Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Marriage Plots and National Reunion: The Trope of Romantic Reconciliation in Postbellum Literature(*)

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Marriage Plots and National Reunion: The Trope of Romantic Reconciliation in Postbellum Literature(*)

Article excerpt

Joel Chandler Harris's 1898 short story "A Comedy of War" begins its treatment of the Civil War very traditionally, as a fraternal conflict arising from a "house divided."(1) A family quarrel eventually leads two brothers to join opposite sides of the fray, only to connect again when their military units meet at the skirmish line located a short distance from their boyhood home. At the end of the story, they receive the news that Lee has surrendered, and the brothers promptly make peace with each other and with their father, resolving the familial conflict and, by extension, the national one. For good measure, however, Harris further solidifies this newfound amity by adding a romance between the brothers' sister, who has Northern sympathies, and a Southern soldier from the Confederate brother's unit. In concluding with the couple's engagement, Harris not only ends his story as a "comedy" in the strictest sense of the word, that also employs the trope of romantic reconciliation, already a long-established literary tradition by the end of the century. Indeed, Harris's story is only one of many examples of this postbellum publishing phenomenon.

During and after Reconstruction, as the country remained embroiled in sectional conflict, the publishing world created a niche for novels designed to help the nation travel along the rocky "Road to Reunion," to use historian Paul Buck's apt phrase.(2) According to these novels, what the United States needed was not military, legal, or financial Reconstruction, but rather a voluntary emotional reconciliation of Northerner and Southerner in a mutually forgiving relationship. To tackle this difficult goal, authors began churning out novels of intersectional courtship and marriage, turning to the ever-popular love story in the hopes that a good romance could vanquish the troubles of postbellum America, or at least gain a profitable readership. If a cold Northerner and a fiery, resentful Southerner could survive courtship and eventually find marital tranquility, the argument ran, could not the nation as a whole mirror their domestic peace?

In the post-war years, therefore, many white novelists returned to the antebellum trope of national harmony brought about by love and marriage between a Northerner and a Southerner. Caroline Hentz began the genre with her 1833 novel Lovell's Folly and employed it again in 1854 with The Planter's Northern Bride. William Alexander Caruthers quickly followed Hentz's lead with his 1834 novel The Kentuckian in New York. The by-then standard plot was also a favorite of Maria McIntosh, who used it in Two Lives; or To Seem and To Be (1846), Charms and Counter Charms (1848), and finally The Lofty and the Lowly (1853), in which not one but two pairs of North-South lovers successfully find personal happiness and thus, symbolically, bring about national peace. These antebellum attempts to promote sectional understanding and prevent war were not successful, of course, but the romantic plot remained alluring for post-war authors. Southerners such as Julia Magruder in Across the Chasm (1885), Joel Chandler Harris in "The Old Bascom Place" (1891), "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner" (1893), and A Little Union Scout (1904), and John Fox, Jr. in The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903) found literary success with the standard plot. Northerners, including Constance Fenimore Woolson in "Old Gardiston" (1876), S. T. Robinson in The Shadow of the War (1884), James S. Rogers in Our Regiment (1884), Charles King in Kitty's Conquest (1884) and A War Time Wooing (1888), Maud Howe Elliott in Atalanta in the South (1886), John Habberton in Brueton's Bayou (1886), Joseph A. Altshler in The Last Rebel (1897), and Owen Wister in Lady Baltimore (1905), were equally eager to make use of the trope. Reconciliation romances also found their way onto the stage, with Elliot Barnes's "The Blue and the Gray" (1884), William Gillette's "Held by the Enemy" (1886), Bronson Howard's "Shenandoah" (1889), and Augustus Thomas's "Alabama" (1891) achieving great popularity during their theatre runs. …

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