Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Georgia Scenes,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VIII: Literary Criticism - part 01 (1902), pp. 257-265


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[page 257, continued:]

GEORGIA SCENES, CHARACTERS, INCIDENTS, &C. IN THE FIRST HALF CENTURY OF THE REPUBLIC. BY A NATIVE GEORGIAN. AUGUSTA, GEORGIA.

[Southern Literary Messenger, March, 1836.]

THIS book has reached us anonymously — not to say anomalously — yet it is most heartily welcome. The author, whoever he is, is a clever fellow, imbued with a spirit of the truest humor, and endowed, moreover, with an exquisitely discriminative and penetrating understanding of character in general, and of Southern character in particular. And we do not mean to speak of human character exclusively. To be sure, our Georgian is au fait here too — he is learned in all things appertaining to the biped without feathers. In regard, especially, to that class of southwestern mammalia [page 258:] who come under the generic appellation of “savagerous wild cats,” he is a very Theophrastus in duodecimo. But he is not the less at home in other matters. Of geese and ganders he is the La Bruyére, and of good-for-nothing horses the Rochefoucault.

Seriously — if this book were printed in England it would make the fortune of its author. We positively mean what we say — and are quite sure of being sustained in our opinion by all proper judges who may be so fortunate as to obtain a copy of the “Georgia Scenes,” and who will be at the trouble of sifting their peculiar merits from amid the gaucheries of a Southern publication. Seldom — perhaps never in our lives have we laughed as immoderately over any book as over the one now before us. If these scenes have produced such effects upon our cachinnatory nerves — upon us who are not “of the merry mood,” and, moreover, have not been unused to the perusal of somewhat similar things — we are at no loss to imagine what a hubbub they would occasion in the uninitiated regions of Cockaigne. And what would Christopher North say to them? — ah, what would Christopher North say? that is the question. Certainly not a word. But we can fancy the pursing up of his lips, and the long, loud, and jovial resonnation of his wicked, and uproarious ha! ha’s!

From the Preface to the Sketches before us we learn that although they are, generally, nothing more than fanciful combinations of real incidents and characters, still, in some instances, the narratives are literally true. We are told also that the publication of these pieces was commenced, rather more than a year ago, in one of the Gazettes of the State, and that they were favorably received. “For the last six months,” says [page 259:] the author, “I have been importuned by persons from all quarters of the State to give them to the public in the present form.” This speaks well for the Georgian taste. But that the publication will succeed, in the bookselling sense of the word, is problematical. Thanks to the long indulged literary supineness of the South, her presses are not as apt in putting forth a saleable book as her sons are in concocting a wise one.

From a desire of concealing the author’s name, two different signatures, Baldwin and Hall, were used in the original Sketches, and, to save trouble, are preserved in the present volume. With the exception, however, of one scene, “The Company Drill,” all the book is the production of the same pen. The first article in the list is “Georgia Theatrics.” Our friend Hall, in this piece, represents himself as ascending, about eleven o’clock in the forenoon of a June day, “a long and gentle slope in what was called the Dark Corner of Lincoln County, Georgia.” Suddenly his ears are assailed by loud, profane, and boisterous voices, proceeding, apparently, from a large company of raggamuffins, concealed in a thick covert of undergrowth about a hundred yards from the road.

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And now the sounds assume all the discordant intonations inseparable from a Georgia “rough and tumble” fight. Our traveller listens in dismay to the indications of a quick, violent, and deadly struggle. With the intention of acting as pacificator, he dismounts in haste, and hurries to the scene of action. Presently, through a gap in the thicket, he obtains a glimpse of one, at least, of the combatants. This one appears to [page 260:] have his antagonist beneath him on the ground, and to be dealing on the prostrate wretch the most unmerciful blows. Having overcome about half the space which separated him from the combatants, our friend Hall is horror-stricken at seeing “the uppermost make a heavy plunge with both his thumbs, and hearing, at the same instant, a cry in the accent of keenest torture, ‘Enough! My eye’s out!’ ”

Rushing to the rescue of the mutilated wretch the traveller is surprised at finding that all the accomplices in the hellish deed have fled at his approach — at least so he supposes, for none of them are to be seen.

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All that had been seen or heard was nothing more nor less than a Lincoln rehearsal; in which all the parts of all the characters of a Georgian Court-House fight had been sustained by the youth of the plough solus. The whole anecdote is told with a raciness and vigor which would do honor to the pages of Blackwood.

The second Article is “The Dance, a Personal Adventure of the Author” in which the oddities of a backwood reel are depicted with inimitable force, fidelity and picturesque effect. “The Horse-swap” is a vivid narration of an encounter between the wits of two Georgian horse-jockies. This is most excellent in every respect — but especially so in its delineations of Southern bravado, and the keen sense of the ludicrous evinced in the portraiture of the steeds. We think the following free and easy sketch of a hoss superior, in joint humor and verisimilitude, to any thing of the kind we have ever seen.

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[page 261:]

“The character of a Native Georgian” is amusing, but not so good as the scenes which precede and succeed it. Moreover the character described (a practical humorist) is neither very original, nor appertaining exclusively to Georgia.

The Fight” although involving some horrible and disgusting details of southern barbarity is a sketch unsurpassed in dramatic vigor, and in the vivid truth to nature of one or two of the personages introduced. Uncle Tommy Loggins, in particular, an oracle in “rough and tumbles,” and Ransy Sniffle, a misshapen urchin “who in his earlier days had fed copiously upon red clay and blackberries,” and all the pleasures of whose life concentre in a love of fisticuffs — are both forcible, accurate and original generic delineations of real existences to be found sparsely in Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana, and very plentifully in our more remote settlements and territories. This article would positively make the fortune of any British periodical.

“The Song” is a burlesque somewhat overdone, but upon the whole a good caricature of Italian bravura singing. The following account of Miss Aurelia Emma Theodosia Augusta Crump’s execution on the piano is inimitable.

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The “Turn Out” is excellent — a second edition of Miss Edgeworth’s “Barring Out,” and full of fine touches of the truest humor. The scene is laid in Georgia, and in the good old days of fescues, abbiselfas, and anpersants — terms in very common use, but whose derivation we have always been at a loss to understand. Our author thus learnedly explains the riddle. [page 262:]

“The fescue was a sharpened wire, or other instrument, used by the preceptor, to point out the letters to the children. Abbiselfa is a contraction of the words ‘a, by itself, a.’ It was usual, when either of the vowels constituted a syllable of a word, to pronounce it, and denote its independent character, by the words just mentioned, thus: ‘a by itself a, c-o-r-n corn, acorn’ — e by itself e, v-i-l vil, evil. The character which stands for the word and (&) was probably pronounced with the same accompaniments, but in terms borrowed from the Latin language, thus: ‘& per se (by itself) &.’ [[‘]]Hence anpersant.’ ”

This whole story forms an admirable picture of school-boy democracy in the woods. The master refuses his pupils an Easter holiday; and upon repairing, at the usual hour of the fatal day, to his school house, “a log pen about twenty feet square,” finds every avenue to his ingress fortified and barricadoed. He advances, and is assailed by a whole wilderness of sticks from the cracks. Growing desperate, he seizes a fence rail, and finally succeeds in effecting an entrance by demolishing the door. He is soundly flogged however for his pains, and the triumphant urchins suffer him to escape with his life, solely upon condition of their being allowed to do what they please as long as they shall think proper.

The Charming Creature as a Wife,” is a very striking narrative of the evils attendant upon an ill-arranged marriage — but as it has nothing about it peculiarly Georgian, we pass it over without further comment.

The Gander Pulling “ is a gem worthy, in every respect, of the writer of “The Fight,” and “The Horse Swap.” What a “Gander Pulling” is, however, [page 263:] may probably not be known by a great majority of our readers. We will therefore tell them. It is a piece of unprincipled barbarity not unfrequently practised in the South and West. A circular horse path is formed of about forty or fifty yards in diameter. Over this path, and between two posts about ten feet apart, is extended a rope which, swinging loosely, vibrates in an arc of five or six feet. From the middle of this rope, lying directly over the middle of the path, a gander, whose neck and head are well greased, is suspended by the feet. The distance of the fowl from the ground is generally about ten feet — and its neck is consequently just within reach of a man on horseback. Matters being thus arranged, and the mob of vagabonds assembled, who are desirous of entering the chivalrous lists of the “Gander Pulling,” a hat is handed round, into which a quarter or half dollar, as the case may be, is thrown by each competitor. The money thus collected is the prize of the victor in the game — and the game is thus conducted. The ragamuffins mounted on horseback, gallop round the circle in Indian file. At a word of command, given by the proprietor of the gander, the pulling, properly so called, commences. Each villain as he passes under the rope makes a grab at the throat of the devoted bird — the end and object of the tourney being to pull off his head. This of course is an end not easily accomplished. The fowl is obstinately bent upon retaining his caput if possible — in which determination he finds a powerful adjunct in the grease. The rope, moreover, by the efforts of the human devils, is kept in a troublesome and tantalizing state of vibration, while two assistants of the proprietor, one at each pole, are provided with a tough cowhide, for the purpose of [page 264:] preventing any horse from making too long a sojourn beneath the gander. Many hours, therefore, not unfrequently elapse before the contest is decided.

The Ball” — a Georgia ball — is done to the life. Some passages, in a certain species of sly humor, wherein intense observation of character is disguised by simplicity of relation, put us forcibly in mind of the Spectator. For example.

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The Mother and her Child,” we have seen before — but read it a second time with zest. It is a laughable burlesque of the baby gibberish so frequently made use of by mothers in speaking to their children. This sketch evinces, like all the rest of the Georgia scenes — a fine dramatic talent.

The Debating Society “ is the best thing in the book — and indeed one among the best things of the kind we have ever read. It has all the force and freedom of some similar articles in the Diary of a Physician — without the evident straining for effect which so disfigures that otherwise admirable series. We will need no apology for copying The Debating Society entire.

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The Militia Company Drill,” is not by the author of the other pieces but has a strong family resemblance, and is very well executed. Among the innumerable descriptions of Militia musters which are so rife in the land, we have met with nothing at all equal to this in the matter of broad farce.

The Turf” is also capital, and bears with it a kind of dry and sarcastic morality which will recommend it to many readers.

An Interesting Interview” is another specimen of [page 265:] exquisite dramatic talent. It consists of nothing more than a facsimile of the speech, actions, and thoughts of two drunken old men — but its air of truth is perfectly inimitable.

The Fox-Hunt,” “The Wax Works,” and “A Sage Conversation,” are all good — but neither as good as many other articles in the book.

The Shooting Match,” which concludes the volume, may rank with the best of the Tales which precede it. As a portraiture of the manners of our South-Western peasantry, in especial, it is perhaps better than any.

Altogether this very humorous, and very clever book forms an æra in our reading. It has reached us per mail, and without a cover. We will have it bound forthwith, and give it a niche in our library as a sure omen of better days for the literature of the South.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Georgia Scenes)