Academic journal article The Geographical Review

American National Identity and the Progress of the New South in National Geographic Magazine*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

American National Identity and the Progress of the New South in National Geographic Magazine*

Article excerpt

From the earliest days of the United States, the South has been portrayed as different from the rest of the country. One scholar connects this differentiation to the interest of the new American state in shedding its image as a colony (Greeson 1999); one way this was accomplished was through projecting any vestiges of colonialism onto the South. These eighteenth-century representations were largely negative, but in the past 200 years negative representations of the South have alternated with positive ones that glorified particular values the South was held to embody (Kirby 1986).

Negative representations of the South have been seen as contributing to the construction of an exalted American national identity (Woodward 1971a; Gerster and Cords 1977; Ayers 1996; Jansson 2003). By contrasting itself with a racist, violent, poor, intolerant, and xenophobic South, America comes to know itself as personifying the opposite traits; hence Americans are enlightened, peaceful, prosperous, tolerant, and cosmopolitan. But what of the positive representations of the South? It is reasonable to suggest that these would undermine the impact of the negative representations and reduce the extent to which the South is considered different from and inferior to the national mold.

Through an analysis of National Geographic Magazine articles on the South, I explore the extent to which positive representations of the South, through the way they subtly remind the reader about the South's historical burdens, serve the construction of a positive American national identity as effectively as overtly negative renderings of the South. As such, these articles are informed by the discourse of internal orientalism (Jansson 2003). I begin with a brief description of internal orientalism and its application in the case of the United States, followed by a consideration of the role of the National Geographic Society and National Geographic Magazine in American life. I will then show how, by framing the coverage of the South in the context of a "New South" striving to leave behind its troubled past, even overtly positive assessments of the South can be used to inform a positive national identity. (1)


Edward Said's exegesis Orientalism (1979) highlights the connections between the identities of the Occident and the Orient as constructed through textual representations of the Orient. Construing the Orient as savage, backward, and premodern permitted the Occident to conceive of itself as cultured, progressive, and modern. In this way, the Orient is "othered" in order to produce a privileged occidental identity. The discourse of Orientalism produces a binary that privileges European culture over the culture of the Orient and occidental identity over oriental identity.

The encounter between Occident and Orient has occurred primarily in the context of colonialism; to argue that "Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact" (Said 1979, 39). Orientalism is characterized by a relationship of domination of the Occident over the Orient in political, economic, and cultural spheres; a way of representing the Orient; and the production of the geographical identities "occidental" and "oriental." Although the details of the discourse of Orientalism may change over time, what has survived is a constellation of material and discursive relationships that allows the binary approach to retain its currency and continue to inform the construction of these geographical identities.

For Said, Orientalism produces national and supranational identities through othering of a geographical space external to the state or group of states. John Agnew (2000, 302) argues that perhaps "the most effective Others are both more familiar and less distant than those more distant and less familiar," and in recent years scholars have begun to apply Said's framework to orientalist discourses within states (Gladney 1994; Bakic-Hayden 1995; Piterberg 1996; Schein 1997). …

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