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Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, 1790-1870
Georgia Scenes: Characters, Incidents, &c., in the First Half Century of the Republic
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850, c1840.

Summary

Augustus Baldwin Longstreet was born in Augusta, Georgia on September 22, 1790. He left his southern home to attend Yale University, where he entertained others with stories of his Georgia youth. After graduating in 1813, Longstreet studied law for two years at Tapping Reeves' law school in Litchfield, Connecticut before gaining admittance to the Georgia state bar in 1815. He was elected to the state legislature in 1821. Named a Superior Court judge of the Ocmulgee district, Longstreet traveled the back roads of rural Georgia on horseback for three years to visit the courthouses within his district. However, the sudden deaths of his eldest son and mother-in-law in 1824 caused him to retreat from public life and turn to farming and religious study. In 1827 he returned with his family to Augusta, where he resumed his law practice and began writing humorous sketches of frontier Georgia. He purchased the North American Gazette in 1834, which he renamed the State Rights' Sentinel. After publishing several of his humorous sketches in the Sentinel, he used the paper's printing press to self-publish a collection of nineteen sketches titled Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents &c. in the First Half of the Republic (1835). Though Longstreet would later be ordained a Methodist minister and serve as president of several southern colleges, he is best known for documenting rural Georgian life and inaugurating the literary style of old Southwest humor that Mark Twain would later make famous. He died in Oxford, Mississippi on July 9, 1870.

Longstreet experienced the South at the turn of the nineteenth century, and wrote and published his most significant work, Georgia Scenes (1835), to capture rural Georgia as he remembered it. He was ahead of his time as both a literary realist and a writer of local color and dialect, imbuing his work with regional characteristics as a means of documenting Georgia's rapidly disappearing frontier. While noting in his preface that he hoped Georgia Scenes would find its rightful appreciation in posterity, Longstreet likewise strove for and succeeded in entertaining his contemporary readers with his humorous anecdotes and hand-drawn illustrations depicting brawls, horse trading, foxhunting, local militia drills, and characters from all levels of Georgia society. The two primary narrators in Georgia Scenes, Lyman Hall and Abraham Baldwin, are polished town gentlemen who frequently interact with and observe characters whose manners and customs Longstreet associated with hardy, pioneering Georgian settlers. In documenting their qualities, Longstreet seems to celebrate their tenacity of spirit rather than judging them by class. Yet on the whole these witty characterizations do suggest Longstreet's interest in refining the manners and tastes of rural southerners as well as Americans at large.

Two frequently anthologized stories, "The Horse-Swap" and "The Fight," present rural Georgians in humorous conflict until violence and cruelty outweigh their better natures. In "The Horse-Swap," the character Yallow Blossom, riding a sprightly horse named Bullet, challenges a local villager to a horse trade. The bargaining provides entertainment to a growing crowd of onlookers until it is revealed that Yallow Blossom has forced his horse to endure a gaping wound for the sport of the trade. Similarly, "The Fight" begins good-naturedly as two men on friendly terms avoid the town's attempt to cajole them into fighting. Yet when their wives insult each other, the men are prodded into chivalric conflict, engaging in a barbaric street battle that leaves each permanently mangled. The narrator remains a remote onlooker in both stories, using elevated diction to create a contrast between his cultivated perspective and the unsophisticated characters he encounters.

Edgar Allen Poe, in a glowing review for the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1836, touted Longstreet's cleverness, and credited him with "an exquisitely discriminating and penetrating understanding of character in general, and of Southern character in particular." Poe predicted that Longstreet might be a sign of better days ahead for southern literature. This proved to be the case, for within Longstreet's lifetime, Mark Twain began his famous literary career in southern satire. Additionally, Georgia Scenes serves as an historical glimpse into the manners and morals practiced throughout all levels of Georgian society in the early 1800s. Though not all of Longstreet's stories were based on true events, he claimed that it would be difficult to a find a word in his book that was not "strictly Georgian."

Works Consulted: Harwell, Richard, Introduction, Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents &c. in the First Half of the Republic by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Savannah: The Beehive Press, 1992; Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Retrieved June 3, 2004: <http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-988>; Francisco, Edward, Robert Vaughan and Linda Francisco, eds., The South in Perspective: An Anthology of Southern Literature, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001, 268; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

See also the entry for Augustus Baldwin Longstreet from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Armistead Lemon

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