Today we welcome a guest post from K. Stephen Prince, author of Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the North assumed significant power to redefine the South, imagining a region rebuilt and modeled on northern society. The white South actively resisted these efforts, battling the legal strictures of Reconstruction on the ground. Meanwhile, white southern storytellers worked to recast the South’s image, romanticizing the Lost Cause and heralding the birth of a New South. Prince argues that this cultural production was as important as political competition and economic striving in turning the South and the nation away from the egalitarian promises of Reconstruction and toward Jim Crow.
In the following post, Prince answers a question about his work that he hears often: Why would a northerner want to study the South?
I am a northerner who writes about the South. From experience, I have come to recognize that this fact requires some further explanation. With remarkable frequency, people ask me to account for the apparent contradiction between my nativity and my historical interests. Raised in New England, educated in Ohio and Connecticut, author of a book called Stories of the South. How does that happen? Such questions come from northerners and southerners, from academics and non-academics alike. Though all historians are asked to justify their scholarly interests on occasion, circumstantial evidence suggests that I field such inquiries with far greater regularity than my colleagues who study other parts of the world. There must be, people assume, some clean and concise explanation (personal, biographical, psychological, or otherwise) for my unusual historical tastes. For some reason, my stock answer—“because the South is fascinating”—seldom satisfies. To be clear, I have only infrequently encountered suspicion or hostility. More often, the prevailing tone is one of sheer confusion. Why would a Yankee study the South?
Though I have grown quite familiar with these good-natured interrogations, I have also come to believe that the unthinking assumptions about the South and southern history that such questions betray are worthy of some serious consideration. The idea that the South is (or can be, or should be) of interest solely to southerners is, I believe, a deeply problematic notion, one that perpetuates reductive and harmful ideas about the region. To state the matter simply: aside from a traumatic four-year period in the early 1860s, the South has always existed as part of the United States. “The South” has had a meaning for southerners, but it has also had meaning and significance for those outside the South. The South is a place. It is also an idea. In the latter guise, it has long been the common property of the nation.
And yet, people continue to ask me to account for my interest in the South: “Why do you write about the South?” Whether consciously or not, this question reflects a widely held assumption that only native southerners are capable of (or interested in) truly understanding the South. There is something about the region, according to this logic, that defies comprehension by outsiders. Speaking as one who once forgot the term “Spanish moss” during a job interview for a position in southern history, I should probably tread carefully. I am certainly not suggesting that my status as a non-southerner makes me any more fit to write about the South than a native southerner. Instead, I simply aim to suggest that the question itself is worthy of serious inquiry. Is my choice of subject matter really that unusual? Why do we so readily accept that the southern past should be terra incognita to non-southerners? Why does this particular manifestation of southern distinctiveness continue to exert such a powerful hold? What is lost when we segregate the history of the South from the national mainstream in this way? Southern exceptionalism is not an objective fact. It is a product of history: of political necessity, economic desire, and cultural work. In other words, the core assumption at work here—that the South has an essence unknowable to those born elsewhere—has a history of its own.
So go ahead. Ask me why I write about the South. I’ll explain myself as best I can. I’ll tell you that conversations about the South have always been national conversations. I’ll explain that “the South” is an American idea, not a regional one. But I may respond with another question: “Why shouldn’t a northerner write about the South?” The answer to this question tells us a great deal about the history of the South and the nation. As such, it is a question that should concern us all.
K. Stephen Prince is assistant professor of history at the University of South Florida. His book Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915, is available now. Read an excerpt from the book. Read Prince’s previous guest blog post, “Thinking about Reconstruction at 150 Years.”