May 9, 2014

Death of Augusta Evans Wilson: at best a struggle

Augusta Jane Evans Wilson died of a heart attack in Mobile, Alabama on May 9, 1909. The author of multiple novels, she was best remembered for her book St. Elmo. Published in 1866, the novel was considered the Southern best-seller equal in popularity as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin was in the North. Various towns, hotels, and even steamboats were named in honor of the author or her characters.

Born in Georgia and raised partly in Texas, young Augusta showed an early interest in literature (despite no formal schooling) and began writing her first novel while still a teenager. Ultimately, she published some nine novels over about 50 years. Many of Wilson's books were popular because of perceived simplicity and domestic or sentimental themes. Immediately after her death, even her obituaries claimed her work already seemed like something from an different time — already old-fashioned, in other words. More modern scholars, however, have found that her female characters were a bit more modern and shared equal power, intellect, and agency as the male characters. In the political world, oddly enough, Wilson was a bit conservative and opposed women's suffrage in the growing movement.

An avid secessionist, Wilson (then still Miss Evans) volunteered to nurse Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. She used her experience as an inspiration for her 1864 book Macaria; or, Altars of Sacrifice. From that book, here is a scene in which a character named Russell witnesses the death of his elder mother:

"If I could look upon your face once more, my son, it would not be hard to die. Let me see you in heaven, my dear, dear boy." These were the last words, and soon after a stupor fell upon her. Hour after hour passed; Mrs. Campbell came and sat beside the bed, and the three remained silent, now and then lifting bowed heads to look at the sleeper. Not a sound broke the stillness save the occasional chirp of a cricket, and a shy mouse crept twice across the floor, wondering at the silence, fixing its twinkling bright eyes on the motionless figures. The autumn day died slowly as the widow, and when the clock dirged out the sunset hour Russell rose, and, putting back the window-curtains, stooped and laid his face close to his mother's. Life is at best a struggle, and such perfect repose as greeted him is found only when the marble hands of Death transfer the soul to its guardian angel. No pulsation stirred the folds over the heart, or the soft bands of hair on the blue-veined temples; the still mouth had breathed its last sigh, and the meek brown eyes had opened in eternity. The long, fierce ordeal had ended, the flames died out, and from smouldering ashes the purified spirit that had toiled and fainted not, that had been faithful to the end, patiently bearing many crosses, heard the voice of the Great Shepherd, and soared joyfully to the pearly gates of the Everlasting Home. The day bore her away on its wings, and as Russell touched the icy cheek a despairing cry rolled through the silent cottage.

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