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Thomas Nelson Page, 1853-1922
In Ole Virginia or Marse Chan and Other Stories
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895, c1887.

Summary

Thomas Nelson Page was born April 23, 1853 at Oakland, his family's Virginia plantation in Hanover County. His parents, John Page and Elizabeth Burwell Nelson, both descendants of the old southern aristocracy, had suffered financially in the years following the Civil War. Though Page received a classical education while attending Washington and Lee College from 1869 to 1872, insufficient funds forced his departure before he received his degree. He later worked as a tutor and studied law at the University of Virginia (1873-1874), passing the bar in 1874. Page worked as an attorney until 1893, when his literary achievements allowed him to leave his successful Richmond law firm and devote himself entirely to writing.

Page wed Anne Seddon Bruce in 1866, but she died a short two years later. In 1893 he was remarried to Florence Lathrop Field, the widow of Henry Field, whose brother was the well-known department-store mogul Marshall Field. Moving that same year to Washington, D.C., the Pages soon became an integral part of Washington society. Frequently entertaining there as well as at a summer home in Maine, Page became a popular lecturer and dinner guest. He and his wife often traveled abroad to Paris, London, Rome, and the Riviera. Active in Woodrow Wilson's 1912 presidential campaign, Page was appointed ambassador to Italy in 1913, a position he held for six years. Thomas Nelson Page died November 1, 1922 at Oakland.

While perhaps best known as a writer of short stories, Page did publish novels, essays, children's stories, literary criticism, and poetry. In fact, his first publication, "Uncle Gabe's White Folks," was a dialect poem Scribner's Monthly printed in April 1877. Even so, Page did not receive national recognition until seven years later, with the appearance of "Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia" in Century Magazine. Subsequent publications, including "Meh Lady: A Story of the War" in Century (June 1886) as well as "Unc' Edinburg's Drowndin': A Plantation Echo" (January 1886) and "Ole 'Stracted" (October 1886), both in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, further contributed to Page's growing reputation as a local colorist and compelling advocate for life in the Old South. Throughout his fiction and nonfiction alike, Page remains an ardent defender of southern plantation life. He idealizes a mythic world inhabited by chivalrous gentlemen and faultless southern belles, a system characterized by harmonious race relations and abiding loyalty between slaves and their masters. Page nostalgically hearkens back to the glory days of the antebellum South, hoping to reclaim the pastoral beauty of this untainted Eden.

Page's first book, a collection of short stories titled In Ole Virginia or Marse Chan and Other Stories, was published by Charles Scribner's in 1887. Set in the postbellum South while often recalling the splendors of antebellum life, these six tales included the four that had appeared previously in Century and Harper's while adding the unpublished "No Haid Pawn" and "Polly: A Christmas Recollection." Of Page's short stories, perhaps "Marse Chan" has received the most critical attention. In addition to making frequent use of dialect, it typifies those idealized qualities of old southern life Page so frequently celebrates. The story's narrative structure is framed by a northerner visiting Virginia in autumn 1872. Yet "Marse Chan" quickly shifts to Sam's perspective. Formerly enslaved on the Channing plantation, Sam regales his unnamed listener with descriptions of young Master Tom Channing's fairness, nobility, and courage. For example, when his father is blinded while rescuing his servant "Ham" from a burning barn, Tom dutifully returns from college in order to run the family plantation. Likewise, ever the chivalrous gentleman, Master Channing remains loyal to his childhood sweetheart, Anne Chamberlain, even after she rebuffs his advances following Tom's disagreement with her quick-tempered father, Colonel Chamberlain. Their idyllic life interrupted by the Civil War, Tom and Sam enlist as Confederate soldiers. Yet despite "Marse Chan's" battle heroics and the hopeful renewal of Anne's affections, the narrative ends tragically. As "Marse Chan" closes, only Sam and his wife Judy remain. And Page's reader cannot help but recall the story's opening lines, when the narrator notes the desolation and decay of this once-glorious plantation.

"Unc' Edinburg's Drowndin'" is yet another example of the remarkable loyalty existing between a young master, "Marse George," and his slave, "Unc' Edinburg." Page's second tale also includes George's unconsummated love affair with Miss Charlotte, which ultimately attests to the abiding honor of this southern gentleman. "Meh Lady," on the other hand, appears to be a testament to the true southern woman's inner strength and lasting purity in spite of war's overwhelming hardships. She endeavors to run the plantation alone, backed only by her resolve and endurance. Interestingly, the story's narrator, the faithful Unc' Billy, actually emerges as the true hero. Though honored to present Miss Anne at her wedding to a northerner, Billy, ever humble and self-deprecating, accepts little credit for his unwavering service. Picking up during Reconstruction, "Ole 'Stracted" centers on a strange old man, a former slave suffering from amnesia whose appearance in the neighborhood is shrouded in mystery. When his young family is sold away under slavery, Ole 'Stracted loses his memory and wanders aimlessly for years. The story closes with a poignant reunion, yet Ole 'Stracted does not live long to enjoy it. Although "No Haid Pawn," with its uncanny legends of ghostly terrors, seems somewhat out of place in Page's collection, its gothic undertones locate this story in a well-established southern tradition. The final story in Page's collection, "Polly," preserves a child's special Christmas memory, a snapshot taken before the devastating Civil War that disrupted this carefully balanced existence.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Kimbel, Bobby Ellen, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 78: American Short-Story Writers, 1880-1910, Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1978; 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 Thomas Nelson Page from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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