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FRIVOLITY TO CONSUMPTION: Or, Southern Womanhood in Antebellum Literature John C. Ruoff The Old South died over one hundred years ago on the battlefields of the Civil War. It is, however, only dead—not forgotten. The Lost Cause, if showing signs of wear, still maintains its place in American mythology. Essentially, the Lost Cause consists of a vision of a vanished agrarian society dominated by large plantation owners. Many sub-myths form the legend of the Old South, especially the cults of chivalry and womanhood and the myth of the happy darkey.1 William R. Taylor, in his analysis of the Old South, suggests that the cavalier image presented by southerners as an antidote to Yankee materialism was not solely a southern creation. Rather, both northerners and southerners developed this legend in antebellum literature. Thus, this glorified image of the plantation was a national rather than a sectional myth.2 In dealing with the plantation myth, Taylor maintains that southerners , like their Yankee neighbors, subscribed to the ideal of material advancement. Unfortunately, the southerners were not as successful as the Yankees in this quest. In order to preserve their dignity, southerners and their sympathizers created a myth of a non-acquisitive plantation society dedicated to the ideals of medieval chivalry. Unable to reconcile themselves to these new, feminine values, planters withdrew themselves from the legend by relegating all authority over the home to their wives. "Women," writes Taylor, "were projected into the center of the plantation legend and the plantation became a kind of matriarchy ."3 An analysis of novels, romances, and sketches published in both the North and the South in the years between 1832 and 1861 is necessary in order to test Taylor's assertion that women were thrust into the center of the plantation legend. For that purpose, an examination is required of the roles played by women in the novels and women's function in the development of the plantation legend as well as an examina1 Francis Pendleton Gaines, The Southern Plantation: A Study in the Development and the Accuracy of a Tradition (N.Y., 1925); Rollin G. Osterweis, Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South (New Haven, 1949). 2 William R. Taylor, Cavalier h Yankee: The Old South and American National Character (Garden City, N.Y., 1963). 3 Ibid., pp. 125-126. 213 214CIVIL WAR HISTORY tion of the rhetoric employed by the authors to describe their female characters. The archetypal "Southern Woman" is, firstly, white. Secondly, she is of the planter class, the southern gentry class, by birth or by marriage . If she is not, she either has been or will become a member of that class. The literature examined for this study contains many examples of non-white and non-planter class women. Their role, except as slaves, is in the narrative, not in the myth. Within this select group of white, planter class women, as traditionally represented, there are four categories, based upon age and marital status: female children, spinsters , belles, and, the crowning glories of the plantation, planters' wives. Most female children are variants of Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin .4 These young angels, usually blond and blue-eyed, spend their time being good. Their goodness is quite contagious as they selflessly offer an example of moral perfection to flawed adults. When they die, as is their wont, they save several souls in the process. Some girls, for usually unexplained reasons, never marry. The spinster (who may actually be a widow) serves in a variety of roles. In some works she provides comic relief, in others villainy. Occasionally, she merely replaces the planter's dead wife. Most southern women fall into the final two classifications. The belles are beautiful—usually. They are also usually mindless, ill-educated , spoiled, sexless, and marriage-happy. A belle spends her time, all of which is leisure time, reading, riding about the countryside, and flirting with the nearest eligible bachelor. After the belle and her hero marry, an immediate transformation occurs. The mindless, irresponsible belle has thrust upon her the responsibility for the mansion and the welfare of the slaves. Once she receives the basket of keys which symbolize her domestic ascendancy, the plantation...


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pp. 213-229
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