- Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era by Tiya Miles
The troubled history of the Civil War era has given rise to many books—perhaps too many—on the historical memory of the war and slavery. This one is different. This work was originally produced as a series of lectures for the Civil War Era Center at Penn State University. In it, Tiya Miles focuses on so-called ghost tours. Such excursions have long provided entertainment for a host of tourists traveling to the region. They wish to have an experience of the past that seems both frightening and familiar. In the course of her research, she traveled to plantations and cities, including Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans, combining primary evidence such as guidebooks and secondary sources on slavery. The heart of the book is a first-person narrative based on traveling the South, which includes discussions with tour guides and tourists.
Before reading this book, I thought of such tours, if I thought about them at all, as kitsch easily dismissed by professional historians. Miles takes these ghost stories, and the small industry around them, seriously, using an imaginative approach to an imaginary world constructed by tourism.
It is hard to classify this book, except to say that it is not a standard historical monograph. While traveling to Savannah, Miles evokes the best-selling crime story Midnight in the Garden of Good in Evil, which sparked a tourism boom in coastal Georgia as visitors sought to experience the past by seeking out architectural splendor. While looking at that distinctive town, tourists encounter both literal and figurative ghosts of slavery. The author is clearly grounded in the secondary literature on slavery and the South, but she has produced a work based on oral history, some archival research, and travel. In some ways this book resembles creative nonfiction: it made me think of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, the funniest and in some respects best work on Civil War memory.
Miles also discusses Delphine LaLaurie, a Louisiana slave mistress famous for cruelty to her slaves. Her home is still standing and has become the basis for a season of the television program American Horror Story. This chapter includes a discussion of the dynamics of race and gender that shaped the problematic relationship between women and slavery. Louisiana, especially New Orleans, [End Page 450] which has a French Catholic heritage atypical of the South as a whole, remains a key tourist destination for contemporary Americans. These visitors come seeking authentic experiences of the slave South, and what they find is distinctive and horrifying. I have always thought of voodoo, a practice and cultural artifact that Miles examines in detail as a kind of “invented tradition” used by the travel industry to attract tourists, but Miles takes such cultural artifacts seriously to untangle the relationship between past and present.
The book raises some questions. How did the Ku Klux Klan, with its members’ self-presentation as Ghosts of the Confederacy fit into this story? The Klan comes after the institution of slavery, which is central to the book. While that organization has faded since its massive resistance to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it so evokes the subject matter of this book that it deserves an extended treatment. While the historian Gaines Foster explored the Klan and memory, his book on the subject is now a bit long in the tooth; perhaps this is a topic for another historian. I enjoyed reading this book, and it makes me want to revisit Savannah and New Orleans. I recommend it to historians and general readers alike.