Tag Archives: the atlantic world

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.

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On regionalism

As part of my MA, I do a great deal of reading.  This should come as no surprise to anyone; academia is made up of reading, writing, thinking, more reading, and occasionally, coffee.  (Or tea, depending on your preference.  I’ve been known to utilise both.)  I plough through a great many books in the span of a month.  Some are wonderful, some are mediocre, and some are downright aggravating.  But the most frustrating are always, without fail, books that are lauded as being important, excellent scholarly works in which I, a lowly grad student, can find problems and errors right away.

My current frustration — so frustrating that it’s sitting, largely abandoned, under my desk next to my cat’s bed — is Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  Howe is an eminent scholar, a former president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and a Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford.  He is no slouch, as my mother likes to say.  Which is why I’m finding Howe’s work such a trial.  Because while Howe might have a great deal to say about American history, he seems to forget that he’s not only talking about New England.  Forty pages in, Howe asserts that nowhere in America in 1815 did people celebrate Christmas because it was “too Popeish” — a surprise, I am certain, to the Christmas-loving Virginians and other Southerners who were Anglican in outlook until the revival movements toned down their approach and stopped criticising the gentry for their immoral ways, as well as to New Orleanians and other Louisianans, who were Catholic!  He also insists that Americans had no concept of gentleman or gentry — another surprise, I am sure, to families like the Lees of Virginia, and the fine white Creole families of Louisiana, who could trace their lineage to noble houses in France and Spain a generation prior — because all white American farmers could own a horse and shake hands with other men, regardless of wealth.  Howe suffers from a lack of regionalism, and I think would have benefited immensely from a distinction between the rhetoric people spouted off about a classless, yeoman-centric world, and the realities of class and wealth on the ground, especially in the South.  (He also would have benefited from a look at Stephanie McCurry’s 1997 work, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, which directly shoots his “classless society” argument in the foot with a shotgun.)

Which all brings me to the point: regionalism.  Regional studies are booming right now in American history, and well they ought.  While Americans enjoy the myth of a national culture and a national destiny, and have since the Founding Fathers created the idea of a country from thirteen disparate colonies, until the twentieth century and the introduction of mass media culture as we know it, there simply wasn’t such a thing.  Certainly, Americans held ideas in common, ideas about the nation itself, its national character, what liberty means, what an American ought to be.  But the idea that there was a homogenous culture from Maine down to the Gulf and out west to the Mississippi in the first half of the nineteenth century borders on ridiculous.  And treating all regions as if they had the kind of low-church, Puritan work ethic, John Adams legacy of politics common to New England ignores the practical cultural realities of how social structures worked in different parts of the country.  As I sit here in Virginia, I cannot imagine the Puritan social structures of New England being applied correctly to the plantation gentry of the nineteenth century, never mind to how Virginians conceive of themselves today.  (Being within spitting distance of both Monticello and Montpelier, I think Jefferson and Madison have more to say to the character of Virginia than Adams, and that’s said with all due fondness for Mr Adams!)

Which does, in a roundabout way, lead me back to costume.  While we know there was an emergent mass culture of fashion in the nineteenth century — Godey’s Lady’s Book and other lady’s magazines speak to this — region is more important than ever in terms of fashion history.  What a woman in New England would have felt was appropriate for a summer outing, her counterpart in South Carolina wouldn’t have worn.  Certain things would have been in common — the shape of the gown, the kinds of colours considered desirable, use of trim, even shapes of bonnets and styles of gloves — but the fabric used, and the construction methods could have, and indeed must have varied widely.  To talk about costume in Louisiana, one must be aware not only of fashions in New York and London, the major influence on the Anglo-American world, but as well of fashion in Paris, the epicentre of Creole identity.  Indeed, in this way, regionalism must mesh with a sense of the Atlantic World of consumption in the nineteenth century.  With cotton flowing to the Continent and England from Southern plantations, Southern women in particular were receiving consumer goods in return, and that included fabric woven in English and French textile mills, and dresses made to order by French and English seamstresses (a phenomenon which would become more visible with the astronomical success of Worth later in the century).  What did this Atlantic exchange of fabric and fashion look like in the South?  What did it mean for the women who wanted dresses just like those worn by their French counterparts, to be as au currant as their French counterparts, not their New York ones?

As with all things, more questions than answers.  But I do know that Howe, for all his prestigious positions and eminence as a scholar of the Early Republic and Jacksonian years, will probably stay under my desk for a while longer.  While I may be a lowly graduate student, I do understand that the wide swath of American History is often a re-telling of the history of white, upper-class men, usually from New England or New York, sometimes from Washington.  And when that’s the case, one must set aside the conventional histories, and dig into the spaces on the margins to find where the women and their concerns were.