Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Southerner on Southern Literature Before the War
By Hinton Rowan Helper (18291909)
[Born near Mocksville, N. C., 1829. Took his own life in Washington, D.C., 1909. The Impending Crisis of the South. 1857.]
QUALITY, rather than quantity, is the true standard of estimation. The fact, however, matters little for our present purpose; for the South, we are sorry to say, is as much behind the North in the former as in the latter. We do not forget the names of Gayarré, Benton, Simms, and other eminent citizens of the Slave States, who have by their contributions to American letters conferred honor upon themselves and upon our common country, when we affirm that those among our authors who enjoy a cosmopolitan reputation are, with a few honorable exceptions, natives of the Free North; and that the names which most brilliantly illustrate our literature, in its every department, are those which have grown into greatness under the nurturing influence of free institutions. Comparisons are odious, it is said; and we will not unnecessarily render them more so, in the present instance, by contrasting, name by name, the literary men of the South with the literary men of the North. We do not depreciate the former, nor overestimate the latter. But let us ask, whence come our geographers, our astronomers, our chemists, our meteorologists, our ethnologists, and others, who have made their names illustrious in the domain of the Natural Sciences? Not from the Slave States, certainly. In the Literature of Law, the South can furnish no name that can claim peership with those of Story and of Kent; in History, none that tower up to the altitude of Bancroft, Prescott, Hildreth, Motley, and Washington Irving; in Theology, none that can challenge favorable comparison with those of Edwards, Dwight, Channing, Taylor, Bushnell, Tyler, and Wayland; in Fiction, none that take rank with Cooper and Mrs. Stowe, and but few that may do so with even the second-class novelists of the North; in Poetry, none that can command position with Bryant, Halleck, and Percival, with Whittier, Longfellow, and Lowell, with Willis, Stoddard, and Taylor, with Holmes, Saxe, and Burleigh; andwe might add twenty other Northern names before we found their Southern peer, with the exception of poor Poe, who, within a narrow range of subjects, showed himself a poet of consummate art, and occupies a sort of debatable ground between our first- and second-class writers.
We might extend this comparison to our writers in every department of letters, from the compiler of school-books to the author of the most profound ethical treatise, and with precisely the same result. But we forbear. The task is distasteful to our State pride, and would have been entirely avoided had not a higher principle urged us to its performance. It remains for us now to enquire
What has produced this literary pauperism of the South? One single word, most pregnant in its terrible meanings, answers the question. That word isSlavery! But we have been so long accustomed to the ugly thing itself, and have become so familiar with its no less ugly fruits, that the common mind fails to apprehend the connection between the one as cause and the other as effect; and it therefore becomes necessary to give a more detailed answer to our interrogatory.
I. Readers. The people of the South are not a reading people. Many of the adult population never learned to read; still more do not care to read. We have been impressed, during a temporary sojourn in the North, with the difference between the middle and laboring classes in the Free States, and the same classes in the Slave States, in this respect. Passing along the great routes of travel in the former, or taking our seat in the comfortable cars that pass up and down the avenues of our great commercial metropolis, we have not failed to contrast the employment of our fellow-passengers with that which occupies the attention of the corresponding classes on our various Southern routes of travel. In the one case, a large proportion of the passengers seem intent upon mastering the contents of the newspaper, or some recently published book. The merchant, the mechanic, the artisan, the professional man, and even the common laborer, going to or returning from their daily avocations, are busy with their morning or evening paper, or engaged in an intelligent discussion of some topic of public interest. This is their leisure hour, and it is given to the acquisition of such information as may be of immediate or ultimate use, or to the cultivation of a taste for elegant literature. In the other case, newspapers and books seem generally ignored, and noisy discussions of village and State politics, the tobacco and cotton crops, filibusterism in Cuba, Nicaragua, or Sonora, the price of negroes generally, and especially of fine-looking wenches, the beauties of lynch law, the delights of horse-racing, the excitement of street-fights with bowie-knives and revolvers, the manifest destiny theory that justifies the stealing of all territory contiguous to our own, and kindred topics, constitute the warp and woof of conversation. All this is on a level with the general intelligence of the Slave States. It is true, these States have their educated men,the majority of whom owe their literary culture to the colleges of the North. Not that there are no Southern collegesfor there are institutions, so called, in a majority of the Slave States.Some of them, too, are not deficient in the appointments requisite to our higher educational institutions; but, as a general thing, Southern colleges are colleges only in name, and will scarcely take rank with a third-rate Northern academy, while our academies, with a few exceptions, are immeasurably inferior to the public schools of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The truth is, there is a vast inert mass of stupidity and ignorance, too dense for individual effort to enlighten or remove, in all communities cursed with the institution of slavery. Disguise the unwelcome truth as we may, slavery is the parent of ignorance, and ignorance begets a whole brood of follies and of vices, and every one of these is inevitably hostile to literary culture. The masses, if they think of literature at all, think of it only as a costly luxury, to be monopolized by the few .
II. Another thing essential to the creation of a literature is Mental Freedom. How much of that is to be found in the region of Slavery? We will not say that there is none; but if it exists, it exists as the outlawed antagonist of human chattelhood. He who believes that the despotism of the accursed institution expends its malignant forces upon the slave, leaving intact the white and (so-called) free population, is the victim of a most monstrous delusion. One end of the yoke that bows the African to the dust presses heavily upon the neck of his Anglo-Saxon master. The entire mind of the South either stultifies itself into acquiescence with Slavery, succumbs to its authority, or chafes in indignant protest against its monstrous pretensions and outrageous usurpations. A free press is an institution almost unknown at the South. Free speech is considered as treason against slavery: and when people dare neither speak nor print their thoughts, free thought itself is well-nigh extinguished. All that can be said in defence of human bondage may be spoken freely; but question either its morality or its policy, and the terrors of lynch law are at once invoked to put down the pestilent heresy. The legislation of the Slave States for the suppression of the freedom of speech and the press is disgraceful and cowardly to the last degree, and can find its parallel only in the meanest and bloodiest despotisms of the Old World. No institution that could bear the light would thus sneakingly seek to burrow itself in utter darkness. Look, too, at the mobbings, lynchings, robberies, social and political proscriptions, and all manner of nameless outrages, to which men in the South have been subjected, simply upon the suspicion that they were the enemies of Slavery. We could fill page after page of this volume with the record of such atrocities. But a simple reference to them is enough. Our countrymen have not yet forgotten why John C. Underwood was, but a few months since, banished from his home in Virginia, and the accomplished Hedreck driven from his college professorship in North Carolina. They believed Slavery inimical to the best interest of the South, and for daring to give expression to this belief in moderate yet manly language, they were ostracised by the despotic Slave Power, and compelled to seek a refuge from its vengeance in States where the principles of freedom are better understood. Pending the last Presidential election, there were thousands, nay, tens of thousands of voters in the Slave States, who desired to give their suffrages for the Republican nominee, John C. Fremont, himself a Southron, but a non-slaveholder. The Constitution of the United States guaranteed to these men an expression of their preference at the ballot-box. But were they permitted such an expression? Not at all. They were denounced, threatened, overawed, by the Slave Power,and it is not too much to say that there was really no Constitutional electionthat is, no such free expression of political preferences as the Constitution aims to securein a majority of the Slave States.
From a multiplicity of facts like these, the inference is unavoidable, that Slavery tolerates no freedom of the pressno freedom of speechno freedom of opinion. To expect that a whole-souled, manly literature can flourish under such conditions is as absurd as it would be to look for health amid the pestilential vapors of a dungeon, or for the continuance of animal life without the aid of oxygen.
III. Mental activityforceenterpriseare requisite to the creation of literature. Slavery tends to sluggishnessimbecilityinertia. Where free thought is treason, the masses will not long take the trouble of thinking at all. Desuetude begets incompetencethe dare-not soon becomes the cannot. The mind thus enslaved necessarily loses its interest in the processes of other minds; and its tendency is to sink down into absolute stolidity or sottishness. Our remarks find melancholy confirmation in the abject servilism in which multitudes of the non-slaveholding whites of the South are involved. In them, ambition, pride, self-respect, hope, seem alike extinct. Their slaveholding fellows are, in some respects, in a still more unhappy conditionhelpless, nerveless, ignorant, selfish; yet vainglorious, self-sufficient, and brutal. Are these the chosen architects who are expected to build up a purely Southern literature?
The truth is, slavery destroys, or vitiates, or pollutes, whatever it touches. No interest of society escapes the influence of its clinging curse. It makes Southern religion a stench in the nostrils of Christendomit makes Southern politics a libel upon all the principles of Republicanismit makes Southern literature a travesty upon the honorable profession of letters. Than the better class of Southern authors themselves, none will feel more keenly the truth of our remarks. They write books, but can find for them neither publishers nor remunerative sales at the South. The executors of Calhoun seek, for his works, a Northern publisher. Benton writes history and prepares voluminous compilations, which are given to the world through a Northern publisher. Simms writes novels and poems, and they are scattered abroad from the presses of a Northern publisher. Eighty per cent. of all the copies sold are probably bought by Northern readers.
When will Southern authors understand their own interests? When will the South, as a whole, abandoning its present suicidal policy, enter upon that career of prosperity, greatness, and true renown to which God by his word and his providences is calling it?