Mark Twain challenges the South’s love of Romantacism

Posted on September 2, 2013 by

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In reading early 19th century works which Southerners read… and wrote, I’m also fascinated by the influence that some say Sir Walter Scott had on the South.

As we see in Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain abhorred the Romantic movement, and put the blame square on Scott…

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner– or Southron, according to Sir Walter`s starchier way of phrasing it– would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter`s influence than to that of any other thing or person.

One may observe, by one or two signs, how deeply that influence penetrated, and how strongly it holds. If one take up a Northern or Southern literary periodical of forty or fifty years ago, he will find it filled with wordy, windy, flowery `eloquence,` romanticism, sentimentality– all imitated from Sir Walter, and sufficiently badly done, too– innocent travesties of his style and methods, in fact. This sort of literature being the fashion in both sections of the country, there was opportunity for the fairest competition; and as a consequence, the South was able to show as many well-known literary names, proportioned to population, as the North could.

But a change has come, and there is no opportunity now for a fair competition between North and South. For the North has thrown out that old inflated style, whereas the Southern writer still clings to it–clings to it and has a restricted market for his wares, as a consequence. There is as much literary talent in the South, now, as ever there was, of course; but its work can gain but slight currency under present conditions; the authors write for the past, not the present; they use obsolete forms, and a dead language. But when a Southerner of genius writes modern English, his book goes upon crutches no longer, but upon wings; and they carry it swiftly all about America and England, and through the great English reprint publishing houses of Germany– as witness the experience of Mr. Cable and Uncle Remus, two of the very few Southern authors who do not write in the Southern style. Instead of three or four widely-known literary names, the South ought to have a dozen or two–and will have them when Sir Walter`s time is out.

I appreciate much of what Twain states, but disagree with him in regard to the need to abandon the idea of writing for the past. Maybe it’s just that I think that one can write for the past, and the work can still be of value.

Anyway…

While Twain (and others who have made the same argument, well into the 21st century) may be right, that the South, in years before the war, may have put too much emphasis on the theme of Romanticism (and Scott), I have a hard time believing that it reached to all social levels of Southern society. How can we calculate the impact, or the outright resentment, within early to mid-19th century Southern culture, of Sir Walter Scott and his impact? For that matter, how many simply moved unaware of Scott and remained untouched by his “influence”? Is this a demonstration of how the upper class of Southern society, because of their education and readings, influenced the South as a whole?

*Note to the reader: I meant to change the title of this post before it went “live”. Twain wasn’t challenging the role of Romanticism, but Sir Walter Scott’s influence on 19th century Southern society.

 

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