Meriwether, Elizabeth Avery
MERIWETHER, Elizabeth Avery
Born 19 January 1824, Bolivar, Tennessee; died 1917 (?), Memphis, Tennessee
Also wrote under: George Edmunds
Daughter of Nathan and Rebecca Avery; married Minor Meriwether, 1850
In her autobiography, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether reveals little about her childhood other than to note that her family moved from Bolivar to Memphis when she was eleven. It is obvious, however, that Meriwether was well educated, for after the death of her parents, she became a teacher. When the Civil War began, her husband, a civil engineer, joined the army, leaving Meriwether in Memphis. The city was occupied by the Union army in 1862, and after several unpleasant encounters with Northern generals, Meriwether decided to seek refuge in Alabama.
While in Tuscaloosa, Meriwether resumed her childhood pastime of writing. She won a competition sponsored by the Selma Daily Mississippian offering $500 for the best story dealing with the war. "The Refugee" is based partly on her own experiences traveling through Alabama and Tennessee. Encouraged by this success, Meriwether wrote "The Yankee Spy," which the newspaper planned to publish as a book. However, when the Confederacy fell, these plans were abandoned.
After the war, Meriwether combined writing with an interest in social reform. In 1872, she edited and published a weekly newspaper, The Tablet, which lasted for a year. A strong believer in woman suffrage, Meriwether "cast a vote" in the Memphis elections of 1872 and began a correspondence with leading feminists. In 1881, Meriwether joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony on a speaking tour of New England. There she met Henry George and became a supporter of his "single tax" theory of economics.
Meriwether's first novel, The Master of Red Leaf, was published in 1872. It is basically a description of life on a southern plantation before the Civil War and a justification of secession. Her other works include novels, a play, and several works of popular history. Meriwether's autobiography, Recollections of 92 Years, was published the year before her death.
In many ways, Meriwether can be considered a "professional Confederate." Not only do most of her works deal with the antebellum South, but unlike other postwar southern authors, Meriwether refused to acknowledge that slavery had been a moral or social evil. Meriwether's fiction is replete with stereotyped black characters—happy, carefree, childlike, and unable to govern themselves without the discipline of slavery.
However, with the end of slavery, Meriwether saw her ordered world turned upside down. "Life in the South," she wrote, "became one long nightmare; then a miracle happened—for surely the way the South escaped from that frightful nightmare was little short of miraculous." The "miracle" was the Ku Klux Klan. Meriwether writes about the Klan with an insider 's knowledge and sympathy, for her husband was a member. She witnessed its night raids, terrorism, and destruction of black property, claiming that the corruption of the carpetbaggers and the insolence of "uppity" blacks justified any actions by disfranchised whites. Meriwether concludes: "No doubt many abuses were committed by the Ku Klux. In large bodies of men some unwise ones, some mean ones will inevitably be found. But considered as a whole the work of the Ku Klux was done in a patriotic spirit for patriotic purposes, and I rejoice to see … that History is beginning to do justice to that wonderful secret movement. At the time it was misunderstood; in the North it was reviled. But in truth it accomplished a noble and necessary work in the only way in which that work was then possible."
Despite Meriwether's obvious prejudices, her works are enjoyable. She had a knack for telling a good story and making her characters real. Meriwether's descriptions of poor white hill people are charming and convey the spirit of these people.
The Ku Klux Klan; or, The Carpet-bagger in New Orleans (1877). English Tyranny and Irish Suffering (1881). Black and White: A Novel (1883). The Devil's Dances: A Play (1886). The Sowing of Swords (1910).
Horn, S. F., Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan (1939). Patton, J. W., Unionism and Reconstruction in Tennessee, 1860-1869 (1934).
—JANET E. KAUFMAN