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Augusta Jane Evans

by John Sledge

She is the most famous author the Port City has produced. She died when this century was young, yet even with the passage of all these years no other local writer has approached her stature.

Augusta Jane Evans was born in Georgia in 1835. Her family moved to Texas in 1845, then to Mobile four years later. Like most 19th century girls, she had no formal education, but she was a voracious reader. She wrote her first novel in secret while still a teenager, and presented it to her father as a Christmas present in 1854. It was published the following year with the title Inez: A Tale of the Alamo. This fledgling effort is a sentimental love story most notable for its strong dash of anti-Catholicism. Augusta followed this book with Beulah1859, which sold a staggering 22,000 copies the first year of publication. The family used the profits to buy Georgia Cottage on Springhill Avenue.

The Civil War brought both personal tragedy and success to Miss Augusta. Her engagement to a New York journalist was broken off because of sectional differences. During the war, admiring locals named a military outpost "Camp Beulah" in honor of her novel. She wrote Macaria in 1863. Published in true Confederate fashion in Richmond, the novel was printed on wrapping paper with wallpaper covers. Macaria was popular among both rebels and Yankees. Union officers banned the book and burned confiscated copies. Unbeknownst to Miss Augusta, the book was also published in New York, and the royalties held in trust until after the war. These funds tided the family through the lean post-war years.

In the gloomy aftermath of war, Miss Augusta turned out her most popular work, St Elmo. It was a runaway bestseller, and enthusiastic readers named towns, steamboats and even a cigar for it. Like her other works, "St. Elmo" is in the domestic sentimentalist style popular during the Victorian period. Novels of this type enjoyed huge readerships and made their authors wealthy. Indeed, Augusta Evans was the first American woman writer to make over $100,000, a record that would be surpassed by Edith Wharton some years later. If the public loved these novels, however, literary critics did not. One declared, "The trouble with the heroine of ‘St. Elmo’ is that she swallowed an unabridged dictionary."

In 1868, the Mobile authoress married Colonel Lorenzo Wilson, a self-made man involved in banking, railroads and wholesale groceries. He was twenty-seven years her senior. The couple settled into a columned home, Ashland, not far from Georgia Cottage, and attended the St. Francis Street Methodist Church. "Miss ‘Gusta," as she was called, reigned as the social queen of Mobile, having replaced the dethroned Madame LeVert, who had welcomed the occupying federals rather too warmly for Mobilians’ taste. Ashland became a salon, with Saturday designated as visiting day. Frequent guests included the poet Thomas Cooper DeLeon and the lawyer Peter Joseph Hamilton, who in 1897 would write the massive "Colonial Mobile."

In 1895, a reporter visited Ashland and penned a description of the sixty-year-old writer. "Mrs. Wilson is tall, with blue eyes and dark hair, fast growing gray," he wrote. "Although her face is grave and intellectual, it evidences the womanly sweetness of character that has made her so beloved by all who know her. The culture of rare flowers and plants fills her moments."

Augusta Evans Wilson died in 1909. Her literary output consists of nine novels, the last being "Devota," published in 1907. Obituaries around the South paid especial attention to her literary style, already outmoded in the new century. The Nashville American called her books "sentimental and written in a stilted style." The Columbus (Mississippi) Enquirer Sun noted that she was "not an author of the latter day type," and the Birmingham Ledger placed her in "the literary style that prevailed till 1870." Her beloved Ashland burned in 1926, but Georgia Cottage still stands, and a historic marker on Springhill Avenue designates it as her home. The University of Alabama Press has recently reprinted "St. Elmo," but it is a historical curiosity that does not speak to our condition. Augusta Evans Wilson, locally famous though she still is, is largely unread today.