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  • Writers, Editors, and Intellectual Exchange Between the Antebellum North and South
  • Jonathan Daniel Wells (bio)

In september 1993, as ann arbor, michigan’s ample treescape began to reveal leaves of yellow, orange, and fiery red, I met for the first time my mentor at the University of Michigan. J. Mills Thornton III was kind and welcoming, but the competitive graduate student environment of which I was already aware made me anxious about impressing my new professor. Fortunately, as we talked about mutual interests, Mills and I hit upon a common bond: for both of us, William R. Taylor’s 1961 classic study of antebellum literature and politics, Cavalier and Yankee, was a favorite read. We appreciated Taylor’s examination of famous antebellum literati like James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, and Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as more obscure authors like James Kirke Paulding, William Alexander Caruthers, Evert Duyckinck, and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker. Still today I marvel at Taylor’s ability to join novels, periodical literature, and political writings to reveal how Americans in both North and South viewed their pasts.

Taylor’s openness to examining southern authors ran counter to the wisdom prevailing for much of the early twentieth century about the quality of writers and thinkers in the slave states. Scholars often dismissed the intellectual culture of the South as irrelevant and undeveloped, remarking, as W. J. Cash once wrote, that the South really had no mind, merely a temperament. In one of the more famous passages of The Mind of the South (1941), Cash argued that “leaving Mr. Jefferson aside, the whole South produced, not only no original philosopher but no derivative one to set beside Emerson [End Page 113] and Thoreau; no novelist but poor Simms to measure against the Northern galaxy headed by Hawthorne and Melville and Cooper… no poet deserving the name save Poe – only half a Southerner.”1 Rejecting Cash’s characterization of southern intellectual life, historians such as Michael O’Brien have shown that southerners were attuned to literary developments emanating from the North and Europe, and that these men and women participated actively in a transatlantic and interregional intellectual culture.2 No longer could apologists for proslavery ideology claim that white southerners were somehow detached or isolated from western intellectual and literary trends. White southerners knew well the European and northern criticisms of slavery; southerners simply chose to swim against the powerful antislavery currents created by authors like Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickens.3

Strangely, even as white southerners maintained a strict silence on the questioning of slavery, and violently denounced northern and European writers who veered into antislavery commentary, white southern thinkers were often willing to lay aside their differences with northern intellectuals over bondage. In fact, the intellectual ties that northern and southern writers and editors created in the antebellum period were important to the development of literary and print culture in both regions. For much of the antebellum era, northern and southern writers placed their professional and personal relationships with each other above the national divide over slavery. As Taylor understood, analyzing the personal and intellectual connections between northern and southern authors can help us appreciate the nuanced ways that antebellum Americans themselves understood sectionalism and the coming of the Civil War. [End Page 114]

Despite hailing from different regions and adhering to conflicting ideas about the justice of bondage, shared experiences in print culture united northern and southern intellectuals. Writers in both sections, for example, believed that they were engaged in a common endeavor to convince a fickle reading public that American authors and themes were worth celebrating. Both Cooper and Simms set their novels in American towns and farms populated with American characters. Resenting the haughty superiority maintained by British observers, northern and southern authors united in a common endeavor to bring their nation’s past into fiction. Intellectuals in both regions also complained bitterly about publishers who failed to honor contracts, and about being unappreciated by critics and readers alike. These common experiences were the foundation of close personal as well as professional relationships that proved remarkably strong over the antebellum decades. While not all such relationships between northern and southern authors remained unscathed by...


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pp. 113-128
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