First Books: The Printed Word and Cultural Formation in Early Alabama

First Books: The Printed Word and Cultural Formation in Early Alabama

by Philip D. Beidler

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This case study in cultural mythmaking shows how antebellum Alabama created itself out of its own printed texts, from treatises on law and history to satire, poetry, and domestic novels.  

Early 19th-century Alabama was a society still in the making. Now Philip Beidler tells how the first books written and published in the state influenced the formation of Alabama's literary and political culture. As Beidler shows, virtually overnight early Alabama found itself in possession of the social, political, and economic conditions required to jump start a traditional literary culture in the old Anglo-European model: property-based class relationships, large concentrations of personal wealth, and professional and merchant classes of similar social, political, educational, and literary views.

Beidler examines the work of well-known writers such as humorist Johnson J. Hooper and novelist Caroline Lee Hentz, and takes on other classic pieces like Albert J. Pickett's History of Alabama and Alexander Beaufort Meek's epic poem The Red Eagle. Beidler also considers lesser-known works like Lewis B. Sewall's verse satire The Adventures of Sir John Falstaff the II, Henry Hitchcock's groundbreaking legal volume Alabama Justice of the Peace, and Octavia Walton Levert's Souvenirs of Travel. Most of these works were written by and for society's elite, and although many celebrate the establishment of an ordered way of life, they also preserve the biases of authors who refused to write about slavery yet continually focused on the extermination of Native Americans.   First Books returns us to the world of early Alabama that these texts not only recorded but helped create. Written with flair and a strong individual voice, it will appeal not only to scholars of Alabama history and literature but also to anyone interested in the antebellum South.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817386405
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 08/07/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 654 KB

About the Author

Philip D. Beidler is a professor of English at The University of Alabama and author of several books, including The Victory Album: Reflections on the Good Life after the Good War.

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First Books

The Printed Word and Cultural Formation in Early Alabama

By Philip D. Beidler

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8640-5


Satire in the Territories

Literature and the Art of Political Payback in an Early Alabama Classic

It is a commonplace of American literary study that the culture has always somehow eluded traditional satire in its broad-scale social dimension. Such impoverishment was once understood to have cast its shadow across the colonial era and the early Republic through at least the whole pre-Civil War period, with the explanation that only in the decades after 1865 could one even begin to speak in a institutional sense about American manners. And even so, apologists for something like satire in the works of the great American realists—Henry James, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, for instance—continue arguing among themselves to this day if things ever stabilized enough or acquired sufficient texture for a social satirist to write classically in the form. Even Twain, whose debunking frequently married social comedy to the explosive possibilities of frontier humor, at most wrote incidental satires of folly.

Likewise, whatever their socially corrective inclinations, American naturalists—Crane, Norris, Dreiser, and the like—found satiric impulses mired in visions of biosocial necessity. And their ironist successors in our own century, confronted with the endless new dehumanizations of technology, bureaucracy, and mass psychology, have in turn found themselves looking out on a landscape of sociocultural waste so garish and vast as to outrun the imagination of even the most resourceful humorist. Against the best efforts of figures as diverse as Edith Wharton and Kurt Vonnegut, America's peculiar gift to social comedy has been somehow to make the world safe for Michael Jackson.

As to early developments in what might now be called a native tradition of satire, some progress has been made in revisionary understanding. If nothing else, it is admitted that from the earliest days onward, colonial and pre-Revolutionary Americans were not only trying to write satire more often than was thought, but were often actually writing it rather successfully within a given cultural context. Such works such as Nathaniel Ward's Simple Cobler of Aggawam and Ebenezer Cooke's The Sot-Weed Factory the first from late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts and the second from early-eighteenth-century Maryland, we now know to have carried humorous meaning and appeal for a transatlantic audience. Diarists such as Sarah Kemble Knight and William Byrd likewise reveal themselves to have been skilled satirists of provincial manners. Franklin's career, from the Dogood papers onward, was marked by frequent successful ventures into topical satire. And the sociopolitical ferment of the Revolutionary and early national periods was often kept humorously aboil by poetic efforts such as The Anarchiad and The Battle of the Kegs, plays such as Royall Tyler's The Contrast and Mercy Otis Warren's The Group, and prose works such as Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry and Irving's History of New York. Indeed, it could be argued that through extensions of the Knickerbocker hoax in "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving's Sketch-Book became the new nation's first transatlantic best-seller largely by proving that American social humor could lend itself successfully to satire.

My purpose here, in bringing to light the work of an early verse-satirist of pre-statehood Alabama, is to show that it also could be done and in fact was being done in other portions of the new country even before nationhood officially reached the landscape of an ever-extending frontier. That is, in at least one instance, it truly does seem to have been possible, with considerable skill and literary success, to write classic satire in the territories. At the same time, I also propose to show how one of the first productions of humorous literature in the Old Southwest, like much material to come in a celebrated regional genre, can also provide an early opening on a familiar political archaeology—in this case with a freewheeling literary lampoon arising out of a clash of partisan interests in a complex of unsavory political and economic relationships all too typical of territorial administration in the early decades of the Republic; and with the result cementing the eventual reputations of the two figures involved—neither of them strangers to local corruption—largely as a consequence of one's exercise of a minor gift for literary improvisation and the other's inability to dodge a judgment for military foolishness already administered by local memory. To put it more directly, anticipating the popular prose classics of Southwestern successors such as George Washington Harris, Augustus Baldwin Long-street, and—most notably in Alabama itself—Johnson Jones Hooper, here a gifted literary amateur found it possible to successfully cast a political enemy as an early original of the homegrown miles gloriosus who would become the butt of anti-Jacksonian humor—the grotesque frontier hybrid born often and in equal measure of the backwoods buffoon and the natural-born killer, the Lion of the West, the ring-tailed roarer as canebrake Napoleon.

The example chosen to illustrate both points, my subject here, turns out to be the earliest known work of literature produced in the Mississippi Territory—and more specifically, in the portion that was about to become the Deep South state of Alabama. Its title: The Last Campaign of Sir John Falstaff The II; or, The Hero of the Burnt-Corn Battle. A Serio-Comic Poem by ***** *******. Its subject: the true misadventures of one Colonel James Caller and his equally feckless, over-officered band of local militia in an 1813 engagement with the Creeks glorified under the title of the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek—but in fact a failed ambush upon an Indian caravan followed by an ignominious rout, the Americans having stopped to plunder the pack animals, by a force one-fourth their size. Its date: 1815. Its place of publication: St. Stephens, a center of territorial administration upriver from Mobile, claiming the honor of an early printing press, and soon to serve as the new capital of Alabama.

The identity of its author, as will be shown, would have been made obvious to a local audience by means of an attached preface—although nearly two decades would pass for him to acknowledge it on a title page. He was Lewis Sewall, himself an territorial functionary having served as "Register of the Land Office" and later as official "Receiver of Funds" under the territorial administration of Judge Harry Toulmin. Further, in these connections, he had also been a frequent associate of James Caller and his brother John, both of whom had achieved quick notoriety for constant meddlings in matters political, financial, and military. In fact, to such a degree had Sewall been linked with various influence-peddling and land-acquisition schemes set afoot by the brothers Caller and their associates that Toulmin—himself a figure of such rare probity as to have gained the epithet of "the Frontier Justinian"—seems to have harbored few doubts about where his subordinate's bread was buttered. On 26 February 1812, for instance, he wrote to the secretary of the treasury warning of an attempt by James and John Caller and others to replace "the Receiver of Public Monies for the District East of the Pearl River." And further facilitating the scheme, he went on, appeared to be the lamentable fact that "the present Register of the Land Office is too much the mere creature of these men" (Carter 6: 275). The functionary in question was, of course, Lewis Sewall.

As for the brothers Caller, there simply seems to have been no end to their energies for participation in corrupt schemes. John, an early colonel of militia briefly appointed county judge (Carter 6:367), seems to have specialized in general influence peddling, while James, besides serving as a territorial commissioner (6: 345) and general accessory to his older brother's machinations, seems also to have become increasingly obsessed with developing his own high-profile military reputation. In any event, the spurious acquisition of large amounts of land was invariably at the bottom of things. And in most instances of the sharp dealing, the names of the brothers appear in tandem. As early as 25 November 1803, for instance, both appear as petitioners for a separate territorial government for "the District of Washington situate on the Mobile Tombechbee and Alabama Rivers" (5: 290). And, not surprisingly, both become signatories to a nearly concurrent petition (28 November 1803) for the finalizing of preemptive sales transactions hazarded earlier by themselves and others on lands under native claim in the forks of the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers (5: 292-95). On 27 November 1804, both were again on record as conspiring to install as territorial judge a cat's-paw named Rodominick H. Gilmer. (As things turned out, Toulmin got the job.) And by 1810, according to James F. Doster, turning to more warlike activities as militia recruiters, the two had raised "what amounted to a private army" with the purposes of provoking a border conflict over trading concessions with neighboring Spaniards (92).

Most fatally, by the spring of 1812, with local tensions already on the rise through visits to native tribes by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, James had also taken the lead in trying to incite the Creeks. Or, as Judge Toulmin recorded in official correspondence, "A party of rangers have been sent out by Col. Callier [sic], without any occasion,—and whose avowed design is to murder indians:—two companies of militia were ordered out by him on a groundless, idle rumour;—a party of indians were wantonly & without provocation fired upon by others,—and some peaceable Choctaws were almost beaten to death" (Carter 6: 307).

That provocation may have failed. But the ensuing one, again led by Caller, this time at Burnt Corn Creek, succeeded in making territorial history beyond anyone's most horrific imaginings. To be sure, the proximate issue of events was an ignominious American rout—with Caller's command scattering to their homes, and with their bold commander and one hapless aide eventually found without their horses and wandering dazed and half-dressed in a nearby swamp. Unfortunately, the Creek Nation at large was outraged by the ambush; they quickly retaliated with an attack on the incompetently defended Fort Mims in which the entire population of the settlement, in excess of five hundred men, women, and children, were slaughtered; and from this atrocity against the white settlers, two more years of exterminatory war would follow. This time, however, more skilled and ruthless commanders, headed by Andrew Jackson, would be at the helm of the militia; and it was, of course, this time inevitably the Creeks who would be reduced and driven from the land. On 27 March 1814, Indian forces under the command of William Weatherford, the Red Eagle, were summarily defeated in battle at a place called by them Tohopeka and by the whites Horseshoe Bend; and on 9 August of the same year, by the Treaty of Fort Jackson, cession was made of all Creek land west of the Coosa River.

Treaties followed with the Choctaws, voiding similar claims to original possession. And by 1815, with the vanquishing of native peoples accompanied by a favorable peace treaty with the English, would-be nabobs in the Mississippi Territory found themselves operating quite literally on a new geography. Basically, the whole Southwest frontier was up for grabs, with vast new land dealings afoot. And, hardly to anyone's surprise, among those involved in the latest unseemly scramble was the disgraced commander of Burnt Corn. With new ambitions for the legislature, he was seeking political rehabilitation; and with an eye to new economic chicaneries, he had also filed an official petition against Sewall, accusing him of financial misfeasance. Sewall, he alleged, had taken his money on a land option, and then failed to record it. The option had lapsed. Sewall, presumably, had pocketed the funds, leaving Caller with an empty claim on a notice of nonpayment. So Caller had complained to local officials, basically accusing Sewall of embezzlement; and so Sewall likewise described the action as he sought to defend himself in various letters to political superiors.

At the same time, however, Caller also seems to have circulated in print one or more expressions of public insult to Sewall, perhaps in the form of broadside or pamphlet. Whatever the texts, they have been lost to us; we can only rely on Sewall's description of Caller's pronouncements in some fairly impenetrable references appearing as part of his literary efforts. In any event, this, as much as the accusation itself, seems to have been the proximate cause of Sewall's literary exertions.

On the other side, of course, Caller's misfortune was that, whatever his ad hoc skills for political troublemaking and trail-covering, his ignominious role in recent history was largely settled as a matter of public record. While there had been some argument over his complete responsibility for the course of events at Burnt Corn, and while he had also found defenders on the issue of personal courage, as with virtually all the participants, the disaster itself was something he could not get off his back. Moreover, the recently triumphant conclusion of the Creek war had made matters even worse. To put it baldly, Caller now presumed to stand amidst a cast of heroes having emerged from the conflict streaming with real martial renown—Jackson, Coffee, Flournoy, and others— and to do so not only as an egregiously failed glory-seeker but also as one with his name inextricably linked to one of the most inglorious episodes in all of frontier warfare. Accordingly, whatever the debates that had continued over his responsibilities for the disaster, and whatever his ensuing attempts to paper this over along with his various other intrigues and venalities, he presented, as Sewall seems astutely to have reckoned, a historical target too large to miss. Were the right kind of humorous literary weaponry to be focused on Caller's role in the most shameful military debacle in territorial history, laughter would do the needed work of political demolition.

As it turns out, Sewall the satirist was also up to the task. Partly, as will be seen, this is because he truly did discover himself to possess a certain gift for humorous invective and a capacity for spirited mock-epic narration and exposition, in the latter case sustained by something of a natural bent for the well-used heroic couplet. Most important, however, was a prize of inspired insight born of the author's obvious familiarity with Shakespeare. This was his recognition of how thoroughly the victim at hand had been cast as a backwoods likeness of the bard's fat, conniving, venal Falstaff: a self-important braggart, coward, liar, and thief; a low political intriguer with astonishing public effrontery yoked to enormous martial presumption. Indeed, given his precise aims, Sewall must simply have rubbed his eyes at the realization of how completely the subject at hand—the Burnt Corn debacle and Caller's feckless leadership of the band of routed brigands—seemed a wondrous conflation of virtually all the great rogue's misadventures in Henry IV, Part I: his poltroon's part as ringleader in the botched Gadshill robbery; his lying cover-up before the amused Hal and Poins; and his culminating ineptitude upon the field at Shrewsbury at the head of a personal army he has managed to recruit from cowardly scum like himself. In short, an entire satirical architecture of plot and character seemed to have played itself out of literature into Sewall's historical hand. His title, he could aver, simply did not lie. The Hero of the Burnt-Corn Battle had to be seen truly as nothing less than the incarnation of "Sir John Falstaff The II."

So the title announced. And so the poem delivered, in rollicking Shakespearean reverberation, but also with admixtures of help from other noted literary forebears. The concisely damning epigraph, for instance—"He who fights, and runs away,/May live to fight another day;/But he who is in battle SLAIN,/Can never rise to fight again"—came from Butler's Hudibras, perhaps by way of Goldsmith. A bare two lines beyond the title, we find the poet congratulating himself on parodic improvement of Homer's Iliad as well. And once the fated encounter has plunged Caller and his aide into their hallucinatory wilderness adventures, Cervantes clearly enters the poem as a major guide.


Excerpted from First Books by Philip D. Beidler. Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Literature and Culture in Early Alabama
1. Satire in the Territories: Literature and the Art of Political Payback in an Early Alabama Classic
2. First Book: Henry Hitchcock's Alabama Justice of the Peace
3. “The First Production of the Kind, in the South”: A Backwoods Literary Incognito and His Attempt at the Great American Novel
4. Belles Lettres in a New Country
5. Antebellum Alabama History in the Planter Style: The Example of Albert J. Pickett
6. A. B. Meek's Great American Epic Poem of 1855; or, the Curious Career of The Red Eagle
7. Historicizing Alabama's Southwestern Humorists; or, How the Times Were Served by Johnson J. Hooper and Joseph G. Baldwin
8. Caroline Lee Hentz's Anti-Abolitionist Double Feature and Augusta Jane Evans's New and Improved Novel of Female Education
9. Alabama's Last First Book: The Example of Daniel Hundley
Works Cited

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