Literature in the Old South


In an ideal world the separate studies of history and literature would enlighten one another. A historian—whether of republican Rome, seventeenth century France, the Old South, or any other subject—would gain insights into an era from its imaginative literature. Insights of a kind to be found nowhere else, for the best imaginative literature is created by the most acute consciousnesses and closest observers of a society. A good knowledge of history, on the other hand, can illuminate an author’s text and mind for the literary scholar, saving him from countless misleading assumptions that he inevitably brings to a work from the unavoidable fact that he himself is the product of a different age.

Unfortunately, in the real world, rather than cross-fertilization, we have an ever-narrowing specialization of scholarship. Even worse, where controversial subjects—like the Old South—are under consideration, historians and literary scholars tend to consume one another’s most superficial generalizations, thus denying themselves obvious truths and compounding the distortions that pass for established knowledge.

This explains why the predominate literary scholarship has been such a long time reaching a proper appreciation of the merit of the writings known as “Southwestern humor,” writings of which Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs is a fine example.* Told by literary scholars, inaccurately but persistently, that the significant American writers of the nineteenth century came out of the vicinity of Boston, historians naturally assumed that the “Southwestern school” was of minor importance. Since the historians already “knew” that the Old South was characterized by excessive romanticism, obviously such realistic and even bawdy and rollicking writers as the “Southwestern humorists” must be, by definition, a minor and transient phenomenon of the frontier and not a major clue to the history of the Southern people.

On the other hand, literary scholars, assured by historians, inaccurately and persistently, that the Old South was an intellectual wasteland, wedded to the hopeless defense of evil institutions and incapable of the creative art and critical thought that characterized the enlightened North, were confirmed in their decision to dismiss the writers of the Old South without any serious examination.

These assumptions about antebellum Southern literature long governed the scholarly consensus, although there were always a few dissenting independent minds. But in truth every implicit assumption catalogued above was a falsehood. The historians, consciously or unwittingly, were upholding the results of the Civil War. The Civil War was and still is the central event in American history in terms of the scale of bloodletting and revolutionary change which it occasioned. To justify the postbellum state of affairs, historians had to postulate the Old South as a peculiar anomaly, an unnatural, unlovable society that had offered an intolerable obstacle to the inevitable upward sweep of middle class Northern democracy—which was assumed as the normal condition of the universe. The victorious side required not only that the South be defeated and conquered; it had also to be discredited, demonized, and downgraded.

The literary scholars who assumed the inconsequence of the literature of the Old South were not only misled by historians, they were also unconscious heirs of the logistical triumph of Boston in American letters. In the literary politics of the antebellum period, a host of well-organized, industrious, mutually-admiring New England scribblers pursued a calculated policy of personal and sectional self-aggrandizement, presenting their peculiar insular culture to the world as all that counted in America and ignoring or slandering the rest of the country. After the Civil War they lacked any strong opposition and had the field pretty much to themselves, except for sporadic populist rumblings from the Midwest.

The hegemony they created persisted well into this century. Anyone who will look at the “mainstream” literary history and criticism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will see a host of second and third-rate New England writers celebrated as the perihelion of American letters, with only an occasional slighting reference to the Southerner Poe or the New Yorker Melville. This incredibly mean-spirited and petty Bostonian warp to the understanding of American literature has even now not entirely disappeared, though a great deal of painstaking scholarship has slowly loosened its grip.

It was not until the widespread recognition of the high achievements of twentieth century Southern writers—a recognition largely forced upon reluctant Northeastern savants by European critics—that it began to register that the triumphs of Faulkner and the other Southern greats could not have been created in a vacuum—that they must have had antecedents. The stage was now set for the perceptive to discern that the writers lightly dismissed as “Southwestern humorists” were not outdated curiosities, but, rather, among the most creative and original and fruitful pioneers of the real American literature. Viewed in this new light, the “Southwestern humorists” begin to look like the forebears of a great tradition. Not merely infra dig purveyors of popular humor—a notoriously perishable literary commodity—but realists, skilled portrayers of authentic life below the level of the genteel, often profound social observers.

And, as research has shown, the “Southwestern humorists” were not oddities. In their own time they were mainstream, wrote for a large audience, were widely popular, and were considered very normal and characteristically American. Further, honest examination reveals that crippling over-gentility was a Northern problem—it has left the once celebrated occupants of the sacred circle of literary Massachusetts—Whittier, Longfellow, Lowell, Bancroft, and many others—dated and irrelevant. It was the South that produced realistic and anti-romantic writings, and New England sentimental and genteel. Most of the American literature of first-rank and of enduring interest was produced in the “benighted” regions. Among other things, this might lead us to suspect that the “mind of the Old South” was not “closed” at all but quite lively and creative.

A closer look at the context in which antebellum writers flourished will reveal another erroneous postulate. The regional dividing line in literature was not, as we might think, at the Potomac (North vs. South), nor at the Appalachians (East vs. West). It was at the Hudson River (New England vs. America). The chief magazine outlet for the stories of the “Southwestern humorists” was The Spirit of the Times, published in New York City and read by the rural gentry everywhere except New England. Those regions of the North that had not been Puritanized by New England infiltration were closer to the South than to Boston, culturally.

Far from being only a frontier product or a localized and transient form of literature, the picaresque and rollicking stories of the “Southwestern humorists” were a new variation on a very traditional form of rural literature quite familiar in eastern America and in the English and Irish county press. Thus, while it is quite true that the frontier provided material, even in a sense the underlying theme, for the writers of which Hooper is so fine an example, it is wrong to dismiss them as merely Western “local color.”

Unlike such New England saints as Emerson and Thoreau, none of the Southwestern writers set up to be professional men of letters, full-time social critics, and gurus. All were deeply involved in the quotidian life of their communities and in pursuing other professions. Their writings began as occasional, leisured contributions to local papers—“at first designed,” as Hooper says in his Preface, “to amuse a community unpretending in its tastes.”

Their books usually appeared as afterthoughts to satisfy popular demand. And almost all the writers of the school—Hooper, A.B. Longstreet, George Washington Harris, William Tappan Thompson, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Henry Clay Lewis, Joseph G. Baldwin—limited themselves to one or two books. They were widely scattered across the South and never were a self-conscious clique. They were aware of each other, obviously worked out of the same traditions and reacted to similar conditions, and wrote for the same audience. But they did not pursue literary politics.

Hooper is in almost every respect a typical case study of the antebellum Southern writer of humorous sketches, in background, motives, and career. He always refused to subordinate the man and citizen to the author. A gentleman could express his talents, amuse and instruct his neighbors, enjoy the celebrity of his accomplishments, but he could not be merely a writer. He had to be an amateur, in the old and honorable sense of that term. Longstreet was a clergyman and college president, Harris a steamboat captain, Hooper a lawyer and newspaper editor.

In fact, Hooper, like Longstreet, became impatient with his literary fame and went on to other activities. We are told that in 1856, when Hooper was a delegate of Alabama to a Southern commercial convention, sitting next to Albert Pike of Arkansas, poet and future Confederate general, there was a call from the platform for a speech by “Simon Suggs.” Hooper glowered in his seat and refused to answer the call or confound his own identity with that of his character. The exception to this Southern style was Poe, a landless orphan with a drinking problem, who had to eke out a short and meager existence as a magazine writer and editor. And, partially, William Gilmore Simms, who, although he married a plantation, was driven by restless talent and ambition to production of more than seventy books in every genre.

Here, too, the dividing line between gentlemen amateurs and careerists is evident at the Hudson. Melville had to put in his years at the customs house, and Cooper was, in his primary identity, the New York equivalent of a Southern planter. Only the Bostonians had the wealth and the alienation from everyday America to proclaim themselves primarily “intellectuals.” Thoreau’s father owned a factory and Emerson cleverly married the terminally ill daughter of a banker.

Hooper fits the pattern of his group, too, in that he was born in the older and settled parts of the South to a family of station and encountered at an impressionable age the crude contrast of the newly settled frontier, which provided him literary matter and stimulus. Johnson Jones Hooper was born in 1815 in the seaport of Wilmington, the largest town in North Carolina, into a line of prosperous planters, merchants, and physicians. On his mother’s side he was directly descended from Jean Antoine DeBerniere, an heroic leader of the Huguenots, and (for those who believe in the literary gene) from Jeremy Taylor, the eloquent seventeenth century English preacher. On his father’s side were several of the leading Revolutionaries of North Carolina, including great-uncle William Hooper, signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Hooper’s father had literary interests and turned out occasional essays and articles about state history. In fact, according to his friend, the North Carolina historian Griffith J. McRee, it was Archibald Maclaine Hooper’s “fondness for polite letters,” along with a too easygoing temperament and failing eyesight, that made him a worldly failure. Unsuccessful as a planter, lawyer, newspaper editor, and customs collector, the father allowed the family fortunes to dwindle away. Johnson, the youngest of six children, was denied the advanced education received by his older brothers, one of whom became a distinguished professor of classics at Chapel Hill.

Instead, he received much of his education and his first literary experience in the shop of a newspaper his father edited for a time, the Cape-Fear Recorder. Which again is a familiar pattern for a “Southwestern humorist.” At fifteen he published a humorous poem about the pompous local British consul who fell into the water during a ship-christening ceremony. Such humor was a staple of the tidewater South and rural Britain, as well as the frontier, which should remind us not to overemphasize the “western” in “Southwestern humor.” Southern humor was Southern humor, taking all of life and not just the raw conditions of the frontier for its province.

At the age of twenty (1835) Hooper joined a lawyer brother in Alabama, in order to prepare himself, in the customary way, for practice. It was a newly settled region not yet entirely redeemed from the Choctaws and Creeks. The move west was not at all unusual since, in 1860, half the people then alive, white and black, who had been born in North Carolina were living beyond the mountains. Except for a youthful sojourn in Texas and the final year in Richmond, Virginia, where he died, Hooper spent the rest of his life in east central Alabama, living at La Fayette (Chambers County), Dadeville (Tallapoosa County, the home of “Simon Suggs”), Wetumpka (now Elmore County), and Montgomery.

In Alabama Hooper practiced law, edited newspapers, and held occasional minor public offices. When a lady whose hand he sought turned him down, he immediately married her younger sister, broadening an already extensive network of kin throughout the region. To Mrs. Mary Brantley Hooper was dedicated “The Rose of Alabama,” a then famous poem of Hooper’s friend, Alexander Beaufort Meek. Johnson J. Hooper was an integrated member of the world he wrote about, not a disdainful outside observer.

Again in the typical pattern, Hooper’s first writings were casual contributions to local papers to amuse his neighbors and give the dignity of literature to the early history of his state. His sketch, “Taking the Census,” came to the attention of William Trotter Porter (to whom Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs is dedicated), editor of the New York The Spirit of the Times. Porter promptly requested material from the Alabama writer.

The Spirit of the Times had already become the chief outlet of Southern humorists and remained so throughout the antebellum period. It was filled with stories, both factual and imaginative, of hunting, fishing, horse racing, and other traditional and rural matters, with slices of realistic life at all levels of society, with rollicking high spirits and good times, and with a strong but not exclusivist or offensive American pride. That is, it appealed to American readers wherever the secularized Puritan prophecy and sentimental poesy of New England (so assiduously peddled as “American” culture) did not flourish.

The Spirit of the Times published a natural literature, written by men with the spontaneous inclination to formulate and share their observations and reflections on life, not to pursue personal fame and literary politics. This is the best kind of literature. After all, Shakespeare began writing plays not with the intent of being the world’s greatest dramatist but because he needed material for the theatre of which he was actor-manager. And doubtless Homer started out as shared entertainment of comrades-at-arms around the campfire.

In 1843 Porter began publishing Suggs stories, some of which had already appeared in Alabama papers. They were immensely popular and were reprinted in newspapers everywhere. Porter, who had already discerned that the “Southwestern writers” constituted an important school of American literature, included Suggs in the collection he published in 1845, The Big Bear of Arkansas.

In that same year the book here republished, the first edition of Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, appeared, in obvious response to popular demand. The book went through eleven printings and editions during the author’s lifetime. Meanwhile, Suggs was widely anthologized in humor books on both sides of the Atlantic, including a book published in London in 1853 called Yankee Humour, the English editor not understanding that in America “Yankee” meant a New Englander.

Hooper wrote other books of stories and a hunting book, Dog and Gun (New York, 1856), which had some popularity, though Simon Suggs was his great creation. He grew less interested in writing and more interested in politics during the 1850s, being an unsuccessful candidate for office, a homeless Southern Whig, and finally a secessionist.

He was appointed Secretary to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States, and moved with the Congress from Montgomery to Richmond. Never in good health, Hooper died in June 1862, two days before his forty-seventh birthday, while McClellan’s army was in sight of the church spires of the city. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Shockoe Hill, Richmond’s Catholic cemetery, having converted shortly before, to the surprise of his associates, to the Roman Church.

With the appearance of “Simon Suggs,” Hooper became “almost at a bound,” as the great scholar of Southern literature Jay B. Hubbell put it, one of the most popular writers in the country. And Captain Simon Suggs himself became a household familiar, deeply fixed in the imagination of Americans. The Captain is utterly reprehensible, but also likable. In his high spirits, his irrespressibility, his irreverence, his capacity to adapt and to triumph over circumstances, he taps something deep and essential in the American spirit.

The Captain’s most famous saying captures it: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” It summed up his philosophy of life but also spoke deeply to the necessities of the New World. There were other famous sayings: “Mother-wit can beat booklarnin’ at any game.” “There is no telling which way luck or a half-broke horse will run.”

Suggs’s adventures begin when he is able to escape his Georgia home with some capital by outwitting his execrable father at cards. He heads west. His subsequent escapades, cast satirically in the form of a campaign biography for a sheriff’s election, give Hooper a chance to look at many aspects of the life of the time. Suggs appears as a land speculator, a bank agent, a captain in the Indian “wars,” a courtroom defendant, and a would-be evangelist. The view of the shortcomings of society in the newly settled Alabama country is harsh but all in fun and not mean-spirited.

Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs continued to be reprinted and anthologized now and then during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hooper was the subject of occasional scholarly commentary, as well as imitation and pastiche. Perhaps something of a revival of serious interest was achieved when Bernard DeVoto pointed out in Mark Twain’s America (1932) how much Twain owed to Hooper. The debts were numerous, the most striking being the similarity of the famous camp meeting in Chapter XX of Huckleberry Finn to “The Captain Attends a Camp-Meeting.”

From then on Hooper received fairly steady scholarly attention, including a 1952 biography, Alias Simon Suggs, by the Alabama scholar W. Stanley Hoole. But it is perhaps more interesting that Hooper continued to have readers. In 1950 a band of eleven of Suggs’s admirers, some Alabamians and some Northerners, bought and erected a memorial over Hooper’s remains in Richmond.

The scholarly attention that Hooper and his humorist colleagues received when the twentieth century began to recognize their literature was focused upon the idea of the “frontier,” largely because it was stimulated by the connection with Twain.

The frontier (an imprecise and mobile designation, remember) is most certainly an important consideration in understanding this literature, which most immediately was the response of educated Southerners from the older settlements to crude and unformed new communities. But the “Southern” is as essential an ingredient as the “Western,” a point often lost. The rollicking view of life that the stories reflect had its roots in the older South, where it had been transplanted from England and Ireland. The subtitle of Porter’s The Big Bear of Arkansas was and Other Sketches, Illustrative of Character and Incidents in the South and South-West.

But a deeper and more essential point is that a division between the South and the West is illusory. Both identities are essential and inseparable. As Andrew Lytle puts it, “pioneering and settling are successive stages of one movement.” Donald Davidson wrote, in introducing the works of Simms, that the great theme of Southern literature (and history) is “the interaction of civilization and the frontier.” Or as more recently David Moltke-Hansen has written, in summing up Simms’s views, the South came into existence “out of the dialectical interactions of plantation and frontier.” That is, the South is that combination resulting from the civilized given of the established plantation regime extending itself over and being influenced by the frontier. This is indeed true of America at large and is the core meaning of the famous Turner thesis on “the significance of the frontier in American history.” Even the New Englanders, the exception who lived out of artificially imported European categories, had to pretend to a frontier. Which is why Emerson declaimed about “Self-Reliance” and Thoreau memorialized his adventures at his little frog pond barely out of sight of the smokestacks of Boston. There was not an East and a West but a New England and an America.

Among the Southwestern humorists we can see certain differences that reflect deeper currents of change in society. Longstreet in Georgia Scenes, writing a decade or more before Hooper, is more didactic. He portrays the crude conditions of the newly settled and backwater regions with the understanding that they are transient. Though able to move well in that society, he remains something of the outside agent of civilization and morality. He is a critic of the failings of the backwoods, but also a critic of the failings of polished society.

Hooper is without obvious moral teaching. He lacks perhaps some of Longstreet’s social complexity and sense of literature as the portrayal of manners. His social criticism is there but is illustrated rather than stated, as is the assumption of the gradual progress of civilization. George Washington Harris, writing in the late antebellum period a decade later than Hooper, created “Sut Lovingood,” an even more untamed and unredeemable character than Suggs. Harris verges upon despair and nihilism in his view of society because, I would suggest, he was writing at a time when the intransigent hostility of the North and therefore a daunting crisis for the South were inescapable. And when what had been the opportunity of the frontier was becoming the hopelessness of the backwater and the alienation characteristic of the modernized consciousness was beginning to make headway.

Though drawing on the same tradition, Twain, after the Civil War, goes several steps further toward the abyss. He is a product of the South, but there has been a radical break. He is a self-selected exile, writing not within his community but for the gratification of their conquerors. He has achieved nearly complete nihilism in his view of the unregenerate nature of life as molded by the American frontier. The tensions inherent in his role as a traitor may account for Twain’s oft-noted underlying ambiguity, angst, and aggression.

The great Southern writers of the twentieth century have kept a hold on their traditions. They suffer from the burden of a modern consciousness and sometimes have one foot over the abyss, but they have remained, in the final analysis, within the community and the tradition of what M.E. Bradford has called the “corporate bond” of the South. We might even suggest that their greatness lies in the balancing act.

The critic Kenneth S. Lynn deals with Hooper and his comrades at length in his influential Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (1959) under the interpretive theme of “Whiggery.” He develops an elaborate view of “Suggs” as a political-social satire by a displaced aristocrat, disgruntled at his loss of standing and deference from the crudities of “Jacksonian democracy.” There is a grain of truth there, but to make it the main theme is to go too far and to misunderstand the context.

Hooper does indeed take an occasional swipe at the vanity of Jackson and the disreputability of some of his supporters. However, the concept of “Whiggery” is extremely elusive at best, and Lynn’s sense of it is drawn from a Northern context. In the South the social divisions between Whigs and Democrats were very fluid and varied considerably from state to state and decade to decade. Hooper himself was at times a Democrat and at times a Whig.

The gentleman who has withdrawn from a society too crude for him, to ridicule it at a distance is a Northern phenomenon. It is impossible for men to be more deeply engaged in their society than were Hooper, Longstreet, Harris, Simms, and their like. While they are most certainly social critics, they are not alienated outsiders. Hooper is an Alabamian and Suggs is his neighbor. Hooper’s poking of high-spirited fun at his state is also a form of allegiance to and celebration of Alabama, a part of the recognition of its history, identity, and life.

Several of the modern commentators on Hooper have claimed Suggs explicitly as the direct ancestor of Faulkner’s Snopeses. While it is true in a broad sense that Faulkner worked out of the tradition of which Suggs was a part, it is a mistake to draw the connection so closely. It is less a matter of direct literary influence than of Faulkner’s having taken his bucket to the same cultural reservoir. That is, Faulkner’s imagination was formed by the same Southern heritage of manners, temperament, experiences, conditions, impulses, and views of life as was Hooper’s. As far as I am aware, Faulkner never mentioned Suggs, though he did on at least one occasion, in casual response to a question, mention as an influence Harris’s “Sut Lovingood.” The phenomenon of Faulkner is a miracle of creation, but also a product of the distinct chain of Southern culture (which numerous savants have denied exists).

There are other reasons to draw the family connection loosely between Snopes and Suggs. Suggs is, though a reprehensible character, also highly likable and delightful. We would not at all mind spending an evening in the tavern listening to him, as long as we kept a good grip on our wallet. No Snopes that I am aware of was ever agreeable company.

More important, in the world of Captain Suggs, the War is not yet lost. Suggs is the product of “a new country” which is in the process of being civilized. Simon himself seems to have settled down and to be on the point of achieving some degree of respectability when his “biography” appears. We don’t doubt that his children will be respectable, perhaps even leading members of the community, when the “new country” is no longer so new. But with the Snopeses the War is already lost and so there is no possibility of civilization. The South has been traumatized and truncated. As Allen Tate, the poet, wrote at about the same time that Faulkner’s Snopeses were created: “All are born Yankees of the race of men.” Suggs was the product of a stage of social development that will be surmounted. The Snopeses are the end of the line—a local manifestation of the alien conqueror. In Faulkner there is no possibility of social redemption. The only redemption will be individual and will have to be earned over and over again.

Furthermore, Suggs, for all his cruelty and selfishness, is not without his virtues. His depredations are not motivated by the relentless inhuman greed of the Snopeses, but simply by the desire to get along with as little honest toil as possible. He makes his famous raid on the believers’ collection plate (in “The Captain Attends A Camp-Meeting”) only after his wife informs him that “the sugar and coffee was nigh about out” and there were not “a dozen j’ints and middlins, all put together, in the smokehouse.”

And a lot of Simon Suggs’s misbehavior is simply hell-raising, not unattractive even if it does usually lead to cheating the cheater and shearing the lambs, who, after all, are born to be cheated and sheared. He does not take himself too seriously, enjoying self-satire, and he seems to delight as much in the foibles of humanity as in the opportunities for profit that these foibles present to the shrewd.

Furthermore, he has a very human weakness—an addiction to “the tiger,” that is, the game of faro, which he persists foolishly in believing he can beat. No Snopes ever gambled on less than a sure bet or just for the hell of it. And Simon Suggs loves his children. In “The Captain Is Arraigned Before A Jury Of His Country” we learn that Suggs “was really an affectionate father,” something that as far as I recall was never said about any male Snopes. These qualities lend a nice touch of complexity to a character who might otherwise come close to a caricature. Perhaps I am wrong, but I am inclined to believe that under less harsh conditions Suggs will evolve not into a Snopes but rather into a good old boy, something close to V.K. Ratliff.

Readers who have not met “Southwestern humor” have a treat in store, and Simon Suggs makes probably the best slope for a beginner. Go on to Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, William Tappan Thompson’s “Major Jones,” Harris’s “Sut Lovingood,” Henry Clay Lewis’s “Louisiana Swamp Doctor,” and William Gilmore Simms’s “Sharp Snaffles” and “Paddy McGann.”

As a historian I find this literature not only enjoyable in itself and consoling in the associations it makes with a lasting Southern tradition, but also valuable because for students it constitutes a very healthy antidote to the abstractions and distortions that are commonly retailed about the South and its history. I do not see how the summing up of the contributions of “Southwestern humor” that appeared in the January 1860, The Spirit of the Times can be bettered. The commentary (written probably by Thomas Bangs Thorpe, as Porter had died in 1858) was directed at the hostility of Northerners toward the South, an attempt to bring back the brotherly spirit that was necessary for the preservation of the true Union. The Spirit wrote:

Some of the best things, always the most original, produced in this country, are the results of Southern pens. For more than a quarter of a century the columns of the “Spirit” have teemed with the finest specimens of writing, overflowing with wit and sentiment, playful and profound, a large part of which is destined to become permanent specimens of real American originality, for which we have been largely indebted to Southern correspondents.


* Hooper’s original title was Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers: Together with “Taking the Census,” and Other Alabama Sketches.

Foreword to The Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, by Johnson Jones Hooper (1845), Nashville, Tennessee: J. S. Sanders, 1993, 201 pages.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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