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Alabama Writers in the
19th Century

By the 1840s Alabama writers were widely-recognized participants in the literary life of America. Although the chief flowering of Alabama literature would come in the next century, nineteenth century authors from the state contributed to major movements and developments of national literature and culture.

Alexander Beaufort Meek (1814-1865) was one of the pioneers of traditional literature in the brand new state he moved to, from South Carolina, when he was five years old. A member of the University of Alabama's first graduating class in 1833, Meek was professionally a lawyer, judge, newspaper editor, and government official. Non-professionally, he was a poet and a very popular public orator. As a member of the Alabama Legislature in the 1850s, he played a leading role in establishing a public-school system for the state. In 1860 he was a member of the Alabama delegation that walked out of the Democratic National Convention in Charleston. Influenced by English Romantic poetry, Meek wrote often about the world of nature in Alabama. Two of his most popular short poems feature the mockingbird and the bluebird, for example. His famous long poem (almost 2,000 lines), The Red Eagle (1855), about William Weatherford, leader of the Creek Indians in the Alabama wars of 1813, reflects Meek's lifelong fascination with state history as well as his love of nature. Its climactic scene is the brave, noble Weatherford's (Red Eagle's) surrender to General (and future President) Andrew Jackson.

Geographically central to what in the 1830s and 1840s was the southwest part of the United States, Alabama was also central to a distinctive kind of writing from this area. "Old Southwest humor," as it came to be called, was read all over the United States, and abroad, and was a direct influence on such later writers as Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Funny, often raucous stories about the ordinary folk of this raw place, still with many attributes of the frontier, were produced by a number of talented men who lived in Alabama. Joseph Glover Baldwin, George Washington Harris, and Johnson Jones Hooper are the best remembered today. Hooper's intriguing rogue character named Simon Suggs operated on the motto "It is good to be shifty in a new country," on one occasion absconding with the collection money from a Methodist camp meeting after pretending to be converted to the Christian ministry. Hooper (1816-1862), who apparently was embarrassed by the great popularity of his fictional creation, moved from Alabama to Virginia in 1861 in order to serve as clerk for the Provisional Confederate Congress.

The Civil War did provide subject matter for literature in Alabama, although not always with the results that might be expected; and, as elsewhere, the best of such literature was not produced until many decades later. So much Confederate martial and postbellum patriotic verse had a Mobile connection that the city was called "The Capital of Lost Cause Poetry." Theodore O'Hara's famous elegy "The Bivouac of the Dead" came to be associated with the South but was actually written for fallen soldiers of the Mexican War. And one of the first Civil War novels to appear in print was an anti-Southern one from Alabama: Tobias Wilson: A Tale of the Great Rebellion (1865) by former U.S. Senator, Mark Twain relative, and Union loyalist Jeremiah Clemens. Unlike Clifford and Sidney Lanier, who attempted serious novels about their Confederate military experience, Alabama-born Confederate-veteran Kittrell J. Warren wrote a humorous burlesque on his: Life and Public Services of an Army Straggler (1865).

Two women in Alabama who were national best-selling authors of so-called domestic sentimental fiction were among many writers who attempted literary answers to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Caroline Lee Hentz was a transplanted Northerner who tried to explain the South to other parts of the country in The Planter's Northern Bride (1854). Macaria (1863) was Augusta Jane Evans Wilson's sectional-propaganda response to Stowe, but it was Wilson's St. Elmo (1866) that ultimately rivaled Uncle Tom's Cabin in impact and influence. St. Elmo became one of the top three best-selling novels of the nineteenth century, various commercial products seized upon its title as a brand name, and countless American children were named after its characters, particularly the heroine Edna Earle.

John Trotwood Moore and Samuel Minturn Peck were two nationally-known Alabama writers of the so-called "local color school" as the century drew to a close. The state's preeminent purveyor of the quaint, entertaining lives of ordinary folk was probably, however, Idora McClellan Plowman Moore, who used the pen name Betsy Hamilton. Moore's tales and sketches were much admired by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the famous Uncle Remus stories. Two other authors who wrote directly, and quite successfully, in the Uncle Remus tradition were Martha Young from Greensboro, in west Alabama, and Robert Wilton Burton from Auburn, in east Alabama.