U.Va. Professor's Award-Winning Book Looks at the South in American Identity

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January 5, 2011 — "You can't imagine the U.S. without including the South," said Jennifer Greeson, author of "Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature," published by Harvard University Press last fall and recently named winner of the C. Holman Award from the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.

Any description of the United States would be incomplete without talking about the South, but it's a kind of love-hate relationship. In the early days, when the fledgling nation shed its status as a colony and its citizens began to try out new self-definitions,  Americans bristled at or renounced European stereotypes of the U.S. as a backward land, Greeson said.

Traits understood to typify the "South" – a semitropical climate, plantation production and slavery, and a mix of populations from Africa, as well as North America and Europe – didn't apply to the Northeast or West and were therefore labeled "peculiar."

In her book, Greeson, an assistant professor of English in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, discusses early American writings that consider the South and its "peculiar" aspects as part of the process of a new nation establishing its identity.

The Holman Award is given each year to the most distinguished work of scholarship in the field of Southern literature. Eligible books may be literary criticism, literary history, scholarly editions or bibliographies. The awards are sponsored by the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, a nonprofit organization founded in 1968 and devoted to scholarship on writings and writers of the American South.

Greeson's book proposes that the idea of a "South" different from, yet integral to, the U.S., arose with the very formation of the nation in the late 1700s.

For more than a century prior to the American Revolution, Europe's perspectives defined the entirety of the New World, Greeson said. After the revolution, by creating U.S. literature that described the U.S. as different from European depictions of the South, American writers and readers imagined a nation truly new to the face of the earth, both free of the taint of colonial inferiority and innocent of the imperial system from which it had sprung.

The book goes on to track the nation-South juxtaposition in U.S. literature from the late 18th century across the 19th century, taking into account works by more than two dozen major authors and genres including travel writing, gothic novels, geography textbooks, transcendentalist prose, social-problem novels, abolitionist address, "local color" fiction and historical romance.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is the best-known book she discusses that shows how writing about the South contributed to ideas about American identity. It began as a serial whose chapters were published weekly in an abolitionist publication.

First printed as a book in 1852, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was unsurpassed as a bestseller until another Southern classic was published, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," in 1936.

"Europeans also took notice, including Russia, including Leo Tolstoy," Greeson said. Stowe, however, had almost no experience with real plantations, and Greeson sees the author's treatment of one of the plantations as a critique of growing industrialization as much as an argument against slavery.

After the Civil War, the South was seen as a place needing to be civilized, needing a new order, and Reconstruction was supposed to serve that mission.

In the late 1880s, the popular Scribner's magazine ran a series of articles for two years on "The Great South," as if rediscovering it as a region of the U.S., Greeson said.

Many saw Reconstruction as a failure, and it became an example of what the U.S. as a world power should or should not do, Greeson said. It was referred to repeatedly in plans after the Philippine-American war when the U.S. colonized the island nation after Spanish rule.

Greeson said her book serves as a pre-history to the rise of Southern literature in the 20th century.

— By Anne Bromley

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications