- Our South Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature by Jennifer Rae Greeson
In Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature, Jennifer Greeson is not concerned with southern identity or what the South is; rather, she explores what role the South has played in the broader culture of the United States. Employing a comparative, transnational approach, Greeson looks to answer the question, “What is the South good for?” In doing so, she suggests that a marginalized South, or an “internal other” to the national narrative, is central to the nation’s understanding of itself.
At its core, the text is about the exclusions and juxtapositions evident in the popular literature of the South created in the northern metropolitan centers of the United States from the pre-colonial era through reconstruction. Greeson charts three distinct versions of the South: “the Plantation South,” “the Slave South,” and the “Reconstruction South,” which correspond to grand shifts in the idea of the nation. Working chronologically with her primary sources, the author shows that makers of U. S. literature in Boston and New York used travel writing, gothic and romantic novels, textbooks, government reports, transcendentalist prose, and abolitionist tracts about the South to establish descriptive binaries. According to Greeson, what’s common throughout these genres is that the “‘North’ serves as center and norm, while ‘South’ stands as deviation, in need of intervention and reform from without” (12). This spatial understanding of moral failings establishes an uneven relationship between the conceptualized North and South. Greeson argues that northerners viewed the South more readily through the lens of imperialism, or from a dominion over others, which is later mirrored in the nation’s ambitions of global domination and subordination.
Greeson’s methodology borrows from Edward Said’s Orientalism, measured not through an East/West binary, but through a North/South hierarchical relationship. [End Page 107] Appropriating Said’s assertion that an occidental’s knowledge of a subservient oriental is to own the oriental, Greeson establishes a convincing argument that Western imperial culture nurtured a possessive impulse to dominate, both internally and globally, through literature. All the while, the South acts as a useful foil, or a moral baseline, where the North defines itself in regards to what it is not. Where Greeson departs from Said’s binary is her assertion that the North/South relationship is a “disavowed binary,” or the sense that the South is simultaneously colonial and colonized (3). Rather than a fixed, external other, the South’s position to the North is simultaneously inside and outside the national imaginary.
Despite the broad scope of ideas in Our South, Greeson uncovers many fascinating illustrations of northern cultural domination over the South. In the writings of Walt Whitman, she says, he “owns (the) South in the sense of confessing its faults and sins … he also owns (the) South in the sense of possessing its riches” (7). The lineage of Whitman’s temporal and geographic understanding of the South is colonial in nature; a tradition dating back to European colonialism that understood and wrote of the South’s climatic tropicality, plantation production of valued staple commodities and violent expropriated labor from Africans. Other historical influences include the Slave South literary tradition that fashioned the region as a realm of hidden depravity. In Whitman’s time, writers understood the “Reconstruction South” in terms of an internal empire concurrently with the nation’s imperial ambitions. This panoply of various and overlapping oppositions to the South helped “bear the nation’s colonial past into the U.S. national future” (41).
Greeson’s title, Our South, suggests this colonial possession of the imagined region from the position of the dominant, northern occident. By and large, it’s not a South defined by southerners themselves. Greeson successfully shows that southerners, such as Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe, failed to insert their counter narratives of the South into the national consciousness. Consequently, Greeson says, the South may only be “taken over, reformed and reconstructed” from the northern centers of knowledge...