The past, Southern style

What a coincidence – the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War this year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of “Gone With the Wind.”

Two recent books explore the relationship of fiction with the Southern past: “The South That Wasn’t There: Postmodern Memory and History” by Michael Kreyling (LSU Press: Baton Rouge; 2010, 223 pages, $48) and “Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State” by Anne E. Marshall (UNC Press: Chapel Hill, 2010, 256 pages, $35).

In his book, Kreyling, an English professor at Vanderbilt University, looks at the South as a whole. His study is part of LSU’s Southern Literary Studies, a series of books edited by Fred Hobson, a faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill who specializes in the South. Marshall, a professor at Mississippi State, zeroes in on Kentucky. She painstakingly reveals how and why the state reinvented its past, contrary to its history.

This conflict between history and memory is nothing new when people talk about the South. Southerners were reinventing the slave-holding South and its culture long before Margaret Mitchell romanticized it in her novel, which was published in 1936.

Kreyling, while giving credit to Tony Horowitz’s “Confederates in the Attic,” writes about the influence of “Gone With the Wind” this way: “More people remember the South, but each one of us remembers less of the real thing so that the net result for southern memory is a wide spread but a meager depth.”

But Kreyling doesn’t stop there. He pushes his analysis further. The simulated South as expressed in novels, movies, festivals, Civil War battle re-enactments never entirely replace the real thing, and vice versa. He cites throughout the scholarship of Scott Romine, a member of the English faculty at UNCG, who has researched this fake South.

What this simulation does, according to my reading, is blow the South off its moorings, leaving it adrift in a confusion of currents in the midst of a thick fogbank. Good luck on finding your way to the reality of the region.

After reading a couple of chapters of Kreyling, one aspect of the book became apparent. It was not written for nonspecialists such as me. Although thoroughly researched and finely nuanced, it’s at heart theoretical and at times difficult to follow. The prose at times becomes technical and the sentences plodding. It has its rewards, if you are willing to push through.

Marshall’s book on Kentucky is far more accessible. Yet, it falls within Kreyling’s theoretical framework. Kentuckians in the late 19th and early 20th century did a job on their own history. Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War; it did not secede. But after the way, Kentuckians took their collective experience in the Civil War and stood it on its head. No other state has done this.

By the most telling measure, manpower, Kentuckians’ sided with the Union in the war. Marshall writes that between 66,000 and 76,000 white Kentuckians fought for the Union, and an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 were Confederates.

But she adds, “What is most telling about Kentucky’s participation in the Civil War is the number of men who did not fight. Of Kentucky’s eligible white males, 71 percent chose not to fight at all.” She found that 40 percent of Kentucky’s eligible African American males fought for the Union, a percentage only surpassed by black males in Louisiana.

The war, Kreyling noted, left something unsettled in American society. Marshall demonstrates this in her study of Kentucky. Between 1895 and 1925, partisans of the Lost Cause in Kentucky erected 27 Confederate monuments across the state. Union partisans erected three in the same period.

In 1899, Louisville competed with cities in the South to host the annual convention of the United Confederate Veterans. It won and built with private and public funds a reunion hall dubbed the “Confederate Mecca.” The reunion included perhaps one of the first Civil War battle re-enactments, the Battle of Perryville. It was held at Churchill Downs.

Kentucky’s United Daughters of the Confederacy helped shaped how future Kentuckians would view the Civil War past by putting Confederate history and conservative ideals into public schools. All public schools in Lexington, for instance, were furnished portraits of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

By 1935, Marshall says, Kentucky was viewed as a Confederate state and considered itself one. What drove this? Marshall says race. It was a way to define race relations. Defining Kentucky as once Confederate was a strategy to maintain white supremacy. Kreyling says much the same thing.
Charles Wheeler
Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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