Rogers on Prince, 'Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915'

Author: 
K. Stephen Prince
Reviewer: 
Justin Isaac Rogers

K. Stephen Prince. Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 336 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-1418-2.

Reviewed by Justin Isaac Rogers (University of Mississippi)
Published on H-SAWH (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla

The Cultural Renegotiation of the Post-Civil War South

Since the Civil War, individuals and scholars have repeated the question, “What is the South?” (p. 1). The nature of the American South underpins historian K. Stephen Prince’s insightful recovery of the cultural and intellectual climate across the long arc of Reconstruction.  Between 1865 and 1915, in the arts and in print, black and white, male and female northerners and southerners deliberated the past, present, and future of the American South. Although Prince follows a conventional chronology that conforms to most accounts of the immediate post-Civil War decades, his interpretation of cultural and literary evidence offers an original alternative to political and social histories of “national reunion.”[1] Prince historicizes sectional reconciliation and southern exceptionalism as lived realities to reveal the intellectual vitality of the debates that opened the nation’s imagination to the abandonment of racial democracy after Reconstruction.[2] Defining the South constituted a decades-long cultural negotiation between northern and southern commentators, and ran parallel to a declining national commitment to African American civil and political rights.[3] Mischaracterized by historians as a return to a former state of unity, sectional reconciliation represented by 1915 the forging of a new national bond only after northerners and southerners had rewritten the story of the South based on white supremacy.

Three chronological parts feature chapters—ideal for assignment in undergraduate or graduate seminars—that serve as case studies to clarify the “Southern Question.” The first part covers deliberations over the southern problem between 1865 and 1880. Entitled by weak Democratic opposition, optimistic northerners saw a brief opportunity in 1865 and 1866 to duplicate their region in the South, a process that Prince terms “Yankeefication” in the first chapter. Travel writers, pamphleteers, novelists, and ministers simplified the South’s conditions and reinforced regional environmental and sociological distinctions. Their accounts established southerners’ need for northernization and laid the cultural foundation for political Reconstruction in northerners’ imaginations. Periodicals beckoned northern migrants to the South with promises of “a new frontier, a fabulous speculating opportunity, the proving ground for the North’s free labor ideology” (p. 40). Henry Highland Garnet, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and other black intellectuals pointed to northern racism, which prevented Yankeefication from fully confronting emancipation and sectional hostility despite the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1867 Reconstruction Acts.

Internal divisions, unenthusiastic support for racial egalitarianism, and resistance from southern white supremacists shattered northern optimism by mid-1866. The second chapter focuses on how popular images of the Ku Klux Klan and the carpetbagger symbolized evolving debates over southern unrest through 1880. The Klan signified an essential deviance within white southern society, while the carpetbagger represented corrupt northern interventionism. Starting in 1868, sensationalist reports of Klan atrocities commented on the precariousness of southern conditions and engendered fear about Reconstruction’s failures and the South’s future as a dystopic wasteland. After the KKK trials and Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 presidential victory, continued southern disorder and resistance to the federal government led to the North’s cultural retreat from Reconstruction. Many Americans blamed the problem of the South on northern Republicans and their maintenance of an illegitimate rule rather than unrelenting white supremacist violence. Depictions of carpetbaggers as vagabonds and obstructionists reflected national anxiety about Grant’s administration and led northern Republicans to embrace noninterventionism.

In the second part, “the analytical heart of the book,” Prince blunts historians’ chronological “interregnum” between the federal retreat from southern political affairs and Jim Crow by exposing continuities from Reconstruction in economics, literature, and performance culture (p. 10). Between 1880 and 1895, southern white conservatives called for greater control over the “Southern Question.” The third chapter highlights the reconfiguration of sectional ties along economic lines as boosters led by Henry Grady recast the South as a beacon of capitalist growth, technological innovation, and industrial potential. In tourist guides, advertisements, songs, and periodicals, “New Southerners” distanced themselves from slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. They reversed the language of the “terrible carpetbagger” and promoted the involvement of “Dixiefied Yankees” whose welcome presence, cultivated on southern terms, “spoke to the changed state of affairs” and solved “the problem South” (p. 110, 115). Boosters transformed the Southern Question into a “Northern Question” by acquiescing to white supremacy and accepting sectional unity based on profitable investment. Visual culture, for example, replaced images of southern rebellion and slavery with scenes of bustling cities, steady industrial work, and persistent agricultural production. Despite dissent over African Americans’ continued oppression, the construction of a forward-thinking New South along with northern racial deference provided vital prerequisites for the nation’s acceptance of Jim Crow by the mid-1890s.

Late-nineteenth-century cultural productions registered northerners’ growing tolerance of inequitable southern race relations. Authors Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, George Washington Cable, and Charles W. Chesnutt, the subjects of the fourth chapter, mirrored and influenced wider debates over the right to tell the South’s story to the nation. Cable and Chesnutt critiqued southern race relations and promoted more egalitarian visions of the South, but northern readers preferred Harris’s and Page’s romanticized Old South images of aristocratic cavaliers and loyal slaves. In the fifth chapter, Prince addresses northern theatergoers’ engagement with blackface minstrelsy, plantation shows like 1895’s Black America, and stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Southern-themed performances carried implicit political messages that mocked slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction with buffoonery. The Fisk Jubilee Singers countered with a deliberate redefinition of the South that emphasized black respectability. “Thoroughly unreconstructed visions of the southern past,” nonetheless, rationalized and reinforced the racial apathy of northern audiences (p. 204). Concerned with entertainment rather than perpetual southern racial inequity, white northerners in effect gave white supremacists the authority to narrate the South for national audiences.

Increased white supremacist control over the Southern Question and northern complicity in obstructing African American equality destroyed the possibility of racial democracy, as Prince shows in the third part. Between 1890 and 1910, two competing versions of the “Negro Problem,” the focus of the sixth chapter, emerged in the rhetorical fight over southern race politics. The first, designed by Jim Crow proponents like Thomas Dixon Jr., John Temple Graves, and Benjamin Tillman, lent new cultural weight to the case against federal intervention. They explained white supremacy as a self-defensive, charitable, and natural ideology, and justified lynching and assaults on African Americans’ rights as sound responses to a southern racial crisis. By the turn of the twentieth century, southern white supremacists had crafted a discourse of racial expertise that legitimated their management of southern black people and nullified northerners’ ability to understand or discuss the race question. The second version, launched by Anna Julia Cooper, Charles W. Chesnutt, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others, derided white supremacist brutality and limits to black opportunity and equality. Writers of race histories asserted black humanity’s contributions and provided moral lessons, while scholars from the American Negro Academy and Atlanta University gave academic credibility to African Americans’ experiences.

Activists shed light on racial violence and political oppression, but white supremacists’ concerted rhetorical campaign overshadowed such efforts. To argue for perceived bonds of whiteness among northerners and southerners, Jim Crow propagandists sought evidence of northern racial discrimination in newspapers, legislation, and court cases. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) emblematized the national success of the campaign to flatten conversations about sectional reunion, turn away from federal intervention, and glorify white supremacy. As Prince concludes, the broader attraction to white supremacist propaganda rendered Jim Crow a transparent national contest in which northerners granted express approval to the oppression of black southerners.

Although Prince provides a creative approach for future historians, his work suffers from some limitations. Despite his focus on a dynamic “South,” Prince never fully defines the location of “the North” and leaves readers to assume he means northeastern Civil War Union states.  He also takes for granted notions of a black-white South. Historian Theda Perdue, for instance, has demonstrated the “Vanishing Indian” myth’s centrality to marketing a biracial and progressive New South during the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895. Indian Removal, the “closing of the frontier,” and the rise of ethnography allowed boosters to depict Native Americans, in spite of their continued presence in the South, as primitive outsiders.[4]

Aside from these weaknesses, Prince provides an innovative perspective that locates the consumption of stories of the South in the North and indicts northerners as culpable in the retreat from racial democracy. His attention to competing voices and historical contingency alongside astute textual analysis will appeal to scholars across the humanities. Persuasive and imaginative, Prince’s rich insights give future scholars a provocative model for reframing the legacy of Reconstruction and continued debate over defining “the South.”

Notes

[1]. Prince’s interpretation of cultural sources critiques two notable uses of the “national reunion” framework. See David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2001); and Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion:  Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

[2]. Recent scholars have worked against older notions of Southern history that searched for a “central theme” or attempted to define the South as “exceptional” or “peculiar” on its own terms. They instead position the South within a national context. See Natalie J. Ring, The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Karen L. Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Rebecca Cawood McIntyre, Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern Mythology (Gainesville, FL:  University Press of Florida, 2011); Jennifer Rae Greeson, Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, eds., The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Laura F. Edwards, “Southern History as U.S. History,” Journal of Southern History 75 (August 2009): 533-535; Leigh Anne Duck, The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006); Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Susan-Mary Grant, North over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000).

[3]. Prince’s understanding of the post-Reconstruction South in conjunction with African-American civil and political rights adds a new layer to work on the nation’s deteriorating commitment to racial egalitarianism. See Charles W. Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869-1900 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006); Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic:  Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005); Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[4]. See Theda Perdue, Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

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Citation: Justin Isaac Rogers. Review of Prince, K. Stephen, Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. March, 2015.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42401

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