Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem Monday??

Yeah...not that much to say about any of those three topics right now, but I did use the word "murder" at least once today.

Back in April, I was supposed to travel to Mobile for an event about Augusta Evans Wilson. I wrote an article about her, and Robert Clem, a great documentary director, has a new project centered around Wilson. He asked me to come to Mobile to discuss the author and her books, but it was the weekend right after the tornado hit Tuscaloosa. We had a tree on the house and our lives were in, needless to say, I couldn't go. Bob was nice enough to come to me today, and we filmed my segment (yes, I am a talking head, now!) at the Gorgas house, here on campus.

I hope he got something useful.

Honestly, after everything that has happened recently (esp. about Casey's death), I still feel a little spaced out. And, it has been so long since I researched the, I hope I didn't screw up too badly! It was a lot of fun and Bob is so nice.

In any case, I did briefly discuss Augusta Evan Wilson's book At the Mercy of Tiberius. She claimed it was her favorite book that she ever wrote, and I have to agree. The plot revolves around a murder mystery early on in the story, and I enjoyed it much more than some of her other books. But, as you read this, you are probably saying: Who is the world is Augusta Evans Wilson??

So, that is our "mystery" topic for today. Indeed, it is a mystery as to why this woman--the first female author to earn over $100,000 for her work--is virtually unknown today.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Augusta Evans Wilson was born in Georgia in 1835, but Alabamians lay claim to her because she made Mobile, Alabama, her home from the time she was a teenager until her death. In fact, she wrote her first novel, Inez, when she was fifteen, completing the novel in secret and writing by candlelight. Unfortunately, that novel isn't so great, but her second book, Beulah, is a definite improvement.

Her Civil War novel, Macaria, has legendary status as being banned by the Union, because it was rumored that soldiers were deserting in favor of joining the Confederate army after reading it. There were also stories that copies of Macaria saved Confederate soldiers--a copy in the breast pocket stopped a bullet. Yes, probably not true, but she had some serious cultural capital.

Her most famous novel--and the one that made her extremely wealthy and a household name--is St. Elmo, a very romantic story with a Rhett Butler-like hero (in fact, it has been claimed that Margaret Mitchell based Rhett on St. Elmo). Personally, this is not my favorite of the novels. I enjoyed Beulah and At the Mercy of Tiberius, but St. Elmo drives me nuts.

But what does my opinion matter? The book was so popular that the only recent phenomenon I can compare it with is the Twilight phenomenon. People were obsessed with this book, naming their businesses and children after the characters. And, there was even a parody written: St. Twelmo.
In any case, the book made her famous, and, according to some statistics, Augusta Evans Wilson was the number three author ranked in popular sales--right behind Harriet Beecher Stowe.

So why don't we know anything about her?

Of course, most people today would find reading an Augusta Evans Wilson novel a real challenge. She has a lot of purple prose, she is wordy, and she preaches--a lot. She was more than a temporary fascination, though. People demanded her books until she died. St. Elmo was produced as an early film, and it has only been recently that the books fell out of ready availability.

Is she worth studying?

In my opinion: ABSOLUTELY. Just because we may not be able to relate to a writing style of the past or because a particular novel may not be as amazing as another popularly accepted canonical text does not mean that we should not pay attention to it. As usual, a huge part of the reason we don't know about her is simply because she was a woman writer. Quite often, she wrote love stories and she was overly sentimental. No, she probably would not appeal to a general audience today. The prose, as I said, is difficult to manage, but she also presents us with dated portrayals--but only in some ways--of women. Now, this is a point of contention with many--including me. I won't get into it here, but there is something much more complicated going on in her portrayals of women than most would like to give her credit for in the end.

Still, she is a Victorian, if you hate the Victorians, you will hate her...even though she isn't British!

Here is a brief listing of her 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)

Of course...and this isn't self-promotion at all (RIGHT), you can always read my full-length article by ordering this issue of the magazine: Alabama Heritage, Issue 99.


Amy said…
Great post! Lots of good information. Thanks for posting!
Susie said…

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