Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Old South

CP Snow once said that all ancient British traditions date to the second half of the 19th Century, and his only error was to limit this claim to Britain. –John Quiggan

Growing up in Tennessee meant that I was subjected to the mythology of the “Old South” a fantasy of wonderment and social order on the antebellum plantations that takes the place of the quasi-feudal system of misery-based indolence that was the actual reality.

The first “plantation novel” is generally regarded to be Swallow Barn by John Pendleton Kennedy appeared in 1832, pre-dating Snow’s dictum by a couple of decades, but the genre really didn’t take off until after Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), when many southern writers decided to provide an alternative to Stowe’s novel. After all, they seemed to be saying, we actually live here and Stowe does not. Who would your rather believe?

Well, Harriet Beecher won the historical debate, and something of the literary debate as well. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a hard slog for many modern readers, but the plantation novels are virtually unreadable, and are certainly unread. I’ve looked at a couple; I never tried to read more than a couple of pages. The plantation novels live on in zombie form as a sub-set of modern romance fiction, but the later would be as unrecognizable (and possibly as repellant) to the original plantation novelists as the plantation novel is to modern readers. Still, I would like to see Kennedy’s reaction to Mandingo.

There were also a few humorists in antebellum southern literature. Again, at least to this reader, the humor does not age well.

Now realize, I first looked into the subject of antebellum southern arts and letters out of sheer cussedness, and possibly some of my opinions are tainted. Still, a more recent net search on the matter finds many a scholar who agrees with me. In fact, there is some body of scholarship interested in why the old South was largely absent from the “American Renaissance.” The only writer of the time who can stand next to Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman is Edgar Allen Poe, who, in some measure can be said to have achieved greatness by writing about almost everything but the South, and whose influence spanned oceans (e.g. Baudelaire), but had practically no effect on his neighbors.

As for painting, I’ve seen them and they’re dreadful: smarmy portraits of smug plantation owners, is pretty much the sum of it. Architecture? Jefferson doted on architecture, and maybe Monticello is fine, I’ve never visited. I’ve actually stayed in old style plantation homes, not to mention more than a few imitations, and they are more designed to impress one’s neighbors than to actually live in. Of course, I suppose if you have enough servants/slaves, anything become livable.

Then there is music and theater. The Minstrel Show is a good example of how the songs and dances of the slaves were appropriated and fed to white audiences in ways that reinforced the racial prejudices of those audiences. The “song writers” of the antebellum south were often little more than transcribers, up to, and especially including, Stephen Foster. This practice obviously did not end with the Civil War; in various forms, it continues to this day.

Of course, after the Civil War, there came an amazing outpouring of arts and letters from those displaced, uprooted, or just beaten down by the troubles of the times, not to mention the amazing music that evolved, and continues to evolve, from the merging of the African roots of the slaves with the Western music, instruments, and technology that forms the basis of true American art. While some of the post-War literature from southerners was as grand and glorious as Mark Twain, or the narratives of former slaves, much of it was in service of the self-serving white Southern Myth. From D. W. Griffith to Gone with the Wind, the myth is well ensconced in American popular culture with millions believing as part of their basic historical assumptions, that something wonderful had been lost in the Civil War.

Well, no it wasn’t. I’ve looked; there was little back there but a hollow shell of sycophants singing the praises of wealthy men. But telling that to a man with a pickup and a Confederate Flag is as useless as talking to an SCA member at a Renfair about cholera and indoor plumbing.


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