Genesis & Apocalypse of the "Old South" Myth:
Two Virginia Writers at the Turn of the Century

Part I: Thomas Nelson Page's Literature of the Lost Cause

 
 

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On Newfound River
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906)

When Thomas Nelson Page wrote about the antebellum South, he recalled his youth on a slaveholding Virginia Tidewater plantation. The descendant of generals, governors, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Page had come to believe that the true South was populated by noble gentlemen, pure ladies, and devoted servants.

Accustomed to aristocratic superiority over blacks and non-elite whites, Page found the postbellum struggle of his people jarring. He also believed that Northerners had presented a distorted view of the South’s history and people–meaning the people of his own class. Through an impressive bibliography of short stories, poems, novels, and essays, Page set about to correct this tarnished image. His sentimental idealizations of the Old South’s plantation culture contributed to the development of a “moonlight and magnolias” myth that other writers at the turn of the century would perpetuate and later authors such as Ellen Glasgow would spend decades trying to debunk.

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Elsket and Other Stories
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891)

Page was only eleven years old when the Civil War ended. Yet he had clear, definite ideas about the region’s history and conflict with the North. He believed Virginia’s Cavalier heritage to be infinitely superior to New England’s Puritan legacy of religious bigotry and social intolerance. He cast Northern abolitionists as the great villains, interfering with the South’s domestic tranquility and forcing the region into war.

Page subscribed to the “Lost Cause” image of the Civil War, extolling the virtues of Southern heroes’ brave fight despite inevitable doom at the hands of an industrial machine. As the honorable Confederate soldiers returned home, they faced further challenges from Northern politicians and reformers who made policies based on ignorance of the true relationship between master and slave. He praised the South’s better people for courageously counteracting Reconstruction’s abuses to restore their values. He supported organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and Knights of the White Camellia for their attempts to restore the proper social order.

     
 

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The Red Riders
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924)

These ideas simmered in Page’s mind while he pursued his education and legal career and started a family. Although he did not stay to receive a degree, Page completed a classical course at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) from 1869 to 1872, when his hero Robert E. Lee was president of the school. After spending a year at the University of Pennsylvania, Page completed his law degree at the University of Virginia in 1874. He practiced law in Richmond until 1893.

Page married Anne Seddon Bruce in 1886, but she died two years later of a throat hemorrhage. He then wed Florence Lathrop Field, the widowed sister-in-law of retailer Marshall Field, on 6 June 1893. That year, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Page dedicated himself to writing and lecturing on Virginia’s history and old social order. Page became active in the social and political life at the Capital, and served for six years (1913-1919) as ambassador to Italy under Woodrow Wilson, a fellow Virginian. He returned to Hanover County, Virginia, for the last years of his life, and continued writing there. His last novel, The Red Riders, was not yet finished when he died on 1 November 1922.

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Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892)

Page’s first publication, “Uncle Gabe’s White Folks,” appeared in Scribner's magazine in 1873. In the poem, a black narrator tells the story about his honorable white masters in the days before the war. “Uncle Gabe” marked the debut of devices Page used in many of his writings. One of them was the use of slave dialect to relay a story. Another was inclusion of blacks in a bi-racial plantation “family,” portraying the servant as dedicated to his master even after Emancipation. Other devices Page employed included inter-regional marriages and the conversion of transplanted Yankees into consensual southerners. Literary scholars label these plot devices as metaphors for the theme of the South rejoining the Union and for the North accepting the southern “family.”

These devices featured prominently in the story that first brought Page widespread attention. “Marse Chan,” published in The Century’s April 1884 issue, uses a faithful ex-slave narrator to tell the tale of a young southerner who died for the southern cause and placed duty and honor above all personal gain. “Marse Chan” also is a saga of unrequited love between its title character and “Miss Anne,” the gracious daughter of a neighboring planter. The story evoked an intense spirit of nostalgia for the plantation era. The South’s upper class embraced “Marse Chan” as the defining description of their antebellum civilization and made its reading an essential element of the rituals celebrating their class’s glory, such as meetings of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

     
 

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Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899)

Page’s plantation tales remained extremely popular throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s, both in magazines and when reprinted in collections such as In Ole Virginia (1887). Considered preeminent Virginia classics, the stories in In Ole Virginia rely on the dialect voice of docile slaves to relay idealized stories in the mystical plantation setting.

Page reinforces the Old South myth in what many consider to be his greatest novel, Red Rock (1898). He contrasts the agony of leading southern families who lost their plantations to predatory carpetbaggers with the ex-Confederates’ powerful memories of an exalted, pastoral past. This novel makes ample use of the inter-regional marriage device. Southerners yearning for the restoration of antebellum order seek to educate their oppressors via romantic pairings of Yankee officers with southern belles and Cavalier gentlemen with northern maidens.

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Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897)

Page’s ultimate goal was the restoration of social order. He sought to achieve this aim not only via reminders of the idealized past but also by scolding the postbellum elite for their abuse of leisure. Page satirized high society of the New South in his novels Gordon Keith (1903) and John Marvel, Assistant (1910), showing his concern over the upper class’s neglect of its moral obligations and behavior unworthy of imitation by the community.

Although Page was best known for his fiction, he also sought to educate the public through essays on southern history and contemporary culture. These essays first appeared in popular periodicals such as Scribner’s, North American Review, South Atlantic Quarterly, and Harper's. Later, Page collected them into best-selling anthologies such as The Old South: Essays Social and Political (1892), Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War (1897), The Old Dominion: Her Making and Her Manners (1908), The Negro: The Southerner' s Problem (1910), and Robert E. Lee: Man and Soldier (1911).

     
 

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Among the Camps; or, Young People's Stories of the War
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892)

Page produced a number of children's books as well. Because the Civil War occured during his youth, he was able to bring a child's viewpoint to the conflict in his stories. Published first in Harper's Young People and later in collections such as Among the Camps, Page's children's stories about the war feature the same themes and devices as his adult work. For example, Two Little Confederates describes a father's heroism, a mother's courage, and the loyalty of slaves through the eyes of two young boys. Children also narrate a story portraying the courage of a noble widow in Two Prisoners. The symbolic joining of North and South occurs in stories such as "Kittykin and the Part She Played in the War," in which the war stops temporarily while both sides unite to rescue a cat from a tree, and "Nancy Pansy," in which an innocent young girl brings the two sides together.

Literary and historical scholars point out that Page’s South was finer than any real place could ever be, but he satisfied the nostalgia of his readers for what might have been. Page’s writings joined with that of several of his contemporaries to create and perpetuate a romantic image so solid, later writers such as Ellen Glasgow found it difficult–though not impossible–to counteract.

Continue to Ellen Glasgow's Feminist Approach to the Old South

Thomas Nelson Page Bibliography (hyperlinked titles available full-text)

In Ole Virginia; or, Marse Chan, and Other Stories (1887; 1968)
Befo' de War (with A.C. Gordon; 1888;1971)
Two Little Confederates (1888)
Among the Camps (1891)
On Newfound River (1891)
Elsket, and Other Stories (1891; 1969)
The Old South: Essays Social and Political (1892; 1968)
Meh Lady: A Story of the War (1893)
The Burial of the Guns (1894;1969)
Pastime Stories (1894; 1969)
Polly; a Christmas Recollection (1894)
Unc' Edinburg a Plantation Echo (1895)
The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock (1897)
Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War (1897)
Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction (1898; 1967); vol. 1, vol. 2
Two Prisoners (1898)
Santa Claus's Partner (1899)
A Captured Santa Claus (1902)
Gordon Keith (1903)

Bred in the Bone (1904)
The Negro: The Southerner's Problem (1904; 1970)
The Coast of Bohemia (1906)
Under the Crust (1907)
The Old Dominion; Her Making and Her Manners (1908)
Robert E. Lee, the Southerner (1908)
Tommy Trot's Visit to Santa Claus (1908)
John Marvel, Assistant (1909); vol. 1, vol. 2
Mount Vernon and Its Preservation, 1858-1910 (1910)
Robert E. Lee, Man and Soldier (1911)
; vol. 1, vol. 2
The Land of the Spirit (1913)
The Stranger's Pew (1914)
The Shepherd Who Watched By Night (1916)
Italy and the World War (1920)
Dante and His Influence (1922; 1969)
Washington and Its Romance (1923)
The Red Riders (1924)
North African Journal, 1912; With Letters Along the Way (Harriet R. Holman, ed.; 1970)
On the Nile in 1901 (Henry Field, ed.; 1970)

Search the PBO database for books by Thomas Nelson Page

Old South Literature Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

The Old South in Children's Books, K-5 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Southern Writers and the Old South Myth, 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Book List, handout: Excel document or PDF file

Guidelines for Book Report, handout: Word document or PDF file

Suggested Readings

Baldwin, Charles Crittendon. The Men Who Make Our Novels. New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1919.

Ewell, Barbara C., Pamela Glenn Menke, and Andrea Humphrey. Southern Local Color: Stories of Region, Race, and Gender. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Field, Henry. A Memoir of Thomas Nelson Page. Miami: Field Research Projects, 1978.

Longest, George C. Three Virginia Writers: Mary Johnston, Thomas Nelson Page, and Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Gross, Theodore L. Thomas Nelson Page. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967.

______________. The Heroic Ideal in American Literature. New York: Free Press, 1971.

Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature, 1607-1900. Durham: Duke University Press, 1954.

Page, Rosewell. Thomas Nelson Page: A Memoir of a Virginia Gentleman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924.

Romine, Scott. The Narrative Forms of Southern Community. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

Toulmin, Harry Aubrey. Social Historians. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1911.

Related Online Resources

Address at the Hundredth Anniversary of the Settlment of Jamestown, by Hon. Thomas Nelson Page, Kentuckiana Digital Library, http://purl.oclc.org/KUK/KDL/B92-246-31689293

"Ashcake" (poem), An American Anthology, 1787–1900 (Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed.), Bartleby, http://aol.bartleby.com/248/1132.html

Constructing an Old South: Page’s Marse Chan, University of Virginia,
http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/huckfinn/marschan.html

Contemporary Review of Elsket, and Other Stories (Atlantic Monthly, 1899), Nineteenth Century in Print, American Memory, Library of Congress,
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/ncpsbib:@field(DOCID+@lit(ABK2934-0069-38_bib))::

Contemporary Review of Red Rock (Atlantic Monthly, 1899), Nineteenth Century in Print, American Memory, Library of Congress,
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/ncpsbib:@field(DOCID+@lit(ABK2934-0083-86_bib))::

Primary Documents: Thomas Nelson Page on the Tenth and Eleventh Battles of the Isonzo, 1917, http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/isonzo_page.htm

Thomas Nelson Page, Biography, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, http://docsouth.unc.edu/pageolevir/bio.html

                       
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