- Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865–1915 by K. Stephen Prince
Historians and literary scholars have long been fascinated with narratives told about “the South.” They have written extensively about stories conveyed by northerners and southerners, African Americans and whites, men and women, touching on familiar topics such as southern identity, tradition, race, and sense of place. K. Stephen Prince’s Stories of the South continues in this tradition with the purpose of answering one question: “What is the South?” (1). More precisely, Prince is interested in what he calls the “cultural retreat from Reconstruction” (2), or the way in which novels, theatrical performances such as minstrelsy, newspaper and magazine articles, academic monographs, memoirs, pamphlets, travelogues, photographs, engravings, and cartoons both informed and sustained the nation’s decision to abandon its political commitment to interracial democracy as embodied in such things as the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Reconstruction Acts, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. [End Page 469]
Prince not only aims to expand the story of why northerners turned their back on the political aims of Reconstruction, but he also seeks to challenge the conventional historiography on sectional reconciliation written by David W. Blight, Nina Silber, Edward J. Blum, and Heather Cox Richardson. As he explains, “The reunion model flattens historical developments, implying that the post-Reconstruction era saw the reconnection of two static, unchanging regions” (9). He affiliates himself with recent books by myself and fellow historian Caroline E. Janney that suggest a more problematic relationship between the North and South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prince does not view this relationship as a process of reunion achieved with great ease and will, but a messy northern- and southern-based project that engendered a wide-ranging set of cultural representations leading to “the construction of a new South and a new nation” (249).
In the immediate years after the Civil War, Prince argues, northern Republicans controlled the image of the South by calling for the “Radical Yankeefication” of Dixie (48). Travel writers descended upon a devastated region, exoticizing the South and casting it as the antipode of an industrial, educated, and forward-looking North. The portrait of a backward static region also paralleled the rise of two cultural tropes—the Klansman and the Carpetbagger. These competing tropes underscored a persistent debate over the meaning and importance of Reconstruction. Republicans drew attention to southern violence through portrayals of the Ku Klux Klan as violent, barbaric, and dangerous, emblematic of what Prince calls the “Bloody South” (61). The trope of the Klansman reflected a northern anxiety that white southerners had not lost the will to fight the Civil War. It also justified continued federal interference. In the latter years of Reconstruction, however, the symbol of the Carpetbagger superseded that of the Klansman. Increasingly, both southerners and northerners embraced the belief that carpetbaggers were corrupt, incompetent, and doomed to fail in their attempt to reshape the South along northern lines. The persistent cultural representation of the Carpetbagger, then, justified the retreat from the egalitarian principles of Reconstruction.
Prince’s book looks beyond Reconstruction into the second decade of the twentieth century, exploring the various stories told about the region that “proved contingent, complicated, and endlessly contested” (249). He explains how white southerners tried to construct a New South that could work in tandem with a New North between 1880 and 1895. New South ideologues such as Henry Grady propagated the story of a progressive advancing South but “made it clear that the New South could not accept [End Page 470] northern attempts to control, define, legislate, or even narrate activities south of the Mason-Dixon line” (123). Sympathetic northerners responded to this boosterism by dialing down sectionalism, becoming what Prince calls “Dixified Yankees” (115). The 1880s and 1890s saw a literary renaissance in the South. Joel Chandler Harris created the storyteller Uncle Remus, who “came to replace Uncle Tom as the archetypal plantation slave...