WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY JAMES C. COBB
With all due respect to Helen Bullitt Lowry, suggestions that the South is what some have called "America's Latin America" are older than the republic itself. In 176 5 London philanthropist Dr. John Fothergill drew sharp distinctions between the thrifty and industrious residents of the northern colonies, who lived "like our lower English farmers," and the southern colonists, with their inclinations toward "Idleness and Extravagance," who had more in common with the "West Indians" than with their neighbors to the north. (1)
This representation of the South was still much in evidence in 1810, when a touring French dignitary contrasted the "bold and enterprising" residents of the northern states with the "heedless and lazy" people of the South and observed that American manners seemed "entirely changed" below the Potomac, where they were "strongly tinctured with those of the West Indies." With so much of the nation's literary and publishing activity concentrated in the North, in the early national period northern writers attempting to sketch the emergent American national character often had little if any firsthand knowledge of the southern states and drew heavily on such foreign travelers' descriptions and depictions of the region. As a result, with its hierarchical social system and its dependence on plantation slavery, the South stood out in many of these accounts as less like the southernmost part of the United States than the northernmost outpost of what latter-day comparative theorists have called the "extended Caribbean" or the "American tropics." (2)
This imagery permeated popular fiction in the North as well. In his fictional Letters from an American farmer, which appeared in 1782, before American nationhood was officially finalized, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur's narrator, "Farmer James" of Pennsylvania, cited a common concentration of wealth and a shared proclivity for the self-indulgent enjoyment thereof when he insisted, "Charles-Town [South Carolina] is in the north what Lima is in the south." Some seventy years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe linked the South to the lush, overgrown Latin American tropics in Uncle Tom's Cabin, contrasting the typical New England farm house with its "clean-swept grassy yard" and general "air of order and stillness" to Louisianan Augustine St. Clare's "ancient mansion built in that odd mixture of Spanish and French style.... in the Moorish fashion" with its "voluptuous" courtyard almost choking with fragrant trees and blossoming shrubbery. Meanwhile, unlike the easygoing St. Clare, his New England cousin, "Miss Ophelia," is punctual, proper, and businesslike, "a living impersonation of order, method, and exactness." (3)
The stereotype of the courtly, unhurried southern aristocrat was not purely a northern construction, of course. Even as Henry Grady and other architects of what Paul Gaston called the "New South Creed" preached the gospel of industrial progress, they lauded the majestic ideals of the old planter regime as a means of assuring southern whites that their crusade to northernize the region's economy entailed no plans to northernize its society and culture as well. At the same time, the romantic portraiture of a gracious, guileless, and unacquisitive antebellum plantation class served up to northern readers by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris had helped to accelerate both the national retreat from Reconstruction and the South's reacceptance into the Union.
In the some ways, Helen Bullitt Lowry's piece was a study in the conditions and limits of that acceptance ca. 1926, for, in her account at least, the "temperamental affinity" between southern whites and Latin Americans was stronger than any bond they shared with their northern countrymen. Although New South boosters continued to tout their region as America's internal "land of promise," Lowry reserved such terminology for Latin America, the "world's best prospect," and dismissed Dixie as, historically at least, "an economic waste product. …