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THE SOUTHERN AMERICAN RENAISSANCE.
EALIST Howells tells an interesting story of his
meeting with the fantastic Hawthorne. However little the Salem mystic may have influenced the writer of fin de siecle novels, one gem of thought survives from the conversation.
" He spoke of the New England temperament and suggested that the apparent coldness was also real and that the suppression of emotion would extinguish it at last."
We certainly are apt to think of emotion as characteristic of the Cavalier rather than of the Puritan nature, and perhaps it is chiefly on this ground that the new school of southern writers may base its claim to recognition. It is a significant fact that our own era, which is the most highly civilized of New England's history, should be the most unfruitful since American letters had a foundation. The old impetus which brought forth Brook Farm circle, ends with the death of Holmes. It is therefore the more noteworthy that a people, confessedly unscholarly and heirs of a civilization so little in touch with nineteenth century ideas, should produce a literature not the most cultured certainly, but, on the whole, the most vigorous and interesting of our times.
The movement began with Mr. Cable's “Grandissimes," the best of his novels, and with the possible exception of “ Madame Delphine,” his most artistic work. The book has never been really popular and Cable's reputation was hardly established by its appearance. He continued to publish short sketches of life among the Creoles, but it was not until the publication of “Dr. Sevier” that the public realized that a new yein had been struck. Cable found one of those opportunities rare in any period, the relic of a civilization unique and full of vanishing beauty. The last traces of the Creoles are fast disappearing; from our modern point of view they present a Rembrandt effect of picturesque figures, indefinite in outline, against a background of shadow and romance. This, Cable still produces
even when he writes of the Acadian pilgrims in Louisiana, and often when he introduces an American of tropical lethargy and of unreconstructed courtesy and poetic charm among Creole surroundings. It is in this quality that he excels, and he never fails when upon his own ground, to kindle the same glow of idyllic beauty.
But there are certain marked weaknesses which will stand in the way of Cable's permanent importance. He has yet to produce a character, except “ Dr. Sevier," who can claim a definite niche in the memory by reason of his individuality. “ Bonaventure " was wofully lacking in unity ; in fact Cable seems to be ill at ease in any sustained effort. He is unnecessarily fond of imposing dia. lect upon his characters. This is an unpleasant aspect of realism, and Cable is by nature anything but a realist. His style, which is powerful at times, yet lacks a certain supplementary force. It is perhaps unfair to try by search-light criticism scenes and figures of the candlelight period, but the novelist who steps out of the quiet shadows into the modern electric glare, invites an inspection of his shortcomings. It is by such stories as “Madame Delphine," and “Grande Pointe," that Cable will be remembered if at all. In these we agree that, whatever his faults, he holds to our lips a delicious draught,
a beaker full of the warm south."
His Majesty's Colony of Virginia was the home of the most cultured gentry in America, if we are to believe Thackeray, and Virginia, the Confederate state, was a worthy scion of so great an ancestor. Thomas Nelson Page's memory dips into the days of her glory, and he has given us a picture of plantation life which should satisfy the fondest ideals of the First Family of Virginia and the descendants of Pocohontas. “ Marse Chan” and “ Meh Lady,” Page's best work, put us back into days when muddy roads were picturesque and log cabins dotted the landscape and colonial mansions smiled with hospitality. Masters, the model of kindness, and innumerable negroes, the pattern of fidelity! All this is seen through Page's spectacles. Slavery seems not altogether objectionable and “Uncle Tom” somewhat the less effective. Virginia, the spoil of war; Virginia, the reëstablished state, presents a far different picture.
Nothing of the Old South remains except the ruin of a former prosperity and the lofty spirit of the people. Alas! the indolence is now far from picturesque. It has been recently observed that no New South in any but a geographical sense can exist. Virginia closes one volume of her history with the epitaphs of her martyrs to the Lost Cause. Page may be pardoned for exalting them above our common ideas of heroism. They were the exponents of courage and patriotism-let us say it without a blush. That musical negro dialect of Page's, by no other writer so skillfully handled, has made heroes seem more heroic, the stories only the more charming, and however rosecolored his view, this representative of the old aristocracy has made us feel that southern chivalry, fairest flower of the new world, is no idle myth.
It is but a short step into the Blue Grass region, James Lane Allen's country-God's country, the Kentuckians call it-and here it is not difficult to trace the source of Allen's inspiration. If he excels Page in poetic quality, let his natural surroundings be accountable. One or two sketches like “Two Gentlemen of Kentucky” and “Flute and Violin ” are genuine art, and here and there is a flash of vigor like the “ White Cowl."
The folklore of the negroes is one of the most interest. ing productions of a distinct national trait. Now and then that most imcomprehensible of races shows a flash of vivid imagination. Dvorâk has utilized some of their musical themes, the only notable music which has been brought forth on this continent; but to Joel Chandler Harris has fallen the opportunity of voicing their fairy imagery. The “ Uncle Remus" stories are certainly the best exposition of negro character, but they are also the translating into literature of some of the most poetic of conceptions. To Harris belongs the credit of establishing a literary landmark. A white-haired
A white-haired “Uncle Remus" will not always be found at the hearth-fire in his Georgia cabin. Negroes may grow old and venerable, but that original gift which endows the lower animals with human intelligence and cunning will not always remain. Thanks to Harris “Brer Rabit" and "Brer Fox" are immortalized. The Uncle Remus " stories are Æsop without the moral, but possessing warm attributes of life. Harris did not stop with the negro. Such stories as “ Teague Poteet," dealing with the mountaineers of northern Georgia, are as artistically remarkable as any of his accomplishments. He sounds the strongest and sweetest note of all the southerners.
That uncouth race of mountaineers in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, which Harris has touched upon, offers a startling exception to American progress. Entrenched in ignorance and brutality, they have for more than a century resisted every refining influence. Their's is the most insuperable barbarism known to us; not even the crudity of the West offers a parallel. Yet under a lawless exte. rior there lurks, untouched by conventionality, a virile character. They have a Viking virtue-virtue in the Latin sense, virtus, which is after all the best sense of this word. It is a quality which will throb ruddy in the pulses of the nation when the more superficial culture is grown pale and tardy.
Harris and perhaps John Fox excepted, this people has no worthy representative; for of all the southern group Charles Egbert Craddock is the most inadequate. Very clever studies in dialect she has given, and sometimes a beautiful bit of scenery or a touch of romance amid surroundings which dwarf and chill the soul. But she has produced no book that speaks from the beauty and grandeur of that region. She has failed to trace the rugged outline of that extraordinary people or to solve the mystery of their almost impregnable strength. Even her de scriptive power, though delicate and fanciful, is often ineffective. Here are giant hills, ribbed with rocks and crested with tossing trees, and Craddock talks about “opaline tints” and “pearl-colored lights.”
Passages in “In the Clouds" and an occasional sketch like “ A Playin' of Old Sledge” and “ Driftin' Down Lost
Creek” have the most enduring quality of her work. The "moonshiners" have been treated in a more masterful way by John Fox in “A Cumberland Vendetta." It is too early to prophesy, but he certainly gives great promise.
It is worthy of notice that no poet, either from mountain or plantation, has arisen among us. Here and there a verse maker, but no genuine singer. However, it is a matter of congratulation that no triflers in triolets, those parasites of an effete literature, have appeared.
Southern letters have struck fast root into the soil, and if they have accomplished little as yet, they have at least given indubitable evidence of the greatest of all capacities—creative power. It is fair to expect that before the North shall have reached another productive period, the South, with a past so rich in romance and with resources so unexhausted, will have given us a permanent literature.
Chauncey Wetmore Wells.
Wine and Song, my Prodigal,
Here's a doughty cup to drain.
Chill bites the winter air
And the moon rides high.
Prodigal, the night is old
Dim December is the May :
The wolf is loud at the door
Chauncey Wetmore Wells.