Text: Various, Literary Reviews, Southern Literary Messenger, March 1835, 1:385-387


[page 385, column 1, continued:]


THE CAVALIERS OF VIRGINIA, or the Recluse of Jamestown. An Historical Romance of the Old Dominion. By the author of a Kentuckian in New York. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1834.

THIS work is by a Virginian, — and with that sort of partiality which inclines us to espouse the literary claims of our native state, (too long and too unjustly neglected,) we were predisposed to receive it with favor. Some of the northern periodicals moreover had lauded its merits, and we own that we felt some pride in the reflection that one of the most interesting periods in our early colonial history, had attracted a native adventurer in the field of historical romance. We regret to say that we are much disappointed in the manner in which the task has been executed. Our feelings and partialities, which were all on the author’s side, — we are compelled to surrender to the stern demands of literary justice. The “Cavaliers,” in our humble opinion, is unworthy of the subject it was intended to illustrate, and although not entirely destitute of merit, — its faults are so numerous and censurable, they greatly preponderate in the estimate we have formed of the work. In the first place, the author has evidently failed to make himself acquainted with the history of the age and the character of the incidents which he has chosen as the groundwork of his story. The portrait of Bacon, is but a poor and feeble likeness of the original, — and that of Sir William Berkeley, is the merest caricature of that brave, accomplished, but despotic vicegerent of royal power. Bacon is represented as a kind of half frantic, inconsiderate stripling — something of a dandy — but more of a wild and reckless lover, whose thoughts were principally occupied by his “ladye love;” — and but slightly, if at all, by the wrongs of his suffering country. Far different indeed, was the noble and lofty heroism of the real Bacon — a character which shines in the foreground of our ancient history, — with a lustre, that despite of the efforts made to diminish it, will vie with the Wallaces and Tells of other ages and countries. Sir William Berkeley, though certainly a tyrant, was not the vulgar insensate wretch which our author has made him. His ambition was made of “sterner stuff,” than to be employed upon petty schemes of matrimonial alliance, — and the Knight, “in a blue velvet doublet and pink satin breeches,” is but an outre representation of the ancient and renowned Cavalier, — who had battled with the red man in his savage lair, — and had exchanged the luxuries of English society, for the perils and hardships of a wilderness.

There is another capital defect in our author, which if he ever hopes for success, must be first overcome. [column 2:] He leaves his pictures, both of character and incident, altogether unfinished, — and darts with a meteor-like swiftness from subject to subject, — reminding the reader of a show-box, — in which the eye scarcely lights upon one spectacle, before it vanishes, — and is substituted by another and a different one. This perpetual flash and glare, without even the merit of distinctness, is far more painful than agreeable; — and the author would do well, if he bestowed more pains in separating the several parts of his story, — and a little more skill in the arrangement and harmony of his coloring. In truth, if he intends to repeat his efforts; and is really a bona fide candidate for fame, we would advise him to put more oil into his lamp, and expend some additional labor in fitting his offspring for public exhibition. He does not employ sufficient thought in the composition of his narrative, — but suffers his imagination (rich and vivid enough,) to run riot without restraint or limit. The conduct of Bacon, after the interruption of the marriage ceremony, as described in the first chapter of the second volume — is the conduct of a bedlamite, rather than of a rational being; and the whole scene of his mounting his fiery courser, — plunging into the river and swimming to the opposite shore, — his head bared to the “pitiless storm” — “the monsters of the deep his playmates, and the ill-omened birds of night his fellows;” is such a tissue of exaggeration and sublime fustian, — that what was evidently intended for great effect, is in reality extremely ludicrous. The hero indeed, acts so little like a man of sense, in this nocturnal aquatic excursion, that the reader feels much more sympathy for “the white silk breeches and graceful blue cloak,” (which were likely to be spoiled by the half saline element,) than for the poor unfortunate wight of a bridegroom himself.

The author has moreover been guilty of a very strange mistake in his geography. He makes his hero swim, “Leander-like,” over the majestic James, — which according to our reckoning, and agreeably to the map of the country — would have landed him on the south side, in the very respectable county of Surry; — but, to our utter amazement, the next glimpse we have of him, he is rushing on his fleet courser into the wilderness on the margin of the Chickahomony, — which our best informed geographers have placed on the north side of the ancient Powhatan, — now called James river. Such mistakes are altogether inexcusable, — and the more so as the author is a native of the “Old Dominion,” and ought to have been more circumspect in his topography. Equally unfortunate is his arrangement of historical events, — for if he had looked a little into our early writers, he would have found that Bacon was never carried prisoner to the Eastern Shore; and that the treachery of Larimore, did not betray the insurgent squadron into the power of Berkeley, until after the destruction of Jamestown. These errors in chronology however, might have been forgiven, if the author had otherwise redeemed himself from equally formidable objections. The whole story of the Recluse, — and the miraculous preservation of Bacon when an infant, as related by the old nurse, — strike us as evincing poverty of invention, and as altogether too absurd for an ordinary writer at least to use as materials for romance. Scott, perhaps, might have turned them to some advantage; — at all events, the matchless vigor and beauty of his style, would have thrown a veil over [page 386:] other imperfections. The author might have made something of Wyanokee, but unfortunately failed to do it, — and we cannot say that we even felt interested in the sorrows of Virginia Fairfax. The girl is well enough — very pretty — amiable — and all that, but she wants force and individuality of character. The whole scene in which the dying Mrs. Fairfax is exhibited in the bloody conflict with the Indians in the neighborhood of Richmond, is particularly horrible, and in wretchedly bad taste.

In taking our leave of the author, we would also advise him, when he writes another romance, to “sink the shop,” — or rather the profession; and not to describe the wounds and bruises of his dramatis personæ with that technical precision which only surgeons and anatomists can fully comprehend. We would also recommend to him, as a medical man, that when any unlucky hero of his is hereafter tied to an Indian stake, by all means to have him rescued before the pine splinters have actually pierced the flesh, — especially when that hero is made so soon thereafter to perform a series of active exploits requiring sound bodily health and great muscular exertion.

We have taken no pleasure in this free commentary upon the work before us, and have only been induced to make it by a sense of duty. Its author is evidently afflicted with a kind of rabid propensity to write works of fiction; and, if he is resolved to gratify it, we do most earnestly entreat him for his own sake and for the sake of his native state, to invoke hereafter a little more reflection, a purer taste, and a more enlightened judgment in aid of his labors.



THE publisher having sent a copy of the above work to a correspondent in whose literary attainments, taste and discrimination we place great confidence, received the following criticism from his pen:

I thank you for Vathek, which I have read purely because you sent it to me; otherwise it would have remained unread by me forever. I see nothing “sublime” in the work; on the contrary, I was disgusted at its impurity. A more revolting jumble of nonsense, ridiculous conceptions, debasing exhibitions, and corrupt imaginings, I never met with in my life. This may perhaps be somewhat redeemed by the oriental descriptions, which were pronounced by Lord Byron, I think, to be excellent. Of this I cannot judge; but if the book were intended, as it seems to be, to inculcate the lesson of the impiety of looking into matters which are too high for us, the moral loses all its force, from the very great corruption of the characters of Vathek and Carathis, who certainly were most justly lodged in Hell, as the fittest place for such useless and abominable wretches. We feel no sympathy for them, when we find them with their hearts on fire; and as for the contrast of the happiness of Gulchenrouz, we care as little about him, for his happiness was certainly undeserved by any thing he had done, so far as we are made acquainted with him. There is such a singular mixture of comic and serious, that one is at a loss to know what the author would be at. What think you, for instance, of the game at football? of Aboulfakir the camel, having a taste for solitude and snorting at the sight of a dwelling, and Cafour’s predilection for pestilence? &c. &c. I am quoting now from memory, and have not the patience to look at the book to see if I am right.

A learned English reviewer is not less severe upon this lauded production of juvenile years. After quoting Lord Byron’s eulogy upon the work, he says —

Vathek is, indeed, without reference to the time of life when the author penned it, a very remarkable performance; but, like most of the works of the great poet who has thus eloquently praised it, it is stained with some poison-spots — its inspiration is [column 2:] too often such as might have been inhaled in the “Hall of Eblis.” We do not allude so much to its audacious licentiousness, as to the diabolical levity of its contempt for mankind. The boy-author appears already to have rubbed all the bloom off his heart; and, in the midst of his dazzling genius, one trembles to think that a strippling of years so tender, should have attained the cool cynicism of a Candide. How different is the effect of that Eastern tale of our own days, which Lord Byron ought not to have forgotten when he was criticising his favorite romance. How perfectly does Thalaba realize the idea demanded in the Welsh Triad of “fulness of erudition, simplicity of language, and purity of manners.” But the critic was repelled by the purity of that delicious creation, more than attracted by the erudition which he must have respected, and the diction which he could not but admire: —

“The low sweet voice so musical,

That with such deep and undefined delight

Fills the surrender‘d soul.”

It would argue a great decline in the moral feeling of our country, and a most adulterated literary taste, if such works as “Vathek” could be generally admired.


SCRAPS, by John Collins McCabe. Richmond: J. C. Walker. 1835.

THIS little volume from the Richmond press, consists of various poems and half a dozen tales and legends in prose. The pieces, though of unequal merit, are upon the whole decidedly creditable to the author; who is not only a young man, but as we are informed, has been denied the advantages of a liberal education. His productions are vastly superior to those of many a college dunce, upon whose vacant cranium the heritage of wealth has been expended; and their author holds a much higher grade in the scale of intellect than many of that snarling tribe, who can discern neither talent nor genius, unless allied with some ideal advantage or accidental distinction. We nevertheless hope that Mr. McCabe will continue to look ahead, and contemplate the highest standards of excellence in composition. The most acute observation of men and things, or the most delicate perception of poetical imagery, will avail but little without profound mental labor, and the assiduous cultivation of taste. We select the following as a favorable specimen of his poetry.


On hearing the song “Sweet Home,” and reflections during the same.

O breathe again, that touching strain

Which comes like winds o‘er waters stealing;

Its fall, its swell, like vesper bell,

Its full rich notes in rapture pealing,

Bids the lone heart, rejoice again

In music’s all subduing strain.


O Music! rapture’s in thy chords!

Now gushing soft like moon-beams streaming

On quiet spot, on rural grot,

On mossy couch, on infant dreaming, —

Or rising into raptures wild,

It fills with wonder nature’s child.


The Exile lone, no land to own,

Lists to thy soft and touching numbers,

And dreams he sees the cot, the trees,

The scenes of youth, (how sweet his slumbers!)

Nor dreams when thy bright spell is o‘er

His happy “Home” he‘ll see no more.


The sailor boy, bereft of joy,

Looks on the stars above him glowing;

The big tear steals, his bosom feels

As troubled as the waters flowing,

And while the billows round him foam,

He faintly murmurs, “Home! sweet Home!” [page 387:]


The warrior stern, whose feelings burn

To meet the foe, his rights defending,

When war is o‘er, sweet home once more

Its rainbow colors round him blending,

Invites him from the bloody plain

Back to its quiet hearth again.


The christian warm, round whom the storm

Of opposition wildly rages,

Beholds the prize beyond the skies,

Reflected on the glowing pages

Of God’s own book, and with a tear

Of joy, he “reads his title clear.”


O! onward press, life’s wilderness

Will soon be past; where spirits linger

Round flowing streams in rapt‘rous dreams

And golden lyres, softly finger,

We all shall meet, no more to roam,

And dwell in an eternal home.






[S:0 - SLM, 1835] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - SLM Literary Reviews (March 1835)