Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Family and Sectionalism in the Virginia Novels of Kennedy, Caruthers, and Tucker, 1830-1845

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Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Family and Sectionalism in the Virginia Novels of Kennedy, Caruthers, and Tucker, 1830-1845. By John L. Hare. New York: Routledge, 2002. 192 pp. $70.00. Recent studies of antebellum Southern literature are often focused primarily on the view of slavery expressed in the books under discussion or on how the writers are defending the region against Northern abolitionist attacks, as if the Civil War was already being waged some thirty years before the first shot was fired. John Hare's new study, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Family and Sectionalism in the Virginia Novels of Kennedy, Caruthers, and Tucker, 1830-1845, published in Routledge's Outstanding Dissertations Series, offers a refreshing departure from this familiar approach, as it explores the novels of three Southern writers, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Alexander Caruthers, and Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, appearing in the 1830s and 40s, as very specific responses to events in the national politics of Jacksonian America.

The presidential administrations of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) and his successor Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) were vexed for Southerners, especially the elite class, which held pretensions of aristocracy. Although Jackson was a slave-owner from Tennessee, his celebration of the common man and his push for a more democratic America ultimately threatened the status of the South's upper class. As the plantation elite became more associated with the opposing Whig party, they began to paint Democrats Jackson and Van Buren as out-of-control autocrats, who were ignoring the rights of the individual states and were willing to use force to preserve the authority of the federal government. Some of Jackson's actions as president, including his threats to send troops into South Carolina after it refused to enforce federal tariffs during the Nullification Crisis of 1833 and his dismantling of the Bank of the United States, which was used by critics to blame his policies for the Panic of 1837, made this partisan characterization of him as a tyrant possible. To varying degrees, Kennedy, Caruthers, and Tucker all grew increasingly disappointed with Jackson's policies and wary of his and Van Buren's use of their executive power, and each use his fictional works to register his outrage and to offer suggestions to repair the current state of the Union.

An interesting facet of Will the Circle Be Unbroken? is its assertion that these authors may not have considered themselves essentially Southern, but rather as residents of the Middle States, Virginia and Maryland, whose role was to mediate between North and South. By exploring eight novels by the three authors-Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832), Caruthers's Kentuckian in New York (1834), Caruthers's The Cavaliers of Virginia (1835), Kennedy's Horse-Shoe Robinson (1835), Tucker's George Balcombe (1836), Tucker's The Partisan Leader (1836), Kennedy's Rob of the Bowl (1838), Caruthers's Knights of the Horse-Shoe (1841)-Hare explores how this mediation occurred by focusing on each novel's use of the "family paradigm." This theoretical frame for the book deals with the family as a hierarchical structure in which all members had certain roles to play and which is led by the "ruler-father," an authority figure over dependent, subordinate members, whose duty it is to look out for the needs of all others. Hare argues that this paradigm for families was similarly reflective of the United States-the president and the federal government were analogous to the "ruler-father" and the individual states and citizens were the dependents. Additionally, Hare explores other family models-marriages and sibling relationships-in these novels as further comment on the national condition, especially the relations between the sections. Hare's study usefully contextualizes its exploration of family models in the novels with valuable background on each of the three writers and their own family circumstances, discussion of the current political events and the writers' known opinions of these events, and the initial response to each of the novels under study. …