Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A Newly Discovered Country": The Post-Bellum South and the Picturesque Ruin

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A Newly Discovered Country": The Post-Bellum South and the Picturesque Ruin

Article excerpt

This article traces the shifting responses to the ruins that haunted the American South in the wake of the Civil War. It begins by examining how ruins were presented in the early accounts of journalists who ventured south after the war. Such reporters as Sidney Andrews, John Trowbridge, and Whitelaw Reid often figured the South's widespread ruination as evidence of just punishment for its myriad sins. Gradually, however, as tensions lessened, representations of the Southern ruin that appeared in popular illustrated newspapers, including Frank Leslie's Illustrated News and Harper's Weekly, were more often accompanied by an invocation of a picturesque aesthetic, thereby transforming the mined landscape into a place redolent of history and pathos and worthy of the tourist's attentions. The rhetoric of the picturesque found a renewed purpose in the United States after the Civil War because it provided a way of integrating the South, albeit a version of the South sanctioned for its antiquity, relics, and romance, back into an affiliation with the rest of the country. The essay concludes with Constance Fenimore Woolson's account of picturesque travel in South Carolina in the early 1870s and an examination of how Southern writers Henry Grady and Thomas Nelson Page also deploy the picturesque ruin in the post-bellum era.

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At the end of the Civil War, battle-weary war correspondents filed home with the troops and a new guard of reporters headed south, pursuing scenes of life in a region so recently and violently wrecked by war. "What men now most want to know," wrote Whitelaw Reid in 1865, one of the first journalists dispatched to the reconstructing South, "is something of the temper and condition in which these same communities come out from the struggle. By the side of the daguerreotypes of the South entering upon the war, even the hastiest pencil sketch of the South emerging from the war may possess an interest and attraction of its own" (9). Traveling journalists delivered to publishers, newspapers, and magazines more than two hundred diaries, letter collections, and travel logs, an indication of the continued interest in the fate of the defeated South. "In this literature," C. Vann Woodward writes of the large body of post-war journalism, "the regional roles have remained fixed for a long time: the North is the traveler, the South is traveled; the North is investigator, the South investigated; the North is questioner, the South witness" ("Whitelaw Reid" 10). Although the roles may remain fixed, the journalists' responses to the sights they encountered in the traveled land shift dramatically in the years following surrender. (1)

In those first politically charged months, when Lincoln's assassination kept tensions high and reconciliation in question, the ruined South was evidence of the righteous cause of the North and of the resounding failure of the South's feudal agrarianism. Almost everywhere those first sojourners looked, they found utter economic prostration, burned and crumbling cities, fields barren or unplanted, and homes, businesses, and churches in appalling shambles. But as the exigencies of reconciliation began to take hold and the South was increasingly cast as a foil to an industrialized and urbanized North, its shambles aided in the reconstruction of the South's relationship to the rest of the union; the bleak reminders of war's visitation upon the region became, in the hands of journalists and tourists, the raw material of picturesque ruin. The presence of ruins figured the South as a place untouched by modernity and unlike the North--its cities spared by the war; its solid architecture a monument to progress. The devastation left in the war's wake offered an image upon which to direct a more conciliatory gaze, subtly refashioning the South as the picturesque antithesis of the progressive, commercial North.

Journalistic narratives gradually abandoned pleasure in the South's resounding defeat and relocated pleasure to the ruin itself, which, with gentle guidance, could bespeak a quiet pathos. …

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