"A succinct and formal violence": The function of the duel in Southern fiction, 1825--1950

Date of Completion

January 2001


This dissertation treats the historical, cultural, and rhetorical functions of dueling in Southern Literature. Southern writers explore the role of the duel's codified violence in sustaining the oppression of African-Americans, women, and poor whites. These writers also employ the duel, with its emphasis upon ritualized insults, challenges, replies, and silences, to examine the relationship between violence and language. ^ Chapter one provides the historical background for the literary analysis of subsequent chapters, exploring how southern gentlemen embraced the aristocratic pretensions of the duel while northerners largely abandoned the practice. Chapter two explores the apologistic writing by William Gilmore Simms who uses the duel as a measure of inherent nobility for his characters. Chapter three reveals the manner by which E. D. E. N. Southworth and Augusta Jane Evans conflate the language of the duel with the language of seduction to critique the relationship between male power and the oppression of women. Chapter four examines a similar use of rhetoric by Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Mark Twain, and George Washington Cable who explore the formalized violence of dueling as a justification for the brutality perpetrated against slaves. In chapter five, an analysis of the duel in works by Thomas Nelson Page and William Faulkner reveals the ambivalence of post-bellum writers to the duel's simultaneously aristocratic and barbaric manifestations. Chapter six examines the modern literary perception of the duel by Robert Penn Warren, who rejects the tradition of a southern romanticism that the duel helped to perpetuate. ^ Viewed in the light of these authors, the duel becomes an extended metaphor for the structures of power that create, and ruthlessly sustain, the social position of the white elite. ^