Augustus Baldwin Longstreet,
Georgia Scenes


the man

Augustus Baldwin Longstreet: born 1790, Augusta GA; died 1870, Oxford MS.
Lomgstreet’s parents, yeoman farmers who had moved south from New Jersey, provided their son Gus with the best education that could then be had in the Deep South. He followed his lifelong political idol John C. Calhoun (a family acquaintance) in attending Yale College in New Haven and Tapping Reeve’s law school in Litchfield, Connecticut. On his return to Georgia in 1815, he was admitted to the bar, and as a lawyer succeeded in marrying “up,” into the emerging slaveocracy of Greene County, Georgia. Subsequently, he became a state congressman, district judge, plantation owner, journalist and newspaper editor, Methodist minister, and university president (Emory Coll., U of Mississippi, U of South Carolina). He was the uncle of Confederate General James Longstreet and father- in-law of L.Q.C. Lamar, perhaps the most promising among the young politicians emerging in the Confederacy.

the book

First published in 1835, Georgia Scenes presented a collection of some twenty sketches that had originally appeared in local Georgia papers (among them Longstreet’s own Augusta State Rights Sentinel). It was acclaimed as the first manifestation of what became known as Southwestern Humor—on which Mark Twain and William Faulkner were to feed copiously.


Augustus Baldwin Longstreet became intimately acquainted with the backroads of his native region when as a young lawyer he rode the circuit of the Ocmulgee district in Middle Georgia (see map below). In those years, the region was just behind the frontier, settled by yeoman farmers who worked the land mainly to support their families while harvesting some tobacco for extra income. Longstreet witnessed the introduction of a new cash crop, cotton, which came to supplant tobacco. The change uprooted the old agricultural system, for cotton could not be cultivated on the side, but demanded large fields and intensive care; consequently, farms were superseded by plantations, and large numbers of negro slaves were brought in as field hands while small farmers were driven out. Longstreet opted for the innovations, and in the political disputes mounting in the 1820s and 1830s he became an ardent spokesman of the slave system. Ironically, his own plantation only yielded financial gains when he abandoned the planting of cotton, sold his slaves, parceled his land, and auctioned it off as real estate; but he never deviated from his position as a vociferous proponent of nullification and slavery. As the political controversy over nullification came to a hilt in the early 1830s, the radical advocate of states rights became a newspaper editor and the author of Georgia scenes. When in the mid 1830s he found himself on the losing side in the political quarrels, he abandoned his ambitions for public leadership, turned to religion, and was ordained a Methodist minister in 1838. All the while, his incongruous views hardened; in the 1840s he advanced the foundation of a separate Southern Methodist church and published Letters on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon or The Connection of Apostolical Christianity with Slavery, a pamphlet calling upon the bible to defend the peculiar institution. In his manners and behavior Longstreet early on came to anticipate the pigheadedness and touchy pride of Southern firebrand secessionists.

Georgia Scenes has been acclaimed by critics as an early highlight of Southern literature and a major record of social history of the Lower South in the first half century of the young republic, though its title is misleading and the claims made for the book are, perhaps, too far-flung. The humor that informs some of the sketches is hardly in line with what eventually was labeled Southwestern humor, and rather than offering a survey of the diversity of the ways of life pursued in the various landscapes stretching from the Sea Islands to  the Blue Ridge, Longstreet’s volume offers select glimpses of one special section as the focus is primarily on what was termed Middle Georgia, the region of Augusta and the counties situated to the west of the city (see map below).

Longstreet employs two narrators, Lyman Hall and Abraham Baldwin, who in the sketches contained in the book are said to relate experiences they had as they journeyed through their native region. The method of presentation chosen has the individual scenes appear as prototypical road narratives; but as social histories they are all too selective—even as they (and their author with them) insist on being historical accounts. Significantly, the names tagged on the two narrator protagonists of the sketches invoke prominent figures of early Georgia history: Lyman Hall had signed the Declaration of Independence and served as Governor of Georgia in 1783/4; Abram Baldwin ratified the U.S. Constitution and was the first noteworthy representative Georgia had in Congress. Longstreet’s Hall and Baldwin, however, are marked predominantly by the elitist sociopolitical views they propound in the narratives ascribed to them. Hall, a district judge riding the circuit (as Longstreet had done), is all too conscious of the gravity of his office, and forever embarrassed by coarse manners and crudities. Baldwin, always out on some business never specified, is a respectable, stiff and prudish urbanite of indefinite interests. The two men meet on occoasion and seem closer to each other than to anyone else in the book.

It is only at first sight that the portrait gallery of people the narrators present appears really diverse. There are dirt eaters (most notoriously Ransy Sniffle, who became the epitome of the poor white in Southern fiction), country yokels and simple country wives, as well as foppish burghers and their ridiculously Europeanized daughters (see, e.g., “The Song” or “The Ball,” where Misses Feedle, Deedle, Gilt and Rhino congregate with Messrs. Crouch, Flirt, Boozle and Noozle). Hall and Baldwin project themselves as model Southern gentlemen, a pose that has them stand apart from the folks they encounter on their outings. Their peculiarly condescending gaze conflates differences such as might be made out among the roadside encounters while it foregrounds a social difference between the narrators and all others encountered, who are subsequently diminished in the act of telling. The measure of both narratorial and authorial approval depends on whether one knows one’s place in society and how humbly this place is assumed. Conspicuously, African Americans are all but absent from the Georgia Scenes (though the economic changes pervading Middle Georgia before 1830 entailed a vast increase of slavery in the region). All those who do not comply with the narrow social ideal upheld by Hall and Baldwin (and Longstreet) are met with scorn—be they young farmers seemingly discontent with the social and political ways governing their neck of the world (as in “Georgia Theatrics”), or be they (as in “The ‘Charming Creature’ as a Wife”) women aspiring to a life beyond a paternalist husband’s or father’s constrictions.


Middle Georgia (map of 1834)
location of the excerpt depicted above on a map showing all of Georgia (both cartographic renditions date from the 1830s)

After riding the circuit of the Ocmulgee district (that is, roughly, the area of Baldwin, Putnam, Hancock, and Greene Cy.), Longstreet married the daughter of a wealthy farmer and settled near the in-laws at Greensboro, where the bride’s dowry of $2000 in cash and some thirty slaves made possible the acquisition of 600 acres of farm land. Later, Longstreet removed to his native Augusta, where he bought an estate named Westover and founded by one of the numerous Byrds of the Virginia clan. The move was in line with Longstreet’s political views and ambitions, which were shaped largely by his social connections to the landed gentry of the South Carolina hill country (most importantly, the Calhouns of the Edgefield and Abbeville districts). 


Georgia Scenes are available on several sites of the the internet: full text
(~500 KB from UNC Center)
excerpts:

“The Fight”
“The Horse Swap”


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