Evans, Augusta Jane

Evans, Augusta Jane

Evans, Augusta Jane, 1835-1909, American novelist, b. Columbus, Ga. Of her sentimental, moralistic novels, St. Elmo (1866) achieved greatest popularity.
Augusta Jane Wilson, or Augusta Evans Wilson, (May 8, 1835May 9, 1909) was an American Southern author and one of the pillars of Southern literature. Given her support for the Confederate States of America from the perspective of a Southern patriot, and her literary activities during the American Civil War, she can be deemed as having contributed decisively to the literary and cultural development of the Confederacy in particular, and of the South in general, as a civilization. She wrote nine novels: “Inez” (1850), “Beulah” (1859), “Macaria” (1863), “St. Elmo” (1866), “Vashti” (1869), “Infelice” (1875), “At the Mercy of Tiberius” (1887), “A Speckled Bird” (1902), and “Devota” (1907). Given her support for the Confederate States of America from the perspective of a Southern patriot, and her literary activities during the American Civil War, she can be deemed as having contributed decisively to the literary and cultural development of the Confederacy in particular, and of the South in general, as a civilization.

Biography

She was born Augusta Jane Evans on May 8, 1835 in Wynnton (now part of Columbus), Georgia. As a young girl in 19th-century America she received little in the way of a formal education. However, she became a voracious reader at an early age. Her unfortunate father, Matthew Evans, lost the family's rich property of Sherwood Hall to bankruptcy in the 1840s. He moved his family of 10 from Georgia to San Antonio, Texas, in 1845.

Augusta’s time there would inspire her first published literary work. In 1850 at the age of 15 she wrote "Inez: A Tale of the Alamo", a sentimental, moralistic, anti-Catholic love story. It told the story of one orphan's spiritual journey from religious skepticism to devout faith. Young Augusta presented the manuscript to her father as a Christmas gift in 1854. It was published anonymously in 1855.

However, life in a frontier border town like San Antonio proved dangerous, especially with the Mexican-American War. Later Augusta’s parents moved her to Mobile, Alabama. Augusta wrote her next novel at age 18 which was called "Beulah". It was published in 1859. "Beulah" began the theme of female education in her novels. It sold well selling over 22,000 copies during its first year of publication. This was a staggering accomplishment. It established her as Alabama's first professional author. Her family used the proceeds from her literary success to purchase Georgia Cottage on Springhill Avenue.

When most of the Southern states declared their independence and seceded from the Union into the Confederate States of America, Augusta Evans became a staunch Southern patriot. She became active in the subsequent Civil War as a propagandist. Augusta was engaged to a New York journalist named James Reed Spalding. But she broke off the engagement in 1860 because he supported Abraham Lincoln. She nursed sick and wounded Confederate soldiers at Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay. Augusta also visited Confederate soldiers at Chickamauga. She also sowed sandbanks for the defense of the community, wrote patriotic addresses, and set up a hospital near her residence. The hospital was dubbed Camp Beulah by local admirers in honor of her novel. She also corresponded with General P.G.T. de Beauregard in 1862.

Augusta’s propaganda masterpiece was "Macaria" -- a novel she later claimed was written by candlelight while nursing Confederate wounded. The novel is about Southern women making the ultimate sacrifice for the Confederacy. It was published in Richmond, Virginia, in 1863. This novel promoted national desire for an independent national culture and reflected Southern values as they were at that time. The novel was printed on wrapping paper using wallpaper for covers. It was smuggled into the North to undermine public support for the war among Northerners. It was also circulated among Northern troops to cause rancor in the ranks. It became a popular work among Southerners and Northerners alike. General George Henry Thomas, commander of the Union Army in Tennessee, confiscated copies and had the books burned. Unknown to Augusta "Macaria" was also published in New York. The royalties from its sale were maintained in trust until after the Civil War ended. These profits would embolden her family's desperate finances during Reconstruction. She learned of the royalties after the war when she accompanied her brother Howard Evans to New York to see a medical specialist to treat his paralyzed arm due to a war injury.

She published "St. Elmo" in 1866. Within four months it sold a million copies. It featured sexual tension between the protagonist St. Elmo, who was cynical; and the heroine Edna Earl, who was beautiful and devout. So popular was this novel that it inspired the naming of towns, hotels, steamboats, and a cigar brand. It was Augusta Evans' most famous novel. St. Elmo was adapted for both the stage and screen. It ranks as one of the most popular novels of the 19th century. The heroine Edna Earl became the namesake of Eudora Welty's heroine (Edna Earle Ponder) in "the Ponder Heart" published in 1954. The novel also inspired a parody of itself called "St. Twel’mo, or the Cuneiform Cyclopedist of Chattanooga” (1867).

In 1868 Augusta Jane Evans married Confederate veteran Colonel Lorenzo Madison Wilson becoming Augusta Evans Wilson by which name she is remembered by literary posterity. He was 27 years her senior. Colonel Wilson acquired wealth in banking, railroads, and wholesale groceries. Not far from her home at Georgia Cottage they settled in a columned house called Ashland in Mobile, Alabama. The couple faithfully attended St. Francis Street Methodist Church. Augusta Evans Wilson became the first lady of Mobile society supplanting Madame Le Vert who had fallen into social disfavor for having welcomed the Federal occupation of Mobile too warmly. Colonel Wilson died in 1892. Augusta Evans Wilson went on to write five more novels; "Vashti", "Infelice", "At the Mercy of Tiberius", "A Speckled Bird", and "Devota". Augusta Evans Wilson died on May 9, 1909 and was buried in a Mobile. Her beloved Ashland burned to the ground in 1926. However, Georgia Cottage is still standing with a historical marker on Springhill Avenue designating it as her home.

Wilson wrote in the domestic sentimental style of the Victorian Age. Feminist critics have chosen to read past the marital games of her works to focus on the intellectual competence of her female characters which allow them to gain both personal and public power. Of "St. Elmo" one critic maintained, "the trouble with the heroine of St. Elmo was that she swallowed an unabridged dictionary." Wilson was the first American woman author to earn over $100,000. This would be a record unsurpassed until Edith Wharton.

References

  • New Georgia Encyclopedia
  • Riepina, Anne Sophia, Fire and Fiction: Augusta Jane Evans in Context (2000)

External links

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