Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thomas Nelson Page, born April 23, 1853

Thomas Nelson Page was born at Oakland, one of the Nelson family plantations, in Hanover County, Virginia, to John Page and Elizabeth Burwell Nelson. He was a scion of the prominent Nelson and Page families, each First Families of Virginia. 

Thomas Nelson Page's Birthplace, Oakland Plantation
Thomas was a direct descendant of  Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of Virginia.  He also descended from Robert "King" Carter, who had served as an acting royal governor of Virginia and was one of its wealthiest landowners in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Robert E. Lee was a cousin.

Page's father, John,  had worked to earn enough money to graduate from the University of Virginia and to set himself up as a respected lawyer in Hanover County. Despite his position and the fact that he owned land and about sixty slaves, the family was one of modest means throughout Thomas' youth.  After the Civil War, his parents and their relatives were largely impoverished during Reconstruction and his teenage years. 

Hanover County Court House
 and Civil War Memorial

In 1869, He entered Washington College, known now as Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia.  

President's House at Washington College, last home of Robert E Lee
Robert E. Lee was president of the college; Lee  served as the model figure of Southern Heroism in Page's literary works. 

Robert E. Lee
After three years, Page left Washington College before graduation for financial reasons. To earn money for a law degree, Page taught the children of his cousins in Louisville, Kentucky. 

From 1873 to 1874, he was enrolled in the law school of the University of Virginia in pursuit of a legal career. 

He was eight years old when the Civil War began.

Admitted to the Virginia Bar Association, he practiced as a lawyer with a cousin in Richmond, Virginia between 1876 and 1893.  He also began his writing career. 

In 1880, a friend showed him a letter found in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier that the man's sweetheart had written to him. In the letter, she confessed her love for him but warned that if he came home to claim her without a furlough, she would not marry him. Haunted by this powerful combination of love and honor, as well as by his nostalgia for the prewar order, Page started to fashion a story in his mind. At first, he told it to his friends, gauging their reactions. Then he wrote it down and read it to neighbors, lecture audiences, Sunday school classes, and so on.  It was a composition method that he would utilize for all of his early stories, and one that would shape the finished products into finely tuned oral productions designed to be read aloud.

Marse Chan
The story that grew out of this gestation method was "Marse Chan," which was published in the April 1884 issue of the popular Century Magazine.  A frame narrative, it features a formerly enslaved narrator named Sam, who in dialect, recounts for a white listener a romantic story of Master Channing (Marse Chan).  Channing's sweetheart, Anne, spurns him out of obedience to her father, who disapproves of their match because he differs politically with Channing's father. When Channing leaves to fight in the Civil War, Anne realizes that she still loves him and wants to marry him. But her decision comes too late, because he has already died in battle. Sam, Channing's personal servant, brings the dead soldier home, Anne dies of a broken heart, and the two are buried together. 

Book Illustration
Aside from the sentimental romantic plot, which appealed to readers of the day, the story is important because it presents Page's nostalgic view of antebellum Virginia. Page made this view especially potent by making the narrator a black servant rather than a white aristocrat. In placing his glorification of the Old South in the mouth of a former slave, he infused that vision with an authenticity that was all but incontrovertible to the majority of his readers.  If plantation society's "victims" themselves longed for the old days, went Page's logic, then that time must have been great indeed. "Marse Chan" remains Page's most anthologized story.  It remains a classic of plantation fiction, or the so-called Moonlight and Magnolia school of southern writing that would find ultimate incarnation in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind

He was married to Anne Seddon Bruce on July 28, 1886. She died on December 21, 1888 of a throat hemorrhage.

He married again on June 6, 1893, to heiress Florence Lathrop Field, a widowed sister-in-law of retailer Marshall Field.  

In the same year Page gave up his law practice entirely and moved with his wife to Washington, D.C.  They lived in a new home located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.  Their  mansion was designed by Stanford White.   It  was completed in 1896 and  was the center of Washington’s literary and social life in late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

Thomas Page Nelson House
He kept up his writing, which amounted to eighteen volumes when they were compiled and published in 1912.  In addition to fiction and poetry, Page contributed a number of books in various genres, including drama, children's literature, social and political history, literary criticism, and biography.

Page's second most important fictional work, Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction (1898), follows a number of storylines as it details white aristocratic loss and reacquisition of power during Reconstruction. One of its primary strains follows the lives of the aristocratic Gray and Cary families, while another relates the marriage of southerner Steve Allen to northerner Ruth Welch. This story is a modified version of "reconciliation romance," a popular late nineteenth-century literary device in which northern and southern whites marry, and their romantic union represents a reunion of the formerly warring factions. 

Page popularized the plantation tradition genre of Southern writing, which told of an idealized version of life before the Civil War, with contented slaves working for beloved masters and their families. He based much of his writing on his biased personal experience living on a plantation in the Antebellum South. Page viewed the Antebellum South as a representation of moral purity, and often vilified the reforms of the Gilded Age as a sign of moral decline.  His 1887 collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia, is Page's quintessential work, which provides an idealized depiction of the Antebellum South. Another short-story collection of his is entitled The Burial of the Guns (1894).

Under President Woodrow Wilson, Page served as U.S. ambassador to Italy for six years between 1913 and 1919. 
Woodrow Wilson
His book entitled Italy and the World War (1920) is a memoir of his service there.
Page as Ambassador
His second wife, Florence, died in 1921.

He died on November 1, 1922 at Oakland.  He was 69 years old.

Before he passed away, he had been working on a novel about the Ku Klux Klan entitled The Red Riders. His brother, Rosewell Page, finished the book and it was published in 1924.

Page's Funeral

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