In this special guest post, Dr Peter Templeton discusses a curious nineteenth-century American novel by a forgotten author
Imagine a world in which the South seceded, successfully, from the United States. Virginia, caught in two minds as a border state, is occupied by Federal troops who get caught into a guerrilla war with a band of noble would-be Confederates? This version of history, though it looks like a nightmare to most contemporary eyes, is exactly what Nathaniel Beverley Tucker asks us to picture in his 1836 novel, The Partisan Leader.
One thing needs to be stated upfront – this novel is no masterpiece. It was never actually completed, either because the author or audience didn’t care enough to make finishing it worthwhile, and the only good reviews for the book seem to have come from close political allies, itself an unsurprising fact in the incredibly political world of American literature during this part of the Nineteenth Century. But despite the fact that it probably fails to ever become a page turner or artefact of high art, this novel remains interesting for people interested in the mind of the Nineteenth Century South to this day.
What we have here is, in some ways at least, only a novel in name. The novel is a propaganda vehicle for Tucker to convey his secessionist views. This plays out across the novel’s pages: the Virginian secessionists are generally wise, noble, virtuous, and fit easily into the myth of the cavalier. Conversely, the villain of the novel is President Martin Van Buren, with the New Yorker figured so strongly as a tyrant that he is oft-known as King Martin the First. His ministers, especially those of southern bearing, are obsequious and Machiavellian. But despite their villainy, southern independence is never really in any danger. The rest of the South has broken away at this point, supported by English forces that Tucker was sure would be at their disposal in the event of any conflict, and it is only Virginia’s hesitancy that keeps them locked into this conflict.
In some ways, though, the most interesting thing about this book is its cover – or rather, the title page. The scenes within would be fairly typical fair were it not for the fact that they anticipated something a bit like the war of 1861-65, but there is an intriguing gambit from Tucker on the title page of The Partisan Leader. Though written in 1836, he dates the novel has being from the year 1856, twenty years into the future and after the putative action of the novel. By doing so, Tucker essentially constructs a frame narrative which offers a proof that secessionist action can be legitimate, by presenting the novel as a glimpse into the future.
It is unlikely that The Partisan Leader will ever come back into popular fashion. To add to its narrative and technical weaknesses, one can add the critical eye that many people turn towards the Southern myths of the plantation and of chivalry on which so much depends. A nineteenth century novel in which slavery is not remotely challenged also seems past its sell-by date. But Tucker went on to serve as a close adviser for President Tyler, and so he is not an inconsequential figure. And for an insight into how secessionism travelled from being a fairly fringe belief in the 1830s to a political fact in less than thirty years, this book still offers us some highly valuable insights.
Dr Peter Templeton teaches English and American Literary and Cultural Studies at Loughborough University and the University of Liverpool. He specialises in the Literature of the 19th century US South. His book, The Politics of Southern Pastoral Literature, 1785–1885: Jeffersonian Afterlives was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.