Last week Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns the Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve brands, announced it is selling the Southern Comfort brand to the New Orleans-based Sazerac Company. Many will see this as a homecoming for Southern Comfort.
The original recipe for the whiskey-flavored liqueur is credited to a New Orleans bartender named Martin Wilkes Heron who created the concoction in 1874, which he named “Cuffs and Buttons.” Heron later moved to Memphis where he began bottling his recipe in 1889, and renamed it “Southern Comfort.”
SoCo, as it’s often called, has stiff competition from flavored whiskeys and has seen a decline in sales in recent years. But it wasn’t always the case.
Southern Comfort enjoyed a major boost in 1939 when it became one of several companies that tied their brands to the enormously successful film Gone with the Wind. In the case of SoCo, it was the creation of the “Scarlet O’Hara Cocktail.”
The drink, made with cranberry juice and Southern Comfort with a squeeze of lime, was marketed as the “Grand Old Drink from the South.” The then New York-based distributors of the brand suggested that customers “try it in a Scarlet O’Hara cocktail, but no more than two lest you be Gone with the Wind.”
Because SoCo is sweet, it has long had the reputation of being more appealing to women. It was certainly a favorite of ’60s rocker Janis Joplin.
So a few years ago, Southern Comfort sought to increase sales among men with the commercial called “Whatever’s Comfortable.”
While the commercial caught people’s attention, it didn’t draw much of a new male customer base.
It will be interesting to see what Sazerac does in its marketing of Southern Comfort now that it’ll be back in the Crescent City. Personally, I’d recommend some heritage marketing that ties it back to the place where it all began.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Pop South welcomes this post by Joshua Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama.
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.
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.
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 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.
Historical 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.
Next week I’ll be giving the annual Low Lecture, co-sponsored by the Department of History, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The good people there made this nice poster to accompany the talk.
It seems fitting that after posting a blog about pop culture’s southern gentleman that I should talk about his counterpart, the southern belle. What follows is an edited version of an early blog I wrote for another site.
A few years ago TLC, the channel that still airs Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, brought us a show called Bama Belles. It seems unlikely that “belle” is an appellation anyone would apply to women who don camouflage to hunt or are ready to start a bar fight. Still, the conscious decision by the show’s producers to make “belles” part of the show’s title offers an opportunity to consider the evolution of the term that is now used to describe the women on this show. (Update: Bama Belles was cancelled after only a few episodes.)
“Belle” was originally applied to white women of the southern planter class and a woman who was classified as such was as much a creation of antebellum sentimental literature as she was real. During the nineteenth century, authors North and South placed her at the center of the plantation legend and idealized her as one who was as delicate as she was strong, and as feminine as she was a dominant figure of the plantation. Novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, too, have made the southern belle central characters in their narratives. The most famous of these was Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone with the Wind. Scarlett, however, was more modern than her predecessors, which is one of the reasons women around the world found her appealing.
Mid-twentieth-century southern debutantes also donned the title of “belle.” No longer plantation mistresses, these belles were still members of the South’s white social elite. For its July 9, 1951 issue, Life magazine featured Charlotte, North Carolina, debutantes with the caption that they looked “as gracious as any ante-bellum belles,” a clear reference to their Old South antecedents. Being a debutante or a pageant queen has often qualified southern women as belles, and no fewer than a dozen southern contestants were crowned Miss America between the 1950 and 1980, which in its own way helped to perpetuate the image of southern women as belles. Then, in the 1980s, debutante and pageant queen came together in Delta Burke’s portrayal of Suzanne Sugarbaker on television’s Designing Women.
Over the last several years the term has been partially stripped of its “whites only” racial affiliation, illustrating how the term has evolved. Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who referred to the students at Bennett College (a private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina) as “belles.” Their student handbook is known as the “Bennett Belle Book,” their email is “Bellesmail,” and campus updates come in the form of “Belle Alerts.” Admittedly, it was the first time I had heard the term applied to black women, but it made sense given the socially elite dimensions of the term. It certainly applied to the fictional character Whitley Gilbert, an African American southern belle played by Jasmine Guy on the showA Different World (1987-1993) in a sitcom based on the fictional Hillman College. The tradition of the black southern belle continues with the most recent addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, attorney Phaedra Parks. She, too, is a self-proclaimed southern belle. On the one hand she is modern in her approach to “belledom,” and yet she has more traditional belle credentials, such as her participation in beauty pageants and her membership in Atlanta’s Junior League.
Some folks might be surprised that men, too, can be belles. Throughout the South they exist in the form of female impersonators. In fact, there are numerous regional pageants whose competitions are just as fierce as those held for women. I served as a guest judge for at least two such pageants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, including one for “Miss Dixie,” and can vouch for the seriousness of the contestants to offer their best impression of the southern belle.
The one feature of the southern belle that seems to have remained consistent over time—regardless of race, class, or gender—is that it is largely a social performance.
Given that, the belle clearly tolls for anyone who’s interested in the part.
This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.
The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:
“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”
The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.” And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.
A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s. He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.” (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.
The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer. There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.
What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.
He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.
Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town. For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.
Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store. It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.
Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.
White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning. By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country. She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach. For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.
Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s. In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:
“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place. My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning. Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate. Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”
In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.
Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark. It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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.