I’m pleased to announce that my book Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture is coming out in paperback. You can pre-order now through UNC Press for the book’s release in August. Fun reading and great for classes!
The Center for The Study of the New South will convene a panel discussion of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture, by Dr. Karen Cox, on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 3:30 in the Halton Reading Room, in the J. Murrey Atkins Library.
Participants will include David Goldfield (history), Richard Leeman (communication studies), Debra Smith (Africana Studies), and Mary Newsom (Urban and Regional Affairs). Sonya Ramsey (History) will serve as moderator.
This campus event will be the precursor to the Center for the Study of the New South’s annual lecture, on Tuesday, March 13, at the Levine Museum of the New South. This year’s distinguished speaker will be Dr. Cox.
As I’ve written about before, I found the “history” reflected in the film “The Help” to be problematic on many levels. I agreed with the Association of Black Women Historians in their criticism of the film’s message about black women in the era of Jim Crow. I also found Melissa Harris-Perry’s review of the film to be on point when she described it as “ahistorical and deeply troubling.” More recently, an alternate reading of “The Help” came in the form of this revised movie poster that bitingly states what many of us think about the film.
Then, what the hey is the NAACP thinking by nominating the film for Outstanding Motion Picture for one of its 2012 Image Awards? More importantly, why did they give Bryce Dallas Howard a nod for Outstanding Supporting Actress? Hilly? She’s not exactly a person of color (at least not in the tradition of these awards). As the Washington Post stated, this is one of the most awkward nominations the organization made. I can understand Viola Davis’ nomination for Outstanding Actress–even Melissa Harris-Perry recognized her talent. Still, I agree with her that it’s a shame that Davis will probably win for playing a maid. Hattie McDaniel, anyone?
As a historian, I often find myself combating popular media’s misrepresentations of the past in the classroom. However, it is often an uphill battle and the success of films like “The Help,” make it even more difficult. So, like my cohorts in the profession, I plod along and try to educate my students by having them read some honest-to-goodness history. I only wish filmmakers would do the same. It’s not as if the historical truth doesn’t make for good drama.
For the past several weeks, I have been traveling to promote the publication of my book Dreaming of Dixie—a study that explores representations of the South in popular culture up to World War II. Still, even after explaining the book’s time frame, I am regularly asked “What about The Help?” (One woman, more pointedly said “You didn’t even mention The Help!). In other words, what do I think of that book and its representations of the South? The first time it happened, it took me off guard, because I had not read it (yes, it’s true). Instead, I was prepared to discuss the impact of Gone With the Wind. So, I punted and happily recommended Rebecca Sharpless’s fine book Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens and suggested they read it if they wanted a more historically accurate portrait.
The thing about novels and movies that deal in history is that they so often get it wrong. Gone With the Wind was a good story, and so is The Help, but let’s not kid ourselves that either makes the best history. And yet, the success of a book like The Help means that historians will have to clear up the mistakes made in both the book and the film for a long time to come. (See, for example: An Open Statement to the fans of The Help from the Association of Black Women Historians.)
Still, I was curious as to what some readers of Stockett’s novel had to say. As I write, there are more than 4,800 reviews of the book on Amazon.com, the majority of which are positive. However, there are 261 readers (none who identify as historians) who gave the book less than stellar reviews. It is clear that they, too, are concerned—not only by historical inaccuracies, but also the ways in which the book perpetuates stereotypes, specifically through the use of dialect. As one reader put it (and very well, I might add):
“The way she presents it, the black vernacular becomes both abhorrent and belittling, particularly in that throughout most of the novel, Stockett avoided the use of the southern white vernacular when telling the story in the voice of the two main white characters, ‘Miss’ Skeeter, and ‘Miss’ Hilly.”
This particular remark seemed all too familiar to me, as I had read a similar criticism about Gone With the Wind when it was published. In 1944, Earl Conrad, a vocal critic of Jim Crow, referred to writers who used dialect as “neo-Confederates,” because they used it to infer inferiority. He considered Margaret Mitchell one of the worst offenders, because while she employed black dialect she never once used the nuances of language to illustrate a white southern drawl. That book was published in 1936. Stockett’s book—2009.
Seven decades after the publication of Gone With the Wind, it seems that a novel set in the Jim Crow South could and should move beyond the use of dialect. As Conrad suggested, such writing “Jim Crows” African Americans by relegating them to the status of second-class citizens.
And that’s the “what” about The Help.
In honor of Halloween, I invited fellow historian Scott Poole, who teaches at the College of Charleston, to guest blog about southern horror. In this post, we learn about pop culture’s representations of the South as a peculiar site of horror, from Deliverance to True Blood and eerie things in between. What does a horrific South say about southern identity? Read what Scott has to say.
Scholars of the American South spend a great deal of time reflecting on the nature of southern distinctiveness. An earlier generation of historians of the region labored under what C. Vann Woodward famously labeled “the burden of southern history.” A fun, if frequently reductionist, version of this scholarship turns everything from barbeque to moon pies to stock car racing into attributes of ethnicity, claims for a peculiar and allegedly charming southern essentialism.
Over the last two decades, the scholarship has, luckily, become much more complex. Southern historians take seriously the role of imagined difference and how representations of the South often reflect historical misunderstandings. Scholars have shown how frequently the region has functioned for the rest of the country as a metonym of the exotic. To quote the blogmeister herself, we understand just how much time Americans have spent “dreaming of Dixie.”
I’d like for us to ponder the macabre side of this story. Let’s think about America’s nightmares about Dixie.
Horror has always played a role in representations of the South. Abolitionist leaders rightfully described the barbaric treatment of human beings under slavery in their broadsides against the peculiar institution. They often did this by evoking the most lurid aspects of plantation life in order to, in the words of Boston abolitionist Theodore Weld, “thrill the land with horror.”
In the 20th century, racial segregation, uneven and makeshift economic development and the sometimes adversarial relationship of southern traditionalists with modernity helped create new monster traditions. In pop and folk culture, “the hillbilly” and “the redneck” became images of horror. The gothic south of decaying ancestral lineages and the lurid south of tobacco roads meet somewhere along these borders of the monstrous and the terrifying.
In American films from the 1970s forward, this the portrayal of the South as the trackless region of horrors, the place off the highway where civilization meets savagery, became common. This view of the South has two dark fathers, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance.
These are both important aesthetic documents with more to say than simply “beware the hicks.” Indeed, both are deeply subversive documents. Hooper’s TCM launches a full-frontal assault on any romanticisms of the American past, turning the frontier cabin into, literally, a slaughterhouse where counter-cultural teens must face the horrific violence of the past. This is the horrific South as horrific America, Daniel Boone come back as cannibal, the true and secret history of American violence that southern violence both reflects and symbolizes.
Deliverance calls into question the relationship between modernity and traditionalism in the South while also critiquing various kinds of southern notions of masculinity. Burt Reynolds, for example, exhibits an interesting variant of southern gender identity, the suburban “hell of a fella” (to borrow and rephrase the W.J. Cash template). He’s the original NASCAR dad but one with more authenticity than camo can provide.
And yet he becomes for our unlucky wilderness travelers a guide into hell. He preaches a gospel of deliverance in the wilderness and finds instead an Appalachia facing encroaching modernity with one last rebel yell. Deliverance ironically becomes a new version of the Puritan captivity narrative, “the errand into the wilderness” gone horribly wrong.
HBO’s True Blood has borrowed certain aspects of this tradition of backwoods grotesquerie. For many of us, a favorite part of the show is the opening montage of deep-fried southern religion in black and white mingled with images of southern sexuality that include stereotyped representations of the proletarian south. It’s a set of images that writers as diverse as Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Harry Crews and Ron Rash would recognize and could have narrated. It’s a south that wants to do bad things with you—and to you.
I praise Alan Ball and True Blood pretty highly in Monsters in America. Despite what some see as its egregious use of camp and schlock, I see the show as an important moment in the American monster mythos. Locating the vampire mythos in the heart of the South Americanizes the vampire mythology, indeed bundles it up with the rich and textured regional mythologies about identity and gender.
Its also important to remember that the AMC series The Walking Dead features the zombie apocalypse played out on a ruined southern landscape. Anything especially southern about those zombies? Not really. But Rick Grimes is every inch the post-civil rights image of the southern sheriff, a combination of toughness and western-film influenced masculinity.
It’s also a show that has established itself as a southern apocalyptic landscape by introducing race and racism as a continuing facet of post-zombie southern experience. In what we have seen of the second season, the religious aesthetic of the South has even made an appearance, an idea I’d love to see the show explore more thoroughly (and with a bit more research…Southern Baptist churches usually don’t have a gigantic crucifix like you might find in a Catholic parish).
These pop culture representations of southern horror raise lots of questions about southern identity, southern representation and southern terror. I hope that southern scholars will investigate the haunted and the monstrous south more thoroughly in their work on popular culture and folk belief.
W. Scott Poole is the author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Baylor University Press, 2011). Follow Scott as he haunts America on Twitter @monstersamerica.
So many people ask me questions about The Help (both the book and the film version), that I thought it would be better to let some historians, whose research can shed light on the subject, offer you a little context. Click on the link above. Editor, Pop South
If you were to drive south on I-77 and exit onto Arrowood Road in Charlotte, North Carolina, you would eventually run across a development called “Taragate Farms.” I had no idea it existed until recently, when I was invited to have dinner at a home in the neighborhood.
At first, I didn’t think too much about the sign that sets out in front announcing one is entering “Taragate.” However, as I followed directions on my Garmin I started noticing street names. Driving down “Scarlett Circle” my eyes were alerted to themes of Gone with the Wind and the Old South. In the same neighborhood, just off of Scarlett Circle is “Rhett Court” and “Rice Planters Road.” “Julep Lane” intersects with “Pitty Pat Court.” “Antebellum Drive” is just off of “Johnny Reb Lane,” and “Sherman Drive” (appropriately) crosses over “O’Hara Drive.”
Well, of course, I had to investigate. It turns out that sometime in the 1980s, Ryan Homes created Taragate and, hold on to your hoop skirts, “Twelve Oaks”–two neighboring housing developments in an area that is so far south of the city, one might call it the Deep South of Charlotte.
I have no idea to whom they were marketing these neighborhoods twenty-five years ago, but today the residents reflect a far more diverse population than one would expect to be living in a development with attachments to the Old South or Gone with the Wind. Indeed, my dinner hosts were African American, and their neighbors were both white and Asian.
On the one hand I was impressed by the extended marketing reach of the novel and the film, such that in the 1980s developers wanted to “recreate” Tara and Twelve Oaks. Yet, I also wondered what my dinner hosts thought about it–you know, with references to plantations and all. But while I was fascinated, they seemed unfazed.
Clearly, Gone with the Wind has lost some of its relevance, despite the big 75th anniversary celebrations of the book going on this year. Today, however, neither the book nor the film does the kind of damage it once did to the progress of race relations in the United States, even though the portrayals of African Americans remain offensive. Although people around the globe will be commemorating Margaret Mitchell’s tome on the Old South in 2011, at Taragate and Twelve Oaks there will be folks wondering what the fuss is all about.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind. The book and its characters are being celebrated and discussed around the world. From Atlanta to Calcutta, people have weighed in on why they like the book, how many times they’ve read it, and how it has influenced their lives.
Aside from the personal connections readers have made with the book and its characters, however, Gone with the Wind’s most enduring legacy has been in shaping a popular understanding of the Old South and the Civil War. From the beginning, fans have accepted as truth the book’s Lost Cause narrative of the pre-Civil War South as a region gilded by romance and whose cast of characters included cavaliers, belles, mansions, and of course, loyal slaves.
Yet it is fair to say that the film, more than the book, has influenced this popular view of the southern past. Even Margaret Mitchell called this one.
Indeed, a few years after the film premiered, she wrote to her friend Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, mortified that she was “included among writers who pictured the South as a land of white-columned mansions whose wealthy owners had thousands of slaves and drank thousands of juleps.”
Her embarrassment derived from the fact that the film had done more to influence what people had learned about the Old South than her book. “Southerners could write the truth about the antebellum South,” she said, but “everyone would go on believing in the Hollywood version.”
One could certainly argue that what Mitchell produced, despite her meticulous research, was not necessarily a “truthful” southern history, but one in step with the Lost Cause version she grew up with. Yet, Mitchell was on target about the film’s influence in shaping a popular understanding of southern history.
“People believe what they like to believe,” she wrote, “and the mythical Old South has too strong a hold on their imaginations to be altered by the mere reading of [my] book.” This was true. As the most influential medium of popular culture in the first half of the twentieth century, movies shaped what people learned about history. And during the 1930s, movies set in the Old South were very popular.
When the book was made into a film, Gone with the Wind became Hollywood’s first blockbuster, and as such it cemented an image of southern history in the popular imagination—much to the chagrin of African American leaders who recognized that this kind of popular “history” not only damaged the morale of their race, but hurt the cause of civil rights nationally.
This year’s celebrations of the book and the film probably won’t lead most people to think, much less hold serious discussions, about Gone with the Wind’s influence on popular perceptions of southern history. That would ruin the historical fantasy that Margaret Mitchell created and which they love. And frankly, I’m not sure they give a damn.
Note: This blog post originally appeared on the UNC Press Blog.