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Witness to Sorrow: The Antebellum Autobiography of William J. Grayson.

William J. Grayson (1788-1863), known chiefly today as the author of the long neoclassical poem The Hireling and the Slave (1855), appears in this ably edited volume in new guise, as an accomplished, intelligent autobiographer. An unusual and interesting phenomenon among antebellum Southern authors, Grayson was a proponent of slavery who was also an opponent of secession - thus joining a select company that includes attorney and statesman James L. Petigru, Reconstruction governor Benjamin F. Perry, and minister James Henley Thornwell. The biographer of Petigru and the friend of such notable antebellum writers as Hugh Swinton Legare, Henry Timrod, William Elliott, and William Gilmore Simms, Grayson possessed an admirable literary style of his own that was largely developed, as his editor Richard J. Calhoun notes, from the study of such eighteenth-century authors as Samuel Johnson, Pope, and Swift. A neoclassicist by temperament and training, Grayson saw himself, as Calhoun also notes, as a man of reason who tried to live by the code of a gentleman and who advocated order in an age that increasingly valued emotionalism and demagoguery (II, 15).

Grayson, who was born in 1788 in Beaufort, South Carolina, could claim connection through his family with the aristocracy of the Sea Islands, and among the most engaging parts of his autobiography are his accounts of the islands and of such sports as drum fishing, the latter recalling William Elliott's descriptions in Carolina Sports (1846). After education in the North and at South Carolina College, Grayson married, taught at Beaufort College, studied law and was admitted to the bar, became a member of the state legislature, and was elected to the United States Congress in 1833. His incisive descriptions of Northern and Southern politicians render his autobiography a valuable historical document. He observed the most notable statesmen of the day, including Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay. Of his several analyses of these men, his comparison of Jackson and Calhoun is particularly memorable: "There was some resemblance between the two men, the President and the great South Carolina Senator, once friends, now implacable foes. They were of the same Scotch Irish stock and exhibited its characteristic traits. In both were seen the long face, the hollow jaws, the thick bustling hair, the tall gaunt erect figure, which belong to the race, each of them had great strength of will and force of character. There was one feature of their common ancestry in which General Jackson was probably superior to his opponent - he was the best hater. But even here the resemblance is not lost. It is said of Mr. Calhoun that he tolerated no political heresies and broke down in his own State and never forgave the politician who opposed his opinions. He made many enemies in doing so" (p. 131).

Grayson was also a thoughtful commentator upon Southern and Northern culture. He analyzes with feeling and judgment the wrongs done the South by the protective tariff and the resulting Nullification controversy in South Carolina, during which time, he humorously observes, "the State became a great talking and eating machine" where "the appetites and lungs of the conflicting parties never failed" (p. 119). He praises the moral tone of Southern society, which he felt derived from the relationship of master and slave and judged superior to that of the landed gentry in England and elsewhere. Yet he was also capable of denouncing Southern excesses. He detested the South's concentration upon cotton, for instance, claiming that the cultivation of one great staple "starves everything else" and renders the South dependent upon Northern markets for the bulk of its goods (p. 43).

As a man who valued the eighteenth-century standards of order, balance, and reason, Grayson frequently judged the present from the vantage point of the past. Though he did not therefore always find the present wanting - his comments on the revival of religion in his native state form a notable example (p. 65) - The was quick to analyze the decline in manners that he felt was attributable to industrialization. Before 1820 he had traveled extensively in the North, and in writing of these travels many years later he caustically observes that "the North had not yet reached the riotous period of enormous wealth and the presumption that comes of it. ... The glories of the soap boiler and tallow chandler, the shoe maker and hat manufacturer grown into millionaires, were as yet in the Chrysalis State. They had not began [sic] to illustrate the refinement of American manners on the continent of Europe or even to lead the fashions at Saratoga and New Port" (p. 101).

Grayson served as collector of customs in Charleston from 1841 to 1853. During this period, as secessionist sentiment in the South grew steadily, he became, as Professor Calhoun observes (p. 7), the leader of the Unionist movement in Charleston, publishing a series of anti-secessionist documents - most notably perhaps a Swiftian satire called The Letters of Curtius (1851). The objections of irate Charlestonians to his political stance forced him out of office, and he turned to literary pursuits, composing The Hireling and the Slave both as a celebration of the pastoral South and as a rebuttal to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). After the South seceded from the Union, Grayson refrained from public statements and devoted himself to the biography of Petigru and to his own autobiography. The biography was published in 1866 in the North, where Petigru's Unionism was admired; the autobiography hitherto has been published only in part, by Samuel Stoney in the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine (1947-50).

Among the omissions in Stoney's edition are the chapter "Poetry and Poets," which, Professor Calhoun believes, earns Grayson a place among the literary critics of his day. Certainly it reveals him to have been a man of strong convictions. Declaring that "the Sin of modern poetry consists in exaggeration of sentiment, of passion, of description, of every thing," Grayson asserts his faith "in the ancient classical models" and upholds the neoclassicists Dryden and Pope while deploring "the renovated pagan deities of Keats" and "the Hindoo mythological monsters of Southey" (p. 163). His assessments of the leading British poets of the day, Wordsworth and Coleridge, are made with vigor and humor. Of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," for instance, he observes: "The auditor in the story is a wedding guest. He is arrested on his way to the wedding by a madman and ... stands and listens all night to a tale of the crazy stranger about the shooting of an albatross and the ills that came of it. In the morning the guest goes home a wiser and a better man. How he should have become so under such an unseasonable bore, except in being taught a lesson of patience ... it is not easy to understand" (pp. 168-169).

As a Unionist, Grayson declares, in a memorable sentence that gives the book its title, "I witnessed the death of the great Republic with sorrow"; and nowhere in the autobiography are his convictions about the value of order and reason more visible than in his comments upon war, which he finds "the greatest curse and crime of nations," with civil war particularly abhorrent (pp. 182, 185). He sees the revolution of colonies against mother countries as civil wars and judges even the American Revolution to have been of dubious value. Asking "what has the Revolution done for the Southern states?" he replies, "it has involved them in long and fierce disputes with treacherous friends and in war finally with unscrupulous enemies. The Southern people revolted at a small tax levied by the British Parliament and they have been burthened with enormous exactions imposed by an American Congress; ... they were impatient under the ancient and honoured rule of old England and fell under the crafty and greedy dominion of New England and New York.... They did little more than change masters. Who can fail to see in the existing war a Nemesis that is equally scourging North and South?" (p. 189). The American Civil War, he maintains, was brought about by "heated shallow partizans scoffing at dangers because their limited faculties were unable to perceive them," and it "has thus become the lot of our Country ... to exhibit to the world another example of human folly and madness and to prove by our conduct that the religion which enjoins on its disciples to love their neighbours as themselves has but little influence on its professed disciples" (pp. 184, 185).

Witness to Sorrow, which contains an instructive foreword by Eugene D. Genovese, as well as an illuminating introduction and numerous annotations by Professor Calhoun, makes a worthy and stimulating contribution to the revisionist study of antebellum Southern intellectuals currently being conducted by Genovese, Michael O'Brien, Drew Gilpin Faust, and others. In the introduction, Calhoun argues that Grayson has been viewed too narrowly as a minor man of letters and a proponent of slavery, notes that his autobiography is of especial value because its author had known both South and North, and claims that Grayson's antisecessionist sentiments should "earn him recognition in Southern history" (p. 16). Calhoun's judicious editing of the autobiography and his enlightened, sympathetic presentation of Grayson against the background of his time will do much to insure that such recognition comes about.
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Author:Wimsatt, Mary Ann
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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