John Pendleton Kennedy: Early American Novelist, Whig Statesman, & Ardent Nationalist
by Andrew R. Black.
Louisiana State University Press, 2016.
Cloth, 343 pages, $48.
Lawyer, professor, statesman, and cabinet official, John Pendleton Kennedy is best remembered today as a writer. The author of the satire Quodlibet, in which he decried the excesses of Jacksonian political culture, Kennedy was a faithful member of the Whig opposition to “King Andrew.” More important to his literary reputation, to say nothing of the development of early American letters, are his three novels: Rob of the Bowl, a romance set in colonial Maryland; Horse-Shoe Robinson, a tale of the American War for Independence; and his first and most celebrated work, Swallow Barn, a portrait of life on a Virginia plantation. In this masterful biography, Andrew Black has set himself no easy task. He seeks not only to place Kennedy’s writing in its historical context, but also to unite his literary concerns with his political commitments, to bring “the two Kennedys together—the literary and the political— … so as to illuminate the lineaments of Whig culture during its emergence.”
History never repeats itself, though historical conditions sometimes do. Elements of the past at least echo through the present. In many respects, contemporary events and attitudes have made Black’s study more timely than he, or anyone, could have imagined. If Black is determined to explore the origins of the Whig party, he is equally determined to explain its collapse, along with the breakup of the United States itself. He asserts, for example, that “John Pendleton Kennedy’s story is the portrait of a culturally confused America, a story that takes in the embattled mind, as well as the rhetorical performances, animating the contentious, fatefully sectionalized nation.” Underlying Black’s account of Kennedy’s life and thought is the deepening sectional animosity that tormented the United States during the thirty years before the Civil War. Except for the sectional nature of the quarrel, Black’s description of a nation in the throes of social and political crisis, a story as chilling as it is informative, may perhaps offer more of a cautionary tale than he intended.
Although Black examines the body of Kennedy’s work, he sensibly focuses much of his critical attention on Swallow Barn, Kennedy’s most searching yet conflicted novel. Numerous critics have emphasized the realism of Swallow Barn, maintaining that it depicts social life in antebellum Virginia. At the same time, others have discerned in it the archetypical legend of the romantic South. Black approaches the realistic and romantic aspects of the novel with greater subtly and refinement to fashion an astute reading that nonetheless leaves important questions unanswered.
Tracing the literary antecedents of Swallow Barn to Washington Irving’s Bracebridge Hall, Black also shows in persuasive detail the extent to which Kennedy relied on his boyhood memories of Virginia in writing the novel. Yet Kennedy did not present a wholly realistic or impartial narrative. “By the time Kennedy sat down to write Swallow Barn,” Black argues, “both his urban upbringing and political commitment made objectivity impossible.” Black is quite right to insist that “nearly every aspect of the novel became colored with either Kennedy’s self-perfected, didactic social character or his nascent Whiggery,” which, he might have added, were mutually reinforcing. After its fashion, Swallow Barn is interpretive, not reportorial.
Black identifies the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment and the cultural outlook of such genteel writers as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Laurence Sterne as the principal sources of Kennedy’s ideals. Ardent in his quest for reform and improvement, both individual and social, Kennedy became a didactic writer. He was a Whig by temperament long before he found a political home in the Whig party. Kennedy embraced, even as he helped to define, the emerging bourgeois ethos. The union of moralism and materialism distinguished the American bourgeoisie. Because obstacles to the pursuit of economic self-interest in the antebellum United States were often so few and so weak, the fear of disorder was correspondingly more intense. In response, the American bourgeoisie sought new ways of organizing life and society. An ethic of self-restraint, discipline, and morality became central to the bourgeois vision. Black is astute in identifying both the challenge and the promise that Kennedy and his generation encountered:
On the one hand, the social and economic instability of the period impelled them to search the uncertain horizon for new moral bearings. On the other hand, the very existence of the new nation—endowed with what they perceived as superior political and social systems—offered the framework for a new moral order.
Members of the bourgeoisie attempted to impose such an order wherever chaos threatened by setting an example for others, exhibiting the benefits of self-control and self-discipline. Those who took the lesson to heart would doubtless cultivate the moral fortitude necessary to take advantage of the many opportunities that America presented, without encouraging social dislocation or falling victim to moral and material poverty.
Given Kennedy’s didactic inclinations and moral sensibilities, his chief problem in Swallow Barn became “how to write about the Old Dominion in a way that balanced his nostalgic fondness for the place with his low opinion of the state on almost every other measure.” Even the finest expressions of Virginia manhood, such as Frank Meriwether, the master of Swallow Barn, are “men in decline.” For all their charm and bravado, Virginians are backward, provincial, indolent, undisciplined, and haughty. They are, in a word, “cavalier” about everything from making money to alleviating social ills. “Kennedy goes out of his way to conflate the Old Dominion’s embrace of chivalry with the state’s apparently willful and universal backwardness.” On the basis of this judgment alone, Black rejects the orthodox conclusion that Swallow Barn advances a pastoral vision of Virginia and the South:
It is no surprise that a number of literary historians have wrongly placed Swallow Barn in a southern romantic continuum that begins with the arrival of Walter Scott’s works in the South, continues through the Virginia novels of the 1820s, and culminates in Kennedy’s novels and those of his contemporary William Gilmore Simms, the prolific romantic author from South Carolina and avowed proslavery separatist. However, Kennedy is badly out of step in this literary procession.… Kennedy was unable to hide the fact that he regarded the outmoded beliefs and insular pride of Virginia’s planters as responsible for the state’s economic backwardness and retrogressive politics. In Kennedy’s hands, the quaint habits and odd foibles … became symbols of hopeless provinciality and stubborn resistance to change.
As compelling as Black’s interpretation is, he discounts important aspects of the novel that would have made his thesis unassailable, and would, in addition, have helped to clarify the tensions that beset American society and government before the Civil War—tensions that Kennedy embodied in his life and work.
Frank Meriwether, Kennedy’s representative of Old Virginia, has tried to transform his plantation at Swallow Barn into an Edenic paradise removed from both the competitive marketplace and the turbulent political arena. Unlike Kennedy, who was unwavering in his nationalism, Meriwether opposes “consolidation,” fearing that it will destroy the virtue and independence of his beloved Virginia. Meriwether advocates state rights and is at war with the modern world. He opposes not only centralized government but progress as well.
Meriwether’s defense of tradition and rejection of modernity establish both the central problem of the novel and the central problem of America as Kennedy understood it. Kennedy is both solemn and satirical in his treatment of Meriwether, vacillating continually between piety and irony. Throughout the novel, as Black points out on more than one occasion, Kennedy found it impossible to maintain a consistent perspective. Such divergence no doubt reveals flaws in the style and structure of Swallow Barn, even as it may also reveal Kennedy’s shortcomings as a writer. More important, this defect imparts the fundamental meaning of the book, revealing the uncertainties of the American mind during this period of heightened sectional conflict.
Kennedy’s divided consciousness issues from the pages of Swallow Barn nowhere more vividly than in the discussion of slavery, a problem that Americans could neither avoid nor resolve. Just as Kennedy completed work on Swallow Barn, the Virginia legislature was debating whether to abolish slavery in the wake of Nat Turner’s bloody rampage through Southampton County. Black makes clear that Kennedy hoped to calm the agitation. Although opposed to slavery, Kennedy depicted the slaves in Swallow Barn as “comfortable and contented.” As hewers of wood and the drawers of water, they labor to support the gracious plantation life that their masters enjoy. For the time being, slavery is the most benign and opportune arrangement for blacks and whites alike. Slavery on this view supposedly not only disciplines but also protects them in the transition from barbarism to civilization. If slavery is “theoretically and morally wrong,” as even Meriwether acknowledges, it still affords blacks greater security than the so-called free workers of the North possess. Premature freedom, Meriwether insists, would condemn blacks to a fate worse than bondage.
This ambivalence about slavery was, for Kennedy, more than the raw material from which to craft a novel. Like other Americans, he struggled to find a solution to what was becoming an intractable problem. “Manifestly emancipation would be a greater evil than the continuance of slavery,” Kennedy admitted in his journal:
I mean, rapid emancipation. We should ruin the slave, and make desolate the slave country. Our duty therefore is to mitigate the evil by cautious and discreet treatment of it, and to aid the progress of natural causes in the gradual obliteration of slavery, which is inevitable in the course of the growth of the country. [Emphasis in the original]
Heeding Burke’s deliberate approach to social change, Kennedy wished above all to forebear “the hazard of internal convulsions” in a misguided attempt to rid the land of slavery. Delaying abolition, and in the meantime tempering the brutality of slavery, was a matter of preserving a humane social order.
Black ought thus to have taken more seriously the proposals to reform slavery that Kennedy put forth in Swallow Barn. He is instead dismissive, alleging that “Kennedy seeks cover behind the chivalric veil that has masked the grim reality of slavery throughout the novel. In a loose and jocular tone, Meriwether says he wants to establish a ‘feudatory’ at Swallow Barn.” According to the proslavery argument, slavery entailed mutual obligations. In theory, masters had a responsibility to care for their slaves just as slaves had a responsibility to obey their masters. Although Kennedy may not have been in full command of his material in writing Swallow Barn, he sensed the fundamental problem with slavery, at least insofar as southern whites were concerned. Relations between masters and slaves were not organic and harmonious, as proslavery thinkers hadlong contended.
The more Kennedy pondered the nature of slavery, the more he came to recognize that paternalism had serious limits. Whatever else the slaves may have been, they were first and foremost property to be bought and sold. Through the sale of the products of slave labor and through the slave trade itself, slavery condemned southerners to participate in a market economy that promised to destroy their cherished isolation, precisely the circumstance that Meriwether had long feared and violently denounced. The establishment of a feudatory, however vain and absurd the prospect may have been, reflected the desire to insulate the South from the modern world, or at least from its capitalist variant, and to defend the southern way of life against the selfish, exploitive, and chaotic social relations that capitalism engendered.
Its worst abuses curtailed or eliminated, slavery was ultimately a “positive good” until that moment when, in the distant future, blacks were at last prepared to endure the rigors of freedom. Kennedy seems to reinforce this benevolent vision of slavery in the story of Abe, which he introduced toward the end of Swallow Barn. Intelligent, but restless and disobedient, Abe is a menacing presence whom Meriwether must remove from the plantation community. He does so in an enlightened way, not by selling Abe further south but by binding him over to the service of a Chesapeake boatman. Seemingly perfect in his devotion, Abe dies in a storm, giving his life to save white passengers. Black entertains “little doubt that Abe is meant to be a counterpoint to Nat Turner.” He makes a compelling argument, though the story of Abe suggests an alternate interpretation, the significance of which Kennedy almost certainly could not have faced. Proud, resolute, and indomitable, Abe is determined not to sacrifice himself for whites but to prove his superiority to them, even at the risk of death. Such an attitude does not bespeak subservience, but contains at least the rudiments of insurrection.
Black compares Kennedy’s “inconclusiveness” about slavery in Swallow Barn to the “indecisiveness” of the Whigs, which “made the party irrelevant by the 1850s.” “Though fundamentally opposed to slavery, Kennedy’s morally didactic and economically progressive impulses were hampered by his deeply ingrained racial prejudices and social conservatism. Ironically, at the moment of its birth, Whig culture was already signaling the fatal indecisiveness that would cause its demise in just two decades. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Swallow Barn.” There is truth in Black’s assessment, though perhaps not enough. Who, after all, save the abolitionists and the fire-eaters, was decisive about slavery in the years before the Civil War? Like most Americans, including many Democrats, Kennedy hedged, more eager to preserve the Union than to end slavery. He did not wish to allow disagreements about slavery to imperil the United States.
More than indecision about slavery, and specifically about the expansion of slavery into the western territories, undid the Whig party. The Whigs were also troubled by the rise of nativism. Nativist Whigs set to work to make the party an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign, anti-Catholic organization. Many antislavery Whigs, such as William H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln, wanted to jettison nativism, while many nativist Whigs wanted to be rid of antislavery. The antislavery Whigs were further embarrassed by their affiliation with the Cotton Whigs, who supported slavery and often profited from the plantation economy. The antislavery faction within the Whig party was thereby separated from antislavery Democrats and Free Soilers who had become their natural allies.
Nativists, by contrast, were bound to a party that contained many men who thought nativism impolitic and discreditable. Like their antislavery counterparts, nativist Whigs found themselves cut off from Democrats who shared their hostility to immigrants and Catholics. With its many equivocations, its increasingly tense alliances, and its consistent record of electoral defeat, the Whig party frustrated all of its members without offering any advantages to compensate them. It had become an impediment to political success. The party disintegrated because, by the 1850s, few saw compelling reasons to sustain it.
John Pendleton Kennedy made important, if uneven, contributions to the history of American literature and thought. In retrospect, the most significant and instructive aspect of his work may be the uncertainty he displayed about the pressing issues of his day. In what is on balance a superb biography, Black offers a sympathetic yet discerning portrait of a man who, despite being enmeshed in partisan battles and unable to overcome his own prejudices, was tireless in the effort to make sense of, and to improve, American society. If Kennedy and his generation found themselves the victims of a self-inflicted tragedy, it was not because they were foolish, dishonest, or corrupt. It was rather, as Black has admirably demonstrated, because they were neither vile enough to be irredeemably wicked nor brave enough to be entirely just.
Mark G. Malvasi is the Isaac Newton Vaughan Professor of History at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.