Henry Timrod's "Ethnogenesis" and the Untold Poetic Voices of the Confederacy's Reverse Epic
Denton, Jennifer Tucker
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CitationDenton, Jennifer Tucker. 2021. Henry Timrod's "Ethnogenesis" and the Untold Poetic Voices of the Confederacy's Reverse Epic. Master's thesis, Harvard University Division of Continuing Education.
AbstractIn a time when cotton was king, slavery was endemic, and secession represented Southern hope, the literati of the Confederate era hoped to assemble a foundation of words to support their new nation and declare their intentions for their future to the world. Beginning with the publication of Henry Timrod’s “Ethnogenesis” in 1861 (and continuing throughout the Civil War in the form of innumerable lines of poetry published in newspapers throughout the South), Confederate poems offer an unfamiliar yet powerful perspective to evaluate Southern mindset during the Civil War. When viewed in their entirety, the numberless voices preserved in newspaper poetry of the time can be combined into a modern interpretation of the epic genre, with similarities drawn to Homer’s Iliad and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Henry Timrod’s “Ethnogenesis,” first published in 1861, acts as the Southern epic’s omniscient narrator, drafting a roadmap available before the war began for poets to follow as they wrote this epic in reverse, with notable similarities drawn between God anointing Southerners as His chosen people, then through a bloody war, and finally to unavoidable independence and peace.
Problematic to the challenge of writing a Southern epic in reverse is the fact that the outcome Southerners desired never came to fruition, forcing their writers to reverse course one last time. Instead of composing a victory march, the final Confederate epic chronicles more an elegiac memorial, one where the South appears not as loser but as a chosen people who elect to interpret the loss as God’s delayed victory. Their efforts simultaneously erase much of the cruelty of slavery from the narrative while elevating the white men who fought for the South to mythological heroes similar to Achilles and George Washington. Bracketed by Henry Timrod’s works (including 1861’s “Ethnogenesis,” 1863’s “The Unknown Dead,” and 1866’s “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery”), a detailed exploration of these newspaper poems adds depth to the Southern experience by including a valuable (yet often overlooked and minimized) collection of voices that canonizes and idealizes an epic poetic vision of the South’s rise and fall.
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