Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture

May 12, 2011

Whether or not we have ever travelled there, we all "know" the old American South: the South of Gone with the Wind, Show Boat, Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemima. Karen Cox's Dreaming of Dixie shows us how we have acquired and imbibed a romantic and nostalgic view of the South through the "magnolia-shaped lens" generated by the efforts of writers, advertisers and Hollywood film-makers from the late 19th century onwards to "sell" us their version of the pre-modern, pre-Civil War South.

In chapters that focus on advertising, popular songs, early radio, film, travel literature and marketing, Cox shows us that while the Army of the North may have won, helping to change the South forever, the imaginary pre-industrial South of the Confederacy continued to be a fantasy shared by both sides into the first half of the 20th century, and formed part of a reconciliation between the warring sides.

Dreaming of Dixie shows how Northern technological and industrial advances ironically enabled the vision of a mythic "old South" to achieve widespread dissemination throughout the US. Fantasies glorifying an anti-modern Southern lifestyle rewrote rural poverty as bucolic simplicity and appealed strongly to Northern middle-class urban dwellers who were confronting rapid industrialisation. Cox shows how Southern stereotypes such as Jim Crow, Mammy, the Jezebel, the hillbilly, the Colonel and the southern belle were employed by Madison Avenue advertisers to sell products exoticised by their apparent Old South rural and slaveholding heritage.

Interesting ironies are teased out in this survey of images and representations: that nostalgic songs about "Dixie" were the work of Jewish immigrant songsmiths in New York's Tin Pan Alley, and appealed to Northerners' desire for racial hierarchies in counterpoint to anxieties about immigration; that just 16 years after the Civil War, Union veterans formed the vanguard of a new tourist industry to heritage sites and battlefields that glorified the slaveholding South; that Margaret Mitchell was so incensed by the tourist industry that evolved around her book Gone with the Wind that she wanted to take a tour bus to the faked "Tara" and shout out "that's a lie!"; and that well into the 1930s, former slaves were paid to recount their tales to tourists and perform plantation dances.

While there is some discussion of the opposition to such stereotypes by civil rights groups who found the servile Old South representations of African-Americans especially offensive and detrimental, the tension between the myth and the reality deserves more attention. As Cox focuses on the surface representations generated by the leisure, media and marketing industries, the danger is that this only reinforces the fantasies that she shows as fake.

This is not, then, the book in which to find evidence that the South of our imaginations is different from the historical reality. Few voices outside the media industries are heard that might tease out conflicting or contrasting images.

For example, the popular reception of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, a 1932 book that became a national phenomenon, a Broadway hit and a John Ford film, generated extremely negative stereotypes of poor southern whites as ignorant and degenerate, but did not serve to sell any romantic visions of the rural South, selling instead the progressive efforts to modernise. The term "Tobacco Road" entered into the lexicon as an evocation of a degenerate South, and many people were as aware of Caldwell's South as they were of Mitchell's historical fantasy, but Cox finds no room to address such contradictions.

Despite this, she points out in this lively, accessible and well-illustrated book the reasons why it is hard to see where the real South begins and the dream ends.

Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture

By Karen L. Cox

University of North Carolina Press

224pp, £30.50

ISBN 9780807834718

Published 16 May 2011

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