“The principal purpose of this collection is to inspire the youth of the South to a more earnest and intelligent study of the literature of that section.” So begins Southern Prose and Poetry. I came across this volume in a collection of books retrieved from storage at my wife’s parents’ home. It was published in 1910 by Charles Schribner’s Sons and was complied for the above purpose by the head of the English department at Vanderbilt University (Mims) and the president of Peabody College for Teachers (Payne).
It features works by well known nineteenth and early twentieth century southern writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, John James Audubon, Joel Chandler Harris and Sidney Lanier. But, it also showcases writing by famous southerners not known primarily as authors. For example there are personal letters written by Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson as well as speeches by Henry Clay and Henry Grady. I particularly enjoyed Grady’s eloquent 1886 address to the New England Club called “The New South.” In it he speaks of my home town, Atlanta, Georgia:
I want to say to General Sherman, who is considered an able man in our parts, though some people think he is a kind of careless man with fire, that from the ashes he left us in 1864 we have raised a brave and beautiful city…
I also enjoyed several of the personal letters. The poignant letter from Robert E. Lee to his sister telling of his difficult decision to resign his U.S. Army commission and fight for his native Virginia and the letter from Thomas Jefferson to his young daughter speaking of his love for her and his hope for her future. In all these letters the writing compares favorably with the work of the “real” authors in the book, reminding me there was a time before email when personal correspondence was as much an art form as literature.
But my favorite section of the book is poetry. The civil war poetry written from a southern perspective, such as “Ashby” by John Reuben Thompson or “The Sword of Robert Lee” by Abram Joseph Ryan, is not the kind of thing you find in poetry anthologies very often. Coupled with these are also more well-known poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Sydney Lanier.
If you’re a poetry lover or a lover of history and literature, this is an excellent book to have around. I’m still reading through the poems and some of the prose and am sure I’ll get many more hours of enjoyment from this old book.
If you’re not fortunate enough to come across an original edition, Southern Prose and Poetry can be purchased as a reprint from Amazon:
Or, read for free on line here: