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Edwin W. Fuller (Edwin Wiley), 1847-1876
Sea-gift. A Novel
New York: E. J. Hale & Son, 1873.

Summary

Edwin Wiley Fuller was born in Louisburg, North Carolina, in 1847. He attended the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia, earning his degree from the latter institution in 1868. He published poetry throughout the early-to-mid 1870s, and his only novel, Sea-Gift, was published in 1873. Fuller died in 1876.

Sea-Gift is in some respects autobiographical: Fuller certainly draws from his experiences at the University of North Carolina for the most interesting and revealing sections of the novel. The first writer to set any part of a novel in Chapel Hill, Fuller offers detailed descriptions of the University buildings and grounds, as well as the surrounding Chapel Hill community. The novel humorously describes the rowdy behavior of the Carolina "scholars" and relates with mock gravitas the terrors endured by freshmen during hazing or "deviling" by sophomores. In general, Fuller's students spend less time studying than plotting schemes to postpone lectures and exams. They resort to everything from letting bugs and snakes loose in the classroom to setting off gunpowder charges under the professors' chairs. Fuller also examines the seemingly neglected academic side of campus life. He discusses unnamed professors, and comments on classes, examinations, popular books, commencement exercises, and such campus organizations as the Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies.

The narrator and protagonist of Sea-Gift, John Smith, is the son of a proud and extravagant planter. The story follows Smith from his youth in Wilmington and Goldsboro through romantic entanglements as well as tests of character he faces—and often fails—while a student at the University of North Carolina and a Confederate soldier. Throughout the work, Smith struggles to balance gentlemanly virtue with the pressures of popular opinion. When he arrives in Chapel Hill, he desperately desires to be well liked, and quickly succumbs to peer pressure. Smith finds himself caught between two extremes, with his saintly childhood friend and roommate Ned Cheyleigh at one pole, and the fast-living, womanizing Frank Paning at the other. Over the course of the story, John's petty mischief leads to harsh discipline or disaster, and his greatest fall from grace occurs during an 1859 trip to Saratoga, New York, to meet his family. During this journey, John drinks, gambles, and flirts recklessly. His parents catch him, however, and he vows never to drink again.

Back in Chapel Hill, John befriends Raymond "Ramie" DeVare, who is admired for his intellect and demeanor and who is in love with a sophisticated but trifling young woman. John's foolish pride convinces him to make a play for her affections. Though now competitors, John and Raymond remain close friends. Raymond, however, spars with another student, appropriately named Brazon, who insults the honor of Raymond's beloved. Raymond challenges Brazon to a duel and is killed with John at his side.

Fuller based this turning point in the novel on the "Dromgoole Myth," a popular legend about an 1830s campus duel the University of North Carolina. Allegedly, the blood of the victim, Peter Dromgoole, indelibly stained a large granite boulder at the duel site, Piney Prospect. Fuller's novel resurrected the myth for a new generation of collegians. The legend became so accepted that UNC President Kemp Plummer Battle was moved to challenge it in his 1907 history of the university (pp. 343-344). Despite Battle's refutation, the duel remained a staple of campus folklore. In the mid-1920s, the Order of the Gimghoul, a secret society founded in 1889, built their lodge at Piney Prospect. The boulder, known as Dromgoole's Rock, remains at the site.

Soon after the duel, the Civil War interrupts university studies. John, Ned, and other sympathetic male characters join the Confederate Army. Ben Bemby, son of the Smith family's overseer and now a tenant farmer on the Smith plantation, also enlists. Frank, however, turns traitor and joins the Union ranks. He later attempts to raid the Smith plantation. Ned dies a hero at Gettysburg, and John and Ben return to Goldsboro near the end of the war to find their homes in ruin. John's final test comes as he seeks revenge against Frank for the insult to his family. John's dying mother makes her son promise to be a Christian gentleman and not harm Frank. Thus, when John and Ben capture him amidst the charred ruins of the plantation, it is Ben, rather than John, who executes him. John then concludes that the antebellum civilization that was his moral universe has been destroyed forever. John eventually marries Carlotta—his family's adopted daughter—and after the war, the two flee to Cuba, where they begin a family and dream of rekindling the glory of the Old South.

Outside of the UNC campus, Fuller's novel met with little enthusiasm. The very subjects that made Sea-Gift a favorite of impressionable underclassmen prompted disdain for the novel in "polite society." One Wilmington newspaper declared, "Sea-Gift had better never been born, as it was a decided failure." This reaction was likely a result of the fact that Fuller based his characters on recognizable figures, including prominent Wilmingtonians. Indeed, Robert Strange's use of a similar technique in his 1839 novel Eoneguski had also drawn criticism. More controversial, though, was Fuller's blending of classical romance and chivalry with drinking, gambling, and profanity. Fuller populated his novel with almost as many lower class white men, slaves, and free African Americans as he did the sons and daughters of planters. In this respect, Fuller followed in the tradition, though with much less success, of literary innovators such as Charles Dickens and fellow southerner William Gilmore Simms.

Works Consulted: Malone, E.T., Jr., "The University of North Carolina in Edwin Fuller's 1873 Novel, Sea-Gift," North Carolina Historical Review 53: 3 (July 1976): 288-302; Leloudis, James, Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 73-107.

Michael Sistrom

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