Romances. Like many Northern novelists, Southern writers were strongly influenced by the popular historical romances of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, whose ideas they adapted to specific Southern themes and locations. Marylander John P. Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1832), the first significant plantation novel, was a novel of manners that contained favorable descriptions of local differences (including slavery) offered by a fictional Northern visitor. William A. Caruthers’s novels The Cavaliers of Virginia (1834–1835) and The Knights of the Horse-Shoe (1845) were historical romances set in Southern locales. Another of Caruthers’s novels, The Kentuckian in New York (1834), showed Northerners traveling south and Southerners traveling north; it incorporated descriptions of scenery from both regions into several love stories involving the travelers.
Simms. William Gilmore Simms was the South’s most prolific author. A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Simms wrote novels, essays, poetry, and short stories, all treating different aspects of Southern life, including Native American legends. Simms’s novel The Yemassee (1835) has been compared to Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) for its treatment of Native American and frontier themes. Simms’s writing consistently showed a dislike of industrial development, an emphasis on concrete detail, and a sense of the South as a distinctive civilization. Like Scott and Cooper, Simms mostly wrote historical romances, focusing on the history and manners of Charleston and the surrounding Low Country in Revolutionary times in novels such as The Partisan: A Tale of the Revolution (1835). Simms also treated Spanish American history as well as national and Southern history in the frontier and border romances Guy Rivers (1834), Pelayo (1838), and Border Beagles (1840). During the 1840s, when technological advances made cheaply bound books and newspapers (often containing pirated English fiction) easily available, reader interest in long romances declined, and Simms branched out to produce several volumes of poetry, history, and essays.
Periodicals. Throughout his career Simms believed that periodical publishing might encourage the rise of a distinctively Southern literature that would contribute to a broader national literature. Toward that end Simms edited several short-lived magazines, including the Album (1825–1826), the Southern Literary Gazette (1828–1829), and the Magnolia (1842–1843). Other attempts at establishing Southern magazines met with more success. The Southern Review (1828–1832), edited by Charleston lawyer Hugh Swinton Legare, was considered scholarly and dull, but its brief success encouraged others to begin their own magazines. Imitators included the Southern Literary Journal (1835–1838), the Orion (1842–1844), and the Magnolia, originally the Southern Ladies’ Book (1840–1843). The longest-lasting journals were the Southern Quarterly Review (1842–1857), eventually edited by Simms, who attributed its success to his willingness to bring politics into the review, and the Southern Literary Messenger (1834–1864), which survived partly due to its connection with Edgar Allan Poe, who had served as its editor from 1835 through 1837 and continued to contribute to the journal throughout his life.
Literary Culture. The problems faced by Southern literary periodicals reflected the problems of writers in general: Southern readers generally lacked interest in literary matters, and the absence of significant urban centers in the South restricted the development of cultural institutions. Charleston, Richmond, and Baltimore attracted small communities of writers, but the journals they published often languished for lack of subscribers. Additionally, these magazines faced the problem (not limited to Southern literary periodicals) of securing contributors whose work would build the journals’ reputations. The success of the Southern Literary Messenger reflected its ability to draw Northern as well as Southern contributors. As sectional
tension increased, however, literary ties to the North became problematic. Southern authors, including Simms, were able to find a wider readership in the South by taking a more active proslavery position, but the expression of these views ultimately hurt the authors’ ability to work with Northern contributors and publishers.
Louis D. Rubin Jr., The History of Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).