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  • The US South under National Management
  • Scott Romine (bio)
The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880–1930. Natalie J. Ring. U Georgia P, 2012.
Reconstructing the Native South: American Indian Literature and the Lost Cause. Melanie Benson Taylor. U Georgia P, 2011.
Upon Provincialism: Southern Literature and National Periodical Culture, 1870–1900. Bill Hartwig. U Virginia P, 2013.

Reporting in 1866 after a three-month sojourn in “the land of the barbarians,” Sidney Andrews complained in the Atlantic Monthly that “The longings of South Carolina are essentially monarchical rather than republican; even the common people have been so debauched in loyalty, that very many of them would readily accept the creation of orders of nobility” (238). “How,” Andrews asked, “shall we build nationality on such foundations?” (238). Although the question would prove to be vexed, it found answers: a nation not only emerged but flourished. By 1878, former British Prime Minister William Gladstone predicted that the US was on its way to becoming “the greatest continuous empire ever established by man” and would “at some no very distant time” become stronger than Britain itself (180, 181). A strong central government was integral to this effort, and Gladstone affirmed that the US had one, the Civil War having rendered the “doctrine of State independence . . . no more than an archaeological relic, a piece of historical antiquarianism” (191). Gladstone’s prediction of US ascendance would prove more accurate than his 1862 assessment of the Confederacy, whose success he “anticipate[d] with certainty.” Jefferson Davis and his cohort, he claimed then, had made an army and a navy, and “what is more than either—they have made a Nation” (qtd in Jones 211). Gladstone was proven right, though not in the way that he meant: the Confederacy, in its defeat, catalyzed the formation of state structures that, over time, facilitated new assemblies of nationhood and empire.

The fraught position of the US South in the building of the postbellum nation-state is a central subject of the three works under consideration here, all of which seek to disintegrate nation and region in an effort to understand how discourses and forces aligned with the former defined, affected, and absorbed the latter. In positioning the [End Page 813] South primarily within a national frame of reference, these works extend a marked shift in the field away from the global and hemispheric scales dominant a decade ago. One of the forces driving the impulse to “Look Away!” (as Deborah Cohn and Jon Smith titled their influential 2004 collection) was simply a desire to avoid rehearsing shopworn formulae tainted by association with a moribund field: Mencken’s “Sahara of the bozart,” W. J. Cash’s “not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it,” the Nashville Agrarians’ “Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way,” C. Vann Woodward’s “experience of defeat,” Allen Tate’s “Uncle Sam’s other province.” But if such formulae had achieved cliché status, and however easily they lent themselves to cloudy essentialized mappings, the problem with avoiding them is that they identify crucial facets of a crucial relationship. As groundbreaking works such as Leigh Anne Duck’s The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and US Nationalism (2006) and Jennifer Rae Greeson’s Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature (2010) would prove, the role of the South in evolving national imaginaries was a subject far from exhausted.

Natalie J. Ring extends this line of inquiry in The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880–1930, which begins by backdating the title subject from the notorious 1920 essay wherein H. L. Mencken lamented the southern surfeit of Methodist and Baptist barbarians. Beginning in the 1880s, Ring argues, there evolved an “image of the South as a regional, national, and even global problem” to be managed by an array of “northern philanthropists, federal officials, southern liberals, social scientists, national journalists, progressive reformers, clergymen and academicians” (3–4). Sharing a common (and transnational) “discourse of civilization” that emphasized “progress, evolutionary development, and Anglo-Saxon masculine ideals” (43), an emerging regime of expertise located in...


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