Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Review of J. P. Kennedy, Horse-Shoe Robinson, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. I, no. 9, May 1835, 1:522-524


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HORSE-SHOE ROBINSON; A Tale of the Tory Ascendency. By the Author of’ Swallow Barn. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard.

We have not yet forgotten, nor is it likely we shall very soon forget, the rich simplicity of diction — the manliness of tone — the admirable traits of Virginian manners, and the striking pictures of still life, to be found in Swallow Barn. The spirit of imitation was, however, visible in that book, and, in a great measure, overclouded its rare excellence. This is by no means the case with Mr. Kennedy's new novel. If ever volumes were entitled to be called original — these are so entitled. We have read them from beginning to end with the greatest attention, and feel very little afraid of hazarding our critical reputation, when we assert that they will place Mr. Kennedy at once in the very first rank of American novelists.

Horse-Shoe Robinson (be not alarmed at the title, gentle reader!) is a tale, or more properly a succession of stirring incidents relating to the time of the Tory Ascendency in South Carolina, during the Revolution. It is well known that throughout the whole war this state evinced more disaffection to the confederated government than any other of the Union, with the exception perhaps of the neighboring state of Georgia, where the residents on the Savannah river, being nearly allied [page 523:] to the Carolinians in their habits and general occupations, were actuated, more or less, by the same political opinions. But we will here let the author speak for himself. “Such might be said to be the more popular sentiment of the state at the time of its subjugation by Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis. To this common feeling there were many brilliant exceptions, and the more brilliant because they stood, as it were, apart from the preponderating mass of public judgment. * * * * There were heroes of this mould in South Carolina, who entered with the best spirit of chivalry into the national quarrel, and brought to it hearts as bold, minds as vigorous, and arms as strong, as ever in any clime worked out a nation's redemption. These men refused submission to their conquerors, and endured exile, chains, and prison, rather than the yoke. Some few, still undiscouraged by the portents of the times, retreated into secret places, gathered their few patriot neighbors together, and contrived to keep in awe the soldier government that now professed to sway the land. They lived on the scant aliment furnished in the woods, slept in the tangled brakes and secret places of the fen, exacted contributions from the adherents of the crown, and, by rapid movements of their woodland cavalry, and brave blows, accomplished more than thrice their numbers would have done in ordinary warfare. * * * In such encounters or frays, as they might rather be called, from the smallness of the numbers concerned, and the hand to hand mode of fighting which they exhibited, Marion, Sumpter, Horry, Pickens, and many others had won a fame, that, in a nation of legendary or poetical associations, would have been reduplicated through a thousand channels of immortal verse. But alas! we have no ballads! and many men who as well deserve to be remembered as Percy or Douglas, as Adam Bell or Clym of the Clough, have sunk down without even a couplet epitaph upon the rude stone, that, in some unfenced and unreverenced grave yard, still marks the lap of earth whereon their heads were laid. * * * * *

“One feature that belonged to this unhappy state of things in Carolina was the division of families. Kindred were arrayed against each other in deadly feuds, and not unfrequently brother took up arms against brother, and sons against their sires. A prevailing spirit of treachery and distrust marked the times. Strangers did not know how far they might trust to the rites of hospitality, and many a man laid his head upon his pillow, uncertain whether his fellow lodger might not invade him in the secret watches of the night, and murder him in his slumbers. All went armed, and many slept with pistols or daggers under their pillows. There are tales told of men being summoned to their doors or windows at midnight by the blaze of their farm yards, to which the incendiary torch had been applied, and shot down, in the light of the conflagration, by a concealed hand. Families were obliged to betake themselves to the shelter of the thickets and swamps, when their own homesteads were dangerous places. The enemy wore no colors, and was not to be distinguished from friends either by outward guise or speech. Nothing could be more revolting than to see the symbols of peace thus misleading the confident into the toils of war — nor is it possible to imagine a state of society characterized by a more frightful insecurity.” [column 2:]

It will here be seen at a glance that the novelist has been peculiarly fortunate in the choice of an epoch, a scene and a subject. We sincerely think that he has done them all the fullest justice, and has worked out, with these and with other materials, a book of no ordinary character. We do not wish to attempt any analysis of the story itself — or that connecting chain which unites into one proper whole the varied events of the novel. We feel that in so doing, we should, in some measure, mar the interest by anticipation; a grievous sin too often indulged in by reviewers, and against which, should we ever be so lucky as to write a book, we would protest with all our hearts. But we may be allowed a word or two. The principal character in the novel, upon whom the chief interest of the story turns, and who, in accordance with the right usage of novel writing, should be considered the hero, and should have given a title to the book, is Brevet Major Arthur Butler of the continental army, to whose acquaintance we are first introduced about two o’clock in the afternoon of a day towards the end of July, 1780. But Mr. K. has ventured, at his own peril, to set at defiance the common ideas of propriety in this important matter, and, not having the fear of the critic before his eyes, has thought it better to call his work by the name of a very singular personage, whom all readers will agree in pronouncing worthy of the honor thus conferred upon him. The writer has also made another innovation. He has begun at the beginning. We all know this to be an unusual method of procedure. It has been too, for some time past, the custom, to delay as long as possible the main interest of a novel — no doubt with the very laudable intention of making it the more intense when it does at length arrive. Now for our own parts we can see little difference in being amused with the beginning or with the end of a book, but have a decided preference for those rare volumes which are so lucky as to amuse us throughout. And such a book is the one before us. We enter at once into the spirit and meaning of the author — we are introduced at once to the prominent characters — and we go with them at once, heart and hand, in the various and spirit-stirring adventures which befall them.

Horse — Shoe Robinson, who derives his nick — name of Horse — Shoe (his proper prænomen being Galbraith) — from the two-fold circumstance of being a blacksmith, and of living in a little nook of land hemmed in by a semi-circular bend of water, is fully entitled to the character of “an original.” He is the life and soul of the drama — the bone and sinew of the book — its very breath — its every thing which gives it strength, substance, and vitality. Never was there a rarer fellow — a more laughable blacksmith — a more gallant Sancho. He is a very prince at an ambuscade, and a very devil at a fight. He is a better edition of Robin Hood — quite as sagacious — not half so much of a coxcomb — and infinitely more moral. In short, he is the man of all others we should like to have riding by our side in any very hazardous expedition.

We think Mr. K. has been particularly successful in the delineation of his female characters; and this is saying a great deal at a time when, from some unaccountable cause, almost every attempt of the kind has turned out a failure. Mildred Lindsay, in her confiding love, in her filial reverence, in her heroic espousal [page 524:] of the revolutionary cause, not because she approved it, but because it was her lover's, is an admirable and — need we say more? — a truly feminine portrait. Then the ardent, the eager, the simple-minded, the generous and the devoted Mary Musgrove! Most sincerely did we envy John Ramsay, the treasure of so pure and so exalted an affection!

With the exception of now and then a careless, or inadvertent expression, such for instance, as the word venturesome instead of adventurous, no fault whatever can be found with Mr. Kennedy's style. It varies gracefully and readily with the nature of his subject, never sinking, even in the low comedy of some parts of the book, into the insipid or the vulgar; and often, very often rising into the energetic and sublime. Its general character, as indeed the general character of all that we have seen from the same pen, is a certain unpretending simplicity, nervous, forcible, and altogether devoid of affectation. This is a style of writing above all others to be desired, and above all others difficult of attainment. Nor is it to be supposed that by simplicity we imply a rejection of ornament, or of a proper use of those advantages afforded by metaphorical illustration. A style professing to disclaim such advantages would be anything but simple — if indeed we might not be tempted to think it very silly. We have called the style of Mr. K. a style simple and forcible, and we have no hesitation in calling it, at the same time, richly figurative and poetical. We have opened the pages at random for an illustration of our meaning, and have no difficulty in finding one precisely suited to our purpose. Let us turn to vol. i. page 112. — ” The path of invasion is ever a difficult road when it leads against a united people. You mistake both the disposition and the means of these republicans. They have bold partizans in the field, and eloquent leaders in their senates. The nature of the strife sorts well with their quick and earnest tempers; and by this man's play of war we breed up soldiers who delight in the game. Rebellion has long since marched beyond the middle ground, and has no thought of retreat. What was at first the mere overflow of popular passion has been hardened into principle — like a fiery stream of lava which first rolls in a flood, and then turns into stone.”

While we are upon the subject of style, we might as well say a word or two in regard to punctuation. It seems to us that the volumes before us are singularly deficient in this respect — and yet we noticed no fault of this nature in Swallow Barn. How can we reconcile these matters? Whom are we to blame in this particular, the author, or the printer? It cannot be said that the point is one of no importance — it is of very great importance. A slovenly punctuation will mar, in a greater or less degree, the brightest paragraph ever penned; and we are certain that those who have paid the most attention to this matter, will not think us hypercritical in what we say. A too frequent use of the dash is the besetting sin of the volumes now before us. It is lugged in upon all occasions, and invariably introduced where it has no business whatever. Even the end of a sentence is not sacred from its intrusion. Now there is no portion of a printer's fount, which can, if properly disposed, give more of strength and energy to a sentence than this same dash; and, for this very reason, there is none which can more effectually, if improperly [column 2:] arranged, disturb and distort the meaning of every thing with which it comes in contact. But not to speak of such disturbance or distortion, a fine taste will intuitively avoid, even in trifles, all that is unnecessary or superfluous, and bring nothing into use without an object or an end. We do not wish to dwell upon this thing, or to make it of more consequence than necessary. We will merely adduce an example of the punctuation to which we have alluded. Vide page 138, vol. i. “Will no lapse of time wear away this abhorred image from your memory? — Are you madly bent on bringing down misery on your head? — I do not speak of my own suffering. — Will you forever nurse a hopeless attachment for a man whom, it must be apparent to yourself, you can never meet again? — Whom, if the perils of the field, the avenging bullet of some loyal subject, do not bring him merited punishment, — the halter may reward, or, in his most fortunate destiny, disgrace, poverty, and shame pursue: — Are you forever to love that man?” —

Would not the above paragraph read equally as well thus: “Will no lapse of time wear away this abhorred image from your memory? Are you madly bent on bringing down misery on your head? I do not speak of my own suffering. Will you forever nurse a hopeless attachment for a man whom, it must be apparent to yourself, you can never meet again — whom, if the perils of the field, the avenging bullet of some loyal subject, do not bring him merited punishment, the halter may reward, or, in his more fortunate destiny, disgrace, poverty and shame pursue? Are you forever to love that man?”

The second of Mr. K's volumes is, from a naturally increasing interest taken in the fortunes of the leading characters, by far the most exciting. But we can confidently recommend them both to the lovers of the forcible, the adventurous, the stirring, and the picturesque. They will not be disappointed. A high tone of morality, healthy and masculine, breathes throughout the book, and a rigid — perhaps a too scrupulously rigid poetical justice is dealt out to the great and little villains of the story — the Tyrrells, the Wat Adairs, the Currys, and the Habershams of the drama. In conclusion, we prophecy that Horse-Shoe Robinson will be eagerly read by all classes of people, and cannot fail to place Mr. Kennedy in a high rank among the writers of this or of any other country. We regret that the late period of receiving his book will not allow us to take that extended notice of it which we could desire.






[S:0 - SLM, 1835] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - J. P. Kennedy (May 1835)