Augusta Jane Evans
Augusta Jane Wilson, or Augusta Evans Wilson, (May 8, 1835 – May 9, 1909) was an American Southern author and one of the pillars of Southern literature.
She was born Augusta Jane Evans on May 8, 1835, in Columbus, Georgia. The area of her birth was then known as Wynnton (now MidTown). 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 father, Matthew Evans, suffered bankruptcy and lost the family's Sherwood Hall property in the 1840s. He moved his family of 10 from Georgia to San Antonio, Texas, in 1845. Evans'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. She 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. By 1849, Evans's parents moved the family to Mobile, Alabama. She wrote her next novel, Beulah, at age 18; 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, 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.
After 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. Her brothers had joined the 3rd Alabama Regiment and, when she traveled to visit them in Virginia, her party was fired upon by Union soldiers from Fort Monroe. "O! I longed for a Secession flag to shake defiantly in their teeth at every fire! And my fingers fairly itched to touch off a red-hot-ball in answer to their chivalric civilities", she wrote to a friend. She became active in the subsequent Civil War as a propagandist. Evans 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. Evans also visited Confederate soldiers at Chickamauga. She also sewed sandbags 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.
Evans's propaganda masterpiece was Macaria – a novel she later claimed was written by candlelight while nursing wounded Confederates. The novel is about Southern women making the ultimate sacrifice for the Confederacy; it promoted national desire for an independent national culture and reflected Southern values as they were at that timeMacaria is a book with an apocryphal past. The novel was published in 1864, on both sides of the Mason–Dixon line, becoming 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. Melissa Homestead writes that the transportation of the novel to New York was deliberate, done in installments and nearly simultaneous with the novel's preparation for publication in the South. Thus, while previous critics, scholars and biographers have all treated Macaria’s appearance in the North as unauthorized, the truth is much more meaningful. By dispensing with the romantic lie that the novel appeared in a "bootleg" edition, Homestead debunks the hard and fast distinction between Northern and Southern readerships as an invention of historians and critics rather than an accurate reflection of reading practices of the period.
Evans finished her celebrated novel St. Elmo at the home of her aunt, Mary Howard Jones (wife of Colonel Seaborn Jones), "El Dorado". In St. Elmo the general setting, if not the specific details, seems to be the Jones's El Dorado. In 1878, the home was purchased by Captain and Mrs. James J. Slade who changed its name to St. Elmo in honor of the novel which it had inspired. St. Elmo, published in 1866, sold a million copies within four months. It featured sexual tension between the protagonist St. Elmo, who was cynical, and the heroine Edna Earl, who was beautiful and devout. It became one of the most popular novels of the 19th century.
In 1868, Augusta Jane Evans married Confederate veteran Colonel Lorenzo Madison Wilson, becoming Augusta Evans Wilson, the name by which 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. The couple 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 of a heart attack in Mobile on May 9, 1909, and was buried in Mobile's Magnolia Cemetery. 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.
Critical response and legacy
Wilson wrote in the domestic sentimental style of the Victorian Age. Critics have praised the intellectual competence of her female characters, but as her heroes eventually succumb to traditional values, Evans has been described as an antifeminist. 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.
Her novel St. Elmo was her most famous and it was frequently adapted for both the stage and screen. It inspired the naming of towns, hotels, steamboats, and a cigar brand. The book's 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) by Charles Henry Webb.
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 was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1977  and was one of twelve inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame on June 8, 2015.
A film and website on Augusta Evans Wilson entitled The Passion of Miss Augusta was produced by Alabama filmmaker Robert Clem and will be aired on public television in 2016, the 150th anniversary of the publication of St. Elmo. The film combines documentary interviews and dramatized scenes from St. Elmo as a silent film and a 1950s film showing how its story might have been told at a time when Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams were the face of Southern fiction. Interviews from the film as well as photographs and other exhibits have been collected in an online 'museum' on Wilson and her career.
List of works
- Inez (1850)
- Beulah (1859)
- Macaria (1863)
- St. Elmo (1866)
- Vashti (1869)
- Infelice (1875)
- At the Mercy of Tiberius (1887)
- A Speckled Bird (1902)
- Devota (1907)
- Gross, Jennifer Lynn. "Augusta Jane Evans: Alabama's Confederate Macaria" in The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. Kenneth W. Noe, editor. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2013: 125. ISBN 978-0-8173-1808-6
- Homestead, Melissa. "The Publishing History of Augusta Jane Evans' Confederate Novel, Macaria". Retrieved June 20, 2011.
- National Register of Historic Places, http://www.nps.gov/nr/
- Owen, Thomas McAdory (1921). History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography. Volume IV. Chicago: S. J. Clarke. p. 1782. Retrieved June 3, 2010.
- Frear, Sara (March 6, 2007). "Augusta Jane Evans Wilson". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved June 2, 2010.
- Golemba, Beverly E. (1992). Lesser-known Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Boulder u.a.: Rienner. p. 92. ISBN 1-55587-301-4.
- Harris, Susan K. Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretative Strategies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990: 60. ISBN 0-521-38288-2
- "Inductees". Alabama Women's Hall of Fame. State of Alabama. Retrieved February 20, 2012.
- Staff report (May 25, 2015). "Rick Bragg, Harper Lee will be among Alabama Writers’ Forum’s inductees". Tuscaloosa News.
- New Georgia Encyclopedia
- Riepina, Anne Sophia, Fire and Fiction: Augusta Jane Evans in Context (2000)
- Robert Bogard, "Amelia Barr, Augusta Evans Wilson, and the Sentimental Novel, MARAB, Vol 2, No. 1 (Winter 1965–66), pp. 13–25.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Augusta Jane Evans.|
- Works by Augusta Jane Evans at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Augusta Jane Evans at Internet Archive
- Works by or about Augusta Jane Wilson at Internet Archive
- Works by or about Augusta Evans Wilson at Internet Archive
- Works by or about Augusta Jane Evans in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Augusta J.E. Wilson article, Encyclopedia of Alabama
- Augusta Evans Wilson papers, W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama.
- Collection of interviews, articles and photographs on Augusta Evans Wilson