Preston, Margaret Junkin

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PRESTON, Margaret Junkin

Born 19 May 1820, Milton, Pennsylvania; died 28 March 1897, Baltimore, Maryland

Daughter of George and Julia Miller Junkin; married John T. L.Preston, 1857; children: two sons (and seven stepchildren)

Margaret Junkin Preston's father, a Presbyterian minister and educator, headed several schools before coming in 1848 to Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, where Preston lived until 1892. Preston received a rigorous classical and biblical education overseen by her father at home. The deaths of a brother, a sister (Stonewall Jackson's first wife), and Preston's mother saddened the 1850s. In 1857 Preston married a Virginia Military Institute professor nine years her senior and a widower with seven children. She bore two sons.

Excerpts from Preston's letters and journals published in Elizabeth Preston Allen's laudatory but sometimes inaccurate Life and Letters of Margaret Junkin Preston (1903) reflect Preston's reading taste, which while eclectic was conservative. Nevertheless, Preston was a "woman of letters," numbering several important writers among a host of correspondents. Preston's prose and poetry contain allusions that establish her knowledge of numerous works, writers, artists, paintings—American, English, and Continental.

Known primarily as a poet, Preston was prolific, publishing widely in newspapers and journals and bringing out six books of collected verse. The abundant output may account in part for the general mediocrity of Preston's poetry. She herself frequently commented on the "excessive rapidity" with which she turned out a poem—"only a morning's work."

Responsive to requests for occasional verse, Preston celebrated weddings, births, deaths, and agricultural fairs. Occasionally a poem enjoyed considerable popularity as did Beechenbrook (1865). Exonerating the South, Preston weaves a tale of brave suffering and death. Biblical imagery occurs frequently, classical allusions abound, and sentimental detail characterizes the lines. Yet Preston uses a considerable number of verse patterns, from an eight-line stanza to tercets, providing variety and displaying some ingenuity. Dedicated to "every Southern woman widowed by the war" and centered on love, duty, and sacrifice for family and state, the poem was read widely.

In Silverwood (1856), a semiautobiographical novel, the protagonist Edith, shackled by genteel poverty, feels hampered by the restraints society imposes. Edith is Preston herself, who noted in letters, journal entries, and her published work the conflict of being a mother, wife, and artist, of dividing time between the kitchen and the writing table. Whatever its slight virtues (the death scenes are moving and drawn from Preston's own experience, the countryside is convincingly described, and the suffering is real), Silverwood must be placed with its countless companions, the domestic-sentimental novels of the 1850s and 1860s—those trite, contrived, formula-ridden books.

Incapable of producing fiction of the first order, Preston continued the nostalgic memories of the South's triumphs and trials while other American writers moved into the complex and realistic concerns of the 20th century. What redeems Aunt Dorothy: An Old Virginia Plantation Story (1890) from banality are comic scenes, the somewhat ambitious structure, and the mixture of black dialect with artificial and formal white speech.

Burdened with a large family, household duties, ill health, and requests from aspiring writers, Preston could never devote her full energy to her literary abilities, but she was sincere and displayed an occasional spark of talent.

Other Works:

The Young Ruler's Question (1869). Old Songs and New (1870). Cartoons (1875). Centennial Poem (1885). AHandful of Monographs (1886). For Love's Sake (1886). Colonial Ballads, Sonnets, and Other Verse (1887). Chimes for Church Children (1889). Semi-Centennial Ode (1889).


Allen, E. P., Life and Letters of Margaret Junkin Preston (1903).

Reference works:

CAL. DAB. NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Commonwealth (1950).


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Preston, Margaret Junkin

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