Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 111 / Number 1 - Review
Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition.
By Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xxvi, 235 pp. $59.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.
Reviewed by Joseph M. Flora, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
In the scholarship of Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Clio has remained close to her sister Melpomene.
Wyatt-Brown's studies of the mind of the American South have repeatedly taken him to the belles
lettres of the region. For two decades his chief concerns have been the ethic of honor, the tragedy
of melancholy, and the personal origins of the artistic imagination. Not surprisingly, these three
concerns often prove related to one another. Honor, Wyatt-Brown concluded, did not encourage
introspection but action—hasty and often violent. For some, writing has been the escape; their words
have provided the necessary archive for Wyatt-Brown. As a result, his name and work are as familiar
to students of literature as they are to historians.
Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition has its origins in the 1995
Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History at Louisiana State University. Its thesis is
that the nineteenth-century South was "more prone to collective and individual dejection than the
rest of the nation." The defeat of the South in the Civil War and the struggle afterward to regain lost
prosperity was a major element in, but not the only cause of, the propensity toward melancholy. In
the antebellum period, slavery itself had created a climate of apprehension. Semitropical diseases
put southerners at greater risk of early death than people in other parts of the nation. Overriding these
facts was the code of honor, requiring "a stifling of introspection, an unyielding demand for reticence
to avoid vulnerability."
Probing southern literary melancholy, Wyatt-Brown turns first to Edgar Allan Poe. Most of Poe's
readers would be quick to identify him with alienation and darkness, but so dark is Poe's content and
so removed from specific southern locale that many of those same readers scarcely consider him
southern. But Poe has never seemed more southern than he is in Wyatt-Brown's hands. That
southernness, Wyatt-Brown finds, lies in Poe's preoccupation with honor and dread of shame.
Poe sets the stage for consideration of sectionalism, war, and defeat. A chapter ponders Nathaniel
Beverley Tucker, James Henry Hammond, and Edmund Ruffin, who uttered their own defiant
"nevermore"; Wyatt-Brown labels them "literary fire-eaters." William Gilmore Simms
de-serves—and gets—a different and more extended treatment. Although Simms, like other
Confederates, faced pain and loss, he battled a sense of under-appreciation and betrayal throughout
his career. Wyatt-Brown argues that Simms failed at his ambition as belletrist because he, like other
southern writers (Poe the exception), failed to experiment with new modes of articulation. To
experiment risked "regional betrayal." Hence, southern poetry for more than a century would suffer
from the failure to experiment or to risk self-examination. The centerpiece of the splendid chapter
on southern poetry is a discussion of the poetry of Abraham Lincoln, whom Wyatt-Brown
tantalizingly claims for southern literature.
In the popular mind, O. Henry is remembered as the master of stories with brisk narratives and
surprise endings. Wyatt-Brown argues that this southerner who wrote stories that were only
occasionally set in the South shared Poe's dark perspective, his concern with honor and
disgrace—even his problem with drink. Joel Chandler Harris and Mark Twain share a chapter that
accents their essential darkness and their despair, which their trickster figures were able to hide.
Women of the nineteenth-century South were no strangers to the depression and despair that were
sometimes pronounced in their men, but their voices were more subdued as they kept to their
appointed places. With the dawn of Modernism at the end of the nineteenth century, the sentimental
tradition abated. Wyatt-Brown welcomes the transition with a memorable quartet of women writers.
Of the four, Constance Fenimore Woolson, a New Englander who discovered the South in her
maturity, is the least southern. But her depression and eventual suicide relate nicely to
Wyatt-Brown's concern with the relationship between depression and creativity. Like Woolson, Kate
Chopin has suffered under the label local colorist and so thought minor until late in the twentieth
century. The Awakening (pilloried in her own time) has been championed by the women's movement
as portraying a courageous woman, one asking questions women had long been wanting to ask, a
woman bold in asserting a woman's right to full sexual being. Wyatt-Brown shows a somewhat
different Chopin, one who (again like Poe) at an early age suffered loss of a parent and would always
be fighting the demon of despair.
A final chapter joins Willa Cather (most famous for her stories set in Nebraska but southern in her
fibers—she was shaped by her Virginia parents and her first decade) and Ellen Glasgow, a
Richmonder who made Virginia the subject of her writing. Cather becomes exile in this reading,
revealing herself southern in her reticence and adherence to good manners, southern in her prevailing
melancholy. Glasgow, formed by the mythos of the fallen Confederate capital, alienated from her
stern Calvinistic father, firmly rejected the sentimentality prevalent in southern writing. She is thus
strongly allied with Chopin and Cather.
What Wyatt-Brown celebrates in these four women—as well as in Poe, Simms, Lincoln, Lanier,
O. Henry, Twain, Harris—is the imagination that countered the melancholy. His narrative is brisk,
always engaging—a welcome addition to the history of southern thought and of these authors.