A Celebration of Women Writers

"A Few Noted Writers of the South." by Mrs. John Wilson Drury.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 471-473.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Among the writers of the South, we include the names of men who wrote their works in deeds, as well as in words. It seems fitting in this "Columbian Year," while the peoples of all lands are with us, pleased to share in our rejoicings, that we should mingle with our thanksgivings praises of the men who planted firmly the standard of freedom, in this, the fairest portion of the New World. In love of country we recognize no dividing lines; but the brief time at command will permit only the mention of a few brilliant names–in the departments of state, science and letters–from one section: Omitting living writers, Virginia occupies the place of honor in the federation of states, as the "Mother of Presidents," from the fact, that of the first five chief executives four were natives of Virginia, and were re-elected. Later there were natives of the same state similarly honored. Her colonial history will ever present peculiar attractions to the English-speaking races, as Virginia was the first of the American colonies settled by the English.

The first book written on the American soil came from the "Old Dominion," entitled "Good News from Virginia." Its author, Dr. Alexander Whitaker, came to America, impelled by the desire to do missionary work in the new land. It was he who baptized the gentle Pocahontas, and gave her hand in marriage to one of the race, hated by her savage father.

A review of colonial rule is potent, to render us content with the social and political conditions of self-government–moreover vividly illustrates the rapid strides of progress in the preceding two centuries. The following is a concise picture of the colony of Virginia under the rule of Sir William Berkley, Governor–given in his own words as quoted–"The population is forty thousand. There are forty-eight parishes, and the ministers are well paid. But," adds the governor, "I thank God there are no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels, against the best government. God keeps us from both."

The testy governor's wish was fulfilled in part–one hundred years succeeded filled with struggles for larger liberty, which in the end of the century, culminated in the Revolutionary period. It is grateful and fitting to commence this literary survey, with the most prominent actor of this epoch. A learned critic says that George Washington was so immeasurable great in other respects that it seems almost profanation to speak of him as the writer. Yet his writings fill twelve octavo volumes, and are a val- [Page 472]  uable part of the political history of the time. He had formed for himself a style, the unconscious outgrowth of his character, which is as distinctly marked as his hand-writing. Even his "farewell address"–in which he invited the co-operation of Madison, Hamilton and Jay–gave unmistakable evidence of the molding hand of its original author.

Thomas Jefferson's imperishable fame owes its existence not to the fact that he was third President of the American Republic. He won the laurel of immortality by writing the "Declaration of Independence," a document whose exalted sentiment is conveyed in diction worthy the most famous of classic writers. His public life embraced forty-two years. Yet, amid all the exciting rivalries of political life, he found time to retreat to the Shades of Monticello, and devoted thought to letters, and perfected his plans for founding the University of Virginia, a monument alone sufficient to perpetuate his name and memory.

Of the famous orators who thrilled the statesmen and the country before the War of the Revolution we lament there is no record which embalms their eloquence for all coming time. Even the Divine gift of Patrick Henry–ever indescribable, ever unapproachable–is only a tradition. Had his pen been gifted as his tongue, we should today have need of no other theme. Richard Henry Lee was only second to Patrick Henry in fervid eloquence. He was proficient in Latin and Greek; also was a deep student and lover of the classics, by which his oratory was greatly enriched.

In the councils of the United Colonies, an assemblage of intellectual giants, Lee introduced the memorable resolution which kindled a fiery debate, and led to the motion that a committee be appointed to draft a declaration of independence. Of this committee Lee, according to usage, should have been chairman. Illness in his family unexpectedly called him away. On the following day the committee was appointed, with Jefferson as chairman. By this simple incident or accident, Richard Henry Lee lost the crown of glory which will ever rest upon the brow of Thomas Jefferson. We must believe it wisely ordered that Lee's eminent compatriot was called to pen the immortal page with entitles him to the high rank–first of Southern writers.

Of the statesmen of the first three decades of this century, none were more prominent than William Wirt. In 1807 he won wide distinction in the famous trial of Aaron Burr for high treason. In the War of 1812 he was an ardent patriot, engaging in active military duty. In the forum he displayed the same enthusiasm with undaunted main, breaking a lance with Pinkney and Webster; plumed knights, before whom the stoutest heart might quail. Despite the pressing duties of public life he found time for purely literary work. His writings were varied. He left upon record that a literary career, above all others, would have been most congenial to his tastes. The average reader will remember him as author of the biography of Patrick Henry.

With the war in which William Wirt acted a subordinate part is associated another name, which will be remembered so long as heaven's spangled azure proclaims upon every sea, and to all nations, the Divine origin of the American Republic. Francis Scott Key was born in Frederick County, Maryland, and educated at St. John's College, Annapolis.

Like Hopkinson, he is indebted for literary celebrity to the composition of a single patriotic song, "The Star Spangled Banner." It was composed in 1814 on the occasion of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, when the author was a prisoner in the hands of the attacking British.

The same period, from 1780 to 1851, is adorned by the name of John James Audubon. Louisiana proudly claims him as an honored son. He was of French descent. He engaged first in commercial pursuits, but finding himself strongly drawn toward the study of birds he decided to follow the bent of his mind, After nearly half a lifetime spent in this pursuit Audubon visited Europe to obtain subscribers for his great work, "The Birds of America." He was everywhere received with applause. The most distinguished men of the time, Humboldt, Herschel, Sir Walter Scott, Jeffreys [Page 473]  and Wilson, warmly commended him and his work. Wilson, of "Blackwood's magazine," said of him: "He is the greatest artist in his own walk that ever lived."

Matthew Fontaine Maury is a name as familiar to the civilized world as that of Aububon. "Wind," "Current Charts," and "Physical Geography of the Sea," would be sufficient to render the author famous. Yet these are but a small part of the works which have proven of incalculable benefit to science and navigation. His fame rests upon his services in behalf of science.

The first half of the century presents a sharp contrast to the last in the scope and character of woman's sphere. Southern skies and perpetual sunshine had imparted a luster to the eye, a glow to the cheek, and an enthusiasm and vivacity which distinguished peculiarly the daughters of the South.

The famous beauties of "Lady Washington's Court," as the official circle of the first administration was termed, live in history. Their pictures so faithfully painted, that we are familiar with their traits and features as though they were of our world today.

In this early period the most rarely gifted women, pre-eminent in grace of speech and manner, matchless in physical endowments, were content to shine as queens in home and society. We can only afford time to present the representative from each sphere.

Dolly Madison, wife of the fourth President, is ever described as the brilliant leader of the official circle, not by the strong hand of power, as "First Lady of the Land," but by the magic qualities of beauty and worth combined, she captured all hearts, and today it is deemed a distinguished compliment to her successor to liken her popularity to that of Mrs. Madison.

A perfect example of home-life is witnessed in the mother of George Washington. If the grand life of the son truly interpreted the lessons graven upon his heart by his mother, then we may pronounce Mary Washington "best writer of the South," and one whose work representing motherhood in other myriad homes atones the absence of literary celebrities among her Southern countrywomen. It is interesting to note that the women of the entire county in this eventful year of woman's progress, have signified their appreciation of Mary Washington's greatness by joining in the successful effort to erect a monument to her memory.

Time will suffice only to present one other name so world-renowned that the fame is American as well as Southern. A sculptures bust, dark with the shadow of the sable raven, is a familiar picture in all lands. In every home where classic Pallas fills an ideal niche, is the name of Edgar Allan Poe as familiar as household words. Unknown to society or fame, upon the publication of the "Raven," the author suddenly became a lion, and his writings were eagerly sought after by publishers.

The American poet, from beneath the black shadow of the "Raven," echoes the despairing cry, "My soul from out that shadow shall be lifted never more." We fain would believe that in the distant "Aiden" there is a "balm" for soaring souls allied to hearts of sin and sorrow. Yet the knell of hope, "My soul is dark," is wafted from the new to the old, and in that shadow the memory of American's greatest poet ever rests.

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Mrs. John Wilson Drury was born at Butternutts, Otsego County, N.Y. Her parents were Rev. Issac Garvin and Lucy Bostwick Garvin. Mrs. Drury was educated at Aurora Seminary, New York, but her most valued lessons were from her father, a graduate of Dartmouth College, who was a man of wide and varied learning. She has traveled extensively in her own country and in foreign lands. She married, in 1881, Judge John Wilson Drury, of Chicago, Ill. Her principle literary work has been as a newspaper correspondent, during her travels. In religious faith she is an Episcopalian, and is a communicant of the church. Her postoffice address is Milan, Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom