Places: Swallow Barn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1832

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Places DiscussedSwallow Barn

Swallow Swallow BarnBarn. Frank Meriwether’s plantation home on the southern bank of the James River in Virginia’s coastal tidewater region. Meriwether’s home combines the rustic and the elegant, embodying the hospitality, industry, and self-restraint of its owners through the previous century. The house has ample space without being pretentious. Family and friends visiting the house enjoy riding, fishing, eating, conversation, and song, all influenced by surrounding nature. The house’s inhabitants are favorably shaped by a type of environmental determinism similar to that described in the French writer Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Frank Meriwether explains that country life prevents people from being hollow-hearted and insincere like people in the city. His wife, Lucretia, exhibits a pattern of industry necessitated by the demands of supervising a large household. The couple’s daughters, Lucy and Victorine, make their way to womanhood in happy and guarded ignorance, avoiding ambition, vanity, and overstimulation.

In addition to leading to virtue and self-restraint, the country life also leads to the formation of the distinctive character of the Virginia cavalier. As the patriarch of Swallow Barn, Frank Meriwether exemplifies the “cavalier” tradition of plantation owner as regent of his estate. By that tradition, a cavalier benignly rules over a hierarchy that descends from family to associates–such as a parson or overseer–to the slaves at the bottom. Meriwether explains that even though slavery is not an ideal institution, his own slaves benefit from kindness and the security of their lives on his estate. The cavalier figure directly stems from the isolation of the plantation and the nature of its labor-intensive economy. Further, the isolation of the plantation intensifies the authority of the patriarch, who is not apt to be contradicted. In one amusing illustration, a visiting cousin, Mark Littleton, describes the “under-talkers” who pick up on the “crumbs of wisdom” falling from a rich man’s table and repeat everything Frank says. Generally, Littleton praises the conviviality, spaciousness, and regularity of life at Swallow Barn.

The Brakes

The Brakes. Estate adjoining Swallow Barn that belongs to the Tracys, who are close neighbors and friends of the Meriwethers and the Hazards. Swallow Barn partly focuses on the courtship of Ned Hazard and Bel Tracy, but the most significant event involving land concerns a forty-year-old dispute over the property bordering the Apple-Pie Creek. The thirty-acre tract is worthless swampland; however, Isaac Tracy spends considerable time and money fighting to reclaim part of it for the sake of his family’s honor, as well as for the sheer sport of it. The dispute does little to tarnish the friendship of the families, but land is land and rights cannot be undermined. Land stands so firmly at the center of a family’s honor that even the loss of swampland is important.

Woods

Woods. Forested area near Swallow Barn that provides a site for the imagination in Kennedy’s exploration of other aspects of Virginia life through an intriguing mix of realism, romance, and folk legend. When Bel Tracy accidentally finds Ned and Mark acting and singing in the woods, the incident embarrasses Ned greatly. The woods also provide the setting for Bel’s elaborate medieval fantasy centering on training her hawk to hunt. Ned pursues her escaped hawk throughout the countryside, retrieving the bird and presenting it to Bel as an act of chivalry.

The areas surrounding Swallow Barn also give rise to folk legend. Littleton records the story of blacksmith Mike Brown’s encounter with the devil in the Goblin Swamp. In addition to fictional characters, the area seems to be peopled by ghosts of the past, particularly by past generations of family and retainers who have lived at Swallow Barn. These stories preserve the legends and history of tidewater Virginia.

The Quarter

The Quarter. Slave quarters of Swallow Barn. Kennedy’s description of the slave hovels as “picturesque” leads into a lengthy discussion of the role of slavery in the South. The extended description of the cottage of elderly slave Lucy and the connected story of her son Abe sentimentalize slave life.

BibliographyBohner, Charles H. “Virginia Revisited.” In John Pendleton Kennedy: Gentleman from Baltimore. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961. Discussion of Washington Irving’s influence upon this collection of sketches, which accurately portray early nineteenth century domestic life in Virginia. The Southern plantation romance began with Swallow Barn, but Kennedy’s partial detachment from Virginia society allowed objectivity and irony.Gwathmey, Edward M. John Pendleton Kennedy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1931. Evaluation of Kennedy’s strengths–descriptions, close observation of human nature, thoroughly grounded philosophical conclusions, and a wholesome view of life. Argues that Kennedy inaccurately records slave dialect but succeeds as a pioneer in regional fiction, presenting one of the earliest and most accurate portrayals of Virginia plantation life.Hubbell, Jay B., ed. Introduction to Swallow Barn: Or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion, by John Pendleton Kennedy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929. Discusses Swallow Barn in its historical context–a transition period in which Virginia society was disordered by the American Revolution but not yet frightened by Nat Turner’s slave insurrection.Ridgely, Joseph Vincent. John Pendleton Kennedy. New York: Twayne, 1966. A chapter on Swallow Barn discusses its structure and style, including excerpts from nineteenth century reviews. Although true to Virginia life, Swallow Barn employs stock devices and literary sources. Kennedy’s growing ambivalence toward the South precluded the possibility of a sequel.Tomlinson, David O. “John Pendleton Kennedy.” In Fifty Southern Writers Before 1900: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Discusses major themes and surveys criticism. Argues that Kennedy was a nationalist who feared disunion and combined his intended satire with affection for his characters and dismay at some Virginia social customs.
Categories: Places