Author of several novels and a memorable autobiographical work entitled Our Father’s Fields (1998), as well as a leading light of the Abbeville Institute, James Kibler has produced in the present work an indispensable study of the classical influence on Southern literature. Other literary historians and critics of Southern letters have explored this territory; however, to my knowledge, this is the first book-length treatment of the subject, and one long overdue. Drawing frequently upon the expertise of precursors such as Richard Beale Davis, Lewis Simpson, M.E. Bradford, and Richard Weaver, Kibler extends and refines their analyses with critical forays into the works of frequently neglected authors. In a nutshell, he argues that the most distinctive traits of Southern literature are rooted in the South’s “joy in the gifts of life,” its rejection of ideological abstraction, its submission to tradition and historical precedent, its broad tolerance, and its preference for a life embedded in familial and agrarian pursuits—all of which can ultimately be traced back to Greek and Roman classical culture, profoundly leavened, of course, by the Christian Faith.
In a survey of Southern colonial libraries Kibler notes that classical authors were predominant, most commonly the works of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, Juvenal, Aesop, and Terence. Among these Virgil, Horace, and Cicero were especially valued for their memorable evocations of “settled rural estates, hospitality, enjoyment and contentment.” Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 reading list for his nephew includes most of the above-mentioned authors, and adds to them the works of Epictetus, Euripides, and Homer—a canonical list that many a Southern squire replicated. Alongside these authors one would have found numerous European works dating from the 16th to the 18th and early 19th centuries, these more often than not by authors whose classical influences ran deep: Milton, Swift, Pope, Fielding, Addison, Smollett, and Molière, to name a few. The sons of those squires, when they were sent off to Southern colleges like South Carolina College in Columbia, were steeped in the classics. Indeed, entering freshmen, as Kibler notes, were expected to have acquired previously a solid knowledge of both Greek and Latin, to have “already read the whole of Virgil’s Aeneid, Cicero’s Orations, Xenophon’s Cyropedia, Sallust and the book of St. John in the Greek”—not to mention at least one book of Homer in Greek. Their immersion in the classics continued throughout their baccalaureate studies and included “recitations in Latin or Greek” twice a week before breakfast. These young men went on to become planters, yes, but also ministers, politicians, scholars, natural philosophers, statesmen, poets, and writers of fiction. And even those young men who, like W.G. Simms, were largely self-educated felt compelled to master the classical canon.
Perhaps appropriately enough, given the literary tone emanating from Restoration England, the earliest literary works of merit in the colonial South were not devotional tracts or pietistic verse in the manner of much that was then produced in New England, but comic works full of ribaldry and wordplay. Kibler singles out for special mention George Alsop’s A Character of the Province of Maryland (1666), a prose work “in the manner of Juvenal and Catullus” that “delights in puns, wit and double entendre . . . wild exaggerations, extended figurative language, coined words and incongruous personifications.” Equally adept at “frank treatments of human anatomy” and sardonic attacks on Puritan fanaticism, Alsop looks forward to a whole line of Southern writing: the comic works of Simms, George Washington Harris, and William Faulkner, among others. Yet the colonial era in the South could also inspire texts of a different, more aristocratic order. Kibler devotes several pages to the letter books of Eliza Lucas Pinckney composed between 1739 and 1762. Little known today outside scholarly circles, Pinckney’s epistolary productions reflect her life managing her deceased father’s Wappoo sugar-cane plantation near Charleston—a task she began at the age of 16. Replete with learned allusions to Virgil, Cicero, Plutarch, and even Demosthenes, Pinckney delights in the bounty of the earth in pastoral tones clearly inspired by Virgil’s Georgics. But her letters also offer fascinating glimpses into pre-Revolutionary plantation life, including relations between master (or mistress) and slaves—an attribute of her work that might explain why this fiercely independent woman has not been embraced by today’s Women’s Studies departments. Pinckney, it might be added, also inspired a line of Carolina pastoralists, including Archibald Rutledge and Herbert Ravenel Sass.
Naturally, the literary productions of the colonial and antebellum South offer an array of agrarian works, and Kibler neglects virtually nothing of importance. A substantial part of one chapter is devoted to Virginia’s William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond and the possessor of what is believed to have been, at approximately 3,600 volumes, the largest personal library in colonial America. Educated in England and widely read in the Greek and Roman classics, Byrd may be said with some justice to have been an exemplar of the colonial Southern plantation gentleman. He was, in the words of Lewis Simpson, “the first embodiment of a singular figure in America . . . the patriarch-philo sophe.” Byrd is best known for The Westover Manuscripts and his Secret Diaries. The former includes “The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina,” a record of the surveying expedition undertaken by Byrd in 1728, but is in fact best read as a sharply drawn study of pioneer social types, in particular those whom Kibler describes as “poor whites living in North Carolina’s Lubberland” (a fanciful place name used by Byrd to memorialize the slothful ways of the border dwellers). The Diaries, by contrast, reveal this “patriarch-philo sophe” in his own plantation domain, which he writes about in much the way that Cicero writes of his own Arpinum villa and its environs. Defending the superiority of rural life, Byrd writes to one English friend: “We that are banished from [London’s] polite pleasantries are forced to take up with rural entertainment. A library, a garden, a grove, and a purling stream are innocent scenes that direct our Leisure.” Kibler praises not only Byrd’s epistolary style but his exemplary life. It was, “in most ways,” he states, a life “usually ruled by the Horatian Golden Mean, nothing to excess.” Alas, though Kibler does not say so, readers of the Secret Diaries will find that Byrd’s Horatian self-discipline was somewhat embarrassed by his frequent philandering. Perhaps he thought of these affairs as another sort of “rural entertainment.”
Appropriately highlighted in the second half of Kibler’s book is the Roman concept of pietas, especially as it concerns the veneration of family. It is sometimes said that the South has long been “a vast cousinage,” which is certainly true in the sense that born-and-bred Southerners, from Virginia to Texas, often feel themselves to be part of a vast and intricate familial network, regardless of actual consanguinity. All the more powerful, of course, are the ties that bind blood relations, both the living and the dead. For Allen Tate, family was the heart of the South, as it was for Simms, Faulkner, Stark Young, Ellen Glasgow, Cormac McCarthy, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and a host of others. Perhaps this was especially true of 20th-century writers, for after the defeat of the South and the rise of a new industrial and individualistic order the weakening of family ties became increasingly evident. Thus, the preservation of family, of generational continuity, became more urgent. This perspective is memorably expressed in Donald Davidson’s “Lee in the Mountains, 1865–1870,” a poem in which the speaker, General Lee himself, “demonstrates the long familial view when he reflects that the merciful God has promised never to forsake or deny ‘His children and His children’s children forever / Unto all generations of the faithful heart.’” It should be added that the “long familial view” is often made emblematic in the “merging of family and place,” especially in the place inhabited by the family home or “big house.” One thinks of Simms’s Woodlands or Caroline Gordon’s Penhally, or, perhaps most poignantly (though unmentioned by Kibler), of Grace King’s family home on Coliseum Street in New Orleans, confiscated under General Butler during the War and reclaimed some 40 years later by the unflagging efforts of King and her sisters—the home that served as the locale for her splendid Balcony Stories.
Of course, Davidson and his Agrarian cadre are treated at some length in the present work. It is they who were the 20th-century torchbearers of the Lost Cause, and of those worthy men and women, Allen Tate is deserving here of particular mention, not only because of his splendid literary talents but also because it was he who was most deeply embedded in the classical heritage. Of all the writers discussed in the book, Tate perhaps best illustrates the central and enduring significance of Virgil’s Aeneid for Southerners of a literary bent. From the beginning Virgil had been understood as an exemplar of pietas, of the veneration of ancestors and the land that bred them. However, it is in Tate’s work that Aeneas’ desperate escape from the burning towers of Troy emerges most powerfully as a metaphor for the plight of Southerners after the destruction of the Southern homeland. As Kibler puts it, Book II
dramatized the fall and invasion of Troy, the invaders’ acts of cunning, deception and cruelty, the lamentations of separation of wives from husbands and family, and the road of exile for the defeated survivors
—much as Tate’s own Virginia ancestors, after the destruction of their community, had wandered until finally resettling in Tennessee. But the story of destruction and exile, whether literal or metaphorical, is a story that many a Southerner can tell, even if the number of Southerners who still revere those memories is much diminished today. Those of us who do remember must carry on our backs our lares and penates against all odds. All too well we understand Tate’s meaning in his poem “Aeneas at Washington”:
That was a time when civilization
Run by the few fell to the many, and
Crashed to the shout of men, the clang of arms:
Cold victualing I seized, I hoisted up
The old man my father upon my back,
In the smoke made by sea for a new world
Saving little . . .
We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Kibler for his diligent labors in the fields of his fathers.
[The Classical Origins of Southern Literature, by James Everett Kibler, Jr. (Abbeville Institute Press) 324 pp., $14.95