When he first arrived in Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1888, Professor William Peterfield Trent saw an opportunity to shape the intellectual destiny of the South. Just thirty years old, he had recently finished his historical training at Johns Hopkins and accepted a job at the University of the South over a higher-paid position at the University of Georgia. Sewanee, Trent hoped, would provide the foundation to invigorate the region’s literary and intellectual culture. Writing to his mentor Herbert Baxter Adams, founder of the American Historical Association and pioneer of the modern seminar teaching method, Trent explained that “the University of Georgia is better off in many respects, but in a social way I imagine S[ewanee] is superior and I certainly will meet more influential people here.” Over the next few years, Trent did just that, compiling a wide network of friends and producing some of his most lasting work. In 1892 his biography of southern author William Gilmore Simms was published, and in the same year he produced the first issue of the Sewanee Review.
In the biography, Trent contended that Simms, often referred to as the South’s analog to James Fennimore Cooper, failed to achieve true literary esteem due to the antebellum South’s dependence on slavery, which demanded a “feudal” and “primitive” life that handicapped the region’s development of political power and culture. On publication, proud white Southerners found this depiction of the Old South treasonous: Trent’s hometown paper, the Richmond Times, denounced him as a “disloyal son of the South,” South Carolina Episcopalians called on Sewanee’s Board of Trustees to terminate his contract, and the Charleston Post and Courier described the study as “treacherous poison.” Critics went so far as to publicly shame Lucy Trent, William’s mother, on the streets of Richmond. He found allies, however, north of the Mason-Dixon line. Theodore Roosevelt praised his work in the Atlantic, writing, “if he fulfills the promise of this book he will eventually stand in the first rank of our politico-historical writers.” Woodrow Wilson, Trent’s fraternity brother at Virginia and instructor at Johns Hopkins, sought to woo him to Bryn Mawr. William A. Dunning, who founded the “Dunning School” of history and coined the terms “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” offered Trent a job at Columbia, hoping he would specialize “in history and political science rather than running off after the strange gods in the literary line.” The greener grass seemed to lie in Manhattan, not on the Cumberland Plateau.
But Sewanee’s administration took a stand for “academic freedom,” disregarding the critics, and eventually elected Trent the first Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In this role, Trent modernized Sewanee, aligning the University’s calendar—which previously began in March and ended in December—with other colleges, opening dormitories (Sewanee students had previously boarded at inns and private residences), and helping to found the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accreditation group that still exists. Trent’s crusade was motivated by his participation in the New South movement. The New South, a term coined by Atlanta newspaper editor Henry Grady, called for the social, cultural, economic, and racial improvement of the former Confederacy into the greater nation. This vision rested on the foundations of white supremacy—Historian Ibram Kendi states that the most prescient question on racial progress for white New South disciples was how “should the Negro be carefully civilized[?]”—but served as a corrective to the violent, populist racial policies of figures like James Vardaman, who promoted terrorizing blacks through violence, intimidation, and lynching. With its vision of industrialization and reconciliation, the New South served as an outlet for the optimism of young intellectuals like Trent. Trent’s detractors, still wrapped up in the fable of the Old South, were the only proof he needed for a new beginning.
At this opportune moment, Trent decided the South was ready for a cultural quarterly—in fact, it desperately needed one. He envisioned the Review as a representation of southern progress, a place in which writers from North and South could discuss literature, history, and “Current Questions.” After its first issue, the Review emerged as a magazine located in the South but not relegated to it; in fact, most of its early supporters were Northerners. New Yorkers Theodore Roosevelt, Dunning, and Brander Matthews of Columbia, who fraternized with the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain, all appeared in the Review’s first decade; the New York Times regularly republished excerpts from its pages; and by 1903 an editorial in the New York Sun, under the headline “The Enlightenment of the South,” would proclaim the Sewanee Review as “the most important of the organs of such Southern thought.” And the reception of the Review was strikingly positive in the southern states: After just one issue, the Atlanta Journal Constitution remarked that “the Sewanee Review . . . is a literary quarterly worthy of a place with the great publications of its kind in England and America.” Even the hostile Charleston press hoped that “the Sewanee Review will receive the warm and co-operative support of our own people.”
Despite the Review’s wide acclaim, in 1900 Trent left Tennessee for New York and a professorship of English Literature at Columbia, where he would publish a complete works of John Milton, an edition of Robinson Crusoe, and a biography of Daniel Defoe. Why leave the Mountain? While the Review achieved success, Trent remained a polarizing figure. Upon news of his departure from Sewanee, newspapers in Savannah rejoiced, writing, “He was out of touch with Southern people and decidedly hostile to Southern sentiment.” The Charleston Post and Courier also praised the extradition, musing that “what he shall say and teach [at Columbia] will matter little to the South.” Though Trent’s hopes for a hospitable and new South proved optimistic in the short term, he never totally divorced himself from the Review or its mission—he continued to spread the Sewanee name, submit essays, and pursue his vision of southern literary culture. The Review, in turn, continued to engage in and debate the overlapping literary, historical, and political notions of its time.
Then as now, the Review was a place to grapple with the encapsulating culture. In the early Review, you would find college administrators discussing if higher education was worth the cost for every student, the merit of small liberal arts colleges, and a report on working conditions in mines or iron foundries. One would be hard pressed to date the respective issues in which an article titled “The Future of the Democratic Party” and a side-by-side analysis of presidential candidates were published (The former: 1902; the latter: 2017). Much as it was at the turn of the century, the South in 2017 is dynamic, complicated, and confusing. It is an idea with which an institution that claims to be of this region continues to struggle, as it must. In that tumultuous decade, the 1890s, Trent sought to understand what the South was and could be. That Review was founded to be current and provocative, a wrestling place for ideas and culture, so that the Review, now, with its voices, essays, and art, could do the same.
For more on William P. Trent check out “Trent’s Simms” by John M. McCardell, Jr. in A Master’s Due: Essays in Honor of David Herbert Donald and the Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South by Samuel R. Williamson and Gerald L. Smith.