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  • The Southern Lady and the Northern Publishers:A Tumultuous Relationship
  • Jane Turner Censer (bio)

An 1891 article on literature in the post–Civil War South in Lippincott's Magazine referred to Amélie Rives as "the most noted of the younger writers not only of the South but of America." Only twenty-eight years old then, Rives had already been publishing for five years. Contemporary readers would have immediately recognized her name—some would have thought of her scandalous best-selling novella, "The Quick or the Dead?" (1888), while others would have pointed to her short stories and poems in the most prestigious national magazines of the day. Still others would have related some of the numerous jokes and anecdotes about her beauty and headstrong behavior. Rives had led a privileged life in Mobile, Alabama, and in Piedmont Virginia as the daughter of a railroad engineer and the granddaughter of a U.S. senator. In a life that spanned over eighty years, Rives went on to marry two times: one husband was an heir of the Astor family, the second a Russian prince. She also became a prolific author: over her career she published more than twenty books, as well as many poems and short stories, and saw her plays produced.1

The experiences of Rives provide a vantage point on southern literature and give insight into a changing world for white women, especially southern female authors. Rives's efforts to become a published [End Page 7] author as well as her interactions with her first editors prove particularly enlightening about the gendered code of conduct of that day and how it was changing; these interchanges also illuminate the reception that southern women received from canonical magazines. Moreover, her experiences provide a richly detailed account of sponsorship and the kinds of relationships that existed between writers and editors in the 1880s, when the national magazines increasingly sought white southerners' contributions as an aspect of sectional reconciliation.

The experience of the Confederacy had called forth a spate of writing from educated women—whether patriotic poetry or memoirs about their experience with war, refugeeing, and northern invasion. To be sure, southern white women had been authoring books for many decades. While antebellum women, including those in the South, wrote and published a great deal, they largely produced domestic novels, focused on courtship and marriage, for a devoted female following. But as the Civil War receded as a lived experience and became part of an increasingly mythologized past, growing numbers of women, even southern women, attempted to scale the more exalted heights of northern publishing.2 Rives's movement into the world of publishing yields insights into both the barriers and the opportunities for these women.

In the 1870s white southerners had taken advantage of a growing wave of interest in the "local color" genre—which featured regional dialect and regional peculiarities—to increase their visibility in publishing and to share in a literary movement. Among southerners, Joel Chandler Harris's "Uncle Remus" tales led the way, but George Washington Cable's stories of Louisiana Creole life also became enormously popular and did much to create a craze for fiction in dialect. This growing fascination with regional cultures quickly came to include many different southerners as subjects, especially Appalachian hill folks, African Americans, and Creoles in New Orleans. Southern authors joined New Englanders such as Sarah Orne Jewett and western writers such as Bret Harte in presenting regional portraits of the United States. Tennessean Mary Noailles Murfree, who wrote under the pen name [End Page 8] Charles Egbert Craddock, began publishing her Appalachian stories in the 1870s. Other southern writers focused on the Civil War or the antebellum South, including the plantation romances popularized by Thomas Nelson Page, whose stories "Meh Lady" (1886) and "Marse Chan" (1884) in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine brought him fame and fortune. Americans, faced with a changing world, seem to have found the presentations of allegedly simple life in rural areas and close relationships on the plantation particularly alluring.3

The growth of magazine readership presented a new, lucrative pathway into a literary career. A group of influential magazines competed for attention and...


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