In this guest post, Dr Peter Templeton offers some fascinating facts about a largely forgotten American author, John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870).
It isn’t out of the ordinary for an author who is popular in their own day to fall from grace in later years. Sometimes this is accelerated or amplified because progress leaves certain views – and, indeed, authors – looking decidedly out of step with what is now accepted, as was the case with a lot of antebellum Southern writing. Of these, one of the most well-connected and fundamentally interesting writers of his day was the author, lawyer and statesman John Pendleton Kennedy. Here a few choice facts about his life and work:
1. As a young man, Kennedy fought in the War of 1812. Full of patriotic fervour, the young Kennedy was so confident that the young nation would defeat the British that he found space in his pack for a pair of dancing pumps to enjoy the ball. After three days of marching an alarm rang at 02:00 AM, and in the confusion Kennedy lost his boots and had to hurry to battle in his dancing pumps. This was at Bladensburg, Maryland: just a few hours later, with Kennedy and the rest of his unit in full retreat, British troops set light to Washington, D.C.
2. Many southern literary scholars consider Kennedy the originator of Plantation fiction, through his 1832 novel Swallow Barn; or a Sojourn in the Old Dominion. It is interesting, though, that this work actually subverts many of the aspects that would become traditions of the genre in later decades (though the novel was revised, with much of the satire softened, near the outbreak of the Civil War).
3. Kennedy was an early supporter of Edgar Allan Poe. He described meeting the young Poe shortly after the publication of Swallow Barn, and when the young man was destitute. Kennedy supported Poe, both financially and by finding him work at the Southern Literary Messenger, and by advising him to publish the award winning short-story ‘MS Found in a Bottle’. The rest is history.
4. Kennedy also maintained a strong correspondence with one of the early leading lights of American letters, Washington Irving, and with the eminent English author William Makepeace Thackeray. There was a rumour that Kennedy had written part of Thackeray’s novel The Virginians (1857-9), though it seems more likely that he only provided some background information. The two men met as guests of Kennedy’s in Washington in early 1853 when they accompanied President Fillmore and future-President Franklin Pierce on a trial voyage of a new ‘caloric ship’ up the Potomac river.
5. Kennedy must be in a select group of people to have seen Charles Dickens give readings both on his American tour, and in London while on a tour of Europe in 1857-8. It is clear that his opinion was the intervening years had not agreed with Dickens, and as his biographer says, it must be one of the earliest times an American had found an Englishman vulgar!
6. Despite being associated with Southern writing and the Plantation genre, Kennedy was a committed Unionist – he eventually came to support Abraham Lincoln for his work keeping the country together, and many member of his extended family in Virginia broke contact with Kennedy over what they saw as his failure to support the South. But as a proud Whig politician both in the Maryland House of Representatives and the Cabinet of President Fillmore, he retained his loyalty to the country he had fought for in 1812.
7. His literary connections kept up until his death. In the last week of his life in August 1870, he was visited twice by the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.