Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

That National Story: Conflicting Versions and Conflicting Visions of the Revolution in Kennedy's Horse-Shoe Robinson and Simms's the Partisan

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

That National Story: Conflicting Versions and Conflicting Visions of the Revolution in Kennedy's Horse-Shoe Robinson and Simms's the Partisan

Article excerpt

In the first novel of the nineteenth century, according to Ernest Leisy's The American Historical Novel, the Revolution provided material for some thirteen works of American fiction. The year 1835, however, saw the appearance of no fewer than five such novels, three by then-prominent American literary figures: Catharine Maria Sedgwick (The Linwoods), John Pendleton Kennedy (Horse-Shoe Robinson), and William Gilmore Simms (The Partisan). The latter two works invite comparison, since both are set during the period which Kennedy calls "The Tory ascendancy" (in Horse-Shoe's subtitle)--the low ebb of the revolutionary cause in the South. Horse-Shoe takes place in South Carolina (primarily), western Virginia, and North Carolina, from late July through the Battle of King's Mountain (October 7, 1780), while The Partisan is set in North Carolina exclusively, beginning in June and ending a few days after the Battle of Camden (August 16, 1780). Although they were composed simultaneously and deal with the same set of historical facts, these two works offer radically different pictures of the South in the Revolution. Kennedy found in the chaotic conditions of this period particularly suitable material for a surprisingly non-partisan and realistic portrayal of the Revolution as a civil war. In producing such an account, he establishes a universal artistic claim to American material, something for which American literary critics had clamored since the earliest days of the republic. Simms, on the other hand, sought fictionally to reread the times, correcting the increasingly prevalent "historical" view of the period while defending the honor, past and present, of his native region and, especially, of its aristocratic society. To accomplish their divergent ends, both writers seized the opportunity which this material provided to bring together the two great facts of the American experience: the Revolution and the frontier.

Horse-Shoe, like Walter Scott's prototypical early novels, is set in a temporal middle distance. In his preface, Kennedy informs us that the Revolution, by "common consent," has been open to "our story-telling craft" only since its fiftieth anniversary, "that being deemed the fair poetical limit which converts tradition into truth, and takes away all right of contradiction from a surviving actor in the scene" (11). It is interesting that Kennedy feels the need to explain and defend his use of the essential event of American political and cultural history on obscure "artistic" grounds. In part, this is an apologia for previous American failure to do anything particularly notable with the subject: Kennedy cites a convention which he has invented to endorse facts he wishes were different. In part, the talk about art is an attempt to clothe the naked nationalism of his subject. His project, he suggests, is like that of Scott or any author who treats historical subject matter; he is simply joining the international community of artists. Kennedy was quite aware, however, that he was breaking into new territory, and that he was doing so to strike a blow for American art, not for the timeless wandering muse. He wrote Horse-Shoe under pressure from his publisher to take up the banner of American literature which James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving were supposedly letting slip (Ridgely, Kennedy 65). Yet we find, when we read the novel, that Kennedy's treatment of the subject is remarkably disinterested, remarkably balanced. The disclaimer that seemed to apologize for his anticipated partiality effectively prepares us for his unanticipated impartiality.

By citing this "convention," Kennedy also calls our attention to the fact that stories set at such a remove from the present are still subject to the hazy third-hand verification which Scott provides in the narrative frames that surround his early novels. Indeed, for the second edition of Horse-Shoe, Kennedy added a Scott-ish introduction which recounts a supposed meeting of the author/narrator and Horse Shoe years earlier, at which the narrator got the essentials of the story from the principal actor. …

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