“And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom…”

“It was a pleasant group of roof and bower, of spire and tree to look upon from the city, towards sunset, when every window-pane flung back the lustre of a conflagration; and magnificently did it strike upon the eye of the liegeman as they sat at their doors, at that hour, gazing upon the glorious river and its tranquil banks.”

That’s St. Mary’s, the first capital of Maryland, reimagined more than a century after its demise by John Pendleton Kennedy: popular Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore, friend of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and a novelist who never quite found his audience.

Three years ago, I checked out Kennedy’s little-read 1832 novel Swallow Barn, which offers a leisurely visit to an antebellum Virginia plantation sodden with pseudo-chivalry. I was curious to see if his 1838 historical novel, Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe’s, has medieval echoes of its own. It does, faintly—but it also sets the mood for a two-hour drive out of Washington to the wild, quiet end of the St. Mary’s Peninsula. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony there along the St. Mary’s River between the Potomac and the Chesapeake, and while the original settlement is long gone, you can still explore the lovely Historic St. Mary’s City, a sprawling living-history site that demands more than a day—especially when you’re propelled by a novel that almost no one else living has read.

It’s 1681, and times are tense: Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Proprietary Governor of the colony of Maryland, stands accused of favoring his fellow Catholics. Protestants insist that atrocities committed by the Piscataway Indians are actually the work of Catholics in disguise, and they’re lobbying the crown to hand over the colony to the Church of England. Drama! Politics! Violence! But Kennedy squanders it all to chase less genteel ghosts: The first third of Rob of the Bowl follows an exploratory mission to the haunted cottage of a murderous fisherman, a hovel of the damned that the locals call the Wizard’s Chapel.

“I would have the inquiry made by men who are not moved by the vulgar love of marvel,” Lord Baltimore declares, putting his faith in a ragtag band—a Dutch musketeer captain, an English innkeeper, a Flemish woodsman, and a taciturn Native American—who set off on an adventure right out of a 1980s Dungeons & Dragons module. An Episcopalian who admired his Catholic forebears, Kennedy was opposed to slavery, helped repeal an anti-Jewish law, and supported Irish Catholic immigrants; the Wizard’s Chapel story is his explicit memorial to Marylanders’ historic enthusiasm for coexistence and cooperation.

But with that out of the way, most of Rob of the Bowl is indulgent romance. Captain Cocklescraft—a crass pirate fostered by Captain Morgan himself—challenges Albert Verheyden, the chivalrous, lute-playing secretary of Lord Baltimore, for the affections of Blanche, the daughter of the local customs official. On page after page, the wilds of St. Mary’s ring with the revels of traders, wenches, cavaliers, and rogues, including the title character, Rob Swales, a mysterious amputee who slides across sandy beaches in a large bowl strapped to the remnants of his legs. In 17th-century Maryland, it’s still the Middle Ages: the locals celebrate their patron saints’ holidays, hold a tournament, clutch relics, and reminisce about visiting Old World shrines. Unfortunately, the weird characters aren’t very rich, the likeable characters don’t feel seriously imperiled, and fateful tensions between Catholics and Protestants await a sequel Kennedy never wrote. Rob of the Bowl is a stroll through a living-history museum, one that’s full of welcoming souls who want to edify and amuse you, but the plot they abide in is frozen in time.

Working hard to immerse 19th-century readers in the late 17th century, Kennedy opens each chapter with snippets of verse from the 17th and 18th centuries, and he forces his characters to use period language (including my favorite Elizabethan exclamation: “ads heartlikens!”). At one point, a Dutch doctor at Lord Baltimore’s court speaks in a meticulously rendered accent—”Vell, vell, dere is noding lost by peing acquanted at once wid de people of de house”—on and off for sixteen tedious pages, only to be superseded by his even less comprehensible assistant: “Goot beoplish! dish is de drice renowned and ingomprbl Doctor.” I laughed; hopefully Kennedy meant me to.

If parts of Rob of the Bowl now come off as sillier than the responsible, civic-minded Kennedy deserves, it’s partly the fault of our age; Kennedy has written an unapologetically earnest book packed with sincere observations. Here’s his narrator explaining one character’s quick turn toward penitence:

When age and satiety have destroyed the sense of worldly pleasure, the soul finds a nourishment in the consolations of religion, to which it flies with but slight persuasion; and however volatile and self-dependent youth may deride it, the aged are faithful witnesses to the truth, that in the Christian faith there is a spell to restore the green to the withered vegetation of the heart, even as the latter rain renovates the pastures of autumn.

And here’s Albert, smitten by Maryland:

With my own free will I should never leave this sunny land. These woods are richer to my eye than pent-up cities; these spreading oaks and stately poplars, than our groined and shafted cathedrals and our cloistered aisles: yes, and I more love to think of the free range of this woodland life, these forest-fed deer, and flight of flocking wild fowl, than all the busy assembling of careful men which throng the great marts of trade.

Rob of the Bowl didn’t sell well, but the novel is a heartfelt tribute to old-timey Maryland, and its jumble of romantic tropes includes a concession to life’s transience:

They are gone! Like shadows have these men of might sunk on the earth. They, their game, their wigwams, their monuments, their primeval forests,—yea, even their graves, have flitted away in this spectral flight. Saxon and Norman, bluff Briton and heavy Suabian inherit the land. And in its turn, well-a-day! our pragmatical little city hath departed. Not all its infant glory, nor its manhood’s bustle, its walls, gardens and bowers,—its warm housekeeping, its gossiping burgers, its politics and its factions,—not even its prolific dames and gamesome urchins could keep it in the upper air until this our day. Alas, for the vaulting pride of the village, the vain glory of the city, and the metropolitan boast! St. Mary’s hath sunk to the level of Tyre and Sidon, Balbec and Palmyra! She hath become trackless, tokenless.

I have wandered over the blank field where she sank down to rest. It was a book whose characters I could scarce decipher.

Reading John Pendleton Kennedy today is more poignant than I’d expected. Oh, the book isn’t good, but its author’s peculiar giddiness humanizes every page: his face in shadow, beaming in the lamplight as he dreams up a bygone world and then conjures a cabinet of Toby Mug characters to inhabit it. He dearly wants to make 17th-century Maryland real, to raise old St. Mary’s from its grave, to remind us that those who came before us drank, fought, laughed, prayed, and loved. I came away believing only that the obscure author himself did all of those things—but when even whole cities can crumble and rot, that’s a relic well-found after 200 years.

(Partially rebuilt chimney bases of the Leonard Calvert House, Historic St. Mary’s)

“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

“The evening passed delightfully: we sat out in the moonlight on the piazza, and strolled along the banks of the Patapsco; after which I went to bed, had a sweet night’s sleep, and dreamt I was in Mahomet’s Paradise.”

Washington Irving romanticized his life. In an 1854 letter to his niece, he even found whimsy on the Patapsco River in Maryland, where he stayed at the home of John Pendleton Kennedy: Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy, Maryland Congressman, and a man immersed in the pop-medieval daydreams of his age.

No one reads Kennedy’s 1832 book Swallow Barn anymore, and the author’s own description of it isn’t likely to bring readers back: “There is a rivulet of story wandering through a broad meadow of episode. Or, I might truly say, it is a book of episodes, with an occasional digression into the plot.” Kennedy loved Irving’s Bracebridge Hall, in which an American visitor describes an English manor through a series of character sketches and anecdotes, and he mimics it in Swallow Barn: a northerner visits his cousin’s plantation on the James River in Virginia and describes the place in anecdotal fits and starts. (Swallow Barn so closely resembles Irving’s style that when it was published under the name “Mark Littleton,” the public assumed Irving has simply adopted a coy new nom de plume.)

Medievalism is rampant in Swallow Barn. In his prologue, Kennedy cites the Morte d’Arthur. He likens a miller to a Robin Hood character, an old slave to an ancient crusading knight, and a group of pedantic Virginia lawyers to an Anglo-Saxon “wittanagemote.”

As it turns out, the early 19th-century Virginians of Swallow Barn are as obsessed with the Middle Ages as the narrator is. Here’s Prudence Meriwether, the plantation owner’s sister:

There is a dash of the picturesque in the character of this lady. Towards sunset she is apt to stray forth amongst the old oaks, and to gather small bouquets of wild flowers in the pursuit of which she contrives to get into very pretty attitudes; or she falls into raptures at the shifting tints of the clouds on the western sky, and produces quite a striking pictorial effect by the skillful choice of a position which shows her figure in strong relief against the evening light. And then in her boudoir may be found exquisite sketches from her pencil, of forms of love and beauty, belted and buckled knights, old castles and pensive ladies, Madonnas and cloistered nuns,—the offspring of an artistic imagination heated with romance and devotion.

Next we meet Ned Hazard, a 33-year-old Princeton dropout who stands to inherit Swallow Barn:

A few years ago he was seized with a romantic fever which manifested itself chiefly in a conceit to visit South America, and play knight-errant in the quarrel of the Patriots. It was the most sudden and unaccountable thing in the world; for no one could trace the infection to any probable cause;—still, it grew upon Ned’s fancy, and appeared in so many brilliant phrases, that there was no getting it out of his brain . . . However, he came home the most disquixotted cavalier that ever hung up his shield at the end of a scurvy crusade…

“His mind,” Kennedy insists, “is still a fairy land, inhabited by pleasant and conceited images, winged charmers, laughing phantoms, and mellow spectres of frolic.”

The object of Ned Hazard’s chivalrous amour is Bel Tracy, who’s so obsessed with Sir Walter Scott that she uses his novels to try to teach herself hawking:

In her pursuit of this object she had picked up some gleanings of the ancient lore that belonged to the art; and, fantastic as it may seem, began to think that her unskillful efforts would be attended with success . . . A silver ring, or varvel, was fitted to one leg, and on it was engraved the name of her favorite, copied from some old tale, ‘Fairbourne,’ with the legend attached, ‘I live in my lady’s grace.’ I know not what other foppery was expended upon her minion; but I will warrant he went forth in as conceited array as his ‘lady’s grace’ could devise for him. A lady’s favorite is not apt to want gauds and jewels.

By the time Swallow Barn winds down and “Mark Littleton” heads north, Ned Hazard survives a chivalric duel (a fistfight); slaves decked out to resemble “troubadours and minnesingers” tell ghost stories about nearby Goblin Swamp; and the narrator likens himself to Gregory of Tours and William of Malmesbury and quotes Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale.”

In an introduction to the most recent reprinting of Swallow Barn, Lucinda H. MacKethan writes that Kennedy “manages merrily both to revere and to ridicule almost all of the Old South’s icons,” adding that reviewers disagreed on whether the book was a faithful depiction of Southern plantation life or blatant satire. I think it’s both: Swallow Barn shows a South in which overprivileged plantation-dwellers are so immersed in chivalric tales that they come to inhabit a shared medieval delusion.

When Washington Irving visited John Pendelton Kennedy in Maryland in 1854, life had been good to both authors, but especially to Kennedy. He had married Elizabeth Gray, daughter of textile baron Edward Gray, and moved into the Gray mansion. Gray liked to see himself as a feudal lord as he surveyed his factories on the Patapsco, a fancy Irving apparently shared.

In an 1854 letter to Elizabeth Gray Kennedy after returning home to Tarrytown, Irving let his inner medievalist romp:

 I envy Kennedy the job of building that tower, if he has half the relish that I have for castle building—air castles, or any other. I should like nothing better than to have plenty of money to squander on stone and mortar, and to build chateaux along the beautiful Patapsco with the noble stone which abounds there; but I would first blow up all the cotton mills (your father’s among the number), and make picturesque ruins of them; and I would utterly destroy the railroad; and all of the cotton lords should live in baronial castles on the cliffs, and the cotton spinners should be virtuous peasantry of both sexes, in silk skirts and small clothes and straw hats, with long ribbands, and should do nothing but sing songs and choruses, and dance on the margin of the river.

Only Washington Irving could look past textile mills and see a medieval peasant fantasy—but as Paul J. Travers points out in The Patapsco: Baltimore’s River of History, “Irving’s words were prophetic”: A great flood in 1868 washed away part of the Gray mansion, Kennedy’s personal library was ruined, and the family was forced to move. (Elizabeth Kennedy kept the factory going for 20 more years—until another devastating flood.)

Today, if you hack through the weeds between down Ellicott City and Patapsco State Park, you can walk in the footsteps of a wide-eyed Washington Irving…

…and spot the “picturesque ruins” Irving joked that he wanted to see. They’re now monuments to a forgotten writer and a half-remembered natural disaster.

Nearby, you’ll find more recent wrecks that put Irving’s romanticism in perspective.

Shops on Main Street in Ellicott City now sell plastic swords, pirate gear, and Viking hats alongside antique shops that burnish the relics of Irving and Kennedy’s age. On the outskirts of town, Marylanders hike and bike; some latter-day rustics fish along the river’s edge. Whether you see timeless fantasies here, as Irving did, depends on your affinity with Swallow Barn’s Bel Tracy, who found “something pleasant in the idea of moated castles, and gay knights, and border feuds, and roundelays under one’s window, and lighted halls.”

Mark Twain saw something else in Southern medievalism: a sort of mass insanity, a “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism” that’s still more tenacious in America than he ever foresaw. Even now, many Americans would answer Twain in the same tone Bel Tracy uses to scold her cousin: “Pshaw!…You haven’t one spark of genuine romance in your whole composition.” When a 19th-century New Yorker can find Virginia medievalism on the banks of a Maryland river, I’m not sure both notions aren’t right.