Thursday, May 17, 2012

John Pendleton Kennedy--Swallow Barn (1832/1851)

The proto-plantation novel, Swallow Barn combines the genre conventions of travel writing, in its depiction of picturesque, pleasing landscapes through the use of the language of the sublime, and comic sketches, in the tradition of Washington Irving.  Additionally, the novel serves as a defense of the South’s system of institutionalized slavery, as it presents the plantation as a sort of factory system, a money-making machine.  It illustrates the North versus South, Puritan versus Cavalier cultural conflicts, through the outsider perspective of New York native Mark Littleton, who visits his relatives at the Tidewater Virginia plantation Swallow Barn. 
The novel begins with the arrival of the narrator, Mark Littleton, who has left his native New York at the urging of his cousin, Ned Hazard, so that he might experience the aristocratic pleasures of Virginia country life. The once skeptical Littleton quickly adapts to the habits and traditions of life at Swallow Barn, delighting in his Virginia cousin's leisurely pace of life, bountiful mealtimes, and pastoral surroundings. He also enjoys the hospitality of Isaac Tracy's family, who live nearby at The Brakes, for Littleton often accompanies his cousin there as Ned attempts to woo Tracy's oldest daughter, Bel. A stereotypical southern belle, Bel Tracy continually rebuffs Ned's advances, claiming that his disposition is not dignified enough for her taste. As Ned's confidante, Littleton is privy to his cousin's mishaps and successes as he struggles to meet Bel's idealistic romantic expectations. Ned ultimately succeeds in his courtship, although not before embarking on a half-witted adventure to recapture Bel's escaped pet falcon. However, neither Ned nor Bel escapes Kennedy's ridicule; out of his humorous satirizing emerges a criticism of southern social customs.
Littleton also records the latest news of the ongoing lawsuit concerning one hundred acres of useless swampland separating Swallow Barn from The Brakes, which the two parties refer to as the "Apple-pie branch." The lawsuit has become Isaac Tracy's obsession in his old age, and he continues to review the matter with Swallow Barn's proprietor, Frank Meriwether, even though the court system repeatedly has denied Tracy's right to the Apple-pie branch. Meriwether entertains Tracy's eccentricity, for he realizes that it keeps the neighbors in frequent contact while providing the older Tracy with harmless entertainment.
Incorporating character sketches of enslaved African Americans throughout the novel, Kennedy also devotes a chapter entitled "The Quarter" to contemplating the problematic nature of slavery. He does so from the position of Frank Meriwether, who leads Mark Littleton on a tour of Swallow Barn's slave quarters before the narrator returns to New York. Although Meriwether emphasizes the slaves' good health and overall contentment, he acknowledges that the practice of slavery is unequivocally wrong. He laments that there is no immediate remedy for the evils of slavery; in his opinion, either emancipation or colonization would leave freed blacks still dependent on whites for survival.
Kennedy was never a supporter of slavery; however, his depiction of Meriwether's ambivalence regarding its dissolution suggests that the author was somewhat enchanted by his fictional version of plantation life. Yet Kennedy's complex portrait in subsequent chapters of the relationship between Abe and Lucy, an enslaved mother and son at Swallow Barn, is his strongest critique of the inherent flaws in slavery's patriarchal structure. When Abe's disruptive behavior draws the threat of local authorities, Meriwether decides to send Abe out to sea, thereby separating mother and son forever. Although Meriwether may have spared Abe's life, his decision devastates Lucy and leads to her senility. 

For my purposes, the descriptions of women in the novel are intriguing.  Unlike her husband, who “amuses himself with his quiddities, and floats through life upon the current of his humor, his dame, my excellent cousin Lucretia, takes charge of the household affairs, as one who has a reputation to stake upon her administration” (36).  However, she is not beautiful: though she “rises with the lark, and infuses an early vigor into the whole household[,]…she is a thin woman to look upon, and a feeble; with a sallow complexion, and a pair of animated black eyes which impart a portion of fire to a countenance otherwise demure from the paths worn across it, in the frequent travel of a low-country ague” (36-39).  Littleton describes her as “the very priestess of the American system, for, with her, the protection of manufactures is even more of a passion than a principle” (39).  To me, Lucretia’s appearance may reflect a sacrifice to industry, perhaps, or a sacrifice of her feminine beauty to material success.
In contrast is Bel Tracy, the quintessential southern belle.  Unlike her older sister Catherine, who “is a placid, circumspect, inaccessible kind of beauty,” Bel “is headlong and thoughtless, with quick impulses, that give her the charm of agreeable expression, although her features are irregular, and would not stand a critical examination.  Her skin is not altogether clear; her mouth is large, and her eyes of a dark gray hue” (78).  So even the ur-belle is not perfect!  I’m not quite sure what to make of her, at this point.

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