Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture

Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture

Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture

Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture


From the late nineteenth century through World War II, popular culture portrayed the American South as a region ensconced in its antebellum past, draped in moonlight and magnolias, and represented by such southern icons as the mammy, the belle, the chivalrous planter, white-columned mansions, and even bolls of cotton.
In Dreaming of Dixie, Karen Cox shows that the chief purveyors of this constructed nostalgia for the Old South were outsiders of the region, especially advertising agencies, musicians, publishers, radio personalities, writers, and filmmakers playing to consumers' anxiety about modernity by marketing the South as a region still dedicated to America's pastoral traditions. Cox examines how southerners themselves embraced the imaginary romance of the region's past, particularly in the tourist trade as southern states and cities sought to capitalize on popular perceptions by showcasing their Old South heritage. Only when television emerged as the most influential medium of popular culture did views of the South begin to change, as news coverage of the civil rights movement brought images of violence, protest, and conflict in the South into people's living rooms. Until then, Cox argues, most Americans remained content with their romantic vision of Dixie.


Cultural anthropologist Ruth Landes wrote an essay in 1945 entitled “A Northerner Views the South,” which was at once a critique of the region and an honest assessment of how Dixie was perceived by nonsoutherners. “Of all the United States,” she wrote, “the South is most trapped by poverty and disease, illiteracy, political corruption, and deep want of ambition.” the Columbia-educated Landes, who was one of Gunnar Myrdal’s research assistants for An American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, condemned white southerners for their false sense of loyalty to “their negroes” and yet was clearly frustrated with how (her criticisms aside) northerners seemed to have an “ineradicable feeling of appreciation for the South.” Much of that feeling was not based on reality but on the way the region was presented in popular culture. Films, best-selling books, advertising, radio, and even popular music offered the American public what Landes described as “beguiling picturizations of the antebellum South as some country [where] men were chivalrous and ladies glamorous, and their former slaves were attached to them by silken bonds.” the region, she noted, was “gilded in sentimentality” to such an extent that northerners did not really know the American South at all.

Although Landes’s focus was on northern perceptions of Dixie, the truth was that most Americans during the first half of the twentieth century saw the South and southerners through this same magnolia-shaped lens. White southerners, to be sure, believed in the regional myths they associated with the Lost Cause; this belief permeated their culture. Not so in the North, in the Midwest, or even on the West Coast. So how did nonsoutherners come to accept and subscribe to these same myths? the answers lay in historical developments of the late nineteenth century, which included a post-Civil War culture of reconciliation between the North and the South, rapid industrialization and urbanization, anxiety about modernity, the rise of mass consumerism, and the emergence of mass culture.

The Culture of Reconciliation

Sectional reconciliation following the Civil War was by no means limited to reunions of veterans, nor was it simply a matter of politics. the . . .

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