Dreaming of Dixie
How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011
Hardback. xii + 210 p. ISBN: 9780807834718. $34.95
Reviewed by Nathalie Dessens
Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail
In the late 20th century, many studies have examined the forging, through popular culture, of Southern identity. Many works have described the mythmaking of the Antebellum South through literature, cinema, and television, among other media. Karen Cox’s Dreaming of Dixie. How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture is another book on the subject but it takes on a very different approach.
The originality of Cox’s posture lays in that she does not examine the way in which Southerners have glamorized the Lost Cause and the Old South. Rather that she looks at the role of the North in this venture. Her point is that “southerners were not responsible for marketing and disseminating this imagery for national consumption” [ix]. Although Southerners were perfectly willing to benefit from this popularization of Southern stereotypes and myths to develop their tourist trade and thus their economy, the North, Cox demonstrates, was also instrumental in this popularization.
The book examines successively the main areas of popular culture from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, showing that all sectors were part of that romanticization of the Old South and largely used it for economic purposes, although not only. Cox’s argument is that this vast enterprise was part of the culture of reconciliation that marked the decades following the Civil War, at least until World War II.
This relatively short book successively examines popular songs, advertising, radio shows, movies, literature, and the early documents produced to launch the tourist industry. It highlights the role of Northern entrepreneurs in the progressive dissemination of the Southern stereotypes created during the antebellum period and developed by Southerners after the Civil War, as part of the Lost Cause mythmaking trend.
She shows that, in all cases, the popularization of these stereotypes came from outside the South. From the songs written and commercialized in Tin Pan Alley, the New York center for popular song production, to the advertisements created by Madison Avenue’s J. Walter Thompson Agency, to the movies produced in Hollywood, and the books published by Macmillan and other Northern publishers, the popularization of the “Moonlight-and-Magnolias” South was definitely a Northern enterprise.
Cox’s argument is very convincing. She relies on striking examples to analyze the process and then expands her thesis to other manifestations of the phenomenon, thus showing the existence of a recurring pattern. Some of the examples are not new but she manages to analyze them with talent. The proliferation of “Dixie songs” in the late 19th and early 20th century (by Irving Berlin or George Gershwin), among which famous “Swanee,” is examined in depth. The advertising campaigns of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Maxwell House coffee, and Avon beauty products are studied in details. NBC’s Amos’n’Andy, or The Maxwell House Show Boat powerfully illustrate the same phenomenon on the radio, as do Hollywood-produced River of Romance, Jezebel, and, of course, Gone with the Wind. Travel literature, children’s literature, and a few novels, including, of course, Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller, complete the argument, while the last chapter presents the efforts at developing the tourist industry in the South. The development of railroads, highways, tours of the South, or the creation of AAA are successively examined, while the end of the chapter highlights the glamorization of the South in the travel guides written in support of the creation of a tourist industry.
What is especially important is that Cox destroys the first stereotype about the South: that it was the sole artisan of its own mythmaking and of the shaping of its different identity. The book is beautifully illustrated from archival documents and from the author’s large personal collection of sheet music covers and advertisements. The book is well researched and documented.
The argument is sometimes slightly repetitive, because of the way the book is organized. There are several instances in which the examples intersect because they concerned several types of media, for instance, Gone with the Wind. The example of Aunt Jemima recurs in the demonstration, as does Maxwell House, or “Swanee”. The accounting for this Northern dissemination of Old South stereotypes is also somewhat repetitive, since the author has identified two main factors which are, after all, not extremely novel: the wish for financial benefits and the culture of reconciliation. The same is true of the reasons for the success of this movement with the public: the craving for exoticism, curiosity for the South, or need to escape urban, industrial modernity by a return to a pastoral world. These explanations are repeated throughout the book, sometimes giving an impression of déjà vu.
The author’s desire to make a strong point (and show that the North was the actor of this glamorization) leads her to give too much emphasis to Northern responsibility. Regularly, she disregards in her demonstration the fact that the products that were circulated by Northern companies were initially produced by Southerners or she writes that the image of the South was created, instead of spread, by the popular media outside the South. There could have been, in her argument, slightly more bridges with Southern identity as created by Southerners and with the stereotypes that were born, long before the Civil War, in the propaganda literature written by antebellum Southern novelists to defend their besieged region.
All in all, however, these faults are minor when considered within the greater context of the argument and attributable to the fact that the thesis of the book is original. Very often, when trying to fill in a historiographical gap, scholars tend to slightly bend their argument towards proving their point. It does not make their point less novel or less interesting, which is exactly what happens with Cox’s book.
Cercles © 2011