Just felt like posting this song today. You’re welcome.
Pop South is pleased to welcome a discussion with Anne Sarah Rubin, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, on her new book Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory. This is Rubin’s second Civil War-related monograph, the first being A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868.
PS: What drew you to write a book about Sherman’s March?
It came from a confluence of events when I was back in graduate school: I read and loved Charles Royster’s The Destructive War, where he analyzed the ways that Americans become accepting of a different, more devastating to civilians, sort of war. I saw Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which made me think a lot about the reasons that this one event continued to resonate. I also heard about and ultimately read James Reston’s Sherman’s March and Vietnam which didn’t ring true to me. And finally, the opportunity to really engage critically with Gone with the Wind, one of the great Southern novels, was irresistible.
PS: How is your book different from other books on the March?
I think my book is different because it doesn’t simply retell the story of the March, but rather tries to get at the ways that Americans ascribed meaning to this event. To that end I look at the March and its aftermath from a range of perspectives: Southern white civilians, African Americans, Union veterans, and travelers. I also see how perceptions and portrayals of the March changed over time, from 1864-65 up through the present day.
The other difference is broader, and more about the ways that historians talk about “memory.” I didn’t want this to be a book that argues that there is one story of Sherman’s March and that lots of the stories people told were false and here’s why. Rather, I was interested in why certain narratives persisted and others didn’t. So I consciously shifted away from the language of “memory” to the language of “storytelling.”
PS: For the readers of Pop South, can you talk about the various sources of popular culture that you drew upon? Is there anything specific that really grabbed your attention?
I had a great time doing that research—I looked at fiction, poetry, films, photography, art, and music. The novels about Sherman’s March were generally pretty formulaic—lots of 19th century “romance of reunion,” although some of the 20th century novels, like those by Cynthia Bass and E. L. Doctorow were very powerful.
I liked working with Herman Melville’s two poems about the March, “The March to the Sea” and “The Frenzy in the Wake.” He’s able to show two completely different views of the same events, and it tied in so well with what I was doing. I also became really interested in George Barnard’s photographs, and the ways he did—or didn’t—represent the March.
PS: Your book explores some of the misconceptions surrounding Sherman’s March? What is the biggest misconception about this event?
I think the biggest misconception is that the March mowed down everything in its path, and left Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina as smoking ruins. It was much more narrowly focused. Whenever I give talks I always say the same thing: “It’s a mistake to imagine the March as mowing down everything in its path; rather it’s better to think of it as rows of stitches, with untouched spaces in between.”
PS: Tell readers about your website Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory.
I wanted to explore new innovations in digital history—I had worked on a large digital project in Grad school, and wanted to get back to it. Specifically, I wanted to use digital media in historiographical ways, making the same kind of arguments in my book, making ideas about memory visible. Fortunately, we have an amazingly talented group of visual artists/animators at the IRC who have been working on some of these kinds of projects or questions for years. Through a collaboration with Dan Bailey, and especially Kelley Bell, a professor in Visual Arts, we came up with a scheme for all of this, funded by an ACLS digital innovation grant and then UMBC.
We decided to use maps as our guiding metaphor and interface. The maps would be a way into the myriad strands of memory. But I didn’t want just one map—I wanted several, in order to represent the different kinds of accounts I was using. Then I could get the multiple perspectives across in a visual and intuitive way. The idea of a journey seems a natural metaphor for the kind of exploration and excavation I’m doing in the larger project. We ultimately settled on five different maps, each with a different look and feel:
- The Sherman or Fact Map, which lays out the basic events of the march.
- The Civilians Map, for events involving African Americans and Southern civilians.
- The Soldiers Map, for events told from the perspective of veterans.
- The Tourism Map, which is about tourism and travel accounts.
- Finally, the Fiction Map, which plots places both real and imagined.
Each map then has around 15 or 20 significant points marked. The idea is that you can toggle between the maps, and see how different people remembered or wrote about different places or events. Not every place appears on every map, but most of them are on two or three, and Atlanta, Savannah, and Milledgeville are on all five. But of course the maps alone can’t really tell the story, or make the kinds of arguments about the uses and possible abuses of memory. So what we decided to do was to create an animation or a mini-movie for each one of the map points. We pretty quickly realized that wouldn’t be feasible—too much work. So, we decided on 3-5 films per map, the rest done with single screens.
Finally, for the Georgia campaign I created a day-by-day blog of primary sources, which is now being updated less frequently for the Carolinas Campaign.
Followers of Pop South are encouraged to read Rubin’s book and to explore the terrific website that explores the March in greater depth. Check it: http://www.shermansmarch.org
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.
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.)
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.
This weekend in Atlanta, the city “too busy to hate,” there will be a meeting of the Southern Historical Association. Men and women, professors and graduate students will attend to learn about the latest scholarship on the American South, buy the latest books in the field, and visit with old (and new) friends.
There will also be a special conversation with Juanita Jones Abernathy, the widow of Dr. Ralph Abernathy, on Friday, beginning at 11:45 in Grand Salon East of the conference hotel, the Hilton Atlanta. Dr. Abernathy was co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Juanita Abernathy was an equally active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, participating alongside her husband in the most significant protests of the era including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike of 1968.
This year marks the 80th Annual Meeting of the SHA, affectionately known as “the Southern.”
During the 1970s, The Dukes of Hazzard was one of the most popular shows on American television, and while Bo and Luke Duke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat, respectively) were technically the stars of the show, the real star was their car. The 1969 orange Dodge Charger sped through the back roads of Georgia, leaping over hay bales, creeks, or other cars, nearly always getting “the boys” out of a jam. It was one of the most iconic vehicles ever to hit the small screen and its name was “the General Lee,” a nod to the most beloved of white Southern heroes, Robert E. Lee. And emblazoned on the roof was a large Confederate battle flag.
Well, no more.
In a new commercial for Autotrader.com, the “Duke boys” are back and so is their car. They are driving the hell out of that Dodge Charger to escape “the law,” but the car can’t seem to outrun these new police vehicles, so Luke pulls out his phone to search for a newer, faster, car on Autotrader.com.
But something is obviously missing. The “General Lee” has been stripped of its battle flag–at least the camera doesn’t allow you to see it. And the commercial lets us know that Autotrader ad execs also know that even while they wanted to use such an iconic car to advertise their business, that flag is a divisive symbol.
Who is their target audience for this commercial? According to an article on Bulldog Reporter, a website for public relations professionals, the commercial uses nostalgia to draw in people who, when they were kids, were tuned into The Dukes of Hazzard. I get that. They are also targeting consumers who like muscle cars. I get that, too. Yet, the article says nothing about the absence of the flag, which they’d just as soon not draw attention to.
In a separate Autotrader article, the writer tells the story of a how former NBA player, Jalen Rose, owned one of the many “General Lee” cars that exist. Rose, an African American, planned to sell the car at auction. As the article points out, he removed the flag “for obvious reasons.” It seems as though Autotrader doesn’t really want to discuss what those reasons are although, to save face, it does want you to know that at least one black man owned one of these cars.
So, we might think Autotrader was smart enough not to allow its brand to be tarnished by the battle flag, but has the company really fooled anyone?
Just as the car is associated with the television show, the battle flag is associated with the car–as well as having some unsavory historical ties to slavery and segregation. Fans of the show are unlikely to appreciate that the flag is hidden from view, while those who know its place in pop culture–and history–recognize that it’s gone missing.
And none of us are fools.
Pop South spoke with Tammy Ingram, Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston, a couple of months ago about her new book Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South. If you’re traveling between Michigan and Miami this summer, you might actually be driving on portions of the Dixie Highway. Read about this road that connected North and South causing some to refer to it as the “Dixie Peaceway.”
PS: Briefly, what is the Dixie Highway?
“The Dixie Highway was the first modern interstate highway system in the country, and it lasted from approximately 1915 to 1925. It was originally planned as a single route between Chicago and Miami Beach, but a fierce routing competition transformed it into an ambitious and sophisticated network of nearly 6000 miles of roads looping through the Midwest and South from the Canadian border all the way to Miami Beach.”
PS: How did the Dixie Highway change the South?
“The obvious ways that the Dixie Highway changed the South were economic: It gave farmers easier and more flexible marketing options for their crops, allowed rural southerners access to larger towns and cities, facilitated the Great Migration of rural African Americans, and opened up the South to new tourist-related businesses. It changed the ways in which people moved around in the South. Before the Dixie Highway, roads were entirely local in both scope and governance. But the Dixie Highway challenged that model by making automobile travel an alternative to railroads for long distance trade and travel. In doing so, the Dixie also transformed southern—and national—politics by centralizing control over massive public works projects. During the brief lifespan of the Dixie Highway, road building shifted from the jurisdiction of local authorities into the hands of state and federal bureaucrats who wielded tremendous political power and controlled massive budgets.”
PS: Since this is a blog on the South in pop culture, can you tell us about the ways that the DH entered into American popular culture?
“Although many people have never heard of the Dixie Highway, a century ago it helped to create the modern automobile tourism industry. Gas stations, roadside motels, and tourist attractions were unheard of in most of the country—and certainly in the South—before the Dixie Highway, but by the mid-1920s they lined the route from Michigan to Miami Beach.
The highway also helped to turn the South itself into a destination instead of just an obstacle for wealthy northern and Midwestern tourists bound for Florida resorts. Enterprising southerners marketed everything from antebellum mansions to peach and cotton farms to automobile tourists, and northern businesses named (or in some cases, re-named) their establishments in honor of the Dixie Highway. “Dixie” motels and gas stations in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were commonplace. So were songs, postcards, magazines, and road maps that advertised (and celebrated) the Dixie Highway.”
PS: As a native Georgian, how do you think being a southerner adds to your perspective on the Dixie Highway?
“I learned how to drive on narrow, rural dirt roads that were not entirely unlike those that comprised the original route of the Dixie Highway. Navigating those roads could be difficult even in the best of weather. When it rained, some of the roads were impassable. We obviously also had modern, paved roads in South Georgia by the 1980s, but we were isolated in other ways: We were among the last places to get things like cable television and even dial-up internet, and the only tourists who ever passed through town were on their way to the beaches in the Florida panhandle. When I discovered the Dixie Highway while doing research for my original dissertation topic on the Great Migration, I think I was drawn to it because the struggles rural people were facing at the turn of the twentieth century felt a little bit familiar to me.”
PS: What projects are you working on next that followers of Pop South would find interesting?
“I’m excited about my next book project, which is tentatively titled Dixie Mafia: Sex, Race, and Organized Crime in the Sunbelt South. It covers a wide array of organized crime activities in the postwar South, but it focuses on a story that has long fascinated me: The murder of Albert Patterson in Phenix City, Alabama in 1954. Like many other small towns situated near military bases, Phenix City’s main industry in those days was vice: Mobsters made tens of millions of dollars a year on gambling and prostitution, and local law enforcement and city leaders were getting a cut of the profits in exchange for their cooperation. Patterson became a target for the mob because he ran for attorney general and promised to go after them. But they went after him, instead. It’s a fascinating story, and all the more so when you consider it within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.”
I enjoy a good drag performance and southern queens are among the best. Some of the best-known drag performers in the U.S. are from the South. RuPaul (Atlanta, GA), Lady Bunny (Chattanooga, TN), and Lypsinka (Hazlehurst, MS) hold celebrity status in the world of drag. RuPaul achieved superstar status in the mid-1990s with his hit song “Supermodel (of the World)” and a short-lived talk show on VH1. He is once again riding high with RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Drag Race has featured many a southern drag queen in its competition to find “America’s next drag superstar” and this year is no exception. In fact, Bianca Del Rio (Roy Haylock), the winner of this year’s competition hails from New Orleans, but currently lives in New York (or better yet, hotel rooms since she is now performing around the country and out of it, too.)
I attended my very first drag show in 1990 in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the now defunct, but long-lived club known as The Palms. I was quite nervous about it and I learned my first lesson in drag shows–do not sit near the stage or you’ll likely be drawn into the performance. In my case, I sat at a table near the dance floor and before I knew it a very tall and plus-sized performer, who was offering her illusion of Madonna (circa Blonde Ambition Tour), walked over and grabbed one of my hands and placed it on one of her–cough, cough–cones. As nervous as I was about that interaction, needless to say, I was henceforth hooked on drag–especially southern drag performance.
I went back to The Palms after that and saw drag illusions of Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton–gay icons all–who were staples in the pantheon of southern drag performance. (Dolly still is.) When I moved to Mississippi a year after the cone incident, I became familiar with an entire world of drag performers with names like Misty Love, Rose Petal, Deli Delmonte, and Katrina Del Ray. I even judged a couple of pageants, including Miss Dixie and Miss Sweetheart.
Drag pageants in the South mirror beauty pageants for those born biologically female. There’s usually a talent portion, an evening gown competition, and even a question round. The effort and money put into drag performance (and especially the pageants) is really impressive, especially when you consider that many a young queen I met in Hattiesburg, MS, was working a minimum wage job or might have been a struggling college student.
Drag, of course, isn’t just about pageants, but it IS always about performance and I’ve always appreciated the talent that goes into it. Southern drag has changed a lot since I first went to a show. Today, you will see all kinds of drag performance (comedy, goth and celebrity illusion) and I enjoy the variety that’s out there, but I will always have a soft spot for the pageant girls. They are the gift that keeps on giving.