Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature

Monday, May 16, 2011

Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature

By Jennifer Rae Greeson
Harvard University Press

The summer I was twelve, the same summer the “leap second” was calibrated, my bunkmates at an upstate New York summer camp cautiously demonstrated the magic of an electric light switch. “You’re from the South,” they explained. “You need to see modern things.”

So here is my opportunity to thank Jennifer Greeson and her first book, Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature (Harvard University Press, 2010), for explaining why this event rankled me so deeply. A dozen preteen girls on the banks of Lake George in the 1970s hadn’t yet read William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, or even Twain (these writers and their ilk coming to us only in higher education), but they were unwitting hostages to more than two centuries of deep cultural dismay. As perhaps their first Southerner, I embodied an American myth. I was the unknowable “other."

It’s that distance, in both geography and the insistence (by both entities) of maintaining a foreign identity within the larger culture, that is the core of Greeson’s premise.

The perpetuation of America’s south—our South—as “other” begins in colonial literature, the time and place where American national identity began to be formed. Greeson, a North Carolina native and assistant professor of American literature at the University of Virginia who holds a doctorate in American studies from Yale, constructs an intriguing examination of America’s relationship to its South. A thoughtful, careful researcher, she nevertheless sometimes erupts in a refreshingly direct fit of lectern-pounding fervor. Of Noah Webster’s choice of map to publish in 1787, Greeson exclaims, “Why on earth choose an iconic image of the Plantation South as emblem for [a] nationalist literary venture?”

America’s original view of its South came not from within but from Europe. French by birth, British by naturalization, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote of South Carolina in Letters from an American Farmer (1782). His gruesome description of the physical suffering of a condemned slave inspires him to neither lament or crave the ability to assist, but to make exotic this tropical place and its customs, reassuring himself and his readers that this place is not of him nor his kind. Writing about the South was targeted for the nascent metropolises of the North, a habit that has since dogged (I’ll use southern vernacular, even if Greeson won’t) writing about and conceiving of the South. Every good Puritan, after all, must have an evil to disdain.

Our South has a triptych structure that aligns Greeson’s argument closely with the nation’s economic development and changing relationships with Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa. Beginning with “Nationalization / The Plantation South,” moving to “Industrialism and Expansion / The Slave South,” and stopping at the beginning of the twentieth century with “The Question of Empire / The Reconstruction South,” the book tracks, in a way, America’s infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

It was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that formed the story of the slave south in the US collective imagination. Greeson’s perspective makes Simon Legree’s plantation comparable to a Northeastern mill town like Lowell, Massachusetts. She presents Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as an answer piece to Stowe. Jacobs’s theme of homelessness deromanticizes the very concept of a cabin as building or metaphor. Uncle Tom, as a slave, could own nothing. Novels like Stowe’s, and novel as a form, sentimentalized abolition’s radicalism, softening the argument for easy and potentially less nutritive consumption.

Much of the North’s relationship to the South was viewed through the sentimentalized lens of the Victorian taste for travel writing. Edward King, writing for Scribner’s Monthly in 1873, characterized rural southern whites as “without animation,” and black and whites as “unthrift” characters. Accompanying engravings underscored the imagery of a land ripe for the civilizing influence of imperialism: banners with the story’s title were lifted from swamps by pelicans, a “faery” paradise of slow-moving creatures squandering their natural resources. If this reminds the reader of Western concepts of Africa, that’s no accident. With a flourish, Greeson reveals that King’s earlier connection with Scribner’s readers was based on his acquaintance with African explorer Henry Stanley.

Isn’t this the role of literature, Greeson asks her readers? As America’s identity evolves, we convey our self-image through our literature: novels, the provocative voyeurism of tabloids, and the iconography of illustrations. We cannot have a North, with its metropolises, self-sufficient industry, and intellect—witness the Transcendentalists—without a closely held, internalized opposite against which we can compare ourselves.

Even southern writers fell prey to creating parody of their own geographic identity. Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, and others rose to popularity in American letters on the heels of the consumable “Southernness” tap-dancing across minstrel stages. Greeson lays open the disingenuous marketability of southern image and narrative in a remarkable historical note: Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and a pro-Klan novel by Thomas Dixon called The Leopard’s Spots were published within a year of each other by the same New York–based publisher.

Jennifer Rae Greeson explains the roots of otherness and inspires questions we might not have known to ask in a skillful and thought-provoking contribution to the landscape of American identity and literary history. “The south we hold in our minds is not—could not possibly be—a fixed or real place,” Greeson writes. This South, she shows us, is no different from that leap second or an outsider among the curious: thrillingly errant and a source for fantasy.