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The pain ofloss is a staple theme in southern culture. From RockyTop to Swanee River, crooning drifters yearn for home. The prophet warns thatJesus will come back and the bluesman wails that his baby will not. The gospel artist longs for loved ones on the other shore, while thousands of monuments recall the Lost Cause. Suburbanites curse the sprawl they have created, even while they are missing NewJersey. Just about everybody seems to sigh for some piece or another of the Good Old Days, even though nobody but the reenactors is doing much to bring them back again. Many years ago, critic William R. Taylor noticed that sentimental stories ofthe old plantation did not begin with the Confederacy's bitter loss, but actually originated before the Civil War. Exploring the phenomenon in his classic study Cavalier and Yankee, Taylor showed how readers and writers in a prosperous, urban, industrializingNorth embraced tales ofthe vanishing old time plantation, with its stereotyped paternal masters, gende mistresses, swooning maidens, and adoring above: Near Bunn, North Carolina, 1999. Photo by Dan Sears. 4 slaves, even while the brutal world of real plantation slavery was still expanding. Evidendy, people who were rapidly abandoning their own agrarian past took comfort in believing that there existed a disappearing world—not far away but safely on the wane—that was just the opposite ofthe one they lived in. Unlike the modernizing world of cities, factories, and offices, this bountiful Southland was close to nature without being a wilderness. Its inhabitants were gracious, genteel, and cultivated, for they were surrounded by lazy but devoted servants who somehow made them wealthy without ever doing much work. Unlike the anxious strivers ofthe North, they cherished the finer things oflife, untroubled by a frantic drive to make money or get ahead. Needless to say, such a Never Never Land had never existed, either below the Potomac or anywhere else, but even the earliest of these fables stressed that— sadly but inevitably—the idyllic South was already lost or decliningwhile the upand -comingYankees surged ahead. Romancers warned their readers from imitating their languid characters by predicting that inefficiency would eventually ruin the gende plantation, if it had not done so already. In the meantime, however, cheap nostalgia for the impending decline of an imaginary South could ease the pain ofYankees' exertions. As a result, marketing a sense ofsouthern loss was already big business when Margaret Mitchell's grandmother was a baby. It was a case of Gone with the Wind before the breeze picked up, or a Cause that was lost before Sumter was ever heard of. Other southern elegies have stressed different losses, but the theme remains constant—the blessed past is going or gone, and the sordid future will never take its place. By the same token, the theme of nostalgia is always a little bit suspect. We're tempted to ask what present realities a writer avoids by a hasty flight to an imaginary past. White southerners did not invent nostalgia for the old plantation, but many of them foolishly accepted its premises from the works of northern sentimentalists and went on to amplify them in the aftermath of the Late Unpleasantness. In other cases, the southern sense of loss has deeper roots than formula fiction. When whites looking for cotton lands flooded into Alabama, Mississippi, and the other states of the Old Southwest, for example, they created a vast market for slaves, and hundreds of thousands of black southerners were torn from their loved ones and "sold down the river" to meet the demand. When the blackface minstrels ofStephen Collins Foster sang "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny," they spoke unwittingly for masses of aging freed people who would surely have welcomed the chance for an unattainable family reunion. Much later, when Lester Flatt bemoaned the freight train that had taken him "north to Dee-troit City," thousands of real migrants from Kentucky and West Virginia were struggling with the unwelcome choice between assembly lines and played-out mines. The same folks had even more counterparts in the mills ofthe Piedmont South, closer to the hollers in certain ways, but still achingly distant from Mama 'n' 'em back Front Porch...


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