Louise Clarke Pyrnelle

Children’s author, teacher, and public speaker Louise Clarke “Pyrnelle” Parnell (1850-1907) was best known for her books Diddie, Dumps, and Tot, or Plantation Child-Life (1882) and Miss Li’l’ Tweetty (1917), which presented the institution of slavery in a romanticized and paternalistic light. After marrying, she took as her pen name Louise Clarke Pyrnelle, a slight alteration of her husband’s surname.

Elizabeth Louise Clarke was born on a cotton plantation near Uniontown, Perry County, on July 10, 1850, owned by her father, Richard Clarke, a wealthy physician, and mother, Elizabeth Carson (Bates) Clarke of Petersburg, Virginia. The family relocated to Alabama from Virginia in 1852. Pyrnelle was the second of the family’s three girls and grew up surrounded by the everyday activities of the plantation. The novels and stories she later produced all offer a romantic depiction of the antebellum plantation life Pyrnelle knew as a child, particularly regarding the interactions between the African American slaves and the white plantation family.

Louise’s father fought briefly in the Civil War, serving as the captain of a regiment he organized called the Canebrake Rifle Guards, until he was wounded in battle. By the end of the Civil War, the family was suffering financially; Clarke sold the plantation in 1865 and set up a medical practice in Selma, Dallas County. On the plantation, Louise had received a private education at home through a governess. After her family’s relocation, however, she entered Hamner Hall, an Episcopal school in Montgomery, and continued her education there until 1867. Following her schooling, Louise began to teach public speaking at Greensboro Female Academy in Hale County and travelled in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas to give public readings. In the early 1870s, she became a governess for the younger children of the Parnell family in the rural town of Browns, Dallas County. The Parnells’ eldest son, John, fell in love with Louise, but she declined his offer of marriage, wishing to continue her education and career as a public speaker.

Traveling to New York City, Louise studied elocution at Anne Randall Diehl’s College of Education and at the Delsarte Academy. After graduation, Louise accompanied actress Mary Scott Siddons on a public reading tour through New England and Canada, where she read stories in what was then called “Southern Negro Dialect,” an increasingly popular art form that aimed to capture the speech patterns of African Americans in the U.S. South. Doing so put her at the forefront of an 1870s literary movement led by authors such as Mark Twain and, slightly later, Joel Chandler Harris. Although most of these writers were white, the practice of attempting to transcribe black vernacular was not seen as controversial at the time but was heralded as a new literary innovation that made stories of the South more “authentic.” Louise spent only one season on tour before going to Natchez, Mississippi, to be a governess and to give reading tours more locally. When she fell ill, John Parnell arrived to help, and the two were married in 1880.

While living in Columbus, Georgia, in the early 1880s, Louise, writing under the name Pyrnelle, began a children’s novel about three young white girls growing up on a plantation in Mississippi prior to the Civil War. The novel became Diddie, Dumps, and Tot, or Plantation Child-Life, published in 1882 by Harper & Brothers. Pyrnelle looked back to her own childhood in Alabama for inspiration; she wrote in the preface that she hoped to preserve the traditions and stories of the slaves of the plantation South with whom she had been familiar as a child. The novel quickly became a success and was praised by the New York Times in a September 1883 article for its use of black dialect. Aside from its historical value, Pyrnelle’s first novel gained popularity with white southerners for its humorous and touching portrayals of childhood. Although its caricatures of Southern blacks, its derogatory language, and its uncritical romanticization of slavery can make it distasteful to modern audiences, Diddie, Dumps, and Tot was reprinted numerous times and remained popular throughout much of the twentieth century. A modern reader can see from Pyrnelle’s descriptions of African Americans that, while praising the bonds between black and white individuals, she shared the common prejudices of the day; under her pen, the black slaves are alternately revered and caricatured.

With both romanticized language and tongue-in-cheek depictions, Diddie, Dumps, and Tot describes the daily lives of the three white girls, ages 9, 5, and 3, and their African American caretakers. The girls spend much of their time watching the slaves’ activities and listening to their stories. Among those told is that of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, similar to the one recounted by Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus stories. The novel also tells of the girls’ own adventures, including their encounter with a runaway slave hiding in the plantation gin-house. When the girls discover that the slave belongs to a despotic neighbor, they try to convince the neighbor not to punish the slave if he returns. The novel ends darkly by demonstrating the effects of the Civil War on the southern way of life, showing the Lost Cause” perspective on the war so widespread at the time as Pyrnelle recounts how the father died in the war, the house burned, and the plantation was deserted.

Pyrnelle published only one other story in her lifetime, “Aunt Flora’s Courtship and Marriage” (1906), the tale of a plantation slave’s wish for a husband and her subsequent wedding. Pyrnelle was working on a novel called Sugar Babe and one titled tentatively Among the Hill Billies in the early 1900s but, declining in health, she did not publish them. Pyrnelle died in Birmingham on August 21, 1907, and was buried in the Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.

She left behind several stories employing black dialect and one completed novel, Miss Li’l’ Tweetty, which was published in 1917. This second novel proved just as compelling as her first, depicting the upbringing of “Tweetty” on her family’s Alabama plantation, surrounded by a family of caring slaves, including her closest companion, Popsy. This time, the owner of the plantation is a kindly doctor, likely an homage to Pyrnelle’s own father. The novel recounts the misadventures of Tweetty and Popsy, who often get themselves into trouble by trying to help others. The narrative ends by describing the flooding of the Alabama River, the family’s narrow escape in a rickety boat, their precarious survival by climbing cottonwood trees, and their rescue by a riverboat captain. The novel was praised by the Birmingham Age-Herald and reviewed favorably by the New York Times Book Review, but never achieved the fame and recognition of her first work. Pyrnelle’s novels remain of interest to those studying southern culture, demonstrated by the 1972 reprint of Miss Li’l’ Tweetty by the Black Heritage Library Collection.

Published Works by Louise Clarke Pyrnelle

Diddie, Dumps, and Tot, or Plantation Child-Life (1882)

“The Courtship and Marriage of Aunt Flora” (1906)

Miss Li’l’ Tweetty (1917)

Additional Resources

Hoole, William Stanley, and Addie Shirley Hoole. Louise Clarke Pyrnelle: A Biography with Selections from Her Writings. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Confederate Publishing Company, 1982.

Sample, Sue Alice. “A Study of Louise Clarke Pyrnelle.” MA Thesis. Nashville: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1930.

Williams, Benjamin Buford. A Literary History of Alabama: The Nineteenth Century. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1979.

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