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  • Segregation, Popular Culture, and the Southern Pastoral:The Spatial and Racial Politics of American Sheet Music, 1870–1900
  • Colin L. Anderson (bio)

During World War I, historian Frank L. Owsley and a group of young white women traveled by train from Chicago to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit friends in the army stationed at Camp Sheridan. Writing later about the trip, Owsley recalled that none of the women had ever been to the South, and that on leaving Chicago "they were looking forward to the journey through the 'Sunny South' with considerable excitement…. They expected to enter a pleasant land of white-columned mansions, green pastures, expansive cotton and tobacco fields where negroes sang spirituals all the day through." Instead, the landscape they saw was one more of "desolation" than idyllic beauty, and as the decidedly unimpressive scenery rolled by, Owsley noted, "the Sunny South of Romance had disappointed my friends."1

Owsley's anecdote testifies to the hegemonic force of the pastoral image of the South in the United States. So strong was this vision of the South—replete with blooming magnolias, verdant landscapes, white-columned mansions, and a happy African American labor force—that Owsley's companions believed it to be absolute truth. Although the appearance of the pastoral myth in southern literature dates to the founding of Virginia, it was not until the nineteenth century that the imagery reached the masses through popular culture. The southern pastoral then saturated nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century society, circulating in both the North and the South in magazine stories, popular novels, minstrel shows, [End Page 577] and sheet music. Through these popular productions, romantic images of the South became central to white Americans' understandings of regional identities and, crucially, race relations.2

As a racially inflected trope that has exerted a powerful grip on the American imaginary, the southern pastoral can tell us much about racial thought in the United States. Scholars across a range of disciplines have studied the southern pastoral in various cultural texts, primarily analyzing it as an escapist and nostalgic response to industrialization, urbanization, and racial demographic change in the late nineteenth century.3 However, this extensive literature has failed [End Page 578] to fully explore and uncover the southern pastoral's spatial imagery and meaning.4 This essay addresses this oversight in the scholarship by bringing space to the fore in its analysis. In doing so, it sheds light on the core spatial and racial logic of the southern pastoral and illuminates the deeply imbricated nature of space and race in post-bellum American society.

In particular, this article makes three related arguments about the causes and meaning of what I call the southern pastoral's spatiality of containment. First, I argue that pastoral images of the "Sunny South" constituted a representational space that cast the containment and rootedness of the black body in space as the blueprint for white supremacy.5 Literary scholar Paul Outka offers the important insight that works featuring the southern pastoral reduced African Americans to components of the landscape.6 This article builds on Outka's insight to elaborate the larger spatial implications of this reduction to landscape. Examining pastoral images of the South in the lyrics and cover art of popular sheet music published between 1870 and 1900, this essay shows how, on an elemental level, the southern pastoral portrayed white social control as dependent on the immobilization of black bodies in space by depicting African Americans as part of the landscape, physically fixed within a harmonious racial society. This fixity is fundamental to the southern pastoral's spatial meaning and its resonance for white society. Critically, the spatial and racial ideas embedded in romantic images of the South emerged through, and in tandem with, representations of gender and sexuality. I trace this interlaced structure to show how certain notions of black femininity and black masculinity framed the southern pastoral's spatial politics.

Second, I contend that the southern pastoral reflected white Americans' deep anxieties about black mobility in the postbellum period. While the southern pastoral circulated in popular culture before 1865 via minstrel [End Page 579] songs, the end of slavery in the Civil...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2325-6893
Print ISSN
0022-4642
Pages
pp. 577-610
Launched on MUSE
2019-08-07
Open Access
No
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