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ST. ELMO AND A DARKER SOUTH

Drew Gilpin Faust, literary scholar and president of Harvard University, writes in her introduction to a 1992 edition of Macaria that Augusta Evans wanted to write a definitive history of the Confederacy after the war.   When she found out that Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens planned to write such a history of the Confederacy, Augusta decided to write St. Elmo instead.   William Perry Fidler surmises that Augusta’s prime motivation in writing another best-selling book was the need to make money.  Her family had suffered property losses as well as physical injury in the war.  She’d received a nice profit from Beulah and even made money on Macaria.  

She wrote St. Elmo primarily at Georgia Cottage in Mobile, although it is said she also spent periods of time writing at her cousin’s house in Georgia, which is the setting of the novel.  A story, possibly apocryphal, credits her cousin for persuading Augusta to change a planned tragic ending into a happy one.  When the book was published, it flew off the shelves at a rate not seen since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin fifteen years before.  Susan Reynolds believes that in the aftermath of the war, St. Elmo was the perfect escape.   The book somehow touched a nerve, says John Sledge; all over America, towns, babies, cigars and steamboats were named for it.

The South’s defeat, which Augusta did not take lightly, added a darker tone to her fiction and a certain separation from the notion of progress.   She clung to the ideas of Southern gentility and what she saw as the virtues of the antebellum South.  She did not believe in banks and paid all of her accounts with cash she carried around with her.   Well after electricity had been adopted in most Mobile households, Augusta continued to prefer the dimmer glow of gaslight.

Click on the links in the left sidebar or on the chapter headings below:

The Phenomenal St. Elmo

The seeds of Southern Gothic?

Subverting her own subversions

Creating a Mythic South