Kennedy was born in Maryland in 1795 to an Irish-immigrant father and a mother who came from a wealthy Virginia family. He attended college in Baltimore, fought in the War of 1812, and then earned a law degree. A member of the Whig Party, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1838–1839, 1841–1845) and as the U.S. Secretary of the Navy in the administration of Millard Fillmore (1852–1853). His interest in literature equaled that of politics, and he knew or was friends with James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Swallow Barn is centered around two neighboring plantations located near Martinsburg, in present-day West Virginia. At the titular Swallow Barn plantation live Frank and Lucretia Meriwether and their seven children, along with Lucretia's brother, Edward "Ned" Hazard, and Frank's spinster sister. The novel's narrator, a New York cousin of the Hazards named Mark Littleton, is there for a long visit. Isaac Tracy, meanwhile, owns the nearby Brakes plantation, and for nearly fifty years he has pursued a lawsuit against the Meriwethers over a tract of land along their shared boundary. Two generations earlier, the land had belonged to Isaac's father, who sold it to Ned's grandfather, Edward, for use as a millpond. The soil proved too porous for this purpose, however, and Hazard abandoned the project. The tract of land, known as the Apple-pie Branch, also was too marshy for crops, so it lay unused until Isaac Tracy decided that it would be satisfactory for pasturage of his cattle. At that point, he initiated a suit against Ned Hazard based on the premise that the original sale had been for a specific purpose and became void if the land was not used for that purpose.
Through all of this the Meriwethers and Hazards remained on friendly terms with Tracy and his children. By the time of the novel, the suit has become little more than a nuisance that takes the principals away from their customary work, and to resolve the matter Frank Meriwether proposes to Tracy that it be arbitrated by two mutual attorney friends. Unbeknownst to Tracy, however, Meriwether has decided that the long sequence of suit and countersuit has become intolerable and has instructed his representative to ensure that the arbitration places the land in Tracy's possession.
This final resolution depends on the success of Ned Hazard's courtship of Isaac Tracy's daughter, Bel, and that courtship forms the secondary plot of the work. While the attorneys have sought to resolve the ownership of Apple-pie Branch, Ned has managed to make a fool of himself in Bel's eyes by allowing her to catch him singing her name loudly in the woods. The misdeed seems inconsequential, but Bel, an unmarried woman on a remote plantation, has little with which to occupy herself except attention to the mannerly details of life and the reading of chivalric novels. The careless singing of her name is enough to offend her, and the question of her relationship with Ned hangs in the balance through most of the novel.
Encouraged and counseled by Littleton and the Tracy kinsman Harvey Riggs, Ned attempts with some success to appear more serious and settled in Bel's presence, and the two are married shortly after Littleton leaves Swallow Barn. When Isaac Tracy speaks of reopening the lawsuit over Apple-pie Branch, Ned, now his son-in-law, attempts to dissuade him from doing so. The interests of Swallow Barn and the Brakes have become fused, and the passage of Ned and Bel from frivolous courtship to marriage and stability places Ned in a position of increased influence with Isaac Tracy. As a son-in-law, he can ensure that Tracy will not raise the suit over the long-disputed tract of land again.
Swallow Barn enjoyed popular success. Despite a cholera epidemic that forced some booksellers to close for a time, about 1,500 copies, or three-fourths of the first printing, sold in the first nine months after publication. A pirated edition appeared in London, and a Swedish edition was published by 1835. The North American Review, in its April 1833 issue, declaredSwallow Barn to be "a work of great merit and promise." Despite a plot that does not otherwise "excite a very deep and strong interest," Kennedy succeeds in translating the "manners and customs" of Virginia and compares favorably to Washington Irving.
William R. Taylor, in his 1961 study Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South in American National Character, saw Swallow Barn as Kennedy's way of addressing his ambiguities about his mercantile class origins and genteel aspirations. J. V. Ridgely viewed Kennedy's first novel as essentially conservative but interesting because the author "saw the possibilities in contrasting southern and northern cultures." All of these readings posit that the central issue of the times was the increasing tension between North and South—even though sectional allegiance was only weakly established while Kennedy was writing. This overlooks Kennedy's nationalist views, which were well established by this time. Kennedy's modern commentators also overlook that he and his readers may have viewed their times as being far more complex than modern readers imagine them to have been.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Hare, J. L. Swallow Barn (1832). (2019, May 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Swallow_Barn_1832.
- MLA Citation:
Hare, John L. "Swallow Barn (1832)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 May. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 25, 2019 | Last modified: May 2, 2019
Contributed by John L. Hare, professor of American Studies and English at Montgomery College.