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John Pendleton Kennedy, 1795-1870
Swallow Barn, or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion. In Two Volumes. Vol. II
Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1832.

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 providing 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 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 Millard Fillmore; however, he would become an ardent Unionist during the Civil War. He was married twice: first to Mary Tenant in 1824, who died within a year of their marriage, and again in 1829 to Elizabeth Gray.

Kennedy's career as a man of letters began in 1832 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, notably 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.

Swallow Barn, or a Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832) depicts life on two neighboring Virginia plantations situated on the James River: Swallow Barn and The Brakes. 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. Modeled after the 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. Kennedy seemingly delights in the couple's evolving relationship, which becomes the novel's predominant storyline and a source of great entertainment for the narrator. 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—albeit amicable—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. No doubt Kennedy's satiric rendering of his own profession is intentional, for he was outspoken about his dislike for practicing law.

Littleton's observations are dedicated in a prefatory letter to his friend Zachary Huddlestone of New York, whom he promises to regale with stories of his southern experience, though "whether in some descriptive pictures of the old dominion, or in dramatic sketches, or in a journal, or in some rambling letters, I cannot yet foretell" (26). Indeed, Kennedy did not intend for his work to fall into the novel genre, and Swallow Barn explicitly resists this classification. The work is largely a compendium of detailed sketches from Littleton's point of view and fashioned after Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall. In addition, the first eight chapters of Swallow Barn include what would become Kennedy's forte by the publication of his third novel: descriptive character portraits. Nevertheless, because his sketches are primarily based on two parallel plots—Ned Hazard's courting of Bel Tracy and the Meriwether-Tracy land dispute—they do loosely form a novel.

Of particular interest to scholars is Kennedy's portrayal of slave life at Swallow Barn. Incorporating character sketches of enslaved African Americans throughout the novel, he 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.

As Lucinda McKethan notes in her introduction to the 1986 edition, 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. Kennedy's depiction of this complex master-slave relationship served as a precursor for later southern writers exploring race in the South, including Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and William Faulkner.

Swallow Barn remains Kennedy's best-known work. Despite its obvious reliance on stereotypes, particularly those associated with the southern plantation myth, the novel does provide a realistic portrait of aristocratic plantation life in the antebellum South. Kennedy may celebrate aspects of this plantation society; however, he does not refrain from critiquing it, or foreshadowing its eventual demise.

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; MacKethan, Lucinda H., Introduction, Swallow Barn, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1986, xi-xxix; Osborne, William S., Ed., Introduction, Rob of the Bowl. A Legend of St. Inigoe's by John Pendleton Kennedy, New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press, 1965, 5-27; Serafin, Steven R. and Alfred Bendixen, Encyclopedia of American Literature, New York: Continuum, 1999, 614.

Armistead Lemon

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