The popular image of the American South between the 1890s and 1950s receives insightful and entertaining treatment by Karen Cox. With chapters devoted to literature, advertising, popular song, radio, film, and tourism, Cox offers a pioneering critique of how northern businessmen and consumers constructed an idyllic image of Dixie. In their hands, the South became a “mythological region” (p. 33). Dixie emerged as a romantic, leisurely, agrarian paradise that served as an antithesis to the rushed, urban, and industrial North.
Cox’s study perceptively demonstrates how different media based in the North popularized particular dreams of Dixie, allowing consumers to “psychologically escape” modern society (p. 9). Each reinforced stereotypes about the plantation past of the region, agricultural fecundity, and tranquil race relations—ignoring the growing cities, expanding textile mills, and lynching. Novels allowed readers to fantasize about the region. Fictional accounts led visitors to seek the fabrications in the real world, from happy darkies working the fields to stately plantations reminiscent of Margaret Mitchell’s Tara. Music, often penned or performed by Jewish immigrants associated with Tin Pan Alley, celebrated the tranquility and friendliness of Dixie. Performers like Al Jolson reinvigorated minstrelsy for the vaudeville stage. Although radio broke the Tin Pan Alley monopoly over popular [End Page 123] music, the airwaves echoed already-established associations. Radio brought home the sounds of Dixie, complete with steamboat whistles, black dialect, and hillbilly chatter. Film (un)reconstructed the southern past as movies such as Birth of a Nation (1915) reinforced stereotypes of blacks as ignorant brutes, thereby justifying vigilante violence by whites immediately after the Civil War. Advertisers celebrated black servility and the agricultural richness of the South through the promotion of Aunt Jemima’s pancakes, Rastus’s cream of wheat, and Uncle Ben’s rice. All of this publicity spurred southern boosters to cater to the growing ranks of northern vacationers by promoting images of smiling black waiters and hoop-skirted belles.
Cox uses an impressive range of primary sources. Analysis of ads, films, and other media presented to the public are balanced with the corporate records and memoirs of those involved with preparing these materials. Professional surveys undertaken by food companies and radio stations reveal valuable information about audiences.
Cox offers a particularly striking argument when suggesting that the celebration of Dixie was as much about white Northerners’ anxiety over the great migration of African Americans into northern industrial centers as about sectional reconciliation. The message of black servility and white civility in Dixie mitigated white Northerners’ own racial anxieties about the demographic shift. Cox provides a launching point for further study of these tensions and their cultural manifestations. Yet more attention to the equally dramatic migration of white Southerners to northern industrial centers would also be valuable. Although Cox convincingly shows that Northerners rather than Southerners largely consumed the South packaged in branded food products and radio programs, certainly white Southerners in Chicago, Detroit, or other northern urban centers longed for reminders of home as well. Detailed attention to these arrivals and possible points of agreement or conflict with white Northerners’ expectations promises future scholarly dividends.
According to Cox, the immediacy of television along with the brutal imagery of attacks on civil rights protesters in the 1950s and 1960s challenged the stereotypes promulgated about the South. The [End Page 124] days of black-face and dialect were numbered, though the promotion of plantations, hospitality, and black performance—whether of street music or tap dancing—remained strong through the twentieth century.
Cox provides a vibrant, richly illustrated, and highly readable study of Dixie as a “cultural commodity” (p. 129). The rigorous research is complemented by an accessible style ideal for scholars and general readers alike.
Anthony J. Stanonis is a lecturer in modern American history at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. He is author of Creating the Big Easy (2006) and is currently working on the history of beach resorts in the American South.