Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"Whistlin' Dixie" - Part 2: The "Romance" of the Old South

Perhaps more than any other period in American history - and fans of Westerns will argue with me - the "Old South" has been romanticized ad nauseum. From Gone With the Wind, North and South, and countless other TV and movie adaptations, to an ongoing hoop-skirted parade of Harlequin romances, the antebellum South and the Civil War (which provided a bloody, albeit equally romanticized, exclamation point to the period) have been given the saccharine-coated treatment for over one hundred years. Bankers and bricklayers spend their free weekends donning authentic Civil War-era uniforms and re-enact some of the conflict's bloodiest encounters. (Their wives and girlfriends - some enthusiastic, some dubious - cinch themselves into corsets and play the parts of wives, grieving widows, proud mothers, and camp followers!) Visit Charleston, South Carolina, Mobile, Alabama, or a host of other southern destinations possessing intact plantation edifices, and one finds an often garish display of "Old South" culture. How does one explain this phenomenon?

No doubt some of this can be explained in the ways we account for our nostalgia over the "roaring 20s" or the "fabulous 50s." We filter the unpleasant realities and regard these periods as "a golden age" or "simpler time." Yet examining the mythic character of the 1950s - with which we're all familiar thanks to Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Happy Days - Stephanie Coontz, in her landmark monograph, The Way We Never Were, notes that Leave It to Beaver was "not a documentary." We could say the same thing about Gone With the Wind.

Margaret Mitchell's novel describes a South enjoyed by only a small percentage of the total populace. Although happy, deferential stereotypes, her African-American characters hardly represent the estimated 4 million slaves living in the region in 1860. The bulk of the white population was desperately poor, engaging in subsistence farming. A miniscule middle class clustered in the region's widely scattered town and few cities. In short, the South was a pre-capitalist, agrarian society possessing scant manufacturing. Literacy levels were lower in the South, while infant mortality rates were higher than other regions of the country. (My mother's family owned slaves, farming the tobacco lands of south-central Virginia. They supported secession, fought in the war, while one served in the Confederate Congress. In the postwar period, they maintained control of the land and its labor force, using former slaves as sharecroppers.)

As for the war, greeted with all the emotional fervor one would expect from a society well-enamored of its established militia system, it quickly shed the romantic garb of the zouaves and the ridiculous names of local volunteer units (for example, the "Montgomery Fighting Yankee Killers"), and embodied all of the horror that one associates with warfare of the 19th century.

How do I feel about the romanticization of the "Old South?" I'm not entirely certain. To be sure, there's much of the "history" associated with this vision that's simply incorrect. Yet, every society engages in this kind of mythologizing or fictionalizing of its history. Just look at the way the English have treated the Middle Ages! In the end, a touch of the romantic in our interpretation of the "Old South" isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as it's balanced with a knowledge of the reality.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Very, very interesting post Brian. I only "know" the South from accounts I've read or seen in movies. I'm not so sure now if it's the history of or simply the South itself that interests me. Funny, when I think of the South and it's appeal, GWTW never entered my mind.