Julia Pleasants Creswell Book Review
By Eric Brock, Historian
The name Sarah Hudson Pierce will be familiar to many readers as a local writer, poet, and host of a cable access television interview program on the Shreveport Channel. But Mrs. Piece is also responsible for reprinting three historically important works of local literature from the nineteenth century: Callamura, a novel, and two other books, Aphelia and Poems, both of which are books of poetry, all by Julia Pleasants Creswell (1827-1879) of Shreveport.
Julia Creswell was the granddaughter of a governor of Alabama, Thomas Bibb, and the wife of a Caddo District Court Judge, David Creswell, for whom Shreveport's Creswell Avenue, Creswell Street, and Creswell Road are named. She and her husband were also the great grandparents of former Shreveport Mayor Jim Gardner, whose family once owned and operated the Gardner and Creswell Hotels downtown.
All of that is incidental, however, to the fact that Julia Pleasants Creswell was a talented writer and poetess of the mid nineteenth century. Her work was published and read extensively in her day but in time fell into obscurity. In recent years, however, the efforts of Mrs. Pierce, working in cooperation with Creswell descendants, especially Mayor Gardner, have resulted in Mrs. Creswell's brilliant works again seeing the light of publication and availability to new generations of readers.
Her poetry is intensely personal and often decidedly local in its subject matter but, unlike the typical bulky hyperbole of Victorian parlor poetry such as was found in daily newspapers and small privately printed volumes of the day, hers is beautiful and rich and highly readable. Obviously writing for her own pleasure, still the poetry of the girl Julia Pleasants and the lady Julia Creswell which she became, speaks out to us of the present, illuminating the mind of the author and of her era.
To me, one of the most moving poems is "The Burning of the Mittie Stephens on Ferry Lake," which recounts the tragic loss of a Shreveport steamboat near Jefferson, Texas on Ferry Lake, as Caddo Lake was then known, in 1869.
Her poem "Red River" is an inspiring ode to the great waterway of north Louisiana. If any poem should be carved in stone on some Red River waterway monument of port facility gate it is this.
Or the strikingly modern sentiment of "I'm Loneliest in a Crowd," which seems to be suited more to authorship by a twenty-first century city dweller than by a young rural girl of the 1840s.
All told, in Aphelia and Poems are roughly a hundred poems by Julia Pleasants Creswell as well as another thirty or so in Aphelia written by her cousin Thomas Bibb Bradley. Most of Julia's poems in Aphelia were written before Julia married David Creswell in 1854.
Important as the poetry is, however, the crown jewel of the three books by Mrs. Creswell is surely her novel Callamura.
"Callamura" is the name of the fictional north Louisiana plantation at which the story is set. It is the tale of a girl named Mona Bucceleugh who, orphaned as a teenager before the outbreak of the War Between the States, comes to live with relatives at "Callumura." Here her life truly takes shape and unfolds against a backdrop of a radically changing world torn, ultimately, by war and political and social upheaval.
Callamura is a moving and beautiful story, rich in detail and rich in historical as well as literary value. Between its covers is not only a semi-autobiographical story of a young woman's coming of age in a tumultuous era, but also the story of family relationships, home life, education, and the place of women in the mid-19th century South.
Indeed, Callamura is a rare find because it was written then by someone who was there, someone who actually lived it all and who had the talent to put into words what she lived and went through. The old South has been the subject of many a historical novel and since Gone With the Wind premiered in print almost eight decades ago it has been an ever popular period of focus for modern historical novelists. But it is almost unheard of to find a novel about the era written at the very time the action occurs, yet here is one and a fine one at that!
I shall not tell more of the story of Mona and her life at Callamura here for I do not wish to give away the tale and how it unfolds and ends. I leave that to the reader to experience for him or herself. For anyone who loves history, especially for anyone from Northwest or Central Louisiana who loves the history of this area, this book will be a treasure indeed. But do not make the mistake of thinking it is only focused here for this is a novel with a message for any place, any age. What a wonderful gift to the present era that this fine book from the past is again seeing daylight.
Completed in 1868 while its author was residing in the Shreveport suburb of Greenwood, Callamura was first published in Philadephia that same year and saw national distribution. Unfortunately, the edition of 1868 was to be the only one for another 135 years so for any modern reader or, in fact, any reader from the 1870s to 2003 seeking this novel only the edition of 1868 was available. Not that it was really very available at all for even if sought out a copy of the original printing is extremely scarce and expensive.
Sarah Hudson Pierce's revival of Callamura, Aphelia, and Poems in 2004 restores to availability three titles by an author whose works deserve to be remembered and read. Although not widely available in bookstores, they can be ordered through Ritz Publications at www.ritzpublications.com (318-996-0419). Bound in Morocco leatherette and illustrated with photos of Julia Creswell and her life and family, Callamura runs 412 pages and retails for $94.95, Aphelia runs 254 pages and retails for $54.95, and Poems runs 132 pages, retailing for $47.95.
© Ritz Publications 2003 - 2006