Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Play in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Play in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes

Article excerpt

The distinguishing feature of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes is its depiction of play--in its two senses of contesting and role playing--as the hallmark of antebellum southern life. The titles of the sketches indicate that they are predominantly concerned with games, sports and artistic performances, and in every sketch there is some form of play, from the obvious forms of sport and role playing to, in a few sketches, the more complicated social games and rituals. In most cases Longstreet presents characters as behaving in life as if they were performing on a stage. These characters range from the young man in "Georgia Theatrics," who rehearses a courthouse fight, to Ned Brace who assumes different characters in pursuit of humor, to Miss Crump and her affectations, to a group of young men pretending to be wax figures, to the narrators, Hall and Baldwin, taking part in activities that are essentially role playing. Characters that act directly and immediately without a sense of a deliberate performance are scarce.

Few critics have noted the importance of play in Georgia Scenes. The pioneering effort in this respect is that of Michael Oriard in his essay on games in southwestern humor. Oriard observes that "in Southwestern humor the center appears to be play and games" (4). The games collectively reveal "the fact that game-playing was virtually a mode of existence for many of the frontier denizens described in hundreds of humorous tales, a mode that captured the imaginations of the writers that recorded them" (5). More recently, Scott Romine commented on Longstreet's tendency to connect communal harmony with play. He states, "If in Longstreet's ideal community each man should be easily apprehended and roles mutually accepted, a corollary truth is that a measure of uncertainty and instability--in short, a measure of play--is no less necessary for the maintenance of communal norms and values" (9).

Apt and revealing though these commentaries on play may be, they broach the subject rather broadly and generally. A detailed discussion of play in Georgia Scenes is needed if Longstreet's achievement in this book is to be properly assessed. The first thing to note is that Longstreet does not present play simply as a significant activity in the southern society of the early nineteenth century, but depicts it as the essence of the life of that society. He focuses on it to such a degree that it becomes identical with life or a substitute for it. The sketches contain examples of play that comprehend the significant aspects of the antebellum southern society, such as trade, education, politics, and interpersonal relationships in general. In these examples, typical activities are presented without the seriousness and logic that normally define them. They are divested of moral and rational elements in order to become flexible enough to exist in contexts from which they are normally excluded.

Georgia Scenes shows clearly that forms of play are useful in transforming or, at least, channeling violence, cruelty and similar negative impulses into harmless (if not, altogether, meaningful and creative) action. In these forms of play, there are two possible effects. The obvious and the predominant one is the catharsis that a player experiences as a result of directing his negative and antisocial impulses to the object of play and using them up in a contest instead of directing them at other people. The cathartic effect, as we shall see, :is possible even in fights between men in which violence is displayed, because violence, in this case, occurs in a context that ultimately transforms it into play. The other effect, which is less frequent and sometimes overlaps with the first one, may be described as the affirmative effect. This is produced by the kind of play which is designed to affirm the values of society and educate its members into the significance of these values.

James B. Meriwether states that "Georgia Scenes provides abundant evidence that Longstreet thought impulses towards savagery and violence were to be found not far from the surface in many men, perhaps most of them; and it is the function of human laws and institutions to restrain, discipline and civilize these impulses and to make good citizens out of barbarians" (361). …

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