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Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Antebellum South–Elegant, Graceful, And Sophisticated

The Deep South is many things to many people – Gone with the Wind, virulent racism, the sophisticated tradition of the cavaliers and gentlemen, the Mississippi River, Delta blues, cotton, and quadroons, and much more.  It cannot be ignored nor forgotten.  As much as many would like to think that it never existed or at best should be consigned to the dust bin of discredited history, it will not go away.  Rhett, Scarlett, pocket doors, mint juleps, cotton plantations, and Reconstruction cannot be wished into oblivion, airbrushed, and forgotten.  The great antebellum mansions of the Old South not only existed but still exist, visited every year at Southern pilgrimages, tributes to a simpler, more sophisticated,  graceful, and elegant way of life.  Residents of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi may have moved on from the civil war and Northern occupation, but they have not forgotten Southern traditions.

Image result for images antebellum mansions

Manners, hoop skirts, formal dances, broad lawns and civility are not a thing of the past, but a living history, a present, and a permanent piece of both Southern and American history, a vital and essential piece of our past.

Yet there are many in the North who would like to airbrush the entire South – to remove it from recollection and significance.  According to them slavery is the only criterion for social judgement; and no matter how much the  Southern, English, cavalier ethos may have contributed to American culture, its livelihood of human bondage must never be forgiven, a mark of Cain which can never be removed.  No amount of penance can forgive the horrors of slavery. 

Unless one understands Southern history, one can never understand American history. Not only was the Civil War a major event of the new Republic, it was the event against which all other are judged and according to which political philosophies depend.  A recent political observer noticed that interest in the Civil War is waning – fewer visitors to Gettysburg and Antietam, and fewer borrowings and purchases of books on the great, decisive battles of the conflict.  More disturbing was the fact that few young American understand the antecedents of the war – why it happened and more importantly should it have happened – and even fewer have any knowledge of Reconstruction, perhaps the more telling and more significant outcomes of the War.  Because of radical Republican Reconstruction – punitive, repressive, harsh, and unforgiving – the South resented the North even more than as its wartime enemy, and soon returned to a society little different from the slavery of the antebellum period.  Reconstruction is a lesson in retribution and forgiveness denied.

Yet Northerners remain universally critical of the South.  Visiting Mississippi 150 years after the War, 200 after the first slaves were brought from depleted tobacco fields of East to work the black, fertile soil of the Delta, and 60 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act is still tantamount to treason and at best a reprehensible, immoral act.  Spending dollars in Mississippi would be giving succor to the enemy, validating the South’s heinous and unforgivable past, and turning one’s back on liberalism and its moral conscience.

Yet how can anyone deny history, since Southern history is American history?  The war was fought for many socio-economic reasons but also for cultural ones.  It was indeed more like a war between countries than a war between the states, countries with different economic systems, a different society, and a very different culture; and in a review of two books by the historian George Frederickson, James McPherson of the New York Review of Books (12.4.08) discussed the issue of regional identity of the South and the North – Cavalier vs. Yankee. 

The Southern gentry believed that they were descended from English aristocracy and earlier to the Normans, and continued that ‘cavalier’, chivalric and heroic tradition in the United States.  They believed that Northerners, coming from peasant stock were inferior, as were their social and economic models.

Image result for images English Cavaliers

While the link between English cavaliers and Southern grandees might have been exaggerated, the importance of the belief in and the propagation of this myth cannot be underestimated.  Not only the South but the North was guilty of myth-making, and as time went on not only had the South consolidated the conviction that its way of life was the higher expression of human society and its values, but the North bought into it, rejected it, and fought a war over it.

These ideas percolated into the popular press. The Richmond Dispatch, with the largest circulation of any newspaper in the Confederacy, published frequent editorials during the Civil War analyzing:
The incongruous and discordant elements out of which the framers of the Constitution sought to create a homogeneous people. The great wonder is not that the two sections have fallen asunder at last, but that they held together so long. The dissimilarity between moral constitutions, habits of thought, breeding and manners of the Cavalier and Roundhead must run in the blood for generations, and defy all the glue and cement of political unions. By the time of the Civil War, this mythology was complete.  It was not only a war about slavery, free labor, and economic competition, but about culture.  As I mentioned above, it makes no difference whether or not the claims to a Norman blood lineage held any water.  The point was the South fought to defend this Cavalier honor (McPherson)
The legend of the benevolent South, committed to land, family, and chivalry, intrigued two classic, Northern-born, novelists: Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James.
The former describes his father, descended from a Maryland planter family, as a man who "came from another America" (Gerster and Cords 330). In some of his short stories Fitzgerald betrays an uncritical fascination with the myths of plantation life and the Southern belle. In The Bostonians (1886) James idealizes the South although later on he was forced to admit that at the time of writing the novel he knew very little about the realities of life in Dixie. I argue that this myth of the South appears to be a lasting standard in American literature.
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One recent Southern novel, Walker Percy's 1987 The Thanatos Syndrome, provides an example for my notions about representations of the South and its relationship with the North:
"The place where the strange events related in this book occur, Feliciana, is not imaginary. It was so named by the Spanish. It was and is part of Louisiana, a strip of pleasant pineland running from the Mississippi to the Perdido, a curious region of a curious state. Never quite Creole or French or Anglo-Saxon or Catholic or Baptist like other parishes of Louisiana, it has served over the years as a refuge for all manner of malcontents. ("Southern American Regional Sensibility versus the North," Krzysztof Kowalczyk-Twarowski CLC, 5.11)
Image result for images walker percy
Less well-known authors were also writing about and perpetuating the Southern Cavalier myth:
Based largely on a study of ante-bellum American literature, “Yankee and Cavalier” and subtitled "The Old South and American National Character"by William Taylor is a critical survey of regional beliefs and concepts in both North and South before the Civil War, and their effect on the thought of the period. These concepts, born of a ""myth-making frame of mind"", were reflected in the literature of the time, which also helped form them: the Yankee is pictured as industrious, ascetic, mercenary and hypocritical, the Southerner as gay, generous, cultured, and also as weak and vacillating, the Gentleman who was a doomed Aristocrat. The ""plantation novels"" of the 1830's by William Wirt, James Kirk Paulding and others, helped build the myth of the Southern Gentleman (Kirkus Reviews 1961)
Northern intellectuals hate the South and would like to finish the job that Sherman started – burn all vestiges of plantation life.  The very existence of manors and estates is anathema and a constant reminder of the evil history of the South; yet few of these Northerners can look at the architectural beauty, impeccably tasteful interiors, long, live oak-lined allées, formal gardens, and sweeping lawns without envy.  Image and romance trump political philosophy any day of the year.

For however much the cavalier tradition may have contributed to the Civil War, there is something to be said for gentility – graceful good manners, good taste, sophistication, and romance.  There is a good reason why the Old South never dies in Americans’ imagination and why Gone with the Wind remains a popular favorite. 

Pilgrimage is an event held in many towns in the Deep South to celebrate the antebellum period of cavalier manners, graceful elegance, and spacious homes.  It is time for the owners of these homes to show them to the public, and romantics from Maine to Michigan come down for the experience the recreated life of a plantation.  The houses are indeed grand, and most of them have been restored with patience and meticulous care by owners who want to preserve Southern or American history,
descendants of the plantation owners who lived there and wanted to relive a part of their past, or simply those who loved old houses, antiques, and historical appointments.

At each of the houses open for Pilgrimage, local Southern girls dress up in antebellum finery and take visitors through the formal gardens, men’s and women’s sitting rooms, formal dining rooms, conservatories, balconies, and children’s rooms.

Many of these antebellum residences have been furnished and appointed not only with furniture and accessories from the period but original to the house itself. 

The Antebellum South was a unique period of American history whose Cavalier culture may have contributed to the Civil War; but which cannot be denied nor branded as exclusively evil.  Nothing ever is.  The period of the Robber Barons was in the view of many progressive historians, one of the worst and most destructive of recent history.  The aggressive, laissez-faire greed of the Rockefellers, Mellons, and Carnegies destroyed the lives of many working class Americans, reinforced the idea of the rightful concentration of wealth, and set the stage for predatory capitalism.  Yet these billionaires created and led an elegant, graceful, mannered life little different from that of Southern gentlemen.  Their Newport ‘cottages’, homes on Jekyll Island, and estates throughout New York and New England were as impressive as the great antebellum plantation homes of the South.

Image result for images newport ri cottages

The Old South – the antebellum South – cannot be expunged from American history, ignored, consigned to historical oblivion.  It existed.  It was American; and the South, for all its old Southern traditions which still prevail still is.

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