Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial

moijefferson-davis-portrait

This week, and for the next several weeks, Pop South will offer a serial called “Me and Jeff Davis,” based on an essay I wrote for fun but for which I never found the right publishing venue.  Now that I have a blog and we are still in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, why not? What follows is Part 1.

As scholars we often develop a personal relationship with our work, feeling as if we know the people we study even though they have long since died. Early in my career, my research involved a study of the Lost Cause, more specifically, those women who helped to preserve it for generations—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

UDCTN1900
UDC members in Jackson, Tennessee. 1900.

Through these women, and my fascination with the Confederate tradition in the New South, I became very familiar with Jefferson Davis, or “Jeff,” as I like to call him.

Lost Cause Jeff.
Lost Cause Jeff.

Jeff Davis of the Lost Cause was quite different from Jefferson Davis, one and only Confederate President. The postwar Davis is a man whose journey from despised loser to sacred martyr is the man I came to know through my research.

The UDC made sure of it, even if Davis had never participated in the resurrection of his own image, which he did. They built grand monuments to him in New Orleans and Richmond, and smaller places in between. His image is one of three Confederate leaders carved into Stone Mountain in Georgia. There’s even a highway named for him, compliments of these Daughters of the Confederacy.

And while Robert E. Lee may have been the South’s most beloved hero, Jefferson Davis was the Daughters’ “Man.” He symbolized the South in her loss, defending the cause of states’ rights and his, as well as the region’s, reputation. Moreover, for the devotees of the Lost Cause, especially women, he was THE martyr of a defeated southern nation.

In fact, he was often likened to Jesus Christ; just as Christianity’s martyr died for the sins of humanity, the South’s martyr—Jefferson Davis—was regarded as self-sacrificing, a man who went to prison and suffered in behalf of the entire region.

The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.
The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.

How did Davis’ reputation as a martyr play itself out in the South?

In fascinating, costly, and even bizarre ways. In fact, I often liken my own experience with Lost Cause Jeff as something like going to a sideshow at the annual fair—you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Indeed, from the first time I came to study the Lost Cause and the UDC, it was Jeff Davis who kept revealing himself to me, and not in the most conventional ways.

Return for Part 2 of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial, entitled “Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start.” Yes, you read that correctly.

 

Gone with the Wind and America’s Nostalgia for the Old South

gwtw

A few days ago, stories on the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind (GWTW) on December 15, 1939 circulated in the news media. A new anniversary edition of the film has been released, one of many that have appeared as different anniversaries of the film have been celebrated.  It is a testament to the staying power of the film David Selznick produced when he brought Margaret Mitchell’s book to the big screen.

Gone with the Wind is a story that holds the “land of Cavaliers and cotton” on a pedestal, and when it arrived in theaters in 1939, it fed America’s nostalgia for the Old South then and for decades to come.

Shirley Temple was box office gold during the Depression.
Shirley Temple was box office gold during the Depression.

Hollywood already had terrific success with antebellum stories set against plantation backdrops. Throughout the 1930s there had been numerous films set in the Old South, many of which were successful. Some, not so much.

But it didn’t matter. Old South nostalgia was a Hollywood staple.

Among the successes were The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel which appeared in 1935, both of which starred child star Shirley Temple. In 1938, the most successful pretender to the GWTW throne was Jezebel, starring Bette Davis who won an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance as a “scarlet spitfire.” (The GWTW reference was intentional.)

Film still. So Red the Rose (1935)
So Red the Rose (1935)

Surprisingly less successful was So Red the Rose, a film based on the best-selling plantation novel of the same name written by Stark Young.  Young’s novel, set in Natchez, Mississippi, might have been the most important plantation novel of the decade had it not been for Gone with the Wind.

This is all of way of saying that Hollywood had primed the Old South pump for years, so that by the time GWTW premiered, a lot of the groundwork for the film’s success had already been laid. Still, there can be no doubt that GWTW eclipsed all that had come before.

From the opening scenes and first few minutes of dialogue, moviegoers were whisked into the mythical South of faithful slaves, southern belles, cavalier gentlemen, cotton fields and beautiful mansions.  American popular culture fed this nostalgia, too, particularly during the 1930s, and not just on the big screen.  It could be found among advertising icons like Aunt Jemima, radio shows such as the Maxwell House Showboat, and through the revival of Stephen Foster’s music and the “Dixie songs” of Tin Pan Alley. The film version of Gone with the Wind had all of that helping it succeed, too.

As the film is being celebrated on its 75th anniversary, it is interesting to note the ways in which Americans are still nostalgic for the Old South represented in GWTW.  In Georgia, there are tours of the facade of Tara (the film set), there are online fan clubs, a website dedicated to Scarlett touted as “the most comprehensive Gone with the Wind site on the Internet,” and you can still eat at Aunt Pitty Pat’s Porch in Atlanta.

It is important to note that Gone with the Wind is also reviled for its racism, and yet despite this it is easy to predict that when the film turns 100, there will be another anniversary edition for sale.

America’s nostalgia for the Old South is a hard thing to shake, thanks in large part to the cultural imprint this film has made.

 

 

The Ongoing “Allure” of the Antebellum South

Pop South welcomes this post by Joshua Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama.

Still shot from Gone with the Wind.
Still shot from Gone with the Wind.

Although I feel very fortunate to have a job where I actually get paid to teach courses on the American South, slavery, and memory to college students, there is one thing about being a professor of southern history that gets more grating every time I do it. Roughly once a year, I make myself (and my students) watch Gone with the Wind (GWTW). I could assign the book, of course, but the film really is the elephant in the room where American popular cultural memories of slavery reside.

Even now, seventy-five years after its release in 1939, the images of the intrepid belle Scarlett O’Hara, the embattled and torched city of Atlanta, the sympathetic scoundrel Rhett Butler, and the heartless Yankee invaders form the core of how a significant number of Americans, and particularly white Americans, imagine the South to have looked and operated during the era of the Civil War. And in my more generous moments, I concede that it’s not hard to understand why.

Hattie McDaniel as "Mammy" in GWTW.
Hattie McDaniel as “Mammy” in GWTW.

The film is sweeping and epic in its scope, drenched in color, and filled with so many iconic lines of dialog, characters, and screenshots that after a while it simply washes over you. It becomes beautiful, seductive and, superficially at least, nearly immune to critical engagement. There’s just one problem, of course. The film is racist as hell. The legendary performances of Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen notwithstanding, a clear-eyed viewer recognizes GWTW as a fantastical reading of the lives of the richest people in the antebellum South that one can only believe and fall in love with by denying how the real life O’Haras collectively subjected millions of black people to cruel violence and systematic exploitation to make their lives possible.

Fiddle-dee-dee indeed.

Blake Lively
Blake Lively

Which—and here I’m making a transition that I never thought I would make and did not actually think was possible—brings me to Blake Lively, a 27 year-old actress. I am uncertain of whether I ought to be proud or embarrassed to admit that before the other day I was not entirely sure who or what a Blake Lively was. Apparently she is in some television shows and movies that I have never seen, and she has parlayed that into running a “lifestyle” website called Preserve whose goals are things like “support[ing] the America we’ve always known, and the one we haven’t yet met.” It’s a site, in other words, that sells $80 t-shirts, $45 jars of sugar, and $325 floral teepees for children, all of which are “curated” for the consumer who doesn’t have enough overpriced and precious things in his or her life. It parodies itself, really, and is usually easy to ignore.

But this fall, Preserve proudly brings you the “Allure of Antebellum,” a fashion collection inspired by the “southern charm” and the “authenticity” of the “Southern belle.” These were the women, the website observes, who possessed “inherent social distinction [that] set the standards for style and appearance” and “epitomized Southern hospitality with a cultivation of beauty and grace, but even more with a captivating and magnetic sensibility.” Want a piece of that? Well, then, “embrace the season and the magic below the Mason-Dixon with styles as theatric as a Dixie drawl.”

The Allure of Antebellum. Photo credit: preserve.us
The Allure of Antebellum. Photo credit: preserve.us

The problem here isn’t the clothes. Indeed, how exactly stiletto heels, triangular earrings that look strikingly like the Star Trek insignia, and a leopard print skirt evoke belles or the antebellum South is a complete mystery, though the site claims it has something to do with “artful layering,” and I regret to inform you that that skirt is currently sold out. The problem is not even necessarily that Preserve proffers fashion purportedly inspired by a historical ruling class that sat atop its world by preying upon and slowly draining the life out of those they deemed inferiors, as arguably many fashions across time and space owe themselves to similar inspirations.

The problem is that at our current historical moment, the failures of the United States to reckon effectively with its particular legacy of slavery, and its seeming determination to perpetuate elements of that legacy in its public policy a century and a half after slavery’s demise, as evidenced most alarmingly in our criminal justice system, are glaringly on display. To glom onto that legacy culturally and materially, and to sell it back to American consumers—not merely with a total lack of self-awareness but as an aspirational virtue—may be a longstanding tradition in its own right.

But it is more than in bad taste. It’s rubbing it in.

scarlett-ohara1Historical sensibility does not seem to be the strong suit of Preserve, and I would venture that whoever conceived the “Allure of Antebellum” campaign and wrote its insipid ad copy had no malicious intent. But even casual ignorance and unintentional callousness deserve to be called out. It’s long past time to leave Scarlett O’Hara behind.

Historista! A Groovy New History Blog

Just one of the weird ways that Hollywood engages history.
Just one of the weird ways that Hollywood engages history.

Yes, I said “groovy.”

There’s a new voice in the blogosphere and it belongs to one fine historian, Megan Kate Nelson. Dr. Nelson is the author of two books, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012) and Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (2005), and has just launched a new blog called Historista. Nelson’s blog will examine the “surprising, cool, and weird ways that people engage with history in everyday life.”

Followers of Pop South who have an interest in history and popular culture should definitely check it out.

Have Y’all Heard? Voices from the Southern Blogosphere

The Pop South Rooster Word Cloud

Writing posts for Pop South has been an enjoyable experience, and it’s also provided a means for connecting with the larger public about the ways in which the American South is represented in popular culture. This is especially important for folks like myself who work in academia, where our critics suggest that we exist in a bubble and are out of touch with the “real world.”

I, for one, have always wanted to burst that bubble and bridge the gap that exists between academia and the broader public. To put it plainly, I’ve long felt that I should be able to explain what I write about in terms that members of my family, who never went to college, can understand.

My work as a public historian–working for museums and writing exhibit text–helped me to bridge that gap. Today, my blog serves that purpose and not by “dumbing down” the intellectual considerations. A person doesn’t have to have a college degree to be smart, but I find that dispensing with the academic jargon that can separate “us” (the academics) from “them” (the general reader) is especially important in a blog whose purpose is to communicate about topics in a way that most people can understand and appreciate.

I’m happy to say that I am not alone here in the southern blogosphere, as equally like-minded folks are adding their unique take on the region and its culture. If scholars want to be relevant beyond the academy, and if southern studies wants the same, then we must take advantage of new forms of communication in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

I look forward to others joining the mix, because there’s plenty of room for new voices. For now, here’s an introduction to some southern blogs and bloggers whose writing I think you’ll enjoy:

Civil War Memory–So much of what is written about Civil War memory concerns the South and how memory of the war has shaped, and continues to shape, southern culture. In this long-running blog, historian and teacher Kevin Levin explores this topic with his readers by examining everything from new books, to popular media, to the never-ending divisiveness of the Confederate battle flag.

Cobbloviate–This is a blog hosted by James C. Cobb, Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia.  Dr. Cobb offers his own special take on the South and southerners and generally with a healthy dose of humor.

Field Trip South is the official blog of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. It is a feast for the eyes and the ears as the SFC shares the archival resources of its phenomenal collection of materials that explore “the emergence of old-time, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, blues, gospel, Cajun and zydeco musics.”

Interpreting Slave Life–Nicole Moore, public historian and consultant, hosts this blog on one of the South’s most prickly historical issues–slavery.  She does so without sticking her head in the sand, addressing head-on the issue of slave interpretation at historic sites across the South.

New South Negress–Zandria Robinson’s blog offers a no-holds-barred approach to issues of region, race, and culture. Dr. Robinson is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis who teaches courses in southern studies and who offers a fresh voice on southern black cultures.  Her observations on southern hip-hop are a must read.

Off the Deaton Path–Stan Deaton, Senior Historian at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, is one of the newest to this genre of writing.  You may know him from his Emmy-winning role as host of Today in Georgia History, but he’s recently added blogging to his repertoire. Dr. Deaton’s blog isn’t southern specific; still, his explorations into regional issues (especially as they relate to Georgia) are worth your time.

Red Clay Scholar–Regina Bradley has a Ph.D. in Literature from Florida State University and she writes about hip hop culture, race, and the U.S. South.  She also has a great video interview series called Outkasted Conversations.  You should definitely check it out!

Southern Foodways Alliance–The SFA blog has several contributing authors who offer readers everything from a good southern story to a delicious southern recipe. You’ll learn new twists on southern foodways and discover things about the region you didn’t even know existed.

Talk About the South–Dayne Sherman is a Louisiana native and an associate professor of library science who blogs about southern history, politics, folklore and religion with a particular focus on his home state. And he has the enviable Twitter handle @TweettheSouth.

Historic Natchez Conference: Civil War to Civil Rights

Boxwood Garden, Natchez
Boxwood Garden, Natchez

I’m pleased to be able to participate in the annual Historic Natchez Conference this week from Wednesday, April 17 through Saturday, April 20th.  The focus of the meeting is “Civil War to Civil Rights.”  I’ll be speaking about my new project about a murder case that made national headlines in 1932. It’s known locally in Natchez as the “Goat Castle Murder.”

William C. Davis, professor of history at Virginia Tech, is giving a keynote address.  He is the author of Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America (2003).

Inside the Eola Hotel
Inside the Eola Hotel

The conference will be headquartered at the historic Eola Hotel. As with many small towns with nary an airport in sight, folks there know how to show people a good time.

Longwood Plantation, Natchez
Longwood Plantation, Natchez

If you ever get to visit Natchez, you should.  As they say there, “Natchez is in this world, but not of it.”  Seeing is believing.

“Accidental Racist”: Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s Folly

Brad Paisley‘s controversial new song “Accidental Racist” is causing a media stir and backlash creating what is euphemistically called a “shit storm.” Essentially, the song is that of a good ol’ boy who wants to show his southern pride and not have to apologize to the black guy who is waiting on him at Starbucks for doing so.  He’s “just a white man, living in the Southland” who wants to wear his red shirt emblazoned with that innocuous symbol (not), the Confederate battle flag, because really, he’s just a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and his generation didn’t own slaves. Damn, Brad, even Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to remove the flag from their concerts because of the flag’s ugly history–you know, the one associated not just with slavery, but with segregation and let’s not forget the Ku Klux Klan.  Although in the end, Skynyrd’s legions of white fans shamed them into keeping it because it’s about “heritage, not hate.”

This is essentially Brad Paisley’s argument.  Poor guy feels caught between “southern blame” and “southern pride.”  Well, Brad, there’s a good reason for that and if you had done your homework, which you said you’re just doing now in order to defend yourself, you wouldn’t have written lyrics asking a black man to give you a pass for wearing that battle flag on your t-shirt with all of the political baggage that it carries.  And why THAT symbol of southern pride above all others? Can’t you pick another one? Did you have to choose the one co-opted by hate groups? And why is a guy from the northern neck of West Virginia defending his southern pride?

And teaming up with LL Cool J did not help matters.  He’s drifted a long way from “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which would have been a more appropriate response to Paisley’s lyrics.  Instead, he joins in with ridiculous rhymes of his own like “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'” and “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.” LL, don’t you think you’re making a sweeping generalization suggesting that all black men wear do-rags and gold chains? Then, incredulously, he gives a shout out to Robert E. Lee, offering a “RIP.”

Take a listen.

The one line LL has correct is “can’t re-write history, baby.”  No, you can’t. And these two men should have familiarized themselves with the history of this country and of contentious symbols like that “red flag” before releasing this song.

Pop South Goes North to Clark University in Worcester, MA

New England didn't get the memo that it was the second day of Spring.
New England didn’t get the memo that it was the second day of Spring.

What a thrill it was to be asked to come North to discuss my scholarship with the wonderful people at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.  I was invited several months ago by Dr. Janette Greenwood of the History Department to speak with students and to deliver the annual Bland-Lee Lecture, which is supported by a generous donation from the Chester Bland family in honor of former history professor Dr. Dwight Lee.

My first talk was with students from two different classes, one on public history and one on collective memory and mass violence. We met in the Goddard Rare Book Room of the library, a room filled with beautiful volumes of books, perfect for a salon-like discussion. While there I talked with students about the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in preserving Confederate Memory in the era of the New South. Students asked terrific questions, many of which were based on their reading of my book Dixie’s Daughters.

Me with the great students I met at Clark University.
Me with the great students I met at Clark University.

Later in the day, after a very welcome plug by golocalworcester, I had the privilege of speaking before a crowd of close to 75 people about the northern origins of the romanticized South.  It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to discuss my work with a northern audience, so I was pleased to hear their thoughts.

I began by asking those gathered (including Clark University President David Angel) if they had ever spent time in the South.  Many raised their hands, although I’m not sure how much time they had actually spent here. Then I asked, “how many of you have preconceived notions about the South?” A majority of the hands in the audience went up.  Then, I proceeded to illustrate the ways in which the North and northern purveyors of popular culture have been responsible for how we as a country perceive the South, including up to the present day. Afterward, I fielded questions for more than 30 minutes. To the point of exhaustion.  I realized that, to this day, northerners still don’t quite understand the South.  It is still regarded as a region of “others.” But to be fair, I imagine many southerners look askance at northerners as well.  And so it has been since we’ve been a nation.

Jennifer Fitzroy, a student from nearby Boston College, surprised me by attending the talk.
Jennifer Fitzroy, a student from nearby Boston College, surprised me by attending the talk.

One of the pleasant parts of my visit was the opportunity I had to speak with Clark students.  They were smart, engaged, community-minded, and all-around outstanding individuals.  All of them serve as reminders that a strong liberal arts education is an outstanding foundation upon which to build our future.

Thoughts on the Future of Civil War History

I had the pleasure of joining numerous historians at Gettysburg College this past weekend for The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th conference–a meeting that considered how we can better interpret the American Civil War to gain a fuller, more complex, and multilayered understanding of its impact on the nation and its people.  During this, the sesquicentennial of the war, the conference sought to set a far different tone than the celebratory centennial (1961-1965), which many scholars have noted was swathed in the rhetoric of the Lost Cause.

(L-R) David Blight, Kevin Levin, John Hennessy, Karen Cox, Jonathon Noyalas, and Leonard Lanier.
(L-R) David Blight, Kevin Levin, John Hennessy, Karen Cox, Jonathon Noyalas, and Leonard Lanier.

This gathering at Gettysburg certainly set a different tone as it brought together public historians and academic historians to tackle issues of memory and history, of slavery and gender, of trauma and even the smells and sounds of the battlefield.  I participated in the session “Interpreting Issues of Civil War memory for the Classroom and Museum Audiences,” alongside Kevin Levin, who maintains the very successful blog Civil War Memory, Jonathan Noyalas, an instructor at Lord Fairfax Community College, John Hennessey of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, and Leonard Lanier, assistant curator at the Museum of the Albemarle (NC).  Our moderator was David Blight of Yale University and author of the very important and influential book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

One audience member asked us if we were doing a better job of interpreting the Civil War during the sesquicentennial.  Time will tell, but I’d like to think that given the vast array of subjects covered at this conference that we’ve more than improved on the discussions held during the centennial.

Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Heritage, Not Hate”

Wow, that was quick.  Less than a week ago, members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd were giving an interview on CNN in which lead guitarist Gary Rossington explained that the band had disassociated itself from the image with which it’s long been known – the Confederate battle flag.  Just a few days later?  Rossington, the last remaining member of the original band, all of a sudden got his Confederate memory back and told fans on the band’s website “The Confederate flag means something more to us, Heritage not Hate.” He needed to do something, because the band’s fans threatened to secede from Lynyrd Skynyrd nation and take their dollars with them.

Photo courtesy of examiner.com

Actually, he was right the first time when he told CNN that the image had “became such an issue, about race and stuff.”  Yea, race and stuff.

That stuff, as he initially pointed out, was that groups like the KKK, skinheads, and let’s go ahead and say segregationists (please) had, in his words, “kidnapped the Dixie or rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers.”  Well, yes, but it’s more complicated than that.

THAT flag, as we know, is one of many Confederate flags, but it’s the one that draws the  most ire.  Yes, it was used by southern soldiers as they headed into battle, but let’s be clear:  by 1863 the war was over the institution of slavery and the Confederate army was there to protect it.  States’ rights?  Yes, a state’s right to maintain slavery.  There’s no getting around it.

So, let’s say you buy the idea that this was simply about southern soldiers and therefore the “Heritage, Not Hate” slogan works for you, because you don’t want to be thought of as a racist.  Then what can you say about the heritage of that symbol since the Civil War?  The war lasted 4 years, but the battle flag has often been used over the last 150 years as a symbol of racial hatred.  What about THAT heritage?

The flag’s heritage is indelibly tied to the institution of slavery. Courtesy: Times Picayune, 2000.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is free to do what is best for its fan base and especially its bottom dollar, but as the saying goes “don’t get it twisted”–in this case, the history.  Gary Rossington was right the first time when he said that the negative connotations of the flag had to do with “race and stuff.”  The vitriol with which the fans have responded over the band’s initial decision to quit using the flag is proof enough that race is still at issue.

And just because you say it’s about “heritage, not hate,” doesn’t make it so.