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Reconstructing Dixie Race, gender, and nostalgia in the imagined South
By Tara McPherson
Duke University Press
Chapter One ROMANCING THE SOUTH
A Tour of the Lady's Legacies, Academic and Otherwise
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Femininity, in essence, is a romantic sentiment. -Susan Brownmiller, Femininity
The lenticular postcard described in the introduction juxtaposes the southern belle or lady and the mammy, a positioning that is familiar from a wide variety of sources from the novels of William Faulkner to films such as Imitation of Life (1934) and its remake (1959). But the relationship of white lady to black woman is not the only one the card depicts. It also places the lady within the confines of the plantation home, reenacting a spatial logic with a long and commonplace history in the region. If, as my introduction maintains, the southern lady was a key image around which the South constructed (and still constructs) its postbellum identity, this lady was (and is) most often situated within a particular southern landscape. In fact, throughout southern literature and culture, southerners, in the words of literary critic Diane Roberts, "extended their imagery of the sacrosanct white lady ... to the land itself." And on the "land itself " was, not surprisingly, none other than the plantation home, a place that continues to be as central to representations of the South as the lady herself. This chapter tours arange of early- and late-twentieth-century texts, tracking the interrelated trajectories of the southern lady and the plantation home, intent on understanding their articulation of particular modes of southernness and of specific racial logics. We will see that the southern lady is not fixed in her meaning, endlessly circulating the same, but neither is she easily mobilized toward more progressive modes of southern feeling. Such a journey permits us to discern not only the background figures that prop up the lady and her genteel home but also the very permeable boundaries between official and popular histories. Along the way, we will discover a complex set of relations between black and white, past and present, love and hate, relations that deploy a variety of strategies to distance or work through the trauma of slavery and of contemporary race relations. Finally, we will discern new structures of southern feeling, examining the latent desire for cross-racial alliance that informs a wide array of Dixie's documents.
We might begin our tour aboard a Grayline sightseeing bus, departing from New Orleans for a seven-hour sojourn designed to let us "feel the gentle breeze of Southern hospitality on a [trip] ... back to the glory of the Old South!" Alternately, we might choose to steam "up a lazy river" aboard a paddleboat, stopping to visit the plantations along Louisiana's River Road, "a most gratifying way to experience the past." Such travels need not be confined to south Louisiana. All over the South, "heritage" tourism has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, fueled by the growth of casino gambling and coastal recreation across the region, as well as by dramatic increases in state tourism budgets. Throughout the past decade, as American popular culture embraced a return to Old South imagery, the southern tourism industry worked to counter, in the words of one "hospitality" publication, older "redneck images" with "bright spots" like "plantations and Civil War sites." In Columbia, Tennessee, the Athenaeum Rectory, a "unique" Moorish-Gothic antebellum home and girls' school, offers biannual "southern belle" courses. Teenage girls from around the country dress in period costume and study "etiquette, penmanship, art, music, dance, and the social graces." Even Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater and Show moved away from its country-cousin, mountain theme to "completely new scenes taking you back to [an earlier time as] genteel beaus and beautiful belles in exquisite gowns bring to life romance and pageantry from the past."
Dixie's thriving tourist industry provides crucial documents that illustrate the instrumental role that the plantation home and the southern lady play in the selling of the South. One such tourist attraction is the biannual Natchez Pilgrimage located in Natchez, Mississippi, an occasion hailed as "one of the top 100 [tourist] events in North America," as well as "one of the top 20 events in the Southeast." This affair centers around a series of tours of antebellum southern homes and a dance recital known as the "Confederate Pageant." On the cover of the brochure for the 1990 Spring Pilgrimage is a photograph of an elaborately dressed belle standing on a large porch covered in lush foliage. She flirtatiously looks over her fan at a young man in period costume who occupies the lower portion of the photo. The pamphlet's last pages picture rows of dancing southern couples, hoopskirts swirling, images drawn from the Confederate Pageant. The copy for these pages ensures the tourist that this "brilliant" pageant "will transport the audience to the days of long ago ... [to] that romantic era of the past." The interior of the pamphlet includes glossy photographs of thirty plantation homes, all available via a variety of tour packages for "lovers of history and the romantic traditions of the Old South." The images of the homes are thus structurally framed by figures of "gracious" southern femininity, but it is not necessary to read between the lines to discern how lady and landscape are linked. The brochure itself foregrounds that southern femininity and southern architecture are symbolically joined as it assures the reader that "ladies in hoopskirts will welcome you to ... these gracious, time-mellowed dwellings [wherein] is enshrined the history of Natchez County." Southern mythology lives on where the belle meets the plantation (and beyond).
In a similar vein, a booklet provided by the Mississippi Division of Tourism Development calls on "graceful curved staircases, lush gardens, ... [and] the soft rustle of hoopskirts" to highlight the "idyllic aura of elegance and grandeur ... of an era that has assumed an almost mythical quality." The brochure for Louisiana's Great River Road Plantation Parade visually evokes a magnolia-drenched bodice ripper, collapsing belle, beau, and plantation home within the billowing waves of the Confederate battle flag. Its "river of riches" proves that "excellence withstands the test of time." Of course, houses make good tourist sites, for the tourist needs something to look at, somewhere to be. Tourism is all about "making place" via intense and orchestrated marketing with a consciousness about the spectacular. The ubiquitous brochure racks in hotel lobbies and visitors' centers may appear incidental, unimportant, and ephemeral, but they sell what one scholar has called "a comprehensive, abridged version of the [region's] past."
During December 2000 I toured several plantations along Louisiana's River Road, roaming from New Orleans into the countryside, interested in what modes of address these excursions crafted for the tourist. At home after home, tours focused loving attention on the architectural grandeur and period furnishings of the mansions we moved through, encouraging the visitor to, in the words of the Grayline pamphlet, listen "to the fascinating history" of a bygone era's wealthy lifestyles. Hoopskirted tour guides and brochures alike stressed the authenticity of the objects on display, as well as the "spectacular" settings. In this relentless privileging of authenticity, a select array of the material culture of the Old South came to overshadow narratives of social relations, as objects displaced most subjects. The "loveliness" of the homes became the overarching rationale for the tours, as the period's interracial past disappeared along with the history of slavery. My tour guide at Oak Alley repeatedly referred to slaves as both "service boys" and "servants," only mentioning slaves near the end of an hour tour when she noted that the slave cabins had once been located where the gift shop now stood. When describing the home's "authentic" and lavish holiday decorations, she often detailed the labors of the lady of the house, noting how busy the plantation mistress would have been at Christmastime, again displacing slave labor as integral to the plantation household. During these explorations, the visiting tourist is powerfully positioned within a southern mise-en-scene of imagined hospitality, an immersive experience underwritten both by the mansions' high ceilings, ornate furnishings, and lush garden settings and by the erasure of slavery, an address structured for the white (and, increasingly, the Japanese) tourist. Strolling down Oak Alley's magnificent tree-lined path toward the veranda, the unsuspecting visitor is swept into a stage set ripe for fantasy, creating a powerful scene for the projection of romance and structuring a sort of mobility through an imagined space of history. This fantasy unfolds in an isolated temporal zone narrativized as separate in time, a lost era sometime before the "conflict," but an oddly white one. Within these sets, slaves exist largely as open secrets, ghost presences kept at bay lest they disrupt the tranquil atmosphere of gentility and grandeur, disturbing the tourist's pleasure.
In this discourse of southern tourism, the houses are more than simple artifacts of the past. Rather, they serve to freeze the possible meanings of the South within a very narrow register, especially when yoked to the mythic figure of the southern belle or lady. By reifying the plantation home as the privileged site of southern history and femininity and then coding this history as elegant and grand, such representations erase the history of oppression that such homes could just as easily symbolize and encourage a nostalgic form of southern history. Had my tour groups included any African Americans, surely their affective response would not have been one of awe or nostalgia; however, my groups were comprised entirely of white Americans and European and Asian tourists, underscoring that these plantation tours do not include the descendants of slaves within their imagined audience. The stakes of such a nostalgic and segregated touristic history will be explored at greater length in chapter 2, but here it is useful to focus briefly on the plantation home and the symbolic place it occupies in southern mythologies both old and new.
Although plantation homes have come to represent southernness in the years since the Civil War, such mansions were not widely prevalent in the antebellum South. During the decades preceding the war, fewer than 2,300 families out of a population of 8 million owned substantial numbers of slaves, thus constituting the planter aristocracy. Expansive plantation houses certainly existed in that period, but they were not as widespread as current tourist industries would suggest. As historian John Boles noted in 1995, "The mythical owner of Tara-the plantation in Gone with the Wind-was less common in the South of 1860 than a millionaire is today." Much of the glorification of the plantation home began in the late nineteenth century, concurrent with other Lost Cause ideologies. In a well-documented article on postwar southern architecture, historian Catherine Bishir argues that at about the turn of the century, upper- and middle-class white southerners turned to an architectural style designed to glorify the antebellum period as the "golden age" of the South. This newly emerging "southern colonial" style revamped older forms for a new era and was characterized by "a large and symmetrical house [with] ... a portico of great white columns." This new housing trend was more than a mere homage to the past. As Bishir points out, "In the South, identification of the colonial style with Anglo-Saxon American culture appealed not only to nativist pride but also to white supremacy". Thus architecture became one field in which a battle over popular memories of the past was waged.
One resident of Raleigh in 1905 maintained that these houses "reinforced a way of life in which ... 'women were fine hostesses, [and where] the relations between old Raleighites and their black friends were beautiful,' for many of the servants ... 'scarcely knew they had been set free'." This comment locates white femininity as a crucial element of the imagined plantation home, and thus of the maintenance of racial oppression; but unlike the lenticular postcard of my introduction or late-twentieth-century tourist sites, the plantation mythologies of the early twentieth century were almost always populated by the requisite "happy darkies," content to labor in the cotton fields and big houses of "dear ole" Dixie. These myths functioned as a kind of escape scenario, simultaneously underwriting and disavowing the early twentieth century's fierce lynching campaigns, insisting on a more perfect past, where paternalistic race relations ensured the good behavior of loyal servants. Slaves were figured as natural (and content) elements of the landscape, key props in the production of a southern mise-en-scene. Today the happy darky largely disappears from newfangled plantation legends, clearing the way for new deployments of old southern images. Of course, neither era revealed the actual conditions of production on the plantation, which in itself is hardly surprising, but it is nonetheless important to understand the different modes of racial visibility operative in the early and late twentieth century. Such an understanding suggests that the racial logics of our time still operate as cover stories, stories designed to enable white fantasies uncluttered by the messy realities of slavery. The contemporary plantation tour functions as a displacement, reflecting dominant culture's inability to imagine the traumas of slavery in a manner that connects slavery to its historic locale and context: the plantation home and its white inhabitants.
These houses continue to carry a great symbolic weight, even after many people have called into question the Lost Cause ideologies that fueled their construction. The continuing reference in contemporary tourist discourses to the "grandeur" of plantation life underscores the power of romantic narratives in the construction of popular histories. This late-twentieth-century South extends well beyond the geographic boundaries of Dixie, both via tourists from elsewhere in America and the world and in the proliferation of a variety of southern "place names" in areas both in and out of the South. Gated communities and upscale housing developments across the country deploy names like "Plantation," "Tara," and "Oaks" to symbolize gentility and charm, tapping into southern myths for national consumption. There's even Tara, a "World Class Country Inn," "inspired by the greatest movie of our time, Gone With the Wind; Tara recreated is in a real sense an embodiement [sic] of the Old South. Tara offers you a lasting impression of Southern Hospitality and a chance to enjoy the luxuries of days gone by." Each of the inn's twenty-seven rooms features a southern or movie-based theme, ranging from "Belle's Boudoir" to "The Confederate Getaway" to the "Fiddle Dee Dee." Tour guides in period attire will happily "explain the history and significance of the antiques and object [sic] d'art" and also point out the gift shop, which features Gone with the Wind] memorabilia. Tara, Country Inn, is located in Clark, Pennsylvania.
Excerpted from Reconstructing Dixie by Tara McPherson Excerpted by permission.
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