Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature (review)
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Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature. By Jennifer Rae Greeson. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 356. $39.95 cloth)

Perhaps no more cogent a definition of the U.S. South has been formulated recently than the one that appears on page four of Jennifer Rae Greeson's ambitious first book: "Our South spatializes the gap between national ideal and national reality . . . so that we may re-present the moral failings of U.S. life to ourselves as matters of geography." This South—a South that is more functional than it is factual, serving as it does to allow Americans to remeasure continually whether their country is living up to the promise of its founding—has proved a durable literary trope since the founding of the republic, as Our South amply documents. While scholars have lately moved well beyond questions of what the South is, Greeson is therefore especially helpful in focusing our attention on what it does: what it has been made to do since writers first sought to imagine "America" as coherent by ascribing to its southern states those qualities that the nation needed to reject in order to become a more perfect version of itself.

Our South accomplishes this by exploring what Greeson conceptualizes as three consecutive Souths: "the Plantation South," the term she uses to characterize the South of the late colonial and early republican periods; "the Slave South," or the South from roughly 1830 to 1865; and "the Reconstruction South," or the South from 1865 to the very early twentieth century. Each section concentrates on what northern writers made of the region. While one thing persists— the South remains "an internal other . . . an intrinsic part of the national body that nonetheless is differentiated and held apart from the whole"—how "our South" embodies difference shifts from one period to the next (p. 1). The Plantation South seems a colonial relic in comparison to a North rapidly advancing toward democracy and republican virtue. The Slave South seems by contrast the North's doppelganger, its dark mirror image as industrialization produces "wage [End Page 239] slavery" and taints the ideal of the North as a land of opportunity. The Reconstruction South becomes again a kind of internal colony, though this time it represents a proving ground: a space in which white Northerners and white Southerners learn together the lessons that will propel the United States toward "exceptional" imperialism at the turn of the century.

The writers Greeson discusses in order to make these broad arguments include Crèvecoeur, whose self-transformation from "planter" to "farmer" is the subject of one of Our South's most illuminating chapters; Stowe, whose southernmost chapters in Uncle Tom's Cabin allow Greeson to draw interesting comparisons between Louisiana and New England mill towns; and Edward King, the Massachusetts-born travel writer whose Reconstruction-era The Great South was one of many texts to discover in the defeated Confederate states a metaphorical "Africa" in need of Yankee colonization. Other figures discussed range from Noah Webster and Thomas Paine to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman to Henry Adams and Henry James. Southern writers, white as well as black, figure occasionally in the study, but they are not at its center. Indeed, Our South may be praised as the most thoroughgoing attempt since Jay Hubbell's The South in American Literature (1954) to explore the registers of the region in texts by northern writers.

Readers of this journal should know that Kentucky barely figures into Our South, the book's emphasis instead falling on states (Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana especially) that have presented more marked contrasts from national norms over the course of U.S. history. This relative omission is worth mentioning for another reason, however, for it is related to what seems to this reviewer the one structural weakness of Our South: its neglect of northern writers who saw in the South a repository of national values, not a concentration of "moral failings." It is not Greeson's project to discuss at any length the proslavery southern writers who objected to characterizations of the South as the nation's dark other...