Oliver Hillhouse Prince, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, and the Birth of American Literary Realism(*)

Article excerpt

In 1882, a sharp-eyed reader noticed a disturbing similarity between some pages in Thomas Hardy's most recent novel, The Trumpet-Major (1880), and a selection called "The Militia Company Drill" in an older book, Georgia Scenes, which had been copyrighted in 1840.(1) Charles P. Jacobs was certain that Hardy had plagiarized, and he promptly said so in a letter to The Critic, a New York literary magazine. But Jacobs was not sure from whom Hardy had stolen. Who had written "The Militia Company Drill"? Jacobs wrote, "[A] note appended to it says: `This is from the pen of a friend.... It was published about twenty years ago.' The article is signed `Timothy Crabshaw,' though the book, I have been informed, was written by Judge Longstreet, who died many years ago." Jacobs had been informed correctly. Although Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's name did not appear in Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, & c. in the First Half Century of the Republic--the book was credited to "A Native Georgian"--it was known to be his work. Today, of course, Longstreet's volume is recognized as the first major work of American literary realism.(2) But to Jacobs, it had no such significance.

Displaying the texts side-by-side, Jacobs showed what Hardy had done. He wrote, "It will need no acuteness of vision to see that there is something more than an accidental similarity between the description given by Mr. Hardy (in the left-hand column) and by `Timothy Crabshaw' (in the right)."(3) This is part of Jacobs's exhibit:

Mr. Hardy

`Look to the right, and dress!' They were soon, by the help of the noncommissioned officers, placed in a straight line; but as every man was anxious to see how the rest stood, those on the wings pressed forward for that purpose till the whole line assumed nearly the form of a crescent.

`Why look at `em,' says the captain; `why, gentlemen, you are all a crooking in at both eends, so that you will get on to me by and by! Come, gentlemen, dress! dress!'

`Timothy Crabshaw'

`Men, I dismissed ye too soon; parade, parade again I say,' he cried. `My watch is fast, I find.' There is another twenty minutes afore the worship of God commences. Now, all of you that han't fawlocks, fall in at the lower end. Eyes right, and dress!'

As every man was anxious to see how the rest stood, those at the end of the line pressed forward for that purpose, till the line assumed the form of a horse-shoe.

`Look at ye now! Why you are all a crooking in. Dress! dress!'

In the ensuing controversy, many readers came to Hardy's defense; they could not believe that such a famous writer had done anything wrong. One defended Hardy by pointing out how much the British author had improved the American original. Unfortunately, the printer had accidentally reversed Jacobs's columns (I have duplicated the mistake above), and Hardy's defender had unwittingly argued that Hardy had ruined the American original.(4) Another came to Hardy's defense, ironically, by denigrating the plagiarized passage in his book: "[T]he passage in The Trumpet Major, which bears so striking a resemblance to the one in Georgia Scenes is, after all, not sufficiently remarkable to tempt another novelist to convey it bodily."(5) Hardy himself denied any knowledge of Georgia Scenes. He did, however, admit that he was indebted to a more obscure work, C. H. Gifford's History of the Wars Occasioned by the French Revolution, which had been published in 1817. Learning this, the editor of The Critic returned to Georgia Scenes, where Longstreet had noted that "The Militia Company Drill" had first been published "about twenty years ago." Was Gifford's book this publication? Was he the author of "The Militia Company Drill"?

In fact, "The Militia Company Drill" was written by Oliver Hillhouse Prince ("Timothy Crabshaw" was Prince's pseudonym), and in the following years a number of writers pointed this out.(6) The relationship between Prince, Longstreet, and Georgia Scenes is in one respect simple: of the nineteen items in Georgia Scenes, Prince wrote one, and Longstreet wrote the rest. …