The socially elite, Southern writers of the 19th century, and their legacy

Posted on September 3, 2013 by


I just responded to a comment on my post from yesterday, and thought that I should raise my thoughts to the level of a post.

Who can we point to (among Southern writers/authors of the 19th century), for having had the most influence on defining the ideology of the 19th century South as it existed prior to 1865? Are there any who could not be counted among the socially elite?

I suggest, the imagery that we have of the typical Southerner, is something passed down to us by the socially elite… often of the slaveholding class. Sadly, I believe it has defined (among too many) how Civil War-era Southerners are considered.

Take the examples of the postwar writings of John Esten Cooke, and then the children of the war (those born in the 1850s)… such as Thomas Nelson Page, Philip Alexander Bruce, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler.

All were from the upper social class… the Southern elite.

In part, I think this comes from my time considering my own Civil War-era Southern ancestry. Most were among the common man… the working class. Only a few might be considered somewhere in the middle class range. Before the war (1850 and earlier), a few (not many) owned slaves… not large numbers, but between 1-3. By 1860, none owned slaves. All of my direct ancestors from that era lived below the Mason-Dixon Line, in both the Shenandoah Valley (Page, Rockingham, and Warren counties) and lower Cumberland Valley (Washington Co., Md.). When I look back at them (some supported the Confederacy, some were leave-aloners, some were Southern Unionists), I don’t see them as being defined by the ideology that the socially elites pushed on us, as descendants (and upon others who might consider Southerners from that era, with those writers in mind). I don’t see my ancestors as being under the tight grip of the Sir Walter Scott mentality.   

So, again, is there anyone, who lived in that era and wrote about the Southern mindset, who was not from among the socially elite? Did any focus on the Southerner outside that defined by those who are often considered in the Sir Walter Scott crowd?

Follow-up: I’ll add to this that, dominance by writers from the socially elite reminds me of the dominance (or dedicated efforts in pursuading others) of that same class in the secession movement in the Southern states. There is no mistaking their influence in both situations.