January 06, 2006

Myth and Myopia V: The Foundations of Renaissance in History and Legend

Soon, mythic figures began to grow out of the twelve years of Reconstruction following the Civil War as well. Opportunistic and exploitative Yankees (or carpetbaggers), traitorous and collaborationist Southern whites (or scalawags), and ignorant, violent black freedmen became the bogeymen of Reconstruction.

The heroes of Reconstruction were honorable and decent, but greatly abused, former Confederates, who often fought back courageously in the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan against the oppressive military governments and disfranchisement imposed on them by Radical Republicans.

This view of the period, inaccurate as it was, rapidly entered the mythology of Southern history. It, too, remained popular well into the 20th century, embodied in novels such as The Clansman (1905), histories like The Tragic Era (1929), and movies like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939).

The Old South, the Lost Cause, and Reconstruction myths combined to create a colorful pageant of historical progression consisting of innocence, fall, and redemption. There is an undeniable appeal to this version of events, however untrue. And, though it was omnipresent in the South, it was not the only self-image in the Southern mind between 1877 and 1920.

As the former Confederate states struggled to rejoin the nation, preserve their distinct identity, and industrialize and revitalize their economy, the myth of a New South began to appear. Unlike the Antebellum, Confederate, or Reconstruction South, the New South does not refer to a period of Southern history per se. It represents an optimistic goal, often declared to be just around the corner throughout the years from 1880 to 1920, but never quite arriving.

It dangled, like a carrot on a stick, in front of hopeful businessmen, politicians, philanthropists, and so forth as an imminent regional transformation which would result in a South free of the burdens of conflict, poverty, and backwardness. "By 1890, the myth of the New South as a land that was rich, just, and triumphant was perceived as reality by many Southerners." Despite continued wishful thinking, hopes for true prosperity and equality would continue to be frustrated until almost 1970.

The historical reality of life in the South before 1920 was much different. Although the region did indeed industrialize rapidly, out-producing the rest of the nation in textiles by 1915, the cost was high. Exploitation was the norm in business practice, and this made poverty worse rather than alleviating it. The plight of blacks in the South between Reconstruction and the First World War was worse than it had ever been before or would ever be again.

Sharecropping bound most blacks to the land, disfranchisement stripped their voices from them, and, beginning in the 1890s, Jim Crow laws formed a rigidly segregated society. Conditions conspired to keep African-Americans in their former place so that, by the time the South began to experience some prosperity decades later, the systems of segregation had become deeply entrenched through multiple generations.

This destitute, violent, low-culture environment produced rumblings of a new image of the South by the end of World War I. This South came to be known as the "Benighted South," a savage, barbaric region of the country. The image was fed throughout the 1920s by events such as the infamous Scopes trial in 1925, the violent rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, nightriding, and periods of race rioting such as the outbreak of 1919.

In late 1917, opinionated Northern journalist H. L. Mencken published an infamous essay entitled "The Sahara of the Bozart." Republished in 1920, the essay attacked the cultural and intellectual stagnation of the South. Mencken stridently declared that "[the South] is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. There are single acres in Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac; there are probably single square miles in America [. . .] It would be impossible in all history to match so complete a drying-up of a civilization."

The response from the South was, predictably, immediate and violent, with loud protestations from all quarters. Not long after the clamor had begun to die down, however, the beginnings of a new flowering of Southern literature began to be seen in the region. Some people, including Mencken himself, believe that the "Sahara of the Bozart" essay played a role in causing this sudden burst of cultural activity. However, while there may have been some slight catalytic effect from this cause, the movement was really a product of much more complex forces (already described here). The works of Ellen Glasgow had been laying the creative foundations for decades, and the consistent failure of the South to achieve its ideals was becoming a burden to a new generation.

The writers of the 1920s and 1930s were members of the first generation to emerge free of direct experience of both the nostalgia of a lost, antebellum Eden and the bitterness of Radical Reconstruction. The sudden flaring up of Southern introspection is both understandable and impossible to account for in light of the "Benighted South" image alone.

Posted by Jared at January 6, 2006 10:46 AM | TrackBack