Thursday, May 24, 2012

From Auburn to the "Wild Altama": Colonial South Georgia in Goldsmith's "Deserted Village"


            In his 1994 article, “The Deserted Village and the Politics of Genre,” Alfred Lutz laments Oliver Goldsmith’s “reputation as a narrowly pastoral poet” (149) and argues that The Deserted Village is not merely a conventional pastoral poem, but, on the contrary, one that  represents Goldsmith’s role as an active participant in mid-eighteenth century political and social concerns. Lutz contends that one of the chief ways in which Goldsmith subverts the traditional pastoral form is by introducing the element of historical time and specificity, which undermines the traditionally ahistorical conventions of the poetic genre. My own reading of The Deserted Village has much in common with Lutz’s argument, but my focus here concerns an element of the poem that Lutz, in company with most other Goldsmith critics and scholars, largely overlooks.  Lutz and others make much of Goldsmith’s representation of Auburn as both idyllic past community and present ruin, but few actually take into consideration his depiction of the North American region along the banks of the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia.  In fact, most completely ignore the geographical and historical specificity of this section of the poem, but my own argument hinges upon the conviction that the details of the North American passage are actually central to the concerns of the work as a whole, providing a context in which to read the poem that Goldsmith’s own contemporaries would not have missed, although modern readers do so almost unfailingly.
            Footnotes to various editions of The Deserted Village reveal the scarcity of information about the “wild Altama” and its importance. Many editors, including Arthur Friedman, only note it as “a river in Georgia in North America” (300 fn). This short citation is not particularly helpful, as it gives no regional information about the river’s location and does not provide any eighteenth-century historical or cultural context for the Altamaha.  In his Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, and Oliver Goldsmith, Roger Lonsdale gives by far the most thorough notation on the North American section, but the information Lonsdale provides is limited to a comment about Goldsmith’s familiarity with Oglethorpe and a list of the few scholarly articles that address some of the elements of this part of the poem. One can certainly forgive Lonsdale for being brief; after all, he is writing footnotes, but later critics of The Deserted Village have looked no farther than this general citation, and thus have not apprehended that the notes signify anything more than an unimportant detail. Not being familiar with the river prior to reading the poem, they do not learn anything more about it that might pique their interest from the footnotes that Friedman, Lonsdale, and other editors care to provide.
            It is not surprising if twentieth-century critics, editors, and readers miss the significance of the “wild Altama.” Located in southeastern Georgia, the river is not well known today because no major metropolitan areas have sprung up along its banks. The nearest population center is Savannah, which lies some 170 miles to the east of the Altamaha. The river itself is only 140 miles long, and it flows through the largely rural counties of Appling, Tatnall, Long, Wayne, McIntosh, and Glynn before emptying into the Atlantic near St. Simons and Jekyll Islands. The earliest settlement on the river was Fort King George, which was established by the Carolina colony in 1721 in the area later named Darien by the Scottish Highlanders who settled there under General Oglethorpe’s leadership between 1735 and 1748.  During the eighteenth century, the section of the Altamaha nearest the coast was the best developed, and that tradition has continued until the present time, with the largest and best known centers being Brunswick and the Golden Isles. The Altamaha River actually marked the southernmost boundary of the British Georgia colony until 1763, when the Creeks formally ceded the land between the Altamaha and St. Marys Rivers to the British. After that date, it remained a “wild” region; Savannah had already firmly established itself as the metropolitan center for the colony, and the Altamaha area was settled and developed as farm country by those European colonists who were hearty and determined enough to withstand the conditions and isolation.
            In the eighteenth century, the Altamaha River was much better known in England and America than it is today. As Roger Lonsdale points out in his footnotes to the poem, Goldsmith and most of his contemporary readers would have been familiar with the river through General James Oglethorpe, who had founded the Georgia colony in 1732. Oglethorpe returned to England for good in 1743, and, during the late 1760s, when Goldsmith was composing The Deserted Village, the old General was enjoying a great deal of prominence on the London social scene. By 1772 we know that Goldsmith, along with Boswell and Johnson, had become good friends with Oglethorpe because Boswell’s Life of Johnson records the four men having dinner together at the General’s home (483). While Goldsmith’s personal friendship with Oglethorpe developed after the publication of The Deserted Village, it remains true that both operated in the same social circles during the late 1760s. Oglethorpe’s high visibility and penchant for telling stories about his glory days in the colony would have given Goldsmith -- and many other Londoners -- ample opportunity to hear about the Altamaha and its wild environs.
            Other eighteenth-century sources besides Oglethorpe also cite the Altamaha and describe the environment that settlers found there, but one particularly interesting description occurs in Bartram’s Travels, the 1791 travel diary written by William Bartram during his 1773 visit to the southern colonies. Bartram and his father John had previously traveled through southeastern Georgia in 1765, when they first discovered the legendary disappearing Gordonia, the Franklinia alatamaha (Gibbons 583). Bartram provides a useful context for The Deserted Village because he approaches the Altamaha from a naturalist’s perspective, describing the same region as Goldsmith but with different ends. Writing in 1773, just three years after the publication of The Deserted Village and one year before Goldsmith’s death, Bartram depicts the Altamaha as Goldsmith’s deserting villagers would have found it when they reached their new North American homes.  In his record, Bartram gives the following account of the river, which he calls “Alatamaha”:
Having now gained a vast acquisition of waters, [the river] assumes the name of Alatamaha, when it becomes a large majestic river, flowing with gentle windings through a vast plain forest, near an hundred miles, and enters the Atlantic by several mouths. The north channel, or entrance, glides by the heights of Darien, on the east bank, about ten miles above the bar, and running from thence with several turnings, enters the ocean between Sapello and Wolf islands. The south channel, which is esteemed the largest and deepest, after its separation from the north, descends gently, winding by M’Intosh’s and Broughton islands; and lastly, by the west coast of St. Simons island, enters the ocean, through St. Simons sound, between the south end of the island of that name and the north end of Jekyl island. (67-68)
Here Bartram gives a strictly scientific description of the Altamaha, but an earlier passage contains the poetic effusions for which the naturalist is, perhaps, best known. He writes,
I ascended this beautiful river, on whose fruitful banks the generous and true sons of liberty securely dwell, fifty miles above the white settlements.
How gently flow thy peaceful floods, O Alatamaha! How sublimely rise to view, on thy elevated shores, yon magnolian groves, from whose tops the surrounding expanse is perfumed, by clouds of incense, blended with the exhaling balm of the liquidambar, and odours continually arising from circumambient aromatic groves of illicium, myrica, laurus and bignonia. (64)
Bartram’s exuberant celebration of the river provides an intriguing contrast to Goldsmith’s description; one must bear in mind the radically different perspectives and intentions of the two writers to remember that this is in fact the same river that actually appears in The Deserted Village. (One must also bear in mind that Bartram’s Travels contains very few negative reactions to the southern landscape, and Bartram seems inclined to wax enthusiastically about every new plant, animal, or person he encounters.)
            Neither Bartram’s rhapsodies nor Goldsmith’s bleaker description could depict the Altamaha in vivid enough terms to bring it lasting fame, however, and modern critics refuse to take into account the detailed specificity of The Deserted Village’s American landscape. The only articles on this particular section of the poem deal with Goldsmith’s understanding of North American zoology: one is J.R. Moore’s “Goldsmith’s Degenerate Songbirds: an Eighteenth-century Fallacy in Ornithology” (Isis 1943), and the other is E.D. Seeber’s “Goldsmith’s American Tigers” (Modern Language Quarterly 1945). Critics who focus on the larger issues of the poem usually do cite at least part of the North American passage, but they almost always omit the line identifying the region as the “wild Altama.”
            The comments that are made about the North American section of the poem further illustrate a general lack of knowledge about the Altamaha’s geographical and ecological particulars, for they dismiss the description as Goldsmith’s nightmarish fantasy. In his 1991 book, Preromanticism, Marshall Brown describes the passage as an “apocalyptic vision” (128) of a “demonic landscape” (137), and earlier critics reveal the same sense of the passage as a kind of wild hallucination of American horrors. Laurence Goldstein, for example, contends that “the unkind portrait of America in the poem is not meant to be realistic any more than the America of Blake’s prophecies” (104), while John Montague argues that “the picture of North America... is unreal, but dramatically so, one feels: a land enlarged by the exile’s anticipation and fear of the unknown”(101). None of these observations can be interpreted as polite attempts to spare the feelings of native southeast Georgians, and Brown, Goldstein, and Montague all seem to think that Goldsmith’s depiction is meant to apply to North America in general, which would, of course, account for their belief that the passage is intentionally unrealistic.
            These arguments, however, fail to consider the full details of the specific location Goldsmith describes. Uncut, the passage offers telling details:
                        Ah, no. To distant climes, a dreary scene,
                        Where half the convex world intrudes between,
                        Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
                        Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
                        Far different there from all that charmed before,
                        The various terrors of that horrid shore.
                        Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
                        And fiercely shed intolerable day;
                        Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
                        But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling,
                        Those poisonous fields with rank luxuriance crowned
                        Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
                        Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
                        The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
                        Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
                        And savage men more murderous still than they;
                        While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
                        Mingling the ravaged landscape with the skies.
                                                                        (341-358)
Certainly such a description might seem unrealistic to those who know nothing about southeastern Georgia, but Goldsmith’s depiction, while clearly negative, is, nonetheless, technically accurate, particularly in light of the beliefs and experiences of eighteenth-century travelers. Moore and Seeber have already provided discussions of the songbirds and tigers in the passage, so I will not elaborate upon them here. The other details of the section are all quite correct, from the famously intense heat to the frequently dangerous tornadoes.
            A discussion of the snakes in southeastern Georgia alone might furnish the material for a whole book. Even the usually cheerful Bartram observes that “the dreaded and formidable rattlesnake is yet too common” (62). Even today, the Altamaha region is home to forty species of snakes, including the venomous Eastern diamondbacks, canebrakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, pygmy rattlers, and coral snakes.  (One modern travel guide tries to put a positive spin on the situation by referring to the abundance of snakes as “herpatofaunal wealth,” but it also points out that few Georgians appreciate this particular aspect of their state’s natural diversity (Gibbons 587) .)
            By focusing on the snakes, the predators, the natives, and the weather, Goldsmith is admittedly representing a “glass half-empty” view of southeastern Georgia, but that view is not any less accurate for its negativity, and one cannot simply dismiss the representation as fantastic or unrealistic. The realistic nature of the depiction is part of what makes it such a perfect foil for Auburn, both in its heyday and in its desolation. Even critics who have overlooked the specific identity of the American landscape have noted its “intricate relationships with other sections of the poem” (Dixon 110).  The Altamaha’s gritty realism contrasts beautifully with the idyllic past Auburn, but it also provides excellent points of comparison with the current ruin. The poem’s movement between Auburn and the Altamaha creates a series of antitheses that capitalize on the extreme differences between the two landscapes. From this aesthetic perspective, southeast Georgia is the perfect choice for Goldsmith; he could have invented a fantastically horrific America from pure imagination, but it could not have suited his poetic ends any better than the real dangers and terrors of the colonial Georgian wilderness.
            That Goldsmith’s depiction of the “wild Altama” turns out to be an accurate one is not surprising if one considers that Goldsmith himself insisted upon the realism of his work in his dedication of it to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Goldsmith asserts, “I have taken all possible pains, in my country excursions, for these four or five years past, to be certain of what I alledge” (285). Goldsmith is here referring, of course, to the issue of village depopulation and emigration, but this concern is actually intimately linked with Goldsmith’s decision to use the Altamaha River as his villagers’ North American destination.
            Here, Goldsmith’s geographical specificity gives way to historical and political specificity. The appearance of the Altamaha in the poem provides an important context for understanding the poet’s claims about village depopulation. These claims, of course, have generated a great deal of debate among critics since the poem first appeared. Although Arthur Friedman, for example, supports Goldsmith’s claim in his introduction to The Deserted Village, other modern critics like Ricardo Quintana have continued to doubt it. In his study of Goldsmith, Quintana contends:
It is still objected that Goldsmith was in error in his belief that those forced from their homes were emigrating to distant places overseas. What was actually happening was that they were finding their way to the fast-growing urban centers where the new industries were being rapidly developed. Goldsmith was doubtless wrong about emigration -- though some there must have been... (134)
What Quintana and other skeptical critics have failed to note is that Georgia in general, and the Altamaha region in particular, did in fact experience two major waves of British immigration during Goldsmith’s lifetime. Significantly, most of the new arrivals were Irish Protestants from the Ulster area. One historian of Irish immigration observes that “in the 1730s and again in the 1760s the South Carolina and Georgia assemblies successfully encouraged Ulster emigration by offering cheap land, free tools and seed, and temporary maintenance to farmers willing to settle in the southern backcountry” (Miller 154). The exodus of the 1760s was large enough to raise public concern in England that Ireland would be completely depopulated of Protestants and left entirely to the Catholics, and in 1767 George III attempted to stem the flow of emigrants to Georgia by forbidding the colony to continue assisting new settlers financially. In 1764, the lands south of the Altamaha had become the parishes of St. David, St. Patrick, St. Thomas, and St. Mary, and, by 1770, when The Deserted Village appeared in print, these areas had grown enough to be badly in need of extended political representation (Jackson 264).
            The dates of the two largest removals from Ireland to Georgia are not insignificant, for Goldsmith was actually growing up in Ireland during the 1730s, and he was writing The Deserted Village during the 1760s. Himself an Irish Protestant -- though not a Presbyterian, as many of the emigrants were -- Goldsmith would have been especially interested in the desertion of so much of Ireland’s Protestant population, and he would have known that large numbers of these people settled in the newly opened lands around the Altamaha River. The fact that Georgia and the Altamaha region were frequent destinations for Irish colonists supports Macaulay’s old argument about The Deserted Village that the “village in its decay is an Irish one” (30). Certainly, the Irish left their native country for America in much greater numbers during this period than did the English; some historians estimate the total numbers between 250-400,000 from 1700 to 1776 (Miller 137), and others note that perhaps half the Presbyterian population of Ulster left for America between 1730 and 1770 alone (Potter 31). These emigrants would have been attracted to southeastern Georgia because the Darien settlement had already marked the area with a strong Presbyterian character, making it much easier for non-Anglican Protestant colonists to establish themselves and gain important political and social connections. This combination of factors suggests that Goldsmith knew about Protestant Irish emigration to Georgia and thus chose the Altamaha for his villagers because real villagers were in fact making their new homes there, and Goldsmith wanted to draw attention to the hardships such an environment would present to settlers, as well as support his widely contested depopulation claim by citing a region which was actually benefiting from the British exodus.
            Overall, the geographical, social, political, and historical significance of the Altamaha during the mid-eighteenth century leads to the conclusion that this section of the poem is neither an outlandish American nightmare nor an insignificant detail, though generations of critics have insisted on treating it as such. Goldsmith chose this particular location because of its resonance with his contemporary readers and its ability to convey the central ideas of his work, both aesthetically and politically. The “wild Altama’s” presence and function in The Deserted Village support Alfred Lutz’s argument that the poem speaks to a specific historical moment with equally specific political ends. Goldsmith knew precisely what he was doing when he chose to send his deserting villagers to the banks of the Altamaha, and a recognition of that decision’s value has been long overdue.

NB: Works cited entries have been removed to make plagiarism of this essay more difficult. The author reserves all rights to this material, which may not be copied or reprinted without permission.