Kennedy: A Baltimore man of politics and literature

On Maryland History

March 26, 1991|By Peter Kumpa

JOHN PENDLETON KENNEDY'S goal was modest, "simply to paint in true colors the scenes of domestic life as I have found them in Virginia." Between practicing law and playing a major role in Baltimore society, it took him two years to do it, starting in the fall of 1829.

In the spring of 1832 "Swallow Barn" was published, and Kennedy's literary career sprang upon a public eager for heartier literary fare than that of fanciful English novels and Continental romances. The work was certainly native: plantation life in contemporary Virginia.

The novel's rather weak plot revolved around a bungled love affair and a tedious quarrel between two pompous country squires over the boundary of a worthless swamp. But its strength, as one Baltimore critic noted, was "in the accuracy and beauty of its descriptive writing, the fidelity to and the individuality of the few characters introduced." Only New England moralists were disturbed by the author's tolerance of slavery. A Boston critic complained that Kennedy had depicted the "most ordinary, trifling, useless generation the world ever saw."

The public liked it. Kennedy was performing an important literary task, providing part of the foundation for a new literature of the South. From those roots, a tradition would grow of flowery, perfumed novels with --ing heroes and heroines. One of the most famous would be "Gone With the Wind."

Kennedy went on to even greater critical success with "Horse-Shoe Robinson" in 1835, a tale of divided family loyalties during the Revolutionary War set in the Carolinas. The titular hero, a rough but canny frontiersman, was continually outwitting the Tories; there was also, of course, the required tedious romance.

Three years later, Kennedy produced "Rob of the Bowl," the story of 17th-century warfare in his native Maryland between Catholic proprietors and Protestant settlers. Factually, it was the most accurate of his three novels, but it was a commercial failure.

It was time for Kennedy to go back to his first love, public life and politics. He put out the satire "Quodlibet" in 1840, on the inanities of Jacksonian politics. His last major literary effort, "Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt," was a dull biography that nevertheless sold well.

TC Kennedy was witness to epochal changes. He began as a admirer of Washington and ended endorsing the candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant for president.

Born in Baltimore in 1795, his father was a Scotch-Irish immigrant from a clan of merchants and his mother descended from a large family of land-owning, Tidewater Virginians. Anti-British sentiment came naturally from his father. Kennedy also admired John Eager Howard, the local Revolutionary War hero. When war with Britain came, the teen-ager joined the United Volunteers of the Fifth Regiment, composed of the city's social elite, and saw action at the battles of Bladensburg and North Point.

Though he was admitted to practice law, Kennedy continued to dabble in the belles artes, writing sketches for such Baltimore publications as the Portico and the Redbook. In 1824, he married Mary Tenant, daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants in the city. The marriage ended in tragedy when his young bride died in childbirth; his only son survived a mere 11 months. Three years later, Kennedy married into wealth again, to Elizabeth Gray, the strikingly beautiful daughter of a successful textile manufacturer. She provided him with the stability and intellectual companionship that allowed him the luxury of mixing law and literature, business and politics.

When not writing himself, Kennedy promoted others. He helped award a first prize to Edgar Allan Poe in 1833 for the story, "MS. Found in a Bottle," and later aided the poet in finding a position on the Richmond Southern Literary Messenger. Kennedy also formed friendships with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms.

Long after his service as Whig ideologue, congressman and speaker of Maryland's House of Delegates, Kennedy traveled abroad as a respected unofficial American ambassador of the arts. He died while vacationing at Newport in 1870 at the age of 75. His collected writings, letters, essays and political tracts fill 130 volumes at the Peabody Institute, which he helped establish.

"I have been prosperous in my own modest way, and moderation is the best form of prosperity," Kennedy wrote when he was 59. "I have had no extraordinary successes, no extravagant fortune, no pre-eminent good luck, but a temperate, fair and reasonable experience from day to to day." He confessed mistakes and errors, but not many. To the end, he was the modest man of Baltimore literature.

(Baltimore Glimpses will resume next Tuesday.)

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