Author: Ritchie D. Watson

professor emeritus of American literature at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. He is the author of The Cavalier in Virginia Fiction (1985), Yeoman versus Cavalier: The Old Southwest's Fictional Road to Rebellion (1993), and Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War (2008)

Virginia Gentleman, The

The Virginia gentleman is a concept that attaches the qualities of chivalry and honor to the aristocratic class in Virginia history and literature. Similar to the myth of the Cavalier, which suggested a connection between Virginians and Royalists during the English Civil Wars (1642–1648), the idea of the Virginia gentleman is based on a code of gentility and honor that is closely tied to the slaveholding plantation culture of Tidewater Virginia. So-called gentlemen were expected to lead and behave with courtesy toward all, regardless of social status. While not assumed to be personally flawless, they were expected to demonstrate fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice. A gentleman’s reputation and personal honor were to be cultivated and protected above all else. Developed in the context of slavery and reaching its apogee among Virginians such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the concept of the gentleman spread from Virginia across the South and became an important theme in early novels of the region. Just as the Virginia gentleman provided an aspirational ideal, so did these novels present the South and its enslavement of African Americans in terms that idealized the slaveholders. This continued in the decades following the American Civil War (1861–1865), when the Virginia gentleman was enlisted into the Lost Cause and the justification of slavery. While twentieth-century writers treated it with more irony, the Virginia gentleman still thrives in American popular culture.


George William Bagby (1828–1883)

George William Bagby was a licensed physician, editor, journalist, essayist, and humorist. He is best remembered as the editor who, on the advent of the American Civil War (1861–1865), turned the Southern Literary Messenger from a respected literary journal into a propagandistic tool that endorsed secession and the Confederate cause. After the war, Bagby attempted but failed to make a living as a humorist. As assistant to the secretary of the commonwealth—which, by law, also made him state librarian—Bagby wrote his most well-regarded essay, “The Old Virginia Gentleman” (1877). Many of his essays reflect his personal conflicts with Virginia and the South: at times he is objective, even critical; at others he is sentimental and celebrates the “old days” of a better (pre-Civil War) Virginia.