Which has greater value – Literary Product or Revealed Intellectual Process?

Posted on October 26, 2015 by

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Not long ago, I ran across an article (2011) from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in which the author (Kirk Richardson) seems to have minimized the significance of an early Virginia author.

Alone [the first published book (1854) by Marion Harland, aka Mary Virginia Terhune] is a lot like other sentimental novels of the mid nineteenth-century; it’s just set in the party scene of Richmond, Va. Sentimental fiction was nothing if not predictable, and if you ever picked up a nineteenth century novel in high school, then you know it. Check out Harlequin or think about Fabio. They are rococo and rote: endings were a matter of procedure.

I wondered if the critique was just as much a predictable pattern, or, as the author put it, “a matter of procedure”. Granted, Richardson doesn’t specifically narrow down to Southern writers, but, when reading, I had to wonder if he might be carrying down a tradition critical of antebellum southern literature. Of course, before placing Richardson in that category, one would have to consider all that he has written.

Richardson’s critique aside, there are some contemporary academics who are suggesting that there has been, for a number of years, an “oversimplified depiction of antebellum southern literature”.

I’ve already taken note of the counterarguments offered by Paul C. Jones and Michael O’Brien, here.

Considering myself part of that “school of O’Brien”, and since I’ve taken the time to begin an in-depth examination of the earliest works of writers from the Shenandoah Valley, I’ve become more focused on the intellectual process of the authors than in the “weight” (as critiqued) of the completed works. Indeed, if we’re looking for the intellectual antebellum South, it seems to only make sense that we consider the intellectual process of the writers, within the context of that time and place. To that end, when I read these works, I look for cues as to what was going on inside the minds of the writers. It doesn’t really take long to realize that the best place to look, first, is in the preface.

These prefaces are not like those we find in today’s works, however, and often come across as if the author was sitting next to the reader—both with a warm toddy in hand, near a crackling fire—as the author explains her/himself. For example, as Philip Pendleton Cooke opens his Froissart Ballads (1847), he notes:

The motto of my title-page – the opening lines of the Ricciardetto of the Roman poet and prelate, Forteguerri – gives an accurate idea of the plan of the Froissart Ballads, as I originally conceived it:

“A certain freak has gotten into my head,
Which I can’t conquer for the life of me,
Of taking some history, little read,
Or known, and writing it in poetry.”
– The Roman prelate Forteguerri, to his Ricciardetto

The Proem was written whilst my “freak” or purpose was still of this limited character; and it represents the ballads – not then begun, but spoken of as finished – as versified transcripts from Froissart.

Cooke, it seems, allows the reader to see inside his process when he declares his “freak”, or motivation, and how it served as the beginnings of his work “not yet begin, but spoken of as finished”. Further, regarding any reader-detected lack of originality, Cooke remarks in anticipation of the reader:

The reader may be disposed to undervalue poems professing to be versifications of old stories, on the ground of a want of originality. I ask only, in anticipation of this, that he will recollect the fact that, from Chaucer to Dryden, such appropriations of old story were customary with the noblest poets of our English language.

In the second edition of Henry Ruffner’s Judith Bensaddi (1851), after ten years of reflection, Ruffner apparently realized that he should explain different aspects of his work. Speaking in third-person, Ruffner first made remarks regarding the errors:

Ten years ago the author heard, at bed time, some extraordinary incidents that had befallen a young friend of his. The romantic character of these incidents excited his fancy so, that he could not sleep until a tale was fabricated out of the materials, and the mind had unburdened itself by putting its conceptions on paper. After a hasty revision, this effusion of a restless imagination was sent to the press. It was published in a literary periodical of Philadelphia, and, to the author’s mortification, a good deal blurred by a foul typography. It was copied, errors and all, into several country papers; and in spite of defects, whether in authorship or typography, the natural interest of the story caused it to be considerably read and admired.

Yet, regarding the content itself, and realizing (he having published the first edition anonymously) his name eventually become associated with the work, he owed it further attention, in order to, it seems, to maintain a work worthy of his true reputation:

After some two or three years, the author’s name accidentally leaked out, and became generally known among his acquaintances; and it has been from that time, sent abroad occasionally, in connection with this sole specimen of his literary fancy-work. Feeling some regard for his reputation as a writer, even in this unusual line, he had been induced now, after so long a time, to employ some of his leisure hours in preparing a corrected and enlarged edition. He has given more development to the chief incidents and characters, added some of a subordinate kind that are new, and interwoven some descriptions of natural objects with the narrative. Thus he has more than doubled its size, and, he presumes to think, greatly increased the interest of the story. There is still in some parts a want of the careful finish, and strict correction, that are desirable, even in the smallest work of taste and fancy. For remaining defects of whatever kind, the author can offer no apology…

Even so, despite any concerns he may have had for his professional reputation, he confesses that Judith Bensaddi was merely a leisure activity in which he had engaged, as if an exercise from his regular labors (he was the college president of what is now Washington and Lee University):

… but either the want of genius for such compositions, or what is certainly true, the want of sufficient uninterrupted leisure amidst weighty cares and occupations, to polish a work of literary amusement. He has found an agreeable relaxation from severer labors of the mind, in this exercise of the imagination. Should any of his acquaintances think that the composition of a tale, however innocent in its tendency or serious in its effect, misbecomes the gravity of his office, he begs to be excused for this once; and to be indulged in treating the only child of his fancy so far like a pet, as to be allowed, after such long neglect, to give it a new dress, and thus to let it go forth with better hopes to seek its fortune in the literary world.

But, what about the author who I introduced at the beginning of this piece? What was Marion Harland—23 years old at the time of her first published book—thinking while she wrote Alone? She appears simply thankful for the opportunity, recognizing her siblings as her first audience:

It is meet that those whose sympathy has been dew and sunshine to the nursery plant, should watch over its transplantation into the public garden. And as this Dedication is the only portion of the book which is new to you, you do not require that it should remind you of the welcome stormy evenings, when I laid down my pen, to read to you the chapters written since our last “select party;” how the fictitious names of my real characters were household words to our trio; and your flattering interest – grateful because sincere – stimulated my flagging spirits in the performance of my task.

Yet, her concerns about the audience beyond her household were also outlined:

You know, too [still addressing her siblings as the audience], what many may not believe – with what misgivings it was entered upon, and prosecuted; what fears of the licensed critic’s ban, and the unlicensed public’s sneer; – above all, you comprehend the motive that held me to the work – an earnest desire to contribute my mite for the promotion of the happiness and usefulness of my kind. Coming as it does from my heart-penned under the shadow of our home-altar, I cannot but feel that the mission of my offering is to the hearts of others,- ask for it no higher place that he fireside circle. Readers and judges like yourselves, I may not, do not hope to find; but I trust there are those who will pardon the lack of artistic skill in the plot, or the deficiency or stirring incident, in consideration of the fact, that my story is what it purports to be, a simple tale of life – common joy and sorrow, whose merits, if it has any, consist in its truthfulness to Nature, and the fervent spirit which animated its narration.

What do these inner reflections laid bare tell us about the motivation and the process of antebellum Southern authors? Do literary critics glide across the prefaces more intent on the value of the overall work, and miss the true reflection of intellectual process? Certainly, there is merit to weighing completed literary works against others (within the window of that time), and how some continue to warrant greater attention while others have fallen from school reading lists, but, if we are truly seeking intellectual worth of a culture, it would also make sense that we look for more evidence of the intellectual process.