Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
John Pendleton Kennedy, 1795-1870
Kennedy, John Pendleton, 1795-1870, Writer. Descendant of a Tidewater Virginia clan, Kennedy was born in Baltimore, Md. He studied law with an uncle after receiving his formal education at a local academy and at Baltimore College. Following his admission to the bar in 1816, he practiced law rather aimlessly while writing essays and satirical pieces. In 1820 he began a political career as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Returning to creative writing, Kennedy published Swallow Barn (1832), a pioneer contribution to plantation literature that enjoyed moderate success. Capitalizing on a genre made popular by James Fenimore Cooper, Kennedy published his best work, Horse-Shoe Robinson, in 1835. An American historical romance, it was an early contribution to the legend of the southern role in the Revolution. Appearing in 1838, Kennedy's Rob of the Bowl was a tale of religious and political rivalries in 17th-century Maryland. His budding career as a romancer ended with his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1838. Kennedy subordinated his creative work to his political and business interests for the remainder of his life. His last major literary work was Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt (1849).
As Kennedy grew to manhood during the early years of the 19th century, he saw his native Baltimore change from village to thriving commercial town—its atmosphere becoming distinctly less southern. Such changes wrought their effect upon Kennedy. His ties to the South were strong, but his commitments to the border state he lived in led him to fear the rise of southern sectionalism and to embrace a nationalistic point of view.
Kennedy's place in southern letters rests on Swallow Barn , Horse-Shoe Robinson, and Rob of the Bowl. Of the three romances, Swallow Barn proved to be the most important in reflecting an image of a self-conscious South. Though the book cataloged all that seemed good in the plantation world, it also satirized the provinciality of a closed Virginia society. Despite his somewhat sympathetic depiction of slavery in Swallow Barn, Kennedy was convinced that the institution kept Virginia and the rest of the South from enjoying the benefits of commercial and industrial expansion. He portrayed Virginians after the Revolution living in a dream world that slavery and sectionalism would turn into a nightmare.
L. Moody Simms, Jr.
Illinois State University
Charles H. Bohner, John Pendleton Kennedy: Gentleman from Baltimore (1961); Jay B. Hubbell, The South in American Literature, 1607-1900 (1954); Joseph V. Ridgely, John Pendleton Kennedy (1966).