George Bagby was born on August 13, 1828, on the Buckingham County plantation of William Evans, his maternal grandfather. He was the only son and elder of two children of George Bagby, owner of a general store in Lynchburg, and Virginia Young Evans Bagby, who were both descended from families that had been in Virginia since before the American Revolution (1775–1783). Bagby’s mother died when he was about eight years old, and his father sent him and his sister to live on the Cumberland County plantation of their aunt Elizabeth Hobson. Bagby there developed the sensitivity to the minutiae of plantation life that later informed many of his popular essays, including the beautifully crafted 1860 composition, “Fishing on the Appomattox.”
When Bagby was ten his father sent him to Edgehill School in Princeton, New Jersey. Two years later he transferred to Hurlbut School in Philadelphia, and in 1843 he entered Delaware College. He matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania in 1846 and graduated with a degree in medicine in 1849. Bagby may have studied medicine to satisfy his father’s wishes, because after he moved back to Lynchburg he made little or no attempt to establish a practice.
Literary and Journalistic Beginnings
In 1853 Bagby and a close friend, George Woodville Latham, began publication of a newspaper, the Lynchburg Express, which lasted only three years but launched Bagby on a lifelong career in journalism and writing. In 1857 he moved to Washington, D.C., where he served as correspondent for a number of southern newspapers, started to publish essays in national journals, and began acquiring fame as a writer. His first articles in a journal of wide distribution were “My Wife and My Theory About Wives” (1855) and “The Virginia Editor,” (1856) which appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In 1858 the Southern Literary Messenger published the first of his eight “Mozis Addums” letters, addressed to “Billy Ivvins” in “Curdsville, Va.” The Addums letters were modeled on the speech of backwoods characters Bagby had known as a boy and were influenced by the well-established tradition of southwest dialect humor, and they were an immediate success. Although Bagby later came to resent the lasting popularity of Mozis Addums, complaining that for many years the name made him “a little sick whenever I heard it,” the enormous popularity of the letters was no doubt responsible in part for Bagby’s being named successor to John Reuben Thompson in June 1860 as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. In March 1863 he also became associate editor of the Richmond Whig.
Relieved to get away from the antislavery fervor of many of Washington’s politicians, Bagby enthusiastically supported secession and the Southern cause in his editorials in the Messenger, but the war had a disastrous effect on the magazine. After struggling for more than three years to keep the publication alive in the face of dwindling supplies of paper and ink and shrinking subscription rolls, Bagby resigned his position as editor in January 1864, only months before the most-distinguished literary journal in the South ceased publication forever. Bagby joined the Confederate army on April 22, 1861, but the chronic dyspepsia from which he suffered all of his adult life led to his discharge late in September 1861. He tied his fortunes so closely to the Confederate cause that in April 1865 he fled Richmond aboard the same train that carried Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his entourage to Danville.
Post-Civil War Years
Bagby returned to Richmond within a month to join his young wife, Lucy Parke Chamberlayne Bagby, whom he had married on February 16, 1863. They had six sons and four daughters between 1864 and 1882. Faced with the expenses of supporting the growing family, Bagby turned in desperation to the lecture circuit. His humorous writings, especially his “Bacon and Greens” (1866), were ideally suited for public lectures, but he remained in debt. Consequently, from 1867 to 1870 he edited the Native Virginian, a new newspaper published first at Orange Court House and later in Gordonsville, Orange County. His efforts to make the newspaper a financial success proved to be in vain, however, and in 1870 he returned to Richmond as assistant to the secretary of the commonwealth, who was by law also the state librarian. Until he lost his job when the Readjusters came to power in 1878, Bagby was in charge of the books in the Virginia State Library. He continued to lecture and composed some of his best-known works during those years, including his most famous essay, “The Old Virginia Gentleman,” in 1877.
In a series of letters published in the Richmond State during the final years of his life, Bagby revealed the abiding tension in his mind and writings between the impulse to describe life in Virginia precisely and accurately and the impulse to sentimentalize the old days in his native commonwealth. At his best, his observations on Southside plantation life are shaped by an admirable blend of accuracy, objectivity, and genuine affection for his subject. Some of the essays, such as “My Uncle Flatback’s Plantation,” “Fishing on the Appomattox,” and “Corn-Field Peas,” have held up well. Others more deeply rooted in the ethos of the time have not.
George William Bagby died of the effects of chronic dyspepsia and an ulcer of the tongue at his home in Richmond on November 29, 1883 and was buried in Shockoe Cemetery. Posthumous editions of his essays appeared in 1884–1885, 1910, 1938, 1943, and 1948, the last three edited by his youngest daughter, Ellen Matthews Bagby.