Born in 1835 in Columbia, Georgia, Augusta Evans Wilson was the first American woman author to earn over $100,000 until Edith Wharton did so in the 1920s. She wrote the first of nine novels, Inez: A Story of the Alamo, at the age of fifteen, and her second novel, Beulah, written at eighteen, sold 22,000 copies and established her as a professional writer.
Typical of her times and following the pattern of the inspirational romance genre, her novels featured spunky heroines who succumbed to traditional values and happily-ever-afters written in the sentimental style of the period.
During the Civil War, she supported the Confederate cause, working tirelessly in the hospitals as a nurse, cook, and comfort to the wounded. Her novel, Macariah, written in 1863, features Southern women sacrificing their all for the cause and has been called a masterwork of propaganda. Published by Lippincott in New York, the book was popular on both sides of the conflict. So much so, that the Union General George Henry Thomas forbade his men from reading it and burnt all the copies he could find.
St. Elmo, written in 1866, was one of the most popular novels of the 19th century. Featuring an erring, sinful, Byronic-style hero and a virtuous Christian heroine who saves his soul, the story inspired several stage versions and a 1914 silent film which was considered a box office success. Numerous towns, hotels, baby boys, and products, such as cigars, were named St. Elmo after the novel. On the other hand, the book was also criticized for its trivality. In 1867, Henry Charles Webb wrote the parody St. Twel’mo or the Cunieform Cyclopedist of Chattanooga in which he incorporated whole sections from her book into his humorous story mocking southernisms
The following excerpt is from the opening of the novel. The heroine Edna, a young child, has just come upon a duel.
In her morning visit to the spring, she had stumbled upon a monster which custom had adopted and petted–which the passions and sinfulness of men had adroitly draped and fondled, and called Honorable Satisfaction; but her pure, unperverted, Ithurial nature pierced the conventional mask, recognized the loathsome lineaments of crime, and recoiled in horror and amazement, wondering at the wickedness of her race and the forbearance of outraged Jehovah. Innocent childhood had for the first time stood face to face with Sin and Death and could not forget the vision.
For more about Augusta Evans Wilson see Literary Hearthstones of Dixie by La Salle Corbell Pickett 1912 and The South in History and Literature by Mildred Lewis Rutherford 1906
Some positive contemporary reviews see Publisher’s Weekly 1902