Professor Explores Civil War
Literature and Myth in New Book
English professor Ritchie Devon Watson Jr., Ph.D. examines how literature helped
instigate the Civil War in his new book, Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology
and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2008).
Dr. Watson offers analysis of how pre-Civil War prose and poetry convinced the southern
upper class that they constituted a race both different from and superior to northerners,
a race naturally destined to rule over slaves. The writings and so-called “racial
myth” were generated by two historical events that are said to have escalated tensions
that led to the Civil War: the severe beating of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner
by South Carolina representative Preston Brooks on the floor of the U.S. Senate
in 1856 and abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, VA to start a liberation
movement among slaves in 1859.
Evidence of the “racial myth” is outlined in literary works of Sir Walter Scott,
George Tucker, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Alexander Caruthers, and in the poetry
of Walt Whitman. Dr. Watson explains that southern myth portrays the planter elite
as descendants of the Normans of eleventh-century England and the Cavaliers of the
seventeenth-century. Normans and Cavaliers who chose to settle in the New World
populated the southern colonies. By contrast, northerners are portrayed as Saxons
or Englishmen of German descent. Saxons were known as Puritans in the New World
and settled in New England and to the North. As tensions over slavery continued
to rise, southerners increasingly came to see themselves as aristocratic Normans
whose culture could prevail in the struggle with northern Saxons only through succession
and civil war.
Dr. Watson, scheduled to retire this year, is the A. G. Ingram Professor of English
at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. His research interests focus on
nineteenth-century southern literature, Virginia fiction, Southern Culture and intellectual
history. He is the author of two previous books, Yeoman Versus Cavalier:
The Old Southwest's Fictional Road to Rebellion (LSU Press, 1993) and The Cavalier
in Virginia Fiction (LSU Press, 1985).
For more information about Dr. Ritchie Devon Watson or for questions about events
at R-MC, call Anne Marie Lauranzon at 804-752-7317, firstname.lastname@example.org.