Negotiating Community in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes

By Romine, Scott | Style, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Negotiating Community in Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes


Romine, Scott, Style


Commonly considered to be the first work of Southwestern humor, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes (1835) has long been exiled to the margins of antebellum Southern literature, which, in turn, occupies a marginal position of its own. In his 1993 Yeoman versus Cavalier, Richie Devon Watson banishes Southwestern humor to a subliterary "generic cordon sanitaire" isolated from the more central plantation tradition (57-58). Besides being misleading on its own terms, Watson's assertion that in their own time "southwest humorists were simply not considered legitimate writers" (57) has tended, as a general critical view, to legitimate the dismissal of Longstreet and his fellow Southwestern humorists as literary dabblers whose ideological work is crudely simplistic and easily apprehended.(1) Much of this neglect can be traced to the highly reductive critical lens through which Georgia Scenes (and, indeed, Southwestern humor as a genre) has been viewed: Kenneth Lynn's theory of the cordon sanitaire, a paradigm that pits gentleman narrators against bumbling and sometimes sinister yokels in a relentlessly repetitive and monological justification of class privilege. But a reconsideration of Longstreet's symbolic organization of collective experience, paying particular attention to a network of tropes - of economy, nature, representation, and language games - implicates Longstreet in a complex negotiation of class roles. Exploring the response of Longstreet's primary narrator, Lyman Hall, to the dialogic imperative of the lower class and tracing the development of what I will call his socionarrative style (by which I mean a social style reflected in narrative stylistics), I shall demonstrate how Longstreet legitimates the social relationships presumed to exist in the ideal (and even utopian) Georgia community.

Since his stated explanation of his narrative project focused exclusively on issues of preservation and realism, Longstreet himself would probably have been skeptical of such a project. He wrote of Georgia Scenes that "the aim of the author was to supply a chasm in history which has always been overlooked - the manners, customs, amusements, wit, dialect, as they appear in all grades of society to an ear and eye witness of them" (qtd. in Fitzgerald 164). In his preface to Georgia Scenes, he claimed to have used "some little art" only to "recommend [the sketches] to the readers of my own times" in the hope that their initial popularity would increase "the chance of their surviving the author" until a day "when time would give them an interest" (1).(2) Critics such as Kimball King have justly praised Longstreet for his work as a social historian (137-40), and James E. Kibler has argued for Georgia Scenes as a seminal work in the development of American realism (viii-xiii). Nevertheless, few critics have questioned the general position argued by Robert L. Phillips, Jr., who claims that Longstreet's "realism" is at least complicated by the narrative values implicit, and sometimes quite explicit, in the tales themselves (28-53, 137-50). The concept of a realistic narrative - in the sense of narrative being somehow objective or value-neutral - has, of course, been discredited at least since Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction, and even had it not, such a concept has little relevance for Georgia Scenes, a work in which social valuation is perhaps the fundamental textual activity. On a formal level, however, Georgia Scenes fulfills Roman Jakobson's criterion that metonymy provide the symbolic substructure of realist narrative. Longstreet's description of his sketches as "fanciful combinations of real incidents and characters" points to a deep structure in which contiguity is privileged over similarity as the dominant organizing principle of his narrative, which, following Jakobson's formulation, "metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time" (255). More significantly, this formal metonymic structure is replicated on the level of social interaction. …

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