Edwin Mims on the old South

Edwin Mims, (d. 1959), professor of English Literature at Duke University:


English Influence in the South.

The most striking European influence in the South —extending even to the war—was naturally that of England. The close contact between Virginia and the mother country may best be seen in the career and personality of William Byrd, the brilliant merchant and publicist of the middle of the Eighteenth century. Descended, like so many other Virginians, from distinguished English ancestors, he was educated in London, lived there for a number of years on intimate terms with some of the most prominent men of Queen Anne’s reign, established himself at Westover, which was one of the most picturesque reproductions of English rural estates, and collected the largest and most significant library in the colonial era. The catalogue of his library indicates that he was familiar not only with the classical writers, but with the contemporary writings of Swift, Addison, and other writers of the Augustan age. His own charming style—the perfection of good breeding—derives from English contemporaries. His daughter, Evelyn Byrd, was one of the social lights, not only of colonial Virginia, but of London, where she is reputed to have been beloved by the dashing Earl of Peterborough.

English culture thus typified in William Byrd was characteristic of all the most prominent families of Virginia, many of whose sons were educated at Eton, Oxford or Cambridge. Rich old mahogany furniture, finely wrought silverware, portraits by London artists, and mellow Elzevirs and Lintots are precious heirlooms in many Virginia homes.

The same may be said of Charleston. Travelers were impressed with the cosmopolitan air of that city. Duke La Rochefoucault wrote in 1796: “In no town of the United States does a foreigner experience more benevolence or find more entertaining society than in Charleston. * * * Many of the inhabitants of South Carolina, having been in Europe, have in consequence acquired a greater knowledge of our manners and a stronger partiality to them than the people of the northern states. Consequently, the European modes of life are here more prevalent.”

As Virginia’s social life was a reproduction of English rural life, so that of Charleston was modeled after that of London, the rich planters of the surrounding country making the city their headquarters during the winter. Many of these men had amassed enough wealth to travel through Europe as gentlemen of leisure. Out of 114 American students in the various law schools of London during the colonial period forty-four were from South Carolina. The young doctors generally went to Edinburgh, and the merchants to France and Holland. Hence we have in the first year of the Nineteenth century a group of highly cultured leaders. Hugh S. Legare, himself a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and for a while the leader of social and literary circles in Charleston, was editor-in-chief of the Southern Review (1828-1832), modeled after the Edinburgh Review. He was justified, perhaps, in claiming, in one of the early numbers of his magazine, that the attainments of Charlestonians in polite literature were far superior to those of their contemporaries in the North, and the standards of scholarship in Charleston were much higher than any other city on the continent.”

The rest may be read at the Abbeville Institute blog, here. However much of the rest of the essay consists of what we would today call a ”multicultural and diverse” interpretation of Southern culture and life, including various other European influences as (by implication) being perhaps equally important as the English influence. The French Huguenot influence, the German influence, and the ”cosmopolitan” character of New Orleans — at least the New Orleans of a much earlier time — are given just as much if not more space than the passages on the English influence.

From my perspective, I think that Mims was simply reflecting the spirit of the times in that it was considered a matter of fairness and courtesy to ”include” the various melting-pot ingredients. Now, however, the English have all but been crowded out of the official storyline, being included usually in the role of whipping-boys: ‘WASP elites’ and so on.

Nevertheless I include Mims’ passages on English roots, for what they are worth.

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