Wilson, Augusta Evans (1835–1909)
Wilson, Augusta Evans (1835–1909)
Writer whose 1866 book St. Elmo was one of the most popular American novels of the 19th century. Name variations: Augusta Evans. Born Augusta Jane Evans on May 8, 1835, in Wynnton, Georgia; died of a heart attack on May 9, 1909, in Mobile, Alabama; daughter of Matt Ryan Evans and Sarah Skrine (Howard) Evans; educated at home by her mother; married Lorenzo Madison Wilson (a financier and plantation owner), on December 2, 1868 (died 1891); children: four stepchildren.
Inez: A Tale of the Alamo (1855); Beulah (1859); Macaria; or, Altars of Sacrifice (1864); St. Elmo (1866); Vashti (1869); Infelice (1875); At the Mercy of Tiberius (1887); A Speckled Bird (1902); Devota (1907).
Augusta Evans Wilson was a proud product of the South, and the region colored her attitudes and artistic output throughout her life. Her father Matt Ryan Evans owned a general store with his brother in Columbus, Georgia, when the town was newly founded on the Chattahoochee River. (As the land formerly had been inhabited by Native Americans, white settlers came under frequent attack from the tribes whom they had dispossessed.) The merchants prospered in the beginning, and in 1835, the year his first daughter Augusta was born, Evans began building a mansion named Sherwood Hall. The family, which eventually would grow to include eight children, moved into the home the following year. Prosperity deserted them when, in the early 1840s, the region was besieged by floods, Indian attacks, and financial panic. Evans, nearly bankrupt, mortgaged his 36 slaves and 143 acres of land and packed up his family in a covered wagon. They rode to Alabama and then west to Texas, where they settled first in Houston, then Galveston, and finally in prosperous San Antonio. Poverty followed them until Evans managed to reestablish his mercantile business. In 1849, the family returned to Alabama, settling in Mobile, which was to remain Wilson's home for the rest of her life.
Wilson's mother Sarah Howard Evans schooled her children at home, with particular emphasis on Methodist fundamentalism. Although she therefore had limited formal learning, Wilson broadened her education through extensive reading. Influenced by her time in Texas, she began writing a story about the Alamo. She was considered frail of health, and writing was not a proper occupation for women, so she stole time at night to work, with one of the family's slaves supplying her with lamp oil and helping to hide her manuscript. Wilson's parents had only praise for her work, however, when it was finally revealed to them, and it was published anonymously in 1855, when she was 20. Although (or because) its plot was laden with sentiment, moralizing, and anti-Catholic propaganda, Inez: A Tale of the Alamo was successful enough to earn Wilson the money to buy the home in which the Evans family lived.
A period spent doubting and scrutinizing her own Methodist faith and studying the works of authors like Emerson, Kant, and Carlyle led Wilson to a firm conviction in the importance of religion and high moral principles. Her second novel, Beulah (1859), centers on a character who similarly confronts her own doubts. Some 22,000 copies were printed in the book's first nine months of publication, and fellow novelist Mary Virginia Terhune called it "the best work of fiction ever published by a Southern writer." The book also brought Wilson fame and a reprieve from the specter of poverty.
Wilson was an ardent secessionist, and her belief in the righteousness of the Confederate cause was only strengthened by the abolitionist and anti-Southern sentiment she saw on trips to New York to arrange the publication of her work. During these travels, she also met and became secretly engaged to James Reed Spalding, editor of the New York World and a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln. In 1860, Wilson broke their engagement and dedicated herself to organizing a Confederate Army hospital (named Camp Beulah after her book) near Mobile. She worked at Camp Beulah throughout the Civil War: "I have been constantly engaged in nursing sick soldiers, keeping sleepless vigil by day and night," she wrote to a friend. She also followed relatives who were soldiers to the battlefield and corresponded with Confederate leaders on matters including government appointments and military strategy. In her spare time, she wrote Macaria; or, Altars of Sacrifice (1864), published in Virginia with pages printed on wrapping paper and cardboard bindings covered with wallpaper. A piece of Confederate propaganda based on her own battlefield observations and first-person accounts of the Battle of Manassas, the book was intended to defend Confederate policy and lift the morale of her fellow Southerners. It won her a respect equal to that of male politicians and soldiers among many Southerners, and was so persuasive that a Northern general burned copies and banned its reading among his troops. A smuggled version printed in New York also sold well. When Wilson visited New York after the end of the war, her publisher gave her an unexpected cache of royalties not remitted during wartime, and the Northern currency (greatly valued in the South) helped her and her family survive comfortably during the privations of the Reconstruction.
The end of the Civil War did not stop Wilson's efforts for the Confederacy. She tried to have a monument to the Confederacy erected in Mobile and to insure the burial of the city's war victims in Magnolia Cemetery. Her family also sheltered General Robert Toombs, an old friend who was hunted as a fugitive in 1865. However, Wilson recognized that the cause was lost. She had hoped to write a history of the Confederacy, but abandoned that idea in favor of the novel St. Elmo (1866), which accomplished some of the same objectives. It sold beyond all expectation, for the nation's novel readers—mostly women—were fascinated by this tale of the virtuous Edna Earl, whose prayers, righteousness, and affection rescue a dashing hero from his sins. Behind Harriet Beecher Stowe 's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, it was the third most popular novel of the 19th century, and made Wilson's name nationally known. Countless towns were renamed St. Elmo, and baby girls were christened Edna Earl. A dramatized version was written and staged many times from 1909 to about 1915, a silent film was made of St. Elmo in 1923, and William Webb's parody, St. Twel'mo, was also immensely popular.
Wilson continued to live at home, with a second occupation nursing her ill father and her brother Howard, who had been badly wounded during the war. She also visited sick neighbors, one of whom was the wife of Colonel Lorenzo Madison Wilson, a wealthy financier who owned a street railway company in Mobile. The father of four children, three of them adults, he was 68 years old when he proposed to Wilson after his wife's death. They delayed their wedding due to her father's objections, but married in December 1868 after Matt Evans' death and Sarah Evans' consent to their plans. Wilson proudly assumed the duties of caring for her husband and 13-year-old stepdaughter and running a large estate, with its extensive gardens, five greenhouses, and battery of servants. She also made daily visits to her mother on foot and wrote. (Her nursing experiences had forced Wilson into rigid time management, and she allotted four hours a day to writing.) Her next novel, Vashti (1869), was published only ten months after her wedding.
By 1870, Wilson's royalties from book sales amounted to $10,000 per year, an income that would remain steady for 30 years, although none of her subsequent novels were as popular as St. Elmo. Indeed, she was widely rebuked by critics for her use of difficult language and composition. Insomnia and severe hay fever forced her to travel widely with her husband seeking relief, and her writing slowed to accommodate these restrictions. In 1875, she published the melodramatic Infelice, followed in 1887 by At the Mercy of Tiberius. After her husband's death in 1891, Wilson, self-sufficient from her book sales, divided his estate between her stepchildren and went to live with a sister. A few years later, she moved into a large Victorian home in Mobile with her brother Howard, her closest companion until his death in 1908. Social conditions and causes preoccupied her, and, although she had long featured strong women characters triumphing over poverty, limitations, and insecurities, her 1902 novel A Speckled Bird opposed women's suffrage and labor unions. Her last work, Devota, a short story expressing her dislike of the Populist movement, was published in book form in 1907. She died of a heart attack two years later, on May 9, 1909, at the age of 74.
Estes, Glenn, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 42: American Writers for Children Before 1900. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1985.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.
Fidler, William Perry. Augusta E. Wilson. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1951.
Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California