Originally published in 1832 and revised in 1851, Swallow Barn, John Pendleton Kennedy’s novel of antebellum life on a tidewater Virginia plantation, was described by its author as “variously and interchangeably partaking of the complexion of a book of travels, a diary, a collection of letters, a drama, and a history.” Swallow Barn has returned from oblivion many times in the past 150 years, in part because it resists categorization and retains its originality. It is a novel that is not a novel, written by a man who was and was not a southerner or even, by his own reckoning, a writer.
Swallow Barn began as a series of letters written by a Mark Littleton (Kennedy) to his hometown neighbor, Zachary Huddlestone of Preston Ridge, New York. Littleton, visiting his Virginia relatives at their farm called Swallow Barn, on the James River not far from Richmond, told his friend that he would write a “full, true and particular account of all my doings, or rather my seeings and thinkings” while he was among his genial relatives. But Kennedy soon dropped the pose of letter writer and devoted successive chapters to sketches of Virginia country life. In choosing to write about the “manners” of his own region, he won not only esteem as an American author but recognition for a way of life toward which an open hostility was developing in the North.
Lucinda MacKethan’s introduction to this edition considers biographical information and the cultural and literary forces that operated to make Swallow Barn a unique as well as a representative product of its period. MacKethan also discusses Kennedy’s design for the novel, the ideological and artistic strategies that governed the choices and changes he made as he created what is now regarded as one of the most important fictional portrayals of plantation society by one intimately involved in that place and time.
Lucinda H. Mackethan received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a professor of English at North Carolina State University.
Found an Error? Tell us about it.