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Nineteenth-Century Student Writing at UNC

In March 1844, a group of UNC students from "the senior class" published the first issue of The North Carolina University Magazine. Offering "the creations of their genius" to the public, the editors announced their anxious pride: "The idea of being so soon erected into oracles of Literature to a community of such refined Tastes . . . is positively overwhelming" (p. 1). Though the magazine contained no credits or bylines, historian Kemp P. Battle has identified the members of its editorial committee as "Edmund DeBerry Covington, of Richmond County, Robert H. Cowan, of Wilmington, and Samuel F. Phillips, of Chapel Hill, of the Dialectic Society, and James S. Johnston, of Halifax, Leonidas C. Edwards, of Person County, and a third, probably George B. Wetmore, of Fayetteville, or William H. Hinton, of Bertie" (p. 487). In their prefatory "Address to Patrons," these editors claimed, somewhat insistently, that "[t]here are moments, unemployed by the severer labors of our Text Books, which may be pleasantly and profitably devoted to the cultivation of Light Literature" (p. 1). In March 2009, 165 years after the debut of UNC's first literary magazine, Documenting the American South commemorates student writing in the 1840s, a decade in which North Carolinians' interest in higher education strengthened and the University's undergraduate enrollment skyrocketed.

The magazine's original issue contained eight essays and two poems of varying quality. The opening article lamented the state of American poetry: "we have no great Poets . . . none worthy of the moral and political grandeur of our country" (p. 3). The author blamed the dearth of great poets on Americans' "practical tendencies," which led them to disrespect the literary arts as a profession. "A man who would set out in life with the avowed intention of writing poetry for subsistence," he wrote, "would be looked upon as little better than a madman" (p. 4). This charge echoed Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 address titled "The American Scholar," in which he observed that "so-called 'practical men' sneer at speculative men" and that "the mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Such criticisms seem effectively supported by the two original poems included in the first issue of NCU Magazine. One answers the age-old question "What Is Life?" by concluding,

To feel that youth was not unblest
Nor manhood bowed with hopeless grief,
When age shall find our souls at rest
In hopes of Heaven. This--This is life. (p. 38)

In her article "Value of Documentary Histories," Erika Lindemann notes that nineteenth-century student writing may strike modern readers as "dull, full of lofty generalizations intended to appeal to professors. . . ." However, these compositions remain valuable for modern teachers and writers because they "illustrate the rhetorical moves students thought they should make" and demonstrate the value placed on public speaking and writing in the antebellum university.

For example, in the fall of 1848, Bartholomew Fuller composed an essay outlining "The Dangers of a College Life." Fuller, a sophomore, subsequently graduated with first honors in 1851, founded the Fayetteville Presbyterian, and practiced law in Durham. His paper describes the various perils facing college students in the 1840s, including "idleness, disrespect towards superiors, a general spirit of insubordination and a neglect of duties" (p. 2). The essay is packed with what Lindemann calls "predictably clich├ęd" phrases and metaphors: jewels that sparkle, moths "flitting around a candle," and vices that "enslave the mind" (pp. 2-3). It also fails to surprise the reader with any subtle or unexpected rhetorical turns: the title is essentially the theme, thesis, and conclusion of the paper. However, the complex syntax of Fuller's sentences demonstrates a nuanced understanding of English grammar as well as an ability to devise and support persuasive arguments. According to Lindemann, compositions such as Fuller's constituted part of the orchestrated curriculum with which UNC Professor William Mercer Green drilled his students in rhetoric and logic.

The original NCU Magazine went defunct after nine issues, but another group of Carolina students resumed publication in February 1852. In that issue (which is, confusingly, also designated "Vol. I No. 1"), the editors noted that the magazine's initial offering "was starved out by a selfish public. But this is no cause of wonder to any one, who will consider for a moment, what has ever been the literary character of North-Carolina" (p. 1). Nevertheless, they expressed their hope that "this [Chapel] hill will be for religion as the ancient hill of Zion; and for literature and the muses, even surpass the ancient Parnassus" (p. 5). Despite this rather conflicted preamble, the magazine was more successful on its second try, and its successor, the Carolina Quarterly, is still published biannually. To at least some modern readers, the "literary character of North-Carolina" would appear to have improved with age, rendering "this hill" a "Parnassus" of sorts.

DocSouth's digital collection True and Candid Compositions features 121 documents written by UNC students from 1795 to 1868, depicting students' daily activities, their views of academic work, their social and political interests, and their hopes for the future. Another digital collection, The First Century of the First State University, presents manuscripts and official documents related to the founding and growth of the University from its inception through the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Works Consulted: Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina, Vol. I, Raleigh, NC: Edwards & Broughton Printing Co, 1907; Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "The American Scholar," 31 Aug 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts website, accessed 24 Feb 2009.

Patrick E. Horn