Southern Life in Southern Literature/Joseph Glover Baldwin
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Joseph Glover Baldwin
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|PART I. THE OLD SOUTH IN LITERATURE - HUMORISTS|
JOSEPH GLOVER BALDWIN
[Joseph Glover Baldwin was born in Virginia, near Winchester, in 1815. In early manhood he went into the lower South, finally settling in Sumter County, Alabama. He practiced law in Alabama, with some political recognition, until he moved in 1854 to California. In 1858 he was elected to the supreme court of California, but resigned the position after three years and returned to the practice of law. He died in San Francisco in 1864. He obtains his position in literature through two volumes: the humorous sketches, originally contributed to the Southern Literary Messenger, published in book form in 1853 as "Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi," and a volume entitled "Party Leaders," published in 1855, in which he sketched with considerable ability the careers of several prominent political leaders in the South.]
OVID BOLUS, ESQ
And what history of that halcyon period, ranging from the year of grace 1835 to 1837, that golden era when shinplasters were the sole currency, when bank bills were "as thick as autumn leaves in Vallombrosa," and credit was a franchise—what history of those times would be complete that left out the name of Ovid Bolus? As well write the biography of Prince Hal and forbear all mention of Falstaff. In law phrase the thing would be a "deed without a name," and void; a most unpardonable casus omissus. . . .
I have had a hard time of it in endeavoring to assign to Bolus his leading vice. I have given up the task in despair, but I have essayed to designate that one which gave him, in the end, most celebrity. I am aware that it is invidious to make comparisons and to give preeminence to one over other rival qualities and gifts, where all have high claims to distinction; but then, the stern justice of criticism in this case requires a discrimination which to be intelligible and definite must be relative and comparative. I therefore take the responsibility of saying, after due reflection, that, in my opinion, Bolus's reputation stood higher for lying than for anything else; and in thus assigning preeminence to this poetic property, I do it without any desire to derogate from other brilliant characteristics belonging to the same general category, which have drawn the wondering notice of the world.
Some men are liars from interest; not because they have no regard for truth, but because they have less regard for it than for gain. Some are liars from vanity; because they would rather be well thought of by others than have reason for thinking well of themselves. Some are liars from a sort of necessity, which overbears, by the weight of temptation, the sense of virtue. Some are enticed away by allurements of pleasure or seduced by evil example and education. Bolus was none of these; he belonged to a higher department of the fine arts and to a higher class of professors of this sort of belles-lettres. Bolus was a natural liar, just as some horses are natural pacers, and some dogs natural setters. What he did in that walk was from the irresistible promptings of instinct and a disinterested love of art. His genius and his performances were free from the vulgar alloy of interest or temptation. Accordingly, he did not labor a lie. He lied with a relish; he lied with a coming appetite, growing with what it fed on; he lied from the delight of invention and the charm of fictitious narrative. It is true he applied his art to the practical purposes of life, but in so far did he glory the more in it, just as an ingenious machinist rejoices that his invention, while it has honored science, has also supplied a common want.
Bolus's genius for lying was encyclopedical; it was what German criticism calls many-sided. It embraced all subjects without distinction or partiality. It was equally good upon all, "from grave to gay, from lively to severe."
Bolus's lying came from his greatness of soul and his comprehensiveness of mind. The truth was too small for him. Fact was too dry and commonplace for the fervor of his genius. Besides, great as was his memory,—for he even remembered the outlines of his chief lies,—his invention was still larger. He had a great contempt for history and historians. He thought them tame and timid cobblers mere tinkers on other peoples' wares; simple parrots and magpies of other men's sayings or doings; borrowers of and acknowledged debtors for others' chattels, got without skill; they had no separate estate in their ideas; they were bailees of goods which they did not pretend to hold by adverse title; buriers of talents in napkins, making no usury; barren and unprofitable nonproducers in the intellectual vineyard—nati consumere fruges.
He adopted a fact occasionally to start with, but, like a Sheffield razor and the crude ore, the workmanship, polish, and value were all his own. A Tibet shawl could as well be credited to the insensate goat that grew the wool, as the author of a fact that Bolus honored with his artistical skill could claim to be the inventor of the story. . . .
There was nothing narrow, sectarian, or sectional in Bolus's lying. It was, on the contrary, broad and catholic. It had no respect to times or places. It was as wide, illimitable, as elastic and variable, as the air he spent in giving it expression. It was a generous, gentlemanly, whole-souled faculty. It was often employed on occasions of thrift, but no more and no more zealously on these than on others of no profit to himself. He was an egotist, but a magnificent one; he was not a liar be cause an egotist, but an egotist because a liar. He usually made himself the hero of the romantic exploits and adventures he narrated; but this was not so much to exalt himself as because it was more convenient to his art. He had nothing malignant or invidious in his nature. If he exalted himself, it was seldom or never to the disparagement of others, unless, indeed, those others were merely imaginary persons or too far off to be hurt. He would as soon lie for you as for himself. It was all the same, so there was something doing in his line of business, except on those cases in which his necessities required to be fed at your expense.
He did not confine himself to mere lingual lying; one tongue was not enough for all the business he had on hand. He acted lies as well. Indeed, sometimes his very silence was a lie. He made nonentity fib for him, and performed wondrous feats by a "masterly inactivity." . . .
In lying, Bolus was not only a successful but he was a very able practitioner. Like every other eminent artist he brought all his faculties to bear upon his art. Though quick of perception and prompt of invention, he did not trust himself to the inspirations of his genius for improvising a lie when he could well premeditate one. He deliberately built up the substantial masonry, relying upon the occasion and its accessories chiefly for embellishment and collateral supports, as Burke excogitated the more solid parts of his great speeches and left unprepared only the illustrations and fancy work. . . .
Bolus's manner was, like every truly great man's, his own. It was excellent. He did not come blushing up to a lie, as some otherwise very passable liars do, as if he was making a mean compromise between his guilty passion or morbid vanity and a struggling conscience. He and it were on very good terms—at least, if there was no affection between the couple, there was no fuss in the family; or, if there were any scenes or angry passages, they were reserved for strict privacy and never got out. My own opinion is that he was as destitute of the article as an ostrich. Thus he came to his work bravely, cheerfully, and composedly. The delights of composition, invention, and narration did not fluster his style or agitate his delivery. He knew how, in the tumult of passion, to assume the "temperance to give it smoothness." A lie never ran away with him, as it is apt to do with young performers; he could always manage and guide it, and to have seen him fairly mounted would have given you some idea of the polished elegance of D'Orsay and the superb manage of Murat. There is a tone and manner of narration different from those used in delivering ideas just conceived, just as there is difference between the sound of the voice in reading and in speaking. Bolus knew this and practiced on it. When he was narrating he put the facts in order and seemed to speak them out of his memory, but not formally or as if by rote. He would stop himself to correct a date; recollect he was wrong—he was at that year at the White Sulphur or Saratoga, etc.; having got the date right the names of persons present would be incorrect, etc., and these he corrected in turn. A stranger hearing him would have feared the marring of a good story by too fastidious a conscientiousness in the narrator.
HOW THE FLUSH TIMES SERVED THE VIRGINIANS
Superior to many of the settlers in elegance of manners and general intelligence, it was the weakness of the Virginian to imagine he was superior too in the essential art of being able to hold his hand and make his way in a new country, and especially such a country and at such a time. What a mistake that was! The times were out of joint. It was hard to say whether it were more dangerous to stand still or to move. If the emigrant stood still, he was consumed, by no slow degrees, by expenses; if he moved, ten to one he went off in a galloping consumption by a ruinous investment. Expenses then—necessary articles about three times as high, and extra articles still more extra-priced—were a different thing in the new country from what they were in the old. In the old country, a jolly Virginia, starting the business of free living on a capital of a plantation, and fifty or sixty negroes, might reasonably calculate, if no ill luck befell him, by the aid of a usurer, and the occasional sale of a negro or two, to hold out without declared insolvency, until a green old age. His estate melted like an estate in chancery, under the gradual thaw of expenses; but in the fast country, it went by the sheer cost of living—some poker losses included—like the fortune of the confectioner in California, who failed for one hundred thousand dollars in the six months' keeping of a candy shop. But all the habits of his life, his taste, his associations, his education—everything—the trustingness of his disposition—his want of business qualification—his sanguine temper—all that was Virginian in him, made him the prey, if not of imposture, at least of unfortunate speculations. Where the keenest jockey often was bit, what chance had he? About the same that the verdant Moses had with the venerable old gentleman, his father's friend, at the fair, when he traded the Vicar's pony for the green spectacles. But how could he believe it? How could he believe that the stuttering, grammarless Georgian, who had never heard of the resolutions of '98, could beat him in a land trade? "Have no money dealings with my father," said the friendly Martha to Lord Nigel, "for, idiot though he seems, he will make an ass of thee." What pity some monitor, equally wise and equally successful with old Trapbois' daughter, had not been at the elbow of every Virginia! "'T wad frae monie a blunder freed him—an' foolish notion."
If he made a bad bargain, how could he expect to get rid of it? He knew nothing of the elaborate machinery of ingenious chicane—such as feigning bankruptcy, fraudulent conveyances, making over to his wife, running property—and had never heard of such tricks of trade as sending out coffins to the graveyard, with negroes inside, carried off by sudden spells of imaginary disease, to be "resurrected" in due time grinning on the banks of the Brazos.
The new philosophy too had commended itself to his speculative temper. He readily caught at the idea of a new spirit of the age having set in, which rejected the saws of Poor Richard as being as much out of date as his almanacs. He was already, by the great rise of property, compared to his condition under the old-time prices, rich; and what were a few thousands of debt, which two or three crops would pay off, compared to the value of his estate? (He never thought that the value of property might come down, while the debt was a fixed fact.) He lived freely, for it was a liberal time, and liberal fashions were in vogue, and it was not for a Virginian to be behind others in hospitality and liberality. He required credit and security, and, of course, had to stand security in return. When the crash came, and no "accommodations" could be had, except in a few instances, and in those on the most ruinous terms, he fell an easy victim. They broke by neighborhoods. They usually indorsed for each other, and when one fell—like the child's play of putting bricks on end at equal distances, and dropping the first in line against the second, which fell against the third, and so on to the last—all fell; each got broke as security, and yet few or none were able to pay their own debts! . . .
There was one consolation—if the Virginian involved himself like a fool, he suffered himself to be sold out like a gentleman. When his card house of visionary projects came tumbling about his ears, the next question was, the one Webster plagiarized, "Where am I to go?" Those who had fathers, uncles, aunts, or other dernier resorts in Virginia limped back, with feathers molted and crestfallen, to the old stamping ground, carrying the returned Californian's fortune of ten thousand dollars—six bits in money, and the balance in experience. Those who were in the condition of the prodigal (barring the father, the calf—the fatted one I mean—and the fiddle) had to turn their accomplishments to account; and many of them, having lost all by eating and drinking, sought the retributive justice from meat and drink, which might at least support them in poverty. Accordingly they kept tavern and made a barter of hospitality, a business the only disagreeable part of which was receiving the money, and the only one I know for which a man can eat and drink himself into qualification. And while I confess I never knew a Virginian, out of the state, to keep a bad tavern, I never knew one to draw a solvent breath from the time he opened house until death or the sheriff closed it.
Others again got to be not exactly overseers but some nameless thing, the duties of which were nearly analogous, for some more fortunate Virginian, who had escaped the wreck and who had got his former boon companion to live with him on board, or other wages, in some such relation that the friend was not often found at table at the dinings given to the neighbors, and had got to be called Mr. Flournoy instead of Bob, and slept in an outhouse in the yard, and only read the Enquirer of nights and Sundays.
Some of the younger scions that had been transplanted early and stripped of their foliage at a tender age, had been turned into birches for the corrective discipline of youth. Yes; many who had received academical or collegiate educations, disregarding the allurements of the highway, turning from the gala-day exercise of ditching, scorning the effeminate relaxation of splitting rails, heroically led the Forlorn Hope of the battle of life, the corps of pedagogues of country schools—academies, I beg pardon for not saying; for, under the Virginia economy, every crossroad log cabin, where boys were flogged from B-a-k-e-r to Constantinople, grew into the dignity of a sort of runt college; and the teacher vainly endeavored to hide the meanness of the calling beneath the sonorous sobriquet of Professor. . . .
I had a friend on whom this catastrophe descended. Tom Edmundson was buck of the first head—gay, witty, dashing, vain, proud, handsome, and volatile, and, withal, a dandy and lady's man to the last intent in particular. He had graduated at the University, and had just settled with his guardian, and received his patrimony of ten thousand dollars in money. Being a young gentleman of enterprise, he sought the alluring fields of Southwestern adventure, and found them in this state. Before he well knew the condition of his exchequer, he had made a permanent investment of one half of his fortune in cigars, champagne, trinkets, buggies, horses, and current expenses, including some small losses at poker, which game he patronized merely for amusement; and found that it diverted him a good deal, but diverted his cash much more. He invested the balance, on private information kindly given him, in "Choctaw Floats," a most lucrative investment it would have turned out but for the facts: 1. That the Indians never had any title; 2. The white man who kindly interposed to act as guardian for the Indians did not have the Indian title; 3. The land, left subject to entry if the "Floats" had been good, was not worth entering. "These imperfections off its head," I know of no fancy stock I would prefer to a "Choctaw Float." " Brief, brave, and glorious" was "Tom's young career." When Thomas found, as he did shortly, that he had bought five thousand dollars worth of moonshine and had no title to it, he honestly informed his landlord of the state of his "fiscality," and that worthy kindly consented to take a new buggy, at half price, in payment of the old balance. The horse, a nick-tailed trotter, Tom had raffled off, but omitting to require cash, the process of collection resulted in his getting the price of one chance—the winner of the horse magnanimously paying his subscription. The rest either had gambling offsets, else were not prepared just at any one particular given moment to pay up, though always ready generally and in a general way.
Unlike his namesake, Tom and his landlady were not—for a sufficient reason—very gracious; and so, the only common bond, Tom's money, being gone, Tom received "notice to quit" in regular form.
In the hurly-burly of the times I lost sight of Tom for a considerable period. One day, as I was traveling over the hills in Greene, by a crossroad leading me near a country mill, I stopped to get water at a spring at the bottom of the hill. Clambering up the hill, after remounting, the summit of it brought me to a view, on the other side, through the bushes, of a log country schoolhouse, the door being wide open, and who did I see but Tom Edmundson, dressed as fine as ever, sitting back in an armchair, one thumb in his waistcoat armhole, the other hand brandishing a long switch, or rather pole. As I approached a little nearer I heard him speak out: "Sir—Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia, was the author of the Declaration of Independence—mind that. I thought everybody knew that—even the Georgians." Just then he saw me coming through the bushes and entering the path that led by the door. Suddenly he broke from the chair of state, and the door was slammed to, and I heard some one of the boys, as I passed the door, say, "Tell him he can't come in—the master's sick." This was the last I ever saw of Tom. I understand he afterwards moved to Louisiana, where he married a rich French widow, having first, however, to fight a duel with one of her sons, whose opposition could n't be appeased until some such expiatory sacrifice to the manes of his worthy father was attempted; which failing, he made rather a lame apology for his zealous indiscretion,—the poor fellow could make no other,—for Tom had unfortunately fixed him for visiting his mother on crutches the balance of his life.
One thing I will say for the Virginians—I never knew one of them, under any pressure, to extemporize a profession. The
TOM EDMUNDSON AS SCHOOLMASTER
sentiment of reverence for the mysteries of medicine and law was too large for deliberate quackery; as to the pulpit, a man might as well do his starving without the hypocrisy. But others were not so nice. I have known them to rush, when the wolf was after them, from the countinghouse or the plantation into a doctor's shop or a law office, as if those places were the sanctuaries from the avenger; some pretended to be doctors that did not know a liver from a gizzard, administering medicine by the guess, without knowing enough of pharmacy to tell whether the stuff exhibited in the big-bellied blue, red, and green bottles at the show windows of the apothecary's shop was given by the drop or the half pint.
Divers left, but what became of them, I never knew any more than they know what becomes of the sora after frost. Many were the instances of suffering; of pitiable misfortune, involving and crushing whole families; of pride abased; of honorable sensibilities wounded; of the provision for old age destroyed; of hopes of manhood overcast; of independence dissipated and the poor victim, without help, or hope, or sympathy, forced to petty shifts for a bare subsistence, and a ground-scuffle for what in happier days he threw away. But there were too many examples of this sort for the expenditure of a useless compassion; just as the surgeon after a battle grows case-hardened from an excess of objects of pity.