I’ve noticed a dismaying trend emerging in my random reading for this blog—namely, the worse and/or more gigglesome a novel is, the sadder the story behind it. Whether this is the universe punishing me for laughing at things that were intended to be taken seriously or just an odd coincidence I couldn’t say, but it sure is starting to spoil my fun.
Most obvious case in point? The hilarious Munster Abbey, whose mind-boggling blending of sentiment and cold hard cash and myriad absurdities were enough to fill out three lengthy blog posts—and which turned out to be a posthumous work, the only novel of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, who died at the age of twenty-six, leaving his young widow to oversee the publication of his manuscript
And even the last novel I examined here, Ermina Montrose, had a story of fraud, suicide and poverty lurking behind its literary failings.
This time the work in question is an American novel from 1859: Madeline; or, Love, Treachery And Revenge by James Summerfield Slaughter. The novel itself is both absurdly plotted and poorly written, lurching from improbability to improbability. I snickered my way through it, sat down to try and find out something about its author—and immediately learned that he had committed suicide at a fairly early age.
There isn’t a lot on the record about the life of James Summerfield Slaughter, who tends to be alluded to in the context of other people rather than spoken about in his own right. He worked chiefly as an editor for various newspapers and periodicals, and wrote for the latter himself, mostly short stories. We gather he underwent something of a revolution in his political convictions: he is first mentioned as a “Know-Nothing”, a party which was anti-slavery inasmuch as its adherents believed that slavery undercut the rights of white workers; but when he next surfaced, Slaughter was hand-in-glove with the Alabama Fire-Eaters, a radical pro-slavery faction that fought to reopen the international slave trade, and which hid secessionist plans behind a facade of “states’ rights”—or at least, they did until James Summerfield Slaughter entered the picture.
At some point Slaughter had become friends with William Lowndes Yancey, a former Alabama Congressman. Both men were natives of Georgia, both had relocated to Alabama; Yancey, one of the Fire-Eaters, apparently saw Slaughter as a useful tool in the recruitment of new members to his “League of United Southerners”. However, he reckoned without his young friend’s capacity for indiscretion. In June 1858, Yancey wrote to Slaughter, stating his political views with alarming frankness; Slaughter, in a fit of enthusiasm, allowed the letter to be published:
No National Party can save us; no Sectional Party can do it. But if we could do as our fathers did, organise “Committees of Safety” all over the cotton states (and it is only in them that we can hope of any effective movement) we shall fire the Southern heart—instruct the Southern mind—give courage to each other, and at the proper moment, by one organised, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton states into a revolution.
This passage was leapt upon by all factions in the growing political maelstrom, lauded in some quarters, held up as a dire warning in others. Horace Greeley, in the New York Tribune, dubbed the document “The Scarlet Letter”. As such it has gone down in history, with James Summerfield Slaughter achieving a tiny slice of immortality not for his literary accomplishments, but as the recipient of Yancey’s letter.
Both men suffered in the subsequent fall-out, Yancey – though not regretting the spotlight – asserting that he had dashed the letter off in a hurry and implied more than he meant, Slaughter excusing his indiscretion and denying in a series of letters to the newspapers that he held secessionist views.
Having made Alabama too hot to hold him, Slaughter soon returned to Georgia. The next concrete information I have been able to discover about him comes apropos of his brief connection with Mary Edwards Bryan, the journalist and author, who was appointed editor-in-chief of the magazine, the Georgia Literary and Temperance Crusader, in 1858, before she was twenty years old. Bryan arrived in Atlanta at around the time that Slaughter began working for a local newspaper, the National American—and that he married a local beauty bearing the fabulous name of Taccoah Badger.
It was in the Georgia Literary and Temperance Crusader that Slaughter’s only novel was serialised, early in 1859, before being published in book form shortly afterwards. While we can find assertions (or at least, an assertion) of its success and popularity, it is clear that these were not attributable to any literary merit. As this advertisement from the magazine, the Virginia Index, makes amusingly clear, the crux of the matter was that Slaughter’s Madeline was the first novel to be written and published in Atlanta:
(We note that despite the bland subtitle used in this ad, in both serial and novel form Madeline carried the far more enticing one, Love, Treachery And Revenge.)
After this, however, Slaughter drops out of the public record—until the Atlanta Confederacy of 9th August 1860 carried a report of his death. The news was picked up and reprinted around the country, invariably including the original item’s reference to “The Scarlet Letter”, and sometimes with the suggestion that the scandal was responsible for the “fit of melancholy” to which his death was attributed. It was only the New York Times that was unkindly moved to add the rider, As far as he is remembered…although we cannot say that history has not proven them correct: