Quoted from American National Biography: Preston, Margaret Junkin (19 May 1820-28 Mar. 1897), poet and writer, was born in Milton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Rev. George Junkin and Julia Rush Miller. A Presbyterian minister, her father was called to Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1832 to assume the presidency of the newly established Lafayette College. As a child, Margaret was tutored by members of the Lafayette faculty as well as her parents. Dr. Junkin became president of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1841; three years later, he returned to Lafayette. In 1848, having accepted the presidency of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University), he moved his family to Lexington, Virginia. Straining her eyes by sewing and reading, Margaret Junkin had seriously impaired her vision by the time she was twenty-one. Nevertheless, after the move to Lexington, she began to publish poems and stories in newspapers and magazines. In 1856, she published anonymously Silverwood: A Book of Memories, a novel that satirized the emphasis Virginians placed on ancestry. The following year, she married Major John T. L. Preston (portrait at right), a widower with seven children, who helped found the Virginia Military Institute and taught Latin there. Margaret's sister Eleanor married Major Thomas Jonathan Jackson, later famous as "Stonewall" Jackson, who was professor of mathematics at the Institute. Margaret and John Preston later had two sons of their own. Preston's family, like many others, was divided by the Civil War. Dr. Junkin was forced to resign the presidency of Washington College in 1861 because of his Unionist sympathies. Although Major Preston opposed secession, he went along with Virginia and served under Stonewall Jackson; Margaret Preston shared his political views. Espousing the southern cause, she wrote some of the most popular verse in the Confederacy. In the intervals between housekeeping duties, Preston kept a wartime diary, which became the basis for her second book, Beechenbrook: A Rhyme of the War. Her husband, now a colonel, had an edition of 2,000 copies printed in Richmond in 1865. Most of this edition was destroyed during the burning of Richmond. The work sold over 7,000 copies when it was republished in Baltimore in 1866. A long narrative poem, Beechenbrook carries the reader through the war years with a southern family. In lines that were often quoted, Preston described vividly the lot of the Confederate soldier during bitter winter weather:
Halt! the march is over;At another point, she writes of the death of a young Confederate private:
Day is almost done;
Loose the cumbrous knapsack,
Drop the heavy gun:
Chilled, and worn, and weary,
Wander to and fro,
Seeking wood to kindle
Fires amidst the snow.
Only a private--and who will careParts of Beechenbrook were widely anthologized in the period soon after its publication. After the war, the Prestons were reunited. John Preston returned to his professorship at the Virginia Military Institute, a position he held until his retirement in 1882. During Reconstruction, Margaret Preston continued to combine the roles of housewife, mother, and poet. She published poems and reviews in southern magazines and newspapers and even in such northern magazines as Lippincott's. Her third book, Old Song and New, published in 1870 by J. B. Lippincott, contained stories in verse from the Old and New Testaments, from Greek mythology, and from native ballads. In 1875, Preston's Cartoons was published in Boston. In one of its best poems, "The Maestro's Confession," the author reflects movingly on her own fear of death. The dying maestro confesses a previous murder with these lines:
When I may pass away,
Or how, or why I perish, or where
I mix with the common clay?
They will fill my empty place again,
With another as bold and brave,
And they'll blot me out, ere the Autumn rain
Has freshened my nameless grave.
My brainOne event during Reconstruction that moved Preston deeply was the death of Robert E. Lee. In her poem of commemoration, "Gone Forward," which appeared in Cartoons, she wrote:
Dizzied and whirled with sudden pain,
Trying to span that gulf of years
Fronting once more those long-laid fears.
Confess--why yes, if I must, I must.
Yes, "Let the tent be struck:" Victorious morningDuring the 1880s, with her children now grown, Preston had more time to devote to her own affairs. A summer in Europe in 1884 produced her last prose work, A Handful of Monographs, Continental and English (1886), which collected her impressions. She also produced two more volumes of poetry, For Love's Sake (1886) and Colonial Ballads, Sonnets and Other Verse (1887), and the "Centennial Poem" (1885) for Washington and Lee University. Her poetry of this period revealed her mastery of complex meters and rhyme schemes. In Colonial Ballads, which contains most of her best poems done before her loss of eyesight in the late 1880s, Preston makes various characters seem like real people. One of her favorites was Leonardo da Vinci; in "Leonardo's Angel" she portrays his confidence and spirit in petitioning his father to allow him to paint:
Through every crevice flashes in a day
Magnificent beyond all earth's adorning:
The night is over; wherefore should he stay?
And wherefore should our voices choke to say,
"The General has gone forward?"
Life's foughten field not once beheld surrender;
But with superb endurance, present, past,
Our pure Commander, lofty, simple, tender,
Through good, through ill, held his high purpose fast
Wearing his armor spotless,--till at last,
Death gave the final, "Forward."
May, but father, grant me nowPreston cultivated an extensive literary correspondence with such writers as Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Christina Rossetti. In her later years, she corresponded with another southern poet, Paul Hamilton Hayne, who thought her an excellent writer of sonnets. Each saw the other as a kindred spirit; they longed for the South to assume what they believed to be its rightful leadership in American government and cultural affairs. Preston continued to contribute essays and reviews to periodicals, and she was a friend and critic of young poets and writers. After her husband's death in 1890, she moved to Baltimore to live with a son, Dr. George J. Preston. Preston died in her sleep, fulfilling a wish to do so expressed in her poem, "Euthanasia." Preston's classical education, long isolation, and wide reading tended to turn her away from the present to the past. Literary tastes have changed greatly since her day, making her work seem overly rhetorical and sentimental. Yet much of her verse still stands up well; at its best, it is thoughtful, sometimes profound. Preston was a good, if not great, poet and a leader in the revival of southern letters after the Civil War. She also epitomized the sufferings and perseverance of southern women during difficult times. Bibliography
The skill for what I can do;--curb the colt
That's wildest in your stalls,--lead on the hounds,
And fly the hawks; or from an ilex-knot,
Carve out a shrine, my sister praises more
Than Donatello's cuttings; or frame flutes
You own make music to your mind; or paint
A saint's face for some teasing servant-maid
To say her prayers to.
Biographical information regarding Margaret Junkin Preston can be found in:
L. Moody Simms Online Resources
- Janie McTyeire Baskervill, "Margaret Junkin Preston," in Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies, vol. 2 (1903), pp. 23-45;
- F. V. N. Painter, Poets of the South (1903), pp. 25-27 and Poets of Virginia (1907), pp. 182-85;
- W. P. Trent, Southern Writers: Selections in Prose and Verse (1905), pp. 337-38;
- Carl Holliday, A History of Southern Literature (1906), pp. 294-300;
- Charles W. Hubner, Representative Southern Poets (1906), pp. 148-65;
- LaSalle Corbell Pickett, Literary Hearthstones of Dixie (1912), pp. 148-65;
- Jay B. Hubbell, The South in American Literature, 1607-1900 (1954), pp. 617-21;
- L. Moody Simms, Jr., "Margaret Junkin Preston: Southern Poet," Southern Studies, 19 (Spring 1980): 94-100.
- Margaret Junkin Preston, Beechenbrook: A Rhyme of the War, 1865 http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/imls/preston/menu.html From the Documenting the American South Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Margaret Junkin Preston Papers Inventory (#1543), Manuscripts Department, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Margaret Junkin Preston, http://www.civilwarpoetry.org/authors/preston.htm
The Joseph Junkin Family Tree is a collection of information gathered by
Eric & Liz Davis,
Mary Eleanor Bell,
Alice Erma Bell,
Margaret A. Killian,
Laura Gayle Junkin,
Winston Ray Norris,
Joyce Ann Junkin,
Barbara Ann Millner,
and many others.
The html version was initiated by Eric and Elizabeth Fisher-Davis in 1998