Moltke-Hansen on Hutchison, 'Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America'

Coleman Hutchison
David Moltke-Hansen

Coleman Hutchison. Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. 277 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-3731-9; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-4244-3.

Reviewed by David Moltke-Hansen (Cambridge Studies on the American South) Published on H-Southern-Lit (January, 2014) Commissioned by Anthony Dyer Hoefer

War Fruit: Confederate Literary Ambitions

Before the birth of the Confederate States of America came the birth of southern literature. After the defeat of the new nation, it lived on in poetry, song, and memoirs, as well as in fiction, critical discourse, and literary journals. In between, it fostered Confederate nationalism. Coleman Hutchison analyzes, from a literary historical perspective, revealing examples of these developments between 1834 and 1876.This period was after the postrevolutionary surge in patriotic literature and before the surge in Lost Cause literature. The result of this focus is a book that sketches some elements of--and thereby suggests the need for--a history that covers this terrain. 

The suggestion is deftly made in clear and engaging prose. It uses a dozen-plus telling, as well as sometimes fascinating, case studies of the rise, implementation, and postbellum survival of white southern literary ambition. These are presented in an introduction and five chapters. A discussion of Henry Timrod’s poem “Ethnogenesis,” printed in Charleston, South Carolina, just after the founding of the Confederate government in Montgomery, Alabama, frames what follows. Then each chapter is devoted to a particular genre or example of a genre deployed in the anticipation, affirmation, or memorialization of the Confederacy. The purpose is to sustain “the broad claim ... that Confederate literature allows us to trace the development of a national literature both in process and in miniature” (p. 3). 

The rationale for thus examining Confederate literature stems from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (2nd ed., 1991). There Anderson contends, inter alia, that nations are imagined, virtual communities of political identity, aspiration, and action fostered and linked over long distances through literature. Hutchison, therefore, asks how different kinds of literary production helped Confederates assert and sustain their national identity. To answer, he considers southern writing not only during but also before and after the Civil War. The chapter on an antebellum literary review and literary reviewing is followed by one on a Confederate novel. Then come chapters on poetry and on music during the war and on a remarkable postbellum memoir. 

The introduction’s positioning and reading of Timrod’s “Ethnogenesis” conveys the understanding of Confederate authors that they were engaged in writing into being a people and a nation at the same time. The chapter on Augusta Jane Evans’s Macaria (1864) gives a sensible, if narrowly focused, analysis of the novel’s cultural nationalist ambitions, strategies, and accomplishments in the midst of the Civil War. The chapter on Confederate poetry examines, in illuminating fashion, poetic venues, delivery systems, and patriotic functions during wartime. The last two chapters--on “Dixie,” among other songs, and on The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1876)--are quite engaging and suggestive about the relationships of Confederate and other identities. In the process, Apples and Ashes successfully opens Confederate literature to literary historical analysis. It does so with grace, shrewdness, and self-awareness. Hutchison laments tendencies and topics in the literature he examines. Yet he is convincing in the case he makes. Literature deserves attention because of what it reveals, not only when it affirms appealing worldviews in aesthetically satisfying ways. 

The book, however, is under-theorized, and the works and genres it discusses are not sufficiently contextualized. Consider Hutchison’s use of Anderson. True, it is supplemented by Homi Bhabba’s The Location of Culture (1994). Bhabba has admired Imagined Communities. Yet other post-colonialists have taken issue with it. Among them is Partha Chatterjee, in The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (1993). Middle Eastern and Latin American scholars have points of disagreement with Anderson as well. These differences--about, among other things, the nature of nationalism and the roles of literature in cultures where literacy is uneven and class based--are relevant to the argument of Apples and Ashes. Hutchison, though, shows no awareness of them. Neither does he take into account Anderson’s shifting positions between the first and third editions of Imagined Communities (1983, 2006).

Other scholars of nationalism have called attention to the relationship of literature to other cultural productions in the public sphere. Hutchison does so, too, in his music chapter but does not use key works even when they are widely recognized as important considerations of the development of American nationalism before the rise of the southern variant. To take one example, David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1997), considers how patriotic celebrations fostered national sentiments in the face of political, regional, ethnic, class, and other divisions. Such festive and solemn occasions often featured the reading, singing, or other performance of written texts, a point Hutchison acknowledges only glancingly.

Because of these limitations, Hutchison skates over rather than addresses problems that naturally arise when using a work by a twentieth-century Southeast Asian specialist to read, without all the necessary contextualization, texts from the nationalist ambitions and complexities of four-plus decades in the mid-nineteenth-century South. After all, it matters that nationalism itself changed and developed significantly in the nineteenth century. Hutchison in effect acknowledges the point by opening his book as he does. In calling attention in this way to southern ethnogenesis as a basis of southern literary nationalism, it would have been appropriate for him to say more than that Timrod was drawing on European influences analyzed by Anderson.

As Anderson notes, those influences were recent developments. Sir Walter Scott’s desire to create a British ethnicity and nationalism out of Scottish and English antecedents framed the romances that Scott started writing only in 1814. This notion of emergent, ethnic nationalism was new and radically different from the earlier identification of America with its founding principles and leaders or of Europeans with their royal houses. The fact of this shift in conceptualizations of nationalism is critical to Hutchison’s story. Confederates who thought of themselves as defending principle also identified themselves as an emergent people.

Other contextual points that are relevant similarly are glossed over. Hutchison argues that southerners felt inferior in literary attainments to northerners but then fails to note that northern litterateurs felt inferior to their British counterparts, and also that the greater population and urban density of the North supported a much richer print culture than the South could, despite its greater wealth. There is another issue of timing that is slighted too, because it id referenced but not discussed. The periodical-based print culture that Hutchison limes in his first chapter was of very recent origin. The modern review journal only started in 1802, with the launch of the Edinburgh Review. In the United States, the first to emulate this new style of periodical was the North American Review, begun in 1815 in Boston, Massachusetts. This was just thirteen years before the Southern Review started its run in Charleston.

Charleston never figures in Hutchison’s analysis. Yet, in Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (2004), Michael O’Brien treats it, and the networks emanating from there, as being at the center of antebellum southern intellectual life. Having decided that, early on, the Southern Literary Messenger was the best literary journal in the region, Hutchison assumes that it continued to be so. Yet he never explains why or does the comparative analysis to support his judgment. What the presumption allows him to do is ignore several inconvenient facts.

The South was disarticulated in 1834, when the Messenger began. As a result, relatively few Carolinians read the same southern journals as did Virginians. Not until 1857-58 did railroads link the major watersheds that divided the South into subregions. Moreover, the Southern Quarterly Review, under William Gilmore Simms’s editorship; Russell’s Magazine, under Paul Hamilton Hayne’s editorship, also in Charleston; and Charlestonian J. D. B. DeBow’s Review, in New Orleans, all became arguably as important as the Southern Literary Messenger in the dozen years before secession. Of these, Russell’s was the most literary. That said, they all had similarly sized and distinct, though overlapping readerships. 

Even within his chosen period Hutchison’s selection of cases would have benefited from broadening. He instantiates Edgar Allan Poe as early literary southerner when reviewer for and editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Yet Hutchison then does not follow Poe north to New York, where he became a leading combatant in the cultural wars of the Democratic Young America circle. Like Simms, he associated with this informal group and crossed swords with the Whiggish Knickerbocker set of Washington Irving. At the heart of the debate between the two clusters of writers was nationalism in literature. The Young Americans supported it vociferously. Not so the Knickerbockers, who subscribed to transnational literary standards and traditions. Surely this late Americanism should inform reading of Poe’s earlier southernism just as Simms’s early Americanism should inform reading of his later southernism. As surely, the cross-dressing, interracial, international, and hybridized dimensions of such antebellum novels as Simms’s Vasconselos (1853) and The Cassique of Kiawah (1859) would have helped Hutchison place those dimensions of the Velazquez memoir in proper perspective, not claim their unprecedented quality in a work written two decades after Simms’s.

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Citation: David Moltke-Hansen. Review of Hutchison, Coleman, Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America. H-Southern-Lit, H-Net Reviews. January, 2014. URL:

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