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Reviewed by:
  • Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature
  • Martyn Bone (bio)
Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature. By Jennifer Rae Greeson. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 366. Cloth, $39.95.)

Much "new southern studies" scholarship during the last decade has been informed by an emphasis on what Houston Baker and Dana Nelson have termed "the nuanced inseparability of North and South in any fruitful model of American cultural studies."1 As Jon Smith has observed, "Marginalization of the South has had disastrous consequences for American studies, unnecessarily prolonging ideas of American exceptionalism" (292 n. 13). Yet as the new southern studies has evolved, scholars have voiced concern about its nearly exclusive focus on the twentieth century. Moreover, because this scholarship has mostly been conducted from within literary and cultural studies, it may inadvertently have widened the disciplinary divide separating it from work by historians of the South.2

In many ways, then, Jennifer Greeson's Our South appears at exactly the right time. Primarily a literary and cultural study, it exhibits deep reading in the relevant historiography. The book's chronological focus on how from 1775 to 1900 "our South" was narrated as the nation's "internal other" complements Leigh Anne Duck's The Nation's Region (2006), which concentrates on the twentieth century (1). Our South's publication by a prominent national university press, trailed by blurbs from prominent Americanists, suggests that southern studies may yet be resituated at the center of a new American studies.

Greeson's eleven chapters are structured across three sections devoted to "the plantation South," "the slave South," and "the Reconstruction South," respectively. The first section opens by suggesting that the plantation South was dominant during the early republican period, when an inchoate literary nationalism began to privilege the Northeast while quarantining slavery in the South. Greeson shows how J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) constructs South Carolina as "a tropical American foil against which Farmer James asserts his new republican virtue" (27). Greeson reveals how Crèvecoeur wrote against his own earlier painting Plantation of Pine-Hill, which depicts an English colonial planter and a black field-worker in the Hudson Valley. In shifting from planter to yeoman farmer, and from pastoral black plowman to "Letter IX"'s infamous caged slave, "the plantation [became] 'southern' rather than 'American'" (25). Indeed, Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) was anomalous in locating the plantation South at the center of the new nation's narrative geography. [End Page 289]

In the second section, Greeson proposes that after 1831 the slave South came to the fore: U.S. writers worried that plantation slavery was not simply a regional residue of the colonial past but the harbinger of a dystopian national future. Greeson ingeniously unravels how the slave South also infiltrated urban, northern anxieties about the market revolution. William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator cannily stoked its northeastern audience's antipathy toward slavery by utilizing the exposé, a narrative form that was already widespread in the reformist literature of the antiprostitution and temperance movements. However, Garrison's strategic focus on sex and sin deflected attention from the economic dimensions of exploitation in both the South (slave labor) and the North ("free" labor). Thus proslavery southerners remained the most prominent critics of industrial capitalist wage slavery.

Few readers nowadays will dispute that transcendentalists privileged New England when conceptualizing the nation; however, some might balk at Greeson's insistence that Ralph Waldo Emerson "embraces abolitionism as an imperial civilizing project": masculine, moral New Englanders would emancipate the slave South as "imperialists for liberty" (157-58). Yet the second section's most bracing claims come in the chapter on Harriet Beecher Stowe, in which Greeson declares that "though her subject was the Slave South . . . Uncle Tom's Cabin [was] perhaps the most innovative and important novel of metropolitan modernity published in the United States before the Civil War" (173). In the depiction of Simon Legree's Louisiana plantation as a mill town in the mode of Lowell, Massachusetts, "Stowe fully realizes the Slave South as the dark satanic field of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2159-9807
Print ISSN
2154-4727
Pages
pp. 289-291
Launched on MUSE
2012-05-19
Open Access
No
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