Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature >> Document Menu >> Summary

John Pendleton Kennedy, 1795-1870
Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe's
New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1872, c1854.

Summary

John Pendleton Kennedy, Maryland statesman and novelist, was born October 25, 1795 in Baltimore to John Kennedy, an Irish immigrant merchant, and Nancy Pendleton, a member of the Virginia aristocracy. As a child John spent his summers on the Pendleton family plantation in what is now West Virginia, which instilled in him an abiding affection for the South. He attended private school in Baltimore, and upon his graduation from Baltimore College entered the War of 1812 as a Maryland militiaman. Kennedy then turned to fiction writing and to law, the latter of which provided his entrée into the Maryland political arena. His career as a public servant spanned over fifty years, beginning in 1820 with his election to the Maryland House of Delegates. He continued to practice law, and in 1838 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Kennedy served the Whig party in this position until 1845, and one year later was elected Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. His formal political career ended after he briefly served as secretary of the navy for President Millard Fillmore; however, he would become an ardent Unionist during the Civil War.

Kennedy was married twice: first to Mary Tenant in 1824, who died within a year of their marriage, and again in 1829 to Elizabeth Gray. Largely through the influence of Elizabeth's father, Edward Gray, a textile merchant who engaged his son-in-law in various commercial interests, Kennedy began to look northward at successful cities, favoring their industrial energy over the slow growth of the South. Beginning in 1840 he turned much of his attention to identifying business opportunities for Baltimore, and his allegiance to the South waned.

Kennedy's career as a man of letters began in 1823 with the publication of Swallow Barn, or a Sojourn in the Old Dominion, in which he sketches the Virginia plantation lifestyle he experienced as a youth. His second and most successful novel, Horse-Shoe Robinson: A Tale of the Tory Ascendancy (1835), is an historical romance set during the American Revolution. The main character, Horse-Shoe Robinson, became a popular American character, which helped establish Kennedy as a writer concerned with forging a national literary tradition alongside his contemporaries, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. However, it was difficult making a living as a novelist, and as his political career was on the rise, Kennedy found less time to devote to his writing. He managed to complete a second historical romance entitled Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe's in 1838. The novel was not as successful as his previous works, leading him to abandon fiction writing altogether. He turned his full attention to politics, continuing to speak and write on public issues until he met with ill health. Kennedy died on August 18, 1870 in Newport, Rhode Island.

Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe's takes place in 1681 in St. Mary's, Maryland, which was at the time a Catholic colonial capital. Kennedy conducted extensive research on the period, and framed the story in the context of a conflict between Lord Baltimore, who served as the Catholic Proprietary, and the Protestant settlers coming into power in Jamestown, Virginia. Despite the fact that Lord Baltimore governs with religious tolerance, he receives strict orders from Jamestown to dispense with all Catholics serving him in a political capacity. Against the backdrop of this internal strife, St. Mary's is plagued by a haunted Wizard's Chapel that engenders a steady stream of gossip and fear among the townspeople. In the fashion of Irving, Kennedy instills a gothic sensibility into his story, for the Wizard's Chapel groans and rumbles at night, and spots of blood are rumored to appear regularly on its floors. Ghosts, however, are not to blame: Robert Swale, familiarly known as Rob of the Bowl, orchestrates the Chapel's haunting. An irascible and crippled recluse, Rob teams up with an evil pirate named Richard Cocklescraft to store their smuggled cargo illicitly in the Wizard's Chapel. The two scheme together to "haunt" the Chapel as a means of keeping the locals away from their criminal activity.

Cocklescraft manages to disrupt the harmony of St. Mary's as soon as his ship lands ashore. He fails miserably at courting a young maiden above his station named Blanche Warden, the daughter of one of Lord Baltimore's chief officials. After losing a duel over Blanche's honor with the Secretary to Lord Baltimore, Albert Verheyden, Cocklescraft defects to the Protestants and aids them in their uprising against Catholic officials. As Cocklescraft plots his personal revenge against Verhheyden, Rob of the Bowl realizes that he is Verheyden's long-lost father. Order is finally restored to St. Mary's after Rob redeems himself by preventing his former cohort from murdering Verheyden and kidnapping Blanche aboard his ship during the uprising.

Though Rob of the Bowl did not achieve popular success, the novel's minor players demonstrate Kennedy's flair for characterization and Shakespearean humor. His rude mechanics, consisting chiefly of Garret Weasel, owner of the Crow and Archer tavern, and Captain Dauntrees, its most frequent customer, breathe life into the novel with their barroom antics, witty banter, and penchant for jesting. The bumbling Weasel and the wine-loving Dauntrees make a comical pair as they head off in search of the spirits responsible for the questionable activity at the Wizard's Chapel. This failed quest is the first of many in which Dauntrees enthusiastically leads the charge, including his cheerful insistence on teaching Albert Verheyden how to duel properly, and his appearance at the novel's end to rescue Blanche from the hands of Cocklescraft.

Following the publication of Rob of the Bowl, Kennedy would become better known for his role as Maryland statesman rather than as a novelist. However, Kennedy's literary foray into the genre of historical romance allowed him—for a brief time—to combine his regional and national political interests with his earnest desire for an American literary tradition.

Works consulted: Logan, Judy, "John Pendleton Kennedy," Dictionary of Literary Biography: Antebellum Writers in the South, volume 248, Second Series, Ed. Kent Ljungquist, Detroit: Gale Group, 2001; Osborne, William S., Ed., Introduction, Rob of the Bowl. A Legend of St. Inigoe's by John Pendleton Kennedy, New Haven, CT: College and University Press, 1965, pp. 5-27.

Armistead Lemon

Document menu