Kennedy was born in Maryland in 1795 to an Irish-immigrant father and a mother who came from a wealthy Virginia family. He attended college in Baltimore, fought in the War of 1812, and then earned a law degree. A member of the, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1838–1839, 1841–1845) and as the U.S. Secretary of the Navy in the administration of Millard Fillmore (1852–1853). His interest in literature equaled that of politics, and he knew or was friends with James Fenimore Cooper, , Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Swallow Barn appeared in 1832, when tensions between North, South, and West were new and not yet fully hardened. In his preface to that first edition, Kennedy wrote that his work is not a novel but rather “a rivulet of story wandering through a broad meadow of episode.” In 1853, when the second edition was published and tensions were higher, he again claimed that the book was not a novel but a work “interchangeably partaking of the complexion of a book of travels, a diary, a collection of letters, a drama, and a history.” Nevertheless, Swallow Barn, originally conceived as a book of epistolary essays, was carefully unified by plot, which permitted Kennedy to address political tensions of the time within the framework of a fictional family. For Kennedy, political issues were not conflicts between states or sections but stages in shaking off the past and moving toward the future. In Swallow Barn, he presents three generations of a family and shows them addressing a longstanding problem, a legal quibble over a relatively useless tract of land. The issue can be fully resolved only when the two families are joined by a marriage. Along the way, his narrator, a northerner, has ample opportunity to provide vignettes and commentary on plantation life.
Swallow Barn is centered around two neighboring plantations located near Martinsburg, in present-day. At the titular Swallow Barn plantation live Frank and Lucretia Meriwether and their seven children, along with Lucretia’s brother, Edward “Ned” Hazard, and Frank’s spinster sister. The novel’s narrator, a New York cousin of the Hazards named Mark Littleton, is there for a long visit. Isaac Tracy, meanwhile, owns the nearby Brakes plantation, and for nearly fifty years he has pursued a lawsuit against the Meriwethers over a tract of land along their shared boundary. Two generations earlier, the land had belonged to Isaac’s father, who sold it to Ned’s grandfather, Edward, for use as a millpond. The soil proved too porous for this purpose, however, and Hazard abandoned the project. The tract of land, known as the Apple-pie Branch, also was too marshy for crops, so it lay unused until Isaac Tracy decided that it would be satisfactory for pasturage of his cattle. At that point, he initiated a suit against Ned Hazard based on the premise that the original sale had been for a specific purpose and became void if the land was not used for that purpose.
Through all of this the Meriwethers and Hazards remained on friendly terms with Tracy and his children. By the time of the novel, the suit has become little more than a nuisance that takes the principals away from their customary work, and to resolve the matter Frank Meriwether proposes to Tracy that it be arbitrated by two mutual attorney friends. Unbeknownst to Tracy, however, Meriwether has decided that the long sequence of suit and countersuit has become intolerable and has instructed his representative to ensure that the arbitration places the land in Tracy’s possession.
The lawyers review the suit’s papers, conduct an investigation, and return with the decision that both Isaac Tracy and Frank Meriwether wanted: that the disputed land belongs to the Brakes. And yet at book’s end, Tracy says he wishes for the matter to be reviewed again, in hopes that the settlement will incorporate language validating one of his assertions that was tangential to the arbitration. That wish is not fulfilled, however. Since the earliest reference to the lawsuit, Littleton and, therefore, the book’s readers become privy to a prophesy uttered by “Mammy Diana,” an enslaved woman at Swallow Barn—”That the landmarks shall never be stable until Swallow Barn shall wed The Brakes.”
This final resolution depends on the success of Ned Hazard’s courtship of Isaac Tracy’s daughter, Bel, and that courtship forms the secondary plot of the work. While the attorneys have sought to resolve the ownership of Apple-pie Branch, Ned has managed to make a fool of himself in Bel’s eyes by allowing her to catch him singing her name loudly in the woods. The misdeed seems inconsequential, but Bel, an unmarried woman on a remote plantation, has little with which to occupy herself except attention to the mannerly details of life and the reading of chivalric novels. The careless singing of her name is enough to offend her, and the question of her relationship with Ned hangs in the balance through most of the novel.
After the arbitration, however, the romantic plot takes hold. In her efforts to approximate the life of a heroine from one of her novels, Bel attempts to train and outfit a marsh hawk for falconry. Her success is limited to the outfitting, and when she first attempts to hunt with the hawk, the bird seizes the opportunity to escape. Ned, recognizing an opportunity to restore himself to Bel’s good graces, volunteers to find the bird, and succeeds. Bel is ecstatic at the return of her hawk and warms to the courtship of Ned, now known as the Knight of the Hawk.
Encouraged and counseled by Littleton and the Tracy kinsman Harvey Riggs, Ned attempts with some success to appear more serious and settled in Bel’s presence, and the two are married shortly after Littleton leaves Swallow Barn. When Isaac Tracy speaks of reopening the lawsuit over Apple-pie Branch, Ned, now his son-in-law, attempts to dissuade him from doing so. The interests of Swallow Barn and the Brakes have become fused, and the passage of Ned and Bel from frivolous courtship to marriage and stability places Ned in a position of increased influence with Isaac Tracy. As a son-in-law, he can ensure that Tracy will not raise the suit over the long-disputed tract of land again.
Swallow Barn enjoyed popular success. Despite a cholera epidemic that forced some booksellers to close for a time, about 1,500 copies, or three-fourths of the first printing, sold in the first nine months after publication. A pirated edition appeared in London, and a Swedish edition was published by 1835. The North American Review, in its April 1833 issue, declared Swallow Barn to be “a work of great merit and promise.” Despite a plot that does not otherwise “excite a very deep and strong interest,” Kennedy succeeds in translating the “manners and customs” of Virginia and compares favorably to Washington Irving.
The New-England Magazine, in July 1832, finds less to commend. The novel “has no plot or story whatever,” the editors write, and does not clearly fit into any one genre, making it difficult to judge. “It is not a poem, though rich in the materials of poetry; it is not a lean record of ‘first impressions;’ it is not a book of travels and adventures; it is not a novel.” Instead, it is most like Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), “of which it is a manifest imitation.” Still, they find the work to be “accomplished and elegant.” The American Monthly, in its September 1832 issue,In subsequent years, the work has attracted relatively little attention from modern scholars and critics. Vernon Parrington, writing in 1927, recognized it as the earliest successful novel of plantation life and commented on the idyllic setting and romantic treatment of slavery. In 1954, Jay Hubbell argued that it is “a more faithful picture of Virginia life than a romantic novel could have been.” On the other hand, Jan Bakker, one of Kennedy’s more recent commentators, viewed the work as a romantic novel that represents the plantation as an idealized pastoral environment. According to Bakker, Kennedy, with his recognition of economic realities and the potential of cities, viewed the passing of the Virginia plantation with mixed emotions. The plantation was, in other words, the antithesis of “the rise of socially leveling Jacksonian democracy, unseemly urban and rural development and mechanization, and abrasive North-South sectionalism.” Swallow Barn to be unfortunately derivative not of Irving’s Sketch Book but of his Bracebridge Hall (1822). “The characters are few and without interest,” and while courtesy to the author demands the assumption that they live, act, and talk as real Virginians do, the editors worry that such people “must be quite dull in the reality … as [they are] in the description.”
William R. Taylor, in his 1961 study Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South in American National Character, saw Swallow Barn as Kennedy’s way of addressing his ambiguities about his mercantile class origins and genteel aspirations. J. V. Ridgely viewed Kennedy’s first novel as essentially conservative but interesting because the author “saw the possibilities in contrasting southern and northern cultures.” All of these readings posit that the central issue of the times was the increasing tension between North and South—even though sectional allegiance was only weakly established while Kennedy was writing. This overlooks Kennedy’s nationalist views, which were well established by this time. Kennedy’s modern commentators also overlook that he and his readers may have viewed their times as being far more complex than modern readers imagine them to have been.