Baltimore, his correspondence with his father and brother kept him in touch with that section. He continued to read Southern newspapers and to follow with interest Southern development. In his desk he kept a regular drawer for matters pertaining to the South. Both from his experience, which enabled him to enter with unusual sympathy into the life of the South, and from the larger point of view gained from his life in other sections, his observations on Southern life and literature are of special value. They show that he was not such a detached figure as has been frequently thought. He was of the South, and took delight in every evidence of her progress. He sometimes despaired of her future -- so much so that he urged his brother to come to Baltimore in 1879. He had little patience with the prevailing type of political leader at the time when the Silver Bill was passed, so he wrote, June 8, 1879, to Clifford Lanier: --
"I cannot contemplate with any patience your stay in the South. In my soberest moments I can perceive no outlook for that land. Our representatives in Congress have acted with such consummate unwisdom that one may say we have no future there. Mr. ---- and Mr. --- (as precious a pair of rascals as ever wrought upon the ignorance of a country) have disgusted all thoughtful men of whatever party; while the shuffling of our better men on the question of public honesty, their folly in allowing such people as Blaine and Conkling to taunt them into cheap hurlings back of defiance (as the silly Southern newspapers term it), their inconceivable mistake in permitting the stalwart Republicans to arrange all the issues of the campaign and to bring on the battle, not only whenever they want it, but on whatever ground they choose, instead of manfully holding before the people the real issues of the time, -- the tariff, the prodigious abuses clustered about the capitol at Washington, the restriction of granting powers in Congress, the non-interference theory of government, -- all these things have completely obscured the admitted good intentions of Morgan and Lamar and their fellows, and have entirely alienated the feelings of men who at first were quite won over to them. The present extra session has been from the beginning a piece of absurdity such as the world probably never saw before. Our men are such mere politicians, that they have never yet discovered -- what the least thoughtful statesmanship ought to have perceived at the close of our war -- that the belief in the sacredness and greatness of the American Union among the millions of the North and of the great Northwest is really the principle which conquered us. As soon as we invaded the North and arrayed this sentiment in arms against us, our swift destruction followed. But how soon they have forgotten Gettysburg! That the presence of United States troops at the polls is an abuse no sober man will deny; but to attempt to remedy it at this time, when the war is so lately over, when the North is naturally sensitive as to securing the hard-won results of it, when, consequently, every squeak of a penny whistle is easily interpreted into a rebel yell by the artful devices of Mr. Blaine and his crew, -- this was simply to invade the North again as we did in '64. And we have met precisely another Gettysburg. The whole community is uneasy as to the silver bill and the illimitable folly of the greenbackers; business men anxiously await the adjournment of Congress, that they may be able to lay their plans with some sense of security against a complete reversal of monetary conditions by some silly legislation; and I do not believe that there is a quiet man in the Republic to whom the whole political caucus at Washington is not a shame and a sorrow.
"And thus, as I said, it really seems as if any prosperity at the South must come long after your time and mine. Our people have failed to perceive the deeper movements underrunning the times; they lie wholly off, out of the stream of thought, and whirl their poor old dead leaves of recollection round and round, in a piteous eddy that has all the wear and tear of motion without any of the rewards of progress. By the best information I can get, the country is substantially poorer now than when the war closed, and Southern securities have become simply a catchword. The looseness of thought among our people, the unspeakable rascality of corporations like M---- -- how long is it going to take us to remedy these things? Whatever is to be done, you and I can do our part of it far better here than there. Come away."
The very next year, however, he wrote his essay on the New South, showing a far more hopeful view. After reading for two years the newspapers of Georgia, with a view to understanding the changed conditions in his native State, Lanier published in October, 1880, an article on that subject in "Scribner's Magazine".* To one who reads it with the expectation of getting an idea of the forces that have made the New South, it is sadly disappointing; for he is told at once that the New South means small farming, and the article deals largely with the increase in the number of small farms and a consequent diversity of products. Insignificant as such a study may seem, it is noteworthy as showing Lanier's interest in practical affairs. It has been seen that ever since the war he had been interested in the redemption of the agricultural life of the South, that this was the subject of his first important poem. Since the writing of "Corn" and of the earlier dialect poems, he had frequently commented on the future of the South as to be determined largely by an improved agricultural system. To him the best evidence of the enduring character of the new civilization was a democracy, growing out of a vital revolution in the farming economy of the South. "The great rise of the small farmer in the Southern States during the last twenty years," he says, "becomes the notable circumstance of the period, in comparison with which noisier events signify nothing." The hero of the sketch is a small farmer "who commenced work after the war with his own hands, not a dollar in his pocket, and now owns his plantation, has it well stocked, no mortgage or debt of any kind on it, and a little money to lend." Lanier clips from his newspaper files passages indicating the constantly increasing diversity of crops. The reader is carried into the country fairs and along the roads and through plantations by a man who had a realistic sense of what was going on in the whole State of Georgia. "The last few years," he says, "have witnessed a very decided improvement in Georgia farming: moon-planting and other vulgar superstitions are exploding, the intelligent farmer is deriving more assistance from the philosopher, the naturalist, and the chemist, and he who is succeeding best is he who has thirty or forty cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry of his own raising, together with good-sized barns and meat-houses, filled from his own fields, instead of from the West."
* `Retrospects and Prospects', pp. 104-135.
Lanier saw that out of this growth in small farming -- this agricultural prosperity -- would come changes of profound significance. He saw an intimate relation between politics, social life, morality, art, on the one hand, and the bread-giver earth on the other. "One has only to remember, particularly here in America, whatever crop we hope to reap in the future, -- whether it be a crop of poems, of paintings, of symphonies, of constitutional safeguards, of virtuous behaviors, of religious exaltation, -- we have got to bring it out of the ground with palpable plows and with plain farmer's forethought, in order to see that a vital revolution in the farming economy of the South, if it is actually occurring, is necessarily carrying with it all future Southern politics and Southern relations and Southern art, and that, therefore, such an agricultural change is the one substantial fact upon which any really new South can be predicated." It has been seen that Lanier underrated the development of the manufacturing interests in the South; and yet who does not see that with all the industrial prosperity of this section during the last twenty years, the most crying need now is the rehabilitation of the South's agricultural life? The present aggressive movement in the direction of the improvement of the rural schools is a confirmation of Lanier's vision of "the village library, the neighborhood farmers'-club, the amateur Thespian Society, the improvement of the public schools, the village orchestra, all manner of betterments and gentilities and openings out into the universe." He saw, too, the effect on the negro of his becoming a landowner, and the consequent obliteration of the color line in politics. He cites from his newspaper clippings evidences of the increasing prosperity of the negro race, -- for instance, how "at the Atlanta University for colored people, which is endowed by the State, the progress of the pupils, the clearness of their recitation, their excellent behavior, and the remarkable neatness of their schoolrooms, altogether convince `your committee that the colored race are capable of receiving the education usually given at such institutions.'" He sees in the appearance of the negro as a small farmer a transition to the point in which "his interests, his hopes, and consequently his politics become identical with those of all other small farmers, whether white or black."
Much as has been accomplished, however, he looks forward with expectancy to a still greater future: "Everywhere the huge and gentle slopes kneel and pray for vineyards, for cornfields, for cottages, for spires to rise up from beyond the oak-groves. It is a land where there is never a day of summer or of winter when a man cannot do a full day's work in the open field; all the products meet there, as at nature's own agricultural fair. . . . It is because these blissful ranges are still clamorous for human friendship; it is because many of them are actually virgin to plow, pillar, axe, or mill-wheel, while others have known only the insulting and mean cultivation of the early immigrants who scratched the surface for cotton a year or two, then carelessly abandoned all to sedge and sassafras, and sauntered on toward Texas: it is thus that these lands are with sadder significance than that of small farming, also a New South."
In order to understand the development of the New South, here briefly indicated, and in order to appreciate what Lanier really accomplished, two types of Southerners must be clearly distinguished. After the war the conservative Southerner -- ranging all the way from the fiery Bourbon to the strong and worthy protagonist of the old order -- failed to understand the meaning of defeat. He interpreted the conflict as the triumph of brute force, -- sheer material prosperity, -- and comforted himself with the thought that many of the noblest causes had gone down in defeat. He threshed over the arguments of Calhoun with regard to the Constitution of 1787. He quoted Scripture in defense of slavery, or tried to continue slavery -- in spirit, if not in name. He saw no hope for the negro, and looked for his speedy deterioration under freedom. Compelled by force of circumstances to acknowledge the supremacy of the Federal government, he was still dominated by the ideas of separation. He saw no future for the nation. "This once fair temple of liberty," one of them said, -- "rent from the bottom, desecrated by the orgies of a half-mad crew of fanatics and fools, knaves, negroes, and Jacobins, abandoned wholly by its original worshipers -- stands as Babel did of old, a melancholy monument of the frustrate hopes and heaven-aspiring ambition of its builders."
With him the passing away of the age of chivalry was as serious a matter as it was to Burke. He magnified the life before the war as the most glorious in the history of the world. He saw none of its defects; he resented criticism, either by Northerners or by his own people. He opposed the public school system, as "Yankeeish and infidel", stoutly championing the system of education which had prevailed under the old order. He recognized no standards. "We fearlessly assert," said one of them, speaking of the most distinguished of Southern universities, "that in this university, the standard is higher, the education more thorough, and the work done by both teachers and students is far greater, than in Princeton, or Yale, or Harvard, or in any other Northern college or university." If he ventured into the field of literary criticism, he maintained that the Old South had a literature equal to that of New England; if he had doubts upon that subject, he looked forward to a time not far off when the Southern cause would find monumental expression in a commanding literature. If he thought on theological or philosophical subjects, he thought in terms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The watchwords of modern life were so many red flags to him, -- science the enemy of religion, German philosophy a denial of the depravity of man, democracy the product of French infidelity and of false humanitarianism, industrial prosperity the inveterate foe of the graces of life. To use Lanier's words, he "failed to perceive the deeper movements underrunning the times." Defeated in a long war and inheriting the provincialism and sensitiveness of a feudal order, he remained proud in his isolation. He went to work with a stubborn and unconquered spirit, with the idea that sometime in the future all the principles for which he had stood would triumph.
Into the hands of such men the reconstruction governments played. Worse even than the effect of excessive taxation, misgovernment, and despair produced in the minds of the people, was the permanent effect produced on the Southern mind. The prophecies that had been made with regard to the triumph of despotism seemed to be fulfilled; every contention that had been made in 1861 with regard to the dangers of Federal usurpation seemed justified in the acts of the government. The political equality of the negro, guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment, and the attempt to give him social equality, were stubborn facts which seemed to overthrow the more liberal ideas of Lincoln and of those Southern leaders who after the war hoped that the magnanimity of the North would be equal to the great task ahead of the nation. The conservative leaders were invested with a dignity that recalls the popularity of Burke when his predictions with regard to the French Revolution were realized. During all the years that have intervened since reconstruction days, the conservative has had as a resource for leadership his harking back to those days. The demagogue and the reactionary -- enemies of the children of light -- have always been able to inflame the populace with appeals to the memories and issues of the past. Such men have forgot nothing and learned nothing.*
* I have here sketched a composite picture; it is like no one man, but the type is recognizable. It is the result of a study of the magazines, newspapers, and biographies of the period from 1865 to 1880. The type is not extinct.
In striking contrast with the conservative Southerner has been the progressive Southerner, a type ranging all the way from the unwise and unreasonable reformer to the wellbalanced and sympathetic worker, who has endeavored to make the transition from the old order to the new a normal and healthy one. If the qualities which have made Lanier's progress possible are recalled, -- his lack of prejudice, his inexhaustible energy, the alertness and modernness of his mind, his ability to find joy in constructive work, his adoption of the national point of view, -- then the reader may see the elements that have made possible a New South. The same spirit applied to industry, to education, to religion, is now seen everywhere. The term "New South", used by Lanier and others, is meant in no way as a reproach to the Old South, -- it is simply the recognition of a changed social life due to one of the greatest catastrophes in history. In the early eighties it was employed by four Georgians, who had a right to use it, -- Benjamin H. Hill, Atticus G. Haygood, Henry Grady, and Sidney Lanier.
Georgia was the Southern State that led in this progressive work. Here the readjustment came sooner, by reason of the fact that a more democratic people lived there, and also that the burdens of reconstruction were less severe. Virginia gave to the nation at the time of the foundation of the republic a group of statesmen rarely excelled in the history of the world. South Carolina statesmen led in the movement towards secession, and her people were the first to make an aggressive movement in that direction. The leadership of the New South must be found in a group of far-seeing, liberal-minded, aggressive Georgians. The action of the State legislature in repealing the ordinance of secession and accepting the emancipation of slaves within one minute, was characteristic of her later work. In 1866, Alexander H. Stephens and Benjamin H. Hill -- one before the legislature of Georgia and the other before Tammany Hall -- sounded the note of patience, of nationalism, and of hope. "There was a South of slavery and secession," said the latter; "that South is dead. There is a South of Union and freedom; that South, thank God! is living, breathing, growing every hour." These words became the text of the now celebrated address of another Georgian who twenty years later, before the New England Club of New York, gave notable expression to his own ideals and those who had wrought with him in the genuine reconstruction of the South. Henry Grady, as editor of the Atlanta "Constitution", was, after 1876, an exponent of the idea that the future of the South lay not primarily in politics, but in an industrial order which should be the basis of a more enduring civilization. At his advice, as Joel Chandler Harris says, everybody began to take a day off from politics occasionally and devote themselves to the upbuilding of the resources of the State. Another Georgian, the late John B. Gordon, united with Grady and others in saying "a bold and manly word in behalf of the American Union in the ear of the South, and a bold and manly word in behalf of the South in the ear of the North." While recounting the last days of the Confederacy, he awoke in Northern hearts an admiration for Lee and in Southern hearts an admiration for Grant, and in all an aspiration towards nationalism.
Another Georgian, Atticus G. Haygood, -- president of Emory College and afterwards bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, -- voiced the sentiment of the liberal South with regard to the negro, in a book whose title, "Our Brother in Black", sufficiently indicates the spirit in which it was written. In a Thanksgiving sermon on the New South, delivered in 1881, he criticised severely the croakers and the demagogues who were endeavoring to mislead the people, and reviewed with sympathy the great progress that had been made since the war. He pleads guilty to the charge of having new light and is glad of it. He points out with keen insight the illiteracy of the masses of the Southern people and the lack of educational facilities. A movement for the development of a public school system in the South was led by J. L. M. Curry, a Confederate soldier of Georgia stock. He became an evangelist in the crusade for public education, announcing before State legislatures the principle upon which a true democratic order might be established. "I am not afraid of the educated masses," he said, in an address before the Georgia legislature; "I would rather trust the masses than king, priest, aristocracy, or established church. No nation can realize its full possibility unless it builds upon the education of the whole people."
By 1885 the forces that have here been briefly sketched were well under way throughout the South. Factories were prospering, farm products were becoming more diversified, more farmers owned their own places, a public school system was firmly established in all the leading cities and towns, colleges and universities -- some of the strongest dating from the period just after the war -- were enabled to increase their endowments and to modernize their work, the national spirit was growing, and a more liberal view of religion was being maintained. A day of hope, of freedom, of progress, had dawned.
It was natural that along with all these changes, and indeed anticipating some of them, there should arise a group of Southern writers. Indeed, immediately after the war there was a marked tendency in the direction of literary work -- "an avalanche of literature in a devastated country." Magazines were started and books were published in abundance. The literary activity was due, no doubt, in the first place, to the poverty of men and women: some who would have looked down upon literature as a profession before the war were now eager to do anything to keep starvation from the door. Furthermore, there was a great desire among some people to have the Southern side of the war well represented before the civilized world. Hence arose innumerable biographies, histories, and historical novels, and hence the demand for Southern text-books.
It is clearly impossible to give any adequate sketch of this literary awakening, -- if so it may be called, when contrasted with a later one. Of the magazines which were started, the most important were "Debow's Review", "devoted to the restoration of the Southern States and the development of the wealth and resources of the country," whose motto was, "Light up the torches of industry"; the "Southern Review", edited by Dr. A. T. Bledsoe and William Hand Browne and dedicated "to the despised, the disfranchised, and the down-trodden people of the South"; "The Land We Love", started in Charlotte, N.C., by Gen. D. H. Hill, and devoted to literature, military history, and agriculture; "Scott's Monthly", published in Atlanta, "Southern Field and Fireside", in Raleigh, and "The Crescent Monthly", in New Orleans; the "New Eclectic Magazine" and its successor, the "Southern Magazine", published by the Turnbull Brothers of Baltimore; and, as if Charleston had not had enough magazines to die before the war, the "Nineteenth Century", in that city. Most of these had but a short career, and none of them survived longer than 1878. There was in them a continual crying out for Southern literature which might worthily represent the Southern people. The response came, too -- so far as quantity was concerned. One of the editors remarked that he had enough poetry on hand to last seven years and five months.
Of these magazines the most important was the "Southern Magazine", published at Baltimore from 1871 to 1875, -- a magazine which came nearest filling the place occupied by the "Southern Literary Messenger" before the war. While it was somewhat eclectic in its character, -- reprinting articles from the English magazines, -- it had as contributors a group of promising young scholars and writers. The editor was William Hand Browne, now professor of English literature in Johns Hopkins University. Professor Gildersleeve, then of the University of Virginia, Professor Thomas R. Price, then professor of English at Randolph-Macon, James Albert Harrison, later the biographer and editor of Poe, and Margaret J. Preston were regular contributors. Richard Malcolm Johnston contributed his "Dukesborough Tales" to it. One of the publishers of the magazine, Mr. Lawrence Turnbull, visited Lanier at Macon in 1871 and became much interested in him. To the magazine Lanier contributed "Prospects and Retrospects" (March and April, 1871), "A Song" and "A Seashore Grave" (July, 1871), "NatureMetaphors" (February, 1872), "San Antonio de Bexar" (July and August, 1873), and "Peace" (October, 1874).
Of the books published during this period, few have survived. John Esten Cooke's novels and his lives of Stonewall Jackson and Lee, two or three collections of the war poetry of the South, Gayarre's histories, the "War between the States", by Alexander H. Stephens, Craven's "Prison Life of Jefferson Davis", and Dabney's "Defense of Virginia" are perhaps the most significant. J. Wood Davidson's "Living Writers of the South", published in 1869, gives the best general idea of the extent and quality of the post-bellum writing. Noteworthy, also, is a series of text-books projected with the idea that the moral and mental training of the sons and daughters of the South should no longer be intrusted to teachers and books imported from abroad. As planned originally, the scheme called for Bledsoe's Mathematics, Maury's Geographies, Holmes's Readers, Gildersleeve's Latin Grammar, histories of Louisiana and South Carolina by Gayarre and Simms respectively, scientific books by the Le Conte brothers, and English Classics by Richard Malcolm Johnston.
So much needs to be said of the character of the literature immediately succeeding the war, if for no other reason, that it may be contrasted with the literature of, say, the period from 1875 to 1885. With the death of Timrod in 1867, and of Simms, Longstreet, and Prentice in 1870, the old order of Southern writers had passed away. By 1875 a new group of writers had begun their work, Paul Hamilton Hayne best representing the transition from one to the other. The younger writers either had been Confederate soldiers, or had been intimately identified with those who were. They began to write, not out of response to a demand for distinctively Southern literature, but because they had the artistic spirit, the desire to create. They were interested in describing Southern scenery, and in portraying types of character in the social life of their respective States. Unlike most of the literature of the Old South, the new literature was related directly to the life of the people. Men began to describe Southern scenery, not some fantastic world of dreamland; sentimentalism was superseded by a healthy realism. The writers fell in with contemporary tendencies and followed the lead of Bret Harte and Mark Twain, who had begun to write humorous local sketches and incidents. With them literature was not a diversion, but a business. They were willing to be known as men of letters who made their living by literature. They stood, too, for the national, rather than the sectional, spirit. "What does it matter," said Joel Chandler Harris, "whether I am Northerner or Southerner if I am true to truth, and true to that larger truth, my own true self? My idea is that truth is more important than sectionalism, and that literature that can be labeled Northern, Southern, Western, or Eastern, is not worth labeling at all." Again, he said, speaking of the ideal Southern writer: "He must be Southern and yet cosmopolitan; he must be intensely local in feeling, but utterly unprejudiced and unpartisan as to opinions, tradition, and sentiment. Whenever we have a genuine Southern literature, it will be American and cosmopolitan as well. Only let it be the work of genius, and it will take all sections by storm."
And it did take all sections by storm. Contrary to the idea which had prevailed after the war that Northern people would be slow to recognize Southern genius, it must be said that Northern magazines, Northern publishers, and Northern readers made possible the success of Southern writers. In 1873, "Scribner's Magazine" sent a special train through the South with the purpose of securing a series of articles on "the great South". While in New Orleans, Mr. Edward King, who had charge of the expedition, discovered George W. Cable, whose story, "'Sieur George", appeared in "Scribner's Magazine" in October of that year. Between that time and 1881 the magazine published, in addition to Cable's stories, -- afterwards collected into the volume "Old Creole Days", -- stories and poems by John Esten Cooke, Margaret J. Preston, Maurice Thompson, Mrs. Burnett, Mrs. Harrison, Irwin Russell, Richard Malcolm Johnston, Thomas Nelson Page, and Sidney Lanier. In an editorial of September, 1881, the editor, referring to the fact that no less than seven articles by Southerners had appeared in a recent number of "Scribner's", said: "We are glad to recognize the fact of a permanent productive force in literature in the Southern States. . . . We welcome the new writers to the great republic of letters with all heartiness." "The Century Magazine", the successor of "Scribner's", continued to be the patron of the new Southern writers. The number for April, 1884, contained Lanier's portrait as a frontispiece, a sketch of Lanier by William Hayes Ward, Thomas Nelson Page's "Marse Chan", an installment of Cable's "Dr. Sevier", Walter B. Hill's article on "Uncle Tom Without a Cabin", and William Preston Johnston's poem, "The Master".
"Harper's Magazine", in January, 1874, began a series of articles on the New South, by Edwin De Leon, and in the following year published a series of articles by Constance F. Woolson, giving sketches of Florida and western North Carolina. In May, 1887, appeared an article giving the first complete survey of Southern literature, which, according to the author, had introduced into our national literature "a stream of rich, warm blood." The "Independent", a paper which had seemed to Southerners extremely severe in its criticism of the life of the South, is especially connected with the rising fame of Lanier. The editor recognized his genius while he was still alive, after his death continued to publish his poems, and in 1884 wrote the Memorial for the first complete edition of his poems. Maurice Thompson, another Southern writer, became its literary editor in 1888.
Nor was the "Atlantic Monthly", which had been identified with the New England Renaissance, slow to recognize the value of the new Southern story-writers and poets. In 1873, while Mr. Howells was editor, Maurice Thompson's poem, "At the Window", was hailed by the editor and by Longfellow as "the work of a new and original singer, fresh, joyous, and true." The author received encouraging letters from Lowell and Emerson. In the same year and in the following appeared a series of articles entitled "A Rebel's Recollections", by George Cary Eggleston. In May, 1878, appeared Charles Egbert Craddock's first story of the Tennessee Mountains, "A Dancing Party at Harrison's Cove". The value of her work was at once recognized by Mr. Howells and his successor, Mr. Aldrich. In a review of 1880, Cable's stories in "Old Creole Days" are characterized "as fresh in matter, as vivacious in treatment, and as full of wit as were the `Luck of Roaring Camp' and its audacious fellows, when they came, while they are much more human and delicate in feeling." In January, 1885, in an article on recent American fiction, appears the following tribute to the work of recent Southern writers: "It is not the subjects offered by Southern writers which interest us so much as the manifestation which seemed to be dying out of our literature. We welcome the work of Mr. Cable and Mr. [sic] Craddock, because it is large, imaginative, and constantly responsive to the elemental movements of human nature; and we should not be greatly surprised if the historian of our literature a few generations hence, should take note of an enlargement of American letters at this time through the agency of a new South. . . . The North refines to a keen analysis, the South enriches through a generous imagination. . . . The breadth which characterizes the best Southern writing, the large free handling, the confident imagination, are legitimate results of the careless yet masterful and hospitable life which has pervaded that section. We have had our laugh at the florid, coarse-flavored literature which has not yet disappeared at the South, but we are witnessing now the rise of a school that shows us the worth of generous nature when it has been schooled and ordered."*
* In 1896 Mr. Walter H. Page, a native North Carolinian, became editor of the "Atlantic".
The effect of this literature on Northern readers was altogether wholesome, and ministered no doubt to the better understanding both of the Old South and of the New. The stories of Harris, Page, Cable, and Craddock reached the Northern mind to a degree never approached by the logic of Calhoun or the eloquence of impetuous orators, while the poems of Hayne and Lanier, breathing as they did the atmosphere of the larger modern world, and at the same time characterized by the warmth and richness of Southern scenery and Southern life, ministered in the same direction. On Southerners the effect was stimulating; one of the younger scholars of that time, the late Professor Baskervill, recalled "the rapture of glad surprise with which each new Southern writer was hailed as he or she revealed negro, mountaineer, cracker, or creole life and character to the world. There was joy in beholding the roses of romance and poetry blossoming above the ashes of defeat and humiliation, and that, too, among a people hitherto more remarkable for the masterful deeds of warrior and statesman than for the finer, rarer, and more artistic creations of literary genius."*
* Baskervill's `Southern Writers' is the best study that has been made of the Southern literature of this period. A second volume was prepared by his pupils and friends after his death.
One of the most significant characteristics of the Southern writers was that they all showed a certain discipline in their artistic work. They had little patience with much of the criticism that had prevailed in the South. As early as 1871 the editor of the "Southern Magazine", in a review of "Southland Writers", said: "We shall not have a literature until we have a criticism which can justify its claims to be deferred to; intelligent enough to explain why a work is good or bad, . . . courageous enough to condemn bad art and bad workmanship, no matter whose it be; to say, for instance, to more than half the writers in these volumes: `Ladies, you may be all that is good, noble, and fair; you may be the pride of society and the lights of your homes; so far as you are Southern women our hearts are at your feet -- but you have neither the genius, the learning, nor the judgment to qualify you for literature.'" In the same magazine for June, 1874, Paul Hamilton Hayne condemned severely the provincial literary criticism which had prevailed, -- "indiscriminate adulations, effervescing commonplace, shallowness and poverty of thought." "No foreign ridicule," he said, "however richly deserved, nothing truly either of logic or of laughter, can stop this growing evil, until our own scholars and thinkers have the manliness and honesty to discourage instead of applauding such manifestations of artistic weakness and artistic platitudes as have hitherto been foisted upon us by persons uncalled and unchosen of any of the muses. . . . Can a people's mental dignity and aesthetical culture be vindicated by patting incompetency and ignorance and selfsufficiency on the back?"
Lanier himself wrote to Hayne, May 26, 1873, commending a criticism that Hayne had passed upon a popular Southern novel: "I have not read that production; but from all I can hear 't is a most villainous, poor, pitiful piece of work; and so far from endeavoring to serve the South by blindly plastering it with absurd praises, I think all true patriots ought to unite in redeeming the land from the imputation that such books are regarded as casting honor upon the section. God forbid we should really be brought so low as that we must perforce brag of such works; and God be merciful to that man (he is an Atlanta editor) who boasted that sixteen thousand of these books had been sold in the South! This last damning fact ought to have been concealed at the risk of life, limb, and fortune." Lanier himself saw the futility of such praise of his own work by the Southern people. Referring to the defense made of his Centennial poem by Southern newspapers, he wrote from Macon: "People here are so enthusiastic in my favor at present that they are quite prepared to accept blindly anything that comes from me. Of course I understand all this, and any success seems cheap which depends so thoroughly upon local pride as does my present position with the South." And again: "Much of this praise has come from the section in which he was born, and there is reason to suspect that it was based often on sectional pride rather than on any genuine recognition of those artistic theories of which his poem is -- so far as he now knows -- the first embodiment. Any triumph of this sort is cheap, because wrongly based, and to an earnest artist is intolerably painful."
Lanier's own standards of criticism did not prevent his recognition of the value of the real artists who lived in the South, nor his encouragement of every young man contemplating an artistic career. He wrote to Judge Bleckley about his son: "I am charmed at finding a Georgia young man who deliberately leaves the worn highways of the law and politics for the rocky road of Art, and I wish to do everything in my power to help and encourage him." Writing to George Cary Eggleston, December 27, 1876, he said: "I know you very well through your `Rebel's Recollections', which I read in book form some months ago with great entertainment. Our poor South has so few of the guild, that I feel a personal interest in the works of each one." His letters and published writings bear out the truth of this statement. It has already been seen that he was intimate with Paul Hamilton Hayne, who had encouraged him to undertake the literary life at a time when all other forces were tending in another direction. Lanier criticised in detail many of Hayne's poems. In a review of his poems published in the "Southern Magazine", 1874, he paid a notable tribute to his fellow worker in the realm of letters. He does not fail to call attention to trite similes, worn collocations of sound, and commonplace sentiments; and also his diffuseness, principally originating in a lavishness and looseness of adjectives. At the same time he praises the melody of Hayne's poetry, especially of his poem "Fire Pictures", which he compares with Poe's "Bells". In his book on Florida, while giving an account of Southern cities which travelers are apt to pass through in going to and from that State, he has discriminating and sympathetic passages on Timrod, Randall, Jackson, Hayne, and others. Of Timrod he says: "Few more spontaneous or delicate songs have been sung in these later days than one or two of the briefer lyrics. It is thoroughly evident that he never had time to learn the mere craft of the poet, the technique of verse, and that broader association with other poets, and a little of the wine of success, without which no man ever does the very best he might do." In his lectures at the Peabody Institute he quoted one of Timrod's sonnets, prefacing it with the words: "And as I have just read you a sonnet from one of the earliest of the sonnet-writers, let me now clinch and confirm this last position with a sonnet from one of the latest, -- one who has but recently gone to that Land where, as he wished here, indeed life and love are the same; one who, I devoutly believe, if he had lived in Sir Philip's time, might have been Sir Philip's worthy brother, both in poetic sweetness and in honorable knighthood."*
* `Shakspere and His Forerunners', vol. i, p. 170.
He was one of the first to recognize the genius of Joel Chandler Harris, whose Uncle Remus stories he first read in the "Atlanta Constitution". He refers in his article on the New South to Uncle Remus as a "famous colored philosopher of Atlanta, who is a fiction so founded upon fact and so like it as to have passed into true citizenship and authority, along with Bottom and Autolycus. This is all the more worth giving, since it is really negro-talk, and not that supposititious negro-minstrel talk which so often goes for the original. It is as nearly perfect as any dialect can well be; and if one had only some system of notation by which to convey the TONES of the speaking voice, in which Brer Remus and Brer Ab would say these things, nothing could be at once more fine in humor and pointed in philosophy. Negroes on the corner can be heard any day engaged in talk that at least makes one think of Shakespeare's clowns; but half the point and flavor is in the subtle tone of voice, the gesture, the glance, and these, unfortunately, cannot be read between the lines by any one who has not studied them in the living original."
In a letter to his brother, September 24, 1880, Lanier said: "Have you read Cable's book, `The Grandissimes'? It is a work of art, and he has a fervent and rare soul. Do you know him?" In his announcement of the course on the English Novel at Johns Hopkins University, he included this novel in a list of recent American novels which he intended to discuss.
Nor was he contented with recognizing the genius of men who wrote of their own accord. His letters to "Father" Tabb were especially stimulating. He was the prime cause in inducing Richard Malcolm Johnston to offer first to the magazines, and then to the publishers, his stories of Middle Georgia. Johnston had published the "Dukesborough Tales" in the "Southern Magazine" as early as 1871, but they had made little or no impression on account of the limited circulation of that periodical. In 1877 "Mr. Neelus Peeler's Condition" was sent by Lanier to Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, then editor of "Scribner's Monthly". He had the rare pleasure of sending Mr. Gilder's letter of acceptance with enclosed check to his friend. The following letter shows how he advised Colonel Johnston as to one of the stories.
55 Lexington Street, Baltimore, Md.,
November 6, 1877.
My dear Col. Johnston, -- Mrs. Lanier's illness on Saturday devolved a great many domestic duties upon me, and rendered it quite impossible for me to make the preparations necessary for my visit to you on Sunday. This caused me a great deal of regret; a malign fate seems to have pursued all my recent efforts in your direction.
I have attentively examined your "Dukesborough Tale". I wish very much that I could read it over aloud in your presence, so that I might call your attention to many verbal lapses which I find and which, I am sure, will hinder its way with the magazine editors. I will try to see you in a day or two, and do this. Again, ascending from merely verbal criticism to considerations of general treatment, I find that the action of the story does not move quite fast enough during the FIRST twenty-five pages, and the LAST ten, to suit the impatience of the modern magazine man.
Aside from these two points, -- and they can both be easily remedied, -- the story strikes me as exquisitely funny, and your reproduction of the modes of thought and of speech among the rural Georgians is really wonderful. The peculiar turns and odd angles, described by the minds of these people in the course of ratiocination (Good Heavens, what would Sammy Wiggins think of such a sentence as this!), are presented here with a delicacy of art that gives me a great deal of enjoyment. The whole picture of old-time Georgia is admirable, and I find myself regretting that its FULL merit can be appreciated only by that limited number who, from personal experience, can compare it with the original.
Purely with a view to conciliating the editor of the magazine, I strongly advise you to hasten the movement of the beginning and of the catastrophe: that is, from about p. 1 to p. 34, and from p. 57 to p. 67. The middle, i.e., from p. 34 to p. 57, should not be touched: it is good enough for me.
I would not dare to make these suggestions if I thought that you would regard them otherwise than as pure evidences of my interest in the success of the story.
But Lanier's service to the South and to Southern literature is greater than the recognition of any one writer or the encouragement given to any one of them. All of them were cheered in their work by his heroic life; not one but looked to him as a leader. His life, which in a large sense belongs to the nation, belongs in a peculiar sense to the South. He was Southern by birth, temperament, and experience. He knew the South, -- he had traveled from San Antonio to Jacksonville, and from Baltimore to Mobile Bay. Its scenery was the background of his poetry, -- the marsh, the mountain, the seashore, the forest, the birds and flowers of the South stirred his imagination. He knew personally many of the leaders of the Confederacy, as well as the men who made possible the New South. He was heir to all the life of the past. His chivalry, his fine grace of manners, his generosity and his enthusiasm were all Southern traits; and the work that he has left is in a peculiar sense the product of a genius influenced by that civilization. All these things render him singularly precious to Southerners of the present generation.
He had qualities of mind and ideals of life, however, which have been too rare in his native section. He was a severe critic of some phases of its life. From this standpoint his career and his personality should never lose their influence in the South. There had been men and women who had loved music; but Lanier was the first Southerner to appreciate adequately its significance in the modern world, and to feel the inspiration of the most recent composers. There had been some fine things done in literature; but he was the first to realize the transcendent dignity and worth of the poet and his work. Literature had been a pastime, a source of recreation for men; to him the study of it was a passion, and the creation of it the highest vocation of man. Compared with other writers of the New South, Lanier was a man of broader culture and of finer scholarship. He did not have the power to create character as some of the writers of fiction, but he was a far better representative of the man of letters. The key to his intellectual life may be found in the fact that he read Wordsworth and Keats rather than Scott, George Eliot rather than Thackeray, German literature as well as French. He was national rather than provincial, open-minded not prejudiced, modern and not mediaeval. His characteristics -- to be still further noted in the succeeding chapter -- are all in direct contrast with those of the conservative Southerner. There have been other Southerners -- far more than some men have thought -- who have had his spirit, and have worked with heroism towards the accomplishment of enduring results. There have been none, however, who have wrought out in their lives and expressed in their writings higher ideals. He therefore makes his appeal to every man who is to-day working for the betterment of industrial, educational, and literary conditions in the South. There will never be a time when such men will not look to him as the man of letters who, after the war, struck out along lines which meant most in the intellectual awakening of this section. He was a pioneer worker in building up what he liked to speak of as the New South: --
The South whose gaze is cast
No more upon the past,
But whose bright eyes the skies of promise sweep,
Whose feet in paths of progress swiftly leap;
And whose fresh thoughts, like cheerful rivers, run
Through odorous ways to meet the morning sun!