• Peter Templeton

On J.P. Kennedy's 'Horse-Shoe Robinson'

One of the most popular American books of the 1830s that is not widely read anymore is Horse-Shoe Robinson: A Tale of the Tory Ascendancy. The book is a historical romance, and like much of the work of the more famous James Fenimore Cooper is set in the days of the American Revolution. The Tory Ascendancy that the subtitle refers to suggests that the action of the novel takes place during a time when the British loyalists are winning the war in the Southern theatre.

The author is John Pendleton Kennedy, a popular writer and politician in the antebellum period who has largely fallen out of critical favour in the decades since the Civil War. The book, then, is an important example of the antebellum Southern novel, and it holds up a lot better than many other examples from this period – and, indeed, better than a lot of Cooper’s work, too.

John Pendleton Kennedy, illustration from 1917.

There are two men at the centre of the novel – Major Arthur Butler and the title character, Galbraith ‘Horse-shoe’ Robinson. The former is a fairly typical Southern hero – Major Butler is the romantic hero, who stands for gentlemanly values, has a heroine dedicated to him, is threatened with death and is stoic in the face of it, and generally plays into the cavalier myth that can be found in many other places in Southern literature of this period.

The more interesting character, though, is Robinson. Though not the ‘hero’ in the traditional sense, he stands as a much more intriguing figure: heroic, though without being overly idealised, he has a pragmatic streak that speaks far more credibly of a war hero. He is capable of callous violence on the battlefield when it is warranted. He is also no bumbling yeoman of the comic variety – though crude in his speech, Robinson is intellectually sharp, and capable of tricking people into a false sense of security by playing on their expectations about him.

I do not want to give too much detail in the way of plot here, because this is a novel of the period that bears reading today. Unlike many of its contemporaries, including Kennedy’s own Swallow Barn (1832), there are comparatively few dubious portrayals of slaves to worry contemporary tastes (even if, admittedly, this is achieved by the relative absence of black characters). But for a work in the vein of American romance that offers literary complexity and a suspenseful plot, you could do worse than check out this book that deserves its place in the antebellum canon.

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