Dueling Sentiments: Responses to Patriarchal Violence in Augusta Jane Evans' St. Elmo

By Johnson, Bradley | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Dueling Sentiments: Responses to Patriarchal Violence in Augusta Jane Evans' St. Elmo


Johnson, Bradley, The Southern Literary Journal


In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), after Jo March realizes that she can earn money by writing "a sensation story," her principal concern becomes "whether the duel should come before the elopement or after the murder" (312). Alcott's jab at the standardized plots and exaggerated themes of much sentimental fiction runs against the literary current of the 1860s.(1) Only a year earlier Augusta Jane Evans had published St. Elmo, a sensational novel that would become one of the best-selling works of the nineteenth century (Fidler 129). Evans' novel, replete with duels and seductions, confirms Alcott's view that such literature was financially successful. The reformation of Evans' rakish hero, St. Elmo, led to the appropriation of his name for plantations, schools, thirteen towns, and a recipe for punch (Calkins 3).(2) St. Elmo, however, simultaneously refutes Alcott's charge of superficiality as Evans uses the rhetoric of the sentimental mode to criticize the complicity of men in power structures, such as the formalized violence of the duel, which threatened the domestic sphere.

Joanne Dobson argues that the authors of sentimental fiction employ stock themes and characters such as abandoned wives, orphans, and widows who, rather than becoming "reductive narrative cliches," actually serve as "evocative metaphors for a looming existential threat" and "as vehicles for depictions of all-too-common social tragedies and political outrages" (272). As a writer of sentimental fiction, Evans uses the same metaphors in her works; as the southern writer of St. Elmo, she also presents duels, not simply as dramatic plot devices, but as metaphorical representations of masculine violations of legal, religious, and familial codes, St. Elmo resonates with the language of the duel, and the social chaos that the novel attempts to resolve is brought about by dueling. Furthermore, Evans uses dueling to indicate the relationship between patriarchy and sexual predation. Before proceeding to Evans' critique of dueling, some remarks about the code of honor as well as Evan's allusive rhetorical style are necessary.

To understand the importance of the duel in Augusta Jane Evans' South, one need only look to the list of politicians, intellectuals, and folk heroes who participated in "affairs of honor." Men like Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Jim Bowie, John Randolph, and Alexander Stephens fought duels and believed in their expediency for resolving questions of honor. Others, such as Mark Twain, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Stonewall Jackson resolved their challenges before shots were exchanged. Southern men fought duels to defend and enhance honorable reputations. As a set of formal regulations, the "code of honor" dictated that antagonists (the principals) attempt to settle their differences through the negotiation of representatives (the seconds), and the duel was intended as the final term of an irreconcilable conflict. Adherents to the code also emphasized that duels should only be conducted by gentlemen of the same class, with horse-whipping and caning reserved as the punishment for insolent poor whites and slaves. In essence, the formality of the duel allowed upper-class white men to regulate acceptable and unacceptable forms of violence, thereby strengthening their hold on the southern patriarchy.(3)

Resistance to the duel fits neatly into the form and purpose of the sentimental mode. Nina Baym argues that this mode involves clear patterns in which a girl "is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly come to depend on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world." When her actions and values prevail, she "ensures the reconstruction of a beneficent social order" (11, 12). With specific reference to Augusta Jane Evans, Mary Kelley adds that these writers sought to improve their own roles in the domestic sphere, rather than remain "social functionaries of gentlemen's lives" (304).

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