Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Reimagining the North-South Reunion

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Reimagining the North-South Reunion

Article excerpt

Southern Women Novelists and the Intersectional Romance, 1876-1900

At one point in the novel Across the Chasm, the heroine Margaret Trevennon meets an awkward, though handsome, Confederate veteran and immediately classifies him as a "familiar type of Southern man, but not a favorable one." She finds "a sort of aggressive self confidence in his bearing, which was unpleasant. ... He belonged to a class she knew well--men whose range of vision had been limited, but who were possessed of a feeling of superiority to others in general, and an absolute conviction of superiority to the best Yankee that ever lived." Virginia novelist Julia Magruder penned this indictment of the arrogant southern man not in 1925, when the modernist movement brought self-criticism to the South, but in 1885. Yet the unappealing Confederate veteran is only part of the story she told. Magruder chose a time-tested genre, the North-South romance that in its union of a southerner and a northerner could also symbolize national unity and reconciliation. In this "romance of reunion," she combined both older and more recent notions afloat in her culture. Moreover, her willingness to criticize the South and southern men placed her among a small but vocal group of southern women writers who were creating new stories about the South and the men and women there.

Only recently have readers begun to mine novels by southern women as sources for the cultural history of the postwar South. Traditional literary histories of the period generally overlook southern female writers, often justifying this omission by suggesting such women produced only mediocre Confederate apologias. Not until the 1980s did even the best-selling nineteenth-century southern women authors receive much attention or study.(1) Yet southern women wrote widely for publication, and their productions are an important source for the ideas circulating in the postwar South.

Examining women's fiction can help to construct a chronology of southern cultural history after the Civil War and give us insights into the authors' ideals. While chivalric Confederate soldiers were never completely absent from the fiction produced by postwar southern men and women and would come to dominate it by the 1890s, this earlier period presents a variegated picture. At the end of Reconstruction, some women experimented with novels that redefined southern men and women and criticized aspects of southern culture. The use that southern women novelists made of the "reunion romance," especially compared to their male counterparts North and South, shows this diversity of thought in the late-nineteenth-century South. While some critics have recently argued that postwar southern women concentrated on bolstering the self-image of their defeated menfolks,(2) these stories suggest that some women wished to reconstruct ideals of masculinity and considered a more influential role for females in society.

The North-South reunion story is so revealing because of its gender and sectional elements. By its very nature, a romance explores the interactions of men and women and their appropriate gender roles. Bringing together an "ideal" man and woman and contrasting them to less admirable types along the way, this genre gives an especially interesting view of expectations. Moreover, the story of romantic reunion also joins North and South, treating each as a distinct region with its own virtues or vices.

Such imagined unions of North and South through the marriage of fictional characters formed an important and ubiquitous theme in nineteenth-century American writings. As sectional rivalries and antagonisms grew in the antebellum period, writers wishing conciliation between the sections often resorted to this genre. Elizabeth Varon, Elizabeth Moss, and others have shown that southern women in the 1850s wrote novels that attempted to smooth over North-South disagreements by emphasizing shared qualities and mutual forbearance. …

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