During the middle of the nineteenth century, William Tappan Thompson gained national popularity as a writer of humorous stories. He was best known for creating the fictional character Major Joseph Jones, a down-to-earth Georgia planter who wrote dialect letters about his courtship, rural life, and travels. These letters, originally appearing in periodicals that Thompson edited, were published in Major Jones's Courtship and Major Jones's Sketches of Travel. Thompson was one of a group of nineteenth-century southern writers whose humorous and realistic tales about the backwoods produced a literature that was distinctively American.
Thompson was born on August 31, 1812, in Ravenna, Ohio, to David and Catherine Kerney Thompson. At the age of fourteen, he left home to make his own living. William Tappan Thompson gained experience on the Philadelphia Daily Chronicle and later traveled south to work as a secretary under James D Wescottt, Secretary of the Territory of Florida. Thompson based some of his earliest sketches on his Florida experiences, which included at least two trips to the Seminole reservation. In 1834 Thompson moved to Augusta to study law under Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, the author of Georgia Scenes (1835). He worked in the office of the State Rights Sentinel, a newspaper owned by Longstreet. After serving briefly as a volunteer in the Second Seminole War during 1836, he returned to Augusta and in 1837 married Caroline Amour Carrie. Thompson and his wife had ten children, but only six lived to maturity.
Thompson's best-known works are Major Jones's Courtship (1843) and Major Jones's Sketches of Travel (1848). Many of his earliest sketches appeared in the Augusta Mirror, a literary magazine that he established in 1838. Within the next few years he was coeditor of three literary periodicals: the Family Companion and Ladies' Mirror in Macon; the Southern Miscellany in Madison; and the Western Continent in Baltimore, Maryland. These were his most productive years for literary writing, and he collected his humorous letters and stories in Major Jones's Courtship (1843, with enlarged editions in 1844, 1847, and 1872), Chronicles of Pineville (1845), John's Alive or, The Bride of a Ghost (1846), and Major Jones's Sketches of Travel (1848). Thompson also wrote three plays that were first performed in Baltimore. The only one to be published was Major Jones's Courtship; or Adventures of a Christmas Eve, a Domestic Comedy, in Two Acts (1850). In Major Jones's Courtship, Thompson created Major Joseph Jones, one of the most original characters in American humorous literature. The book consists of letters sent by the Major to Thompson.
These letters, written in southern backwoods dialect, give Major Jones's unique perspectives on politics, events in the news, fashions, rural life, and courtship. Thompson intended for the Major Jones letters, with their dialect, bad grammar, misspellings, and common-sense views, to serve as an antidote to the sentimental language used in some of the popular literature published in contemporary periodicals.
Major Jones's Courtship is one of the earliest examples in American literature of a fictional narrative written completely in dialect from the narrator's point of view. This was an approach later used by other writers, including Mark Twain in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The circus scene in Twain's book was apparently inspired by "Great Attraction! or The Doctor Most Oudaciously Tuck In: A Sketch from Real Life," which Thompson included in Chronicles of Pineville, a volume that portrays a small antebellum Georgia community. In the sketches composing the book, Thompson presents eccentric characters and comic situations, along with descriptions of dueling, fire-hunting, drinking, pranks, and clever legal maneuvering. He wrote in the preface that he had attempted to portray the American backwoodsman, "to catch his 'manners living as they rise,'" before the effects of education and progress caused him to disappear.
Major Jones's Sketches of Travel, originally published as humorous letters in the Western Continent, describes the Major's adventures on a tour from Georgia to the North and Canada. His naivete as a rustic in the big city is the source of much of the book's humor, but the Major's comments on slavery give the volume a serious undertone reflecting the growing controversy between the South and the North.
In 1850, Thompson became the founding editor of the Savannah Daily Morning News. Except for a short period during the Civil War, he edited this newspaper until his death. When the Civil War erupted, he vigorously championed the Southern cause until he was forced to leave Savannah as General Sherman's army approached. For a while after the war, the Daily Morning News was owned and edited by a Northern journalist under whom Thompson worked. Thompson traveled to Europe in 1867 to collect material for a new book, "Major Jones in Europe," but he never finished the manuscript. Travel photographs in the collection correspond to his time spent there. In 1868, he resumed the editorial chair of the newspaper, now known as the Savannah Morning News, and became a leading spokesman for the South during the postwar years. Joel Chandler Harris worked for the paper during the 1870s before accepting a position with the Atlanta Constitution. Thompson served as a mentor for Harris as Longstreet had for him many years earlier.
There are several different stories of Thompson's role in creating or designing the confederate flag. He was quoted to be in favor with the army that was to be universally substituted for the stars and bard. His idea was to combine the present battle flag at the time with the current white sheet. Thompson explained his reasoning and symbolism in changing the confederate flag by stating, "As a people we are fighting to ordain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblemmatical of our cause."
During the last years of his life, Thompson had a significant influence on Georgia politics. He vigorously supported conservative Democratic principles in his editorials for the Savannah Morning News. His loyalty to such political figures as John B. Gordon and Alfred Holt Colquitt sometimes resembled blind devotion, but he regarded himself as a defender of Democratic Party unity against the schemes of what he called "the Radical Republicans."
Thompson died on March 24, 1882, at his home in Savannah. His daughter prepared a memorial by gathering some of his uncollected writings and publishing them in 1883 as John's Alive; or, The Bride of a Ghost.