Antebellum Southern lit: ‘Sincere, enthusiastic’

“In 1898, Mr. George Stockton Wills, a graduate both of the University of North Carolina and of Harvard, made an elaborate study of the literature produced in the South before the Civil War. He brought to light a number of literary figures whose very names have been forgotten. The more you consider these figures, however, the more inevitable seems the neglect into which they have fallen. They were simple, sincere, enthusiastic writers, mostly of verse; but their work, even compared only with the less important Northern work of their time, seems surprisingly imitative….

“One plain cause of… this comparative literary lifelessness… has not been much emphasized. From the beginning the North was politically free and essentially democratic…. There was no mob; the lower class of New England produced Whittier….

“In the South, at least from the moment when slavery established itself, a different state of affairs prevailed…. Surrounded by a servile population of unalterable aliens… the ruling classes dreaded political experiment to a degree almost incomprensible in the North, where social conditions permitted men of power to neglect politics for personal business.”

— From “A Literary History of America” (1900) by Barrett Wendell

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