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Reading between the Lines: Exploring Postbellum Plantation Memoirists through Digitized Newspaper Collections

David Anderson

Department of Political and Cultural Studies, Swansea University, Wales, United Kingdom

Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century plantation memoirs and reminiscences are an important, though often overlooked, genus of Lost Cause apologia. Printed by some of the nation’s leading publishing houses, these narrative sources tend to foreground a conspicuous nostalgia for the plantation-era South, adopting literary strategies that connect with discourses of paternalism and carefully fashioned vignettes on close affinities, real or imagined, between master and slave.

Despite a recent plethora of books on the southern autobiographical impulse, critical assessment of plantation memoirs and reminiscences has not been forthcoming to date. This is unfortunate, not least because the potential scope of such analysis affords an excellent opportunity to reveal the ways in which white elites used a lifetime’s memories to underpin southern regional identity and history in the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction. This absence of scholarly attention may indicate the unfashionable status of a cluster of authors who, writing many years after the events they describe, privilege fond memories of plantation life and lifestyle. Much ink was spilled in an effort to capture everyday relationships and social interactions between ruling landowners and their dependents that from today’s vantage point can appear overblown, obtuse or outdated.

If scholarly interest has been slow to understand facets of Lost Cause apologia by recourse to a careful reading of postbellum plantation-life writing, even less is known about the authors of these memorial works, other than what they reveal of themselves in their introductions and prefaces. Hitherto unseen or unnoticed aspects of these writers’ lives are illuminated by Readex’s digital collection Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922. For example, in calling up Virginia Clay-Clopton’s memoir, A Belle of the Fifties, published in 1904 by Doubleday, Page and Company of New York, we are given a keen sense of the author’s fame and reputation as well as insight into the popular and critical reception of her book, a project that the former political hostess had envisaged since the end of the Civil War. Bolstered by publicity from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, of which Clay-Clopton was an honorary life president, Belle was promoted across a wide readership “to be enjoyed by those who remember the old days with which it deals,” the Montgomery Advertiser proclaimed, “and by those to whom they are only history.”[1]

Across thousands of local, regional and national newspapers, Early American Newspapers offers full-image access to primary sources such as wedding notices, obituaries, advertisements and book reviews that, when used alongside manuscript and archival letter collections, diaries and memoranda, as well as information relevant to sales, provides a fuller picture of the plantation narrative genre and the authors who contributed to it. Indeed, it is worth noting that some plantation reminiscences were serialized first in the columns of local and regional newspapers. For example, Presbyterian minister R. Q. Mallard’s Plantation Life Before Emancipation, published in book form in 1892, was originally a series of letters written by him and published in the Southwestern Presbyterian.[2]

Probably the best known example of these retrospective narratives is Memorials of a Southern Planter (1887) by Mississippian Susan Dabney Smedes. Written to honor her late father, described by one reviewer as “a true Virginian gentleman,” the volume depicts antebellum slave life with benignity and lauds the social manners and customs of the Old South.[3] Widowed shortly after her 1860 marriage to Lyell Smedes, who was, on the eve of the Civil War, a merchant in Vicksburg, Susan returned to the family plantation, Burleigh, to care for her father, brothers and sisters, and to oversee the running of the household.[4]

As revealed by obituaries, upon completion of her memorial volume, Susan realized a long-held ambition of missionary work and began tutoring Sioux Indian children at the Rosebud Agency in Dakota Territory where she was commissioned as a United States teacher, an aspect of her life that remains little known.[5]

She wrote of her “unique experiences” during a fourteen month stay among the tribe, noting their habits and customs.[6]

Smedes peppered Memorials with several reminiscences gleaned from surviving Burleigh servants, most notably Mammy Harriet, the loyal, long-serving Dabney family nurse, that are told in black dialect voice, a popular literary device of the 1880s and 1890s. Certainly many plantation memoirists ventured cloying paeans to slave fidelity and devoted service. Browsing Early American Newspapers for materials listing southern dialect reader Martha Gielow, for example, reveals the popularity of her recitations and lectures on plantation culture across America and elsewhere. Her “pen pictures” of a “life which is now gone forever,” drawn from her Alabama childhood and published as Mammy’s Reminiscences and Other Sketches (1898) and Old Plantation Days (1902), adopt a “tone of affectionate remembrance” that built on the success of dialect stories penned by authors such as Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page.[7]

Several scholars have shown how and why many Gilded Age and Progressive Era Americans turned to allusions of the antebellum plantation mythos, replete with images of kindly masters and mistresses and their attentive black servants, as a welcome distraction from the unsettling race, class and gender divisions of their own time. In a lengthy review of Sara Rice Pryor’s second volume of memoirs My Day: Reminiscences of a Long Life (1909) – a first volume, Reminiscences of Peace and War (1904), recalled life in Virginia during the Civil War – a critic for the Boston Herald captures the sentimentality of nostalgic drift with references to “the sunny hours and delightful atmosphere” of Old South society and culture.[8]

On the idyllic plantations of the Old South imaginary, unsullied by the changes and disintegrations of modernity, there is no suggestion of economic or political corruption, social unrest, or vast crowds of immigrants but rather traditional gender hierarchies, familial integrity, domestic harmony and, of course, clearly defined racial codes that underscored the unwavering devotion of old black mammies, butlers and maids.

Given urban-industrial America’s fascination with the Old South in novels, dramatic plays, minstrel shows and popular songs, it is somewhat surprising that little critical attention has been paid to plantation memoirs and reminiscences. These forms of personal, reflective life-writing were readily available to reading audiences during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Only by incorporating these nostalgic memories of antebellum plantation days and ways into assumptions about the Lost Cause, examining how they converge with the shaping of southern regional identity and historical distinctiveness in the decades following the Civil War, will a more comprehensive understanding of the southern past emerge.

As we continue to learn more about plantation memoirists and their self-representational texts, not least the contexts in which they were written, disseminated and read, and in response to critics who remain hesitant in taking these sentimental authors and their autobiographical journeys into history and memory too seriously, digital databases such as Early American Newspapers are a rich resource to explore further the breadth and depth of postbellum writing genres and also uncover fruitful avenues for further research.


[1] Montgomery Advertiser, 4 September 1904, p. 12; Montgomery Advertiser, 10 February 1916, p. 6.

[2] Daily Picayune, 23 October 1892, p. 18; Times-Picayune, 4 March 1904, p. 4;

[3] Springfield Republican, 24 August 1891, p. 3.

[4] Carolina Observer, 19 November 1860, p. 3; Alexandria Gazette, 21 November 1860, p. 3.

[5] Clarion, 9 February 1887, p. 2; Daily Picayune, 6 July 1913, p. 28. 

[6] Morning Star, 18 June 1892, p. 2.

[7] Augusta Chronicle, 28 November 1902, p. 4; Idaho Statesman, 14 December 1902, p. 3; Sunday News, 30 November 1902, p. 21 (quotations); Colorado Springs Gazette, 7 December 1903, p. 6. 

[8] Boston Herald, 27 November 1909, p. 8.

David Anderson is Program Director for American Studies within the Department of Political and Cultural Studies at Swansea University in Wales. He is a graduate of the University of Dundee in Scotland. He has published in the Journal of Southern History, Civil War History and Southern Studies and is currently completing a monograph on the Lost Cause and American Civil War memory.

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