Category Archives: Southern Studies

Wrestling with Scarlett O’Hara

Part and parcel of graduate work is reading. Reading takes up the bulk of my time, and I average about 3-500 pages a week when I’m not in crunch time (and can manage about 1000 a week when I’m really pressed). Suffice to say, I have devoured a lot of books and articles on American History. This semester, in my focus on the American South, and on women in the antebellum South in particular, I have come to encounter one name more consistently than any other:

Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett being laced into her 17 inch corset by Mammy in the 1939 MGM film, “Gone With the Wind.”

Scarlett has appeared in nearly every book I’ve read thus far this semester.  She came up in Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History.  She came up in Catherine Clinton’s The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South.  I’ve seen her in Kristen Olsen’s Chronology of Women’s History.  She’s mentioned in Bridget Heneghan’s Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination.  I’m pretty sure I saw her come up in Walter McDougall’s Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era, 1829-1877.  She’s come up so frequently that I have a tally going on my desk, ticking off how many times her name comes up — and how many times I reference her myself!  (This post is upping that count substantially.)

Pretty impressive for a fictional character written in the 1930s.

Scarlett O’Hara has become, for better or for worse, a symbol of antebellum womanhood, the prototypical Southern Belle — ironic, when one considers that Scarlett, with her temper, her manipulative streak, and her iron will, flies in the face of the 19th century ideal woman.  She embodies the moonlight and magnolias vision of the South that has been projected backwards by white imagination into history.  She is the visual symbol of cavalier culture, and she has more currency culturally, I would argue, than the image of the Southern cavaliers themselves.

(A piece of anecdotal data: When walking into the local grocery store here in Charlottesville, a sign welcomed back the University of Virginia Cavaliers.  My partner, a Virginia transplant, asked, “Wouldn’t the cavaliers be a more fitting mascot for William and Mary?  That school was at least around closer to the English Civil War.”  After a moment of gobsmacked silence, I had to explain the image of the Southern cavalier, and its socio-cultural currency in the South, which would lead UVA to have the cavalier for their mascot.  Ironically enough, my partner is a medievalist who studies Normans, and had never heard the connection of Southern cavaliers with the knightly ideal so popular in the South.)

Every Southern historian, it seems, deals with Scarlett.  They mention her, reference her, and use her as an acceptable starting point for the uninitiated into the world of Southern history and culture.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about plantation belles.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about Southern fashion and corsets, her 17 inch waist being assumed as the immediate benchmark for antebellum ladies.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about white mistresses and slaves.  Scarlett is the image of the South, and we cannot escape her.  And through our ongoing willingness to embed Scarlett into our serious history texts, we begin to give Scarlett a life of her own that Mitchell could have never foreseen.

I suspect I sound overly critical of Gone With the Wind.  I rail about its inaccuracies when I talk to people about my work.  I get frustrated when people ask after hearing about my topic, “So you must really love Scarlett O’Hara, huh?”  The truth of it is, I do love Scarlett.  Scarlett was a role model for me as a girl, and I wandered into my love of the Civil War through routine re-watchings of Gone With the Wind and Ken Burns’ documentary.  But as I move on, I get increasingly frustrated that the image of the Southern woman is not a real Southern woman, but rather, a fictional construct made in the 30s, seeped in the post-war racism that characterized the early twentieth century.  Where, I want to ask, are the images of real women, women with names and histories and places that we can look to and see something real?  Why is fiction the dominant standard for all Southern women, be it Gone With the WindSteel Magnolias, Jezebel, or Designing Women?  Are the real women not interesting enough, not fiery enough, not visible enough?  Is fictional racism more comfortable than real racism?  Or are we unwilling to let history get in the way of our vision of the romantic South and the spitfire Southern belle, be she Scarlett O’Hara or Julia Sugarbaker?

I’m not sure.  I suspect that fiction resonates with us and stays with us in ways that history often doesn’t in a wider cultural sense, largely because of how Americans are taught their history.  (Hint: its usually poorly.)  To watch these films and read these novels is to connect with a romanticized  plot-convenient vision of the past, and to have a narrative arc that is designed to be emotional and satisfying, giving it the staying power that history, with its inconveniences and heartbreaks and rough narratives rarely has.  We wrestle with Scarlett O’Hara, I think, because Scarlett is the gateway drug to the rest of what is waiting in the South, be it the good, the bad, or the frequently ugly.  Scarlett is a white vision of an idealized white past, and she’s more comfortable for white folks than the truth.  Culturally, white America has never dealt well with uncomfortable realities when fiction is much more convenient and lovely, after all.

Suffice to say, my Scarlett O’Hara Watch tally isn’t going anywhere.  Because, I suspect, neither is Scarlett.  Scarlett is the vision of the modern woman projected into the past, and with racial issues largely sidestepped or avoided on a larger scale.  She’s the image of one woman doing it all on her own, and getting what she wants, even if the guy issue is complicated (and in this day and age of divorce, who doesn’t sympathise with her holding onto the house and losing the husband?) and her life is a walking tragedy at times.  Her clothes are good, she’s gorgeous, and she’s got ambition to spare.  Mitchell, despite writing Scarlett in the past, was looking forward in some very prescient ways.  And so Scarlett stays with us, the epitome of the imaginary South, eclipsing the cavalier and garnering more name recognition than most of the Southerners who made the Confederacy what it was and what it ever failed to be.

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Why the South?

I get asked this question a great deal — it’s pretty much standard in any discussion of my career, such as it is.  Why the South, people ask me, be it in admissions or advising discussions, or in more informal situations.

(People rarely ask why I study women, or why I study mourning culture.  I’m obviously feminine and my goth days still hang on with my preference for a darker colour palette, so I suppose both of those speak for themselves!)

It is a hard question.  Not because it’s particularly difficult to answer, but rather, because the answer is longer than a soundbite.  And also, because there are so many assumed bad answers hanging in the air around the question that to proceed is to tred very, very lightly, indeed.  There is a lot of racism and longing for the Old South that goes on in some corners of Southern studies, especially when undertaken by people with agendas.  I remember seeing much of it in Confederate reenactors I knew.  Most of them were lovely human beings with an appreciation for and an interest in the experience and suffering of the average soldier in a conflict much bigger than he could have ever imagined.  But there was a thread of Unreconstructed Confederates who seemed to think they could change the outcome of the war this time around, at this reenactment, rewrite history so that their guys win.  There’s a great deal of Confederate apologia out there as well, still being written, determined to show the Southern Cause as just, slave masters as kind and benevolent Christians, and Federal forces as unjustified aggressors who engaged in terrorism against their own citizens.  It’s scary stuff, and the so-called “heritage groups” that engage in it are loud and intimidating.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out the problem of “heritage groups” and neo-Confederate ideology in the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2002, an intelligence report worth reading.)

That’s the stuff floating out there — racist, ugly answers about why study the South.  And those aren’t my answers.  Those answers horrify me.  I’m not here to glorify the Old South or re-envision Gone With the Wind (there will never be another Vivien Leigh, anyway) or argue about the nobility of Southern gentlemen and ladies.  Mary Chestnut spoke truly about the underpinnings of all those white fantasies: “ours is a monstrous system.”  So how to reconcile the clear knowledge that beyond the petticoats and dashing gentlemen was genocidal violations of human rights based on pure, virulent racism, misogyny of the first water, and a host of other sins made all the more hypocritical by the profession of Southern elites to believe in the American vision of liberty and freedom?

I begin where my work captured me: with a city.

New Orleans.

I’d always been interested in the 19th century, especially in the Civil War, but after Hurricane Katrina, my interest in Louisiana became marked.  What was the city that so many pundits and talking heads on television said we should let go to rot?  What was it like?  Was it like Anne Rice made it seem, thick with elegance and mystery and gothic sensibilities?  And where did the party time reputation come from?

They weren’t elegant questions.  They weren’t even particularly intelligent ones.  But they started me down this road, some seven years ago.  They got me into my first graduate programs, and sustained me in the effort to try again when those first attempts at a PhD didn’t work.  Because, you see, those questions took me to Louisiana as an adult, and when I stepped outside in New Orleans one chilly, humid morning in December 2008, I fell utterly in love.  I fell in love with the architecture, with the people, with the food, with the intertwined Atlantic histories that wove their ways through the city.  I loved the cemeteries, the street cars, the churches.  (And the coffee is sublime.  This is a fact that cannot be undersold, here.)  I fell in love.  And, like any girl with a new crush, I had to know everything.  I had to know the history, the way people made this city, the conflicting visions of the city, the tension between American expansion and European heritage, the conflict between Anglo ideas of race and Franco-Caribbean ones, the horrors and hardships and hellholes that made a swampy patch on a beautiful curve of the Mississippi become one of the most sublime and unique cities in the entire United States, if not the world.

You see, I am utterly enchanted with this city, and in some spiritual, emotional sense, I feel as if it is my city, mine to understand and study and evangelise.  To paraphrase Mr Darcy, it has bewitched me, body and soul.  So I look at it, at the 19th century, at the years before war changed everything and the idea of New Orleans as an American city was still just that — just an idea, not realised, not embraced — and I look for someone much like me.  Middle class, educated, female, in the phase of life where marriage and children and loss are visible parts of existence.  I look for French and Spanish Creole women, because I am profoundly aware of my own roots in Europe, not that many generations removed on my father’s side.  I look for white American women, because I am profoundly aware of my own identity as an American.  I look for Catholics, because I remember Mass and incense with my mother as a child.  I look for Jews, because I light candles every Shabbat as an adult.

In short, I look for reflections of myself, in order to understand how people like me, people who were educated and sensitive and moral could allow slavery and abuse and a host of other evils not only to flourish, but to support their daily lives, intimately and directly.  Northern white women in cities allowing slavery to go on is one question.  Southern planter’s wives who had no voice and few options to buck the system allowing slavery to go on without protest is another question, one scholars like Catherine Clinton and Elizabeth Fox-Genevese have begun to answer well.  But women in New Orleans did not lack for social connections or the support networks that allowed Northern women to form an anti-slavery identity.  So why did it go on, in the forms that it did?  What did the tripartite racial caste system in New Orleans mean for the women who participated in it and were victimised by it?  What did plaçage mean for the woman whose husband kept a mixed-race mistress and whose will would pay for her child when he died?  What did those wills look like, and how did white women react to them?  What did all these social problems and ills mean for an average middle class woman?  What was her life like?  And why, at times of greatest grief and pain, did middle class women enforce the social strictures around mourning, creating isolation, emotional burdens, and ultimately, a code of conduct that was oppressive?

The South is my home.  I was born below the Mason-Dixon line, and I live in the South currently.  But New Orleans is my obsession.  Let other scholars have planters and their wives, let other scholars have plantations and the struggle over the myth of happy slaves.  I want the urban world, the world where women’s connections and mobility and social roles should be the most evident.  I want New Orleans, and her conflicting French-Spanish-Caribbean-American identity.  I want the tensions and the horrors and the delightful surprises.  I want to present to the world the fact that the South had one of the most important port cities in the world when the Confederacy formed, and challenge the idea of Northern women being the only ones with the benefit of urban life in important cities to give them social power.

Why the South?  Because I love it here, even when it is ugly and brutal and monstrous.  Because I love my city, and I know what it means to miss New Orleans.  And because I take no satisfaction in understanding people who history has vindicated.  Give me the losers and the ones history has left behind in the dust bin, consigned to a way of life that was unsustainable and oppressive and ugly.  In it, there lies the tell-tale signs of progress for the future, when we can cast off all that we hold as normal and given despite it being unsustainable and ugly.  Give me the gritty past, and I will find hope for a better future.  And there is nowhere grittier, nowhere more fraught, than the South.