American Hegemony and the Irony of C. Vann Woodward's "The Irony of Southern History" (1)

By Jansson, David R. | Southeastern Geographer, May 2004 | Go to article overview

American Hegemony and the Irony of C. Vann Woodward's "The Irony of Southern History" (1)


Jansson, David R., Southeastern Geographer


The noted historian C. Vann Woodward made an influential contribution to the understanding of Southern identity through his essays "The Search for Southern Identity" and "The Irony of Southern History." Woodward argued that what he considered to be the Southern experience of defeat, humiliation, and impotence in the face of intractable social problems set the South apart from the American national self-concept of a successful, prosperous, and victorious people. In the face of potentially dangerous entanglements abroad, Woodward concluded that the lessons of Southern history would be salutary if heeded by national leaders. The purpose of this article is to analyze Woodward's argument through the application of the framework of internal orientalism to reveal the ironies that underlie Woodward's assumptions, particularly with regard to the influence of the political hegemony of the United States and the cultural hegemony of the internal orientalist production of the South. Next, the parallels between the contemporary period and the time during which Woodward wrote his essays are assessed, revealing that Woodward's description of the position of the U.S. in the world is remarkably similar to mainstream post 9-11 rhetoric. A content analysis of George W. Bush's radio addresses shows that the national myths of innocence, virtue, success, and victory still have currency, followed by an examination of "Southern" critiques of U.S. foreign policy. These critiques do not employ the vision of Southern identity set forth by Woodward, and the possible reasons for this divergence are discussed. Reading "The Irony of Southern History" through the lens of internal orientalism provides useful lessons for understanding the connections between regional and national histories.

KEY WORDS: Southern identity, regional geography, irony, American national identity

INTRODUCTION

C. Vann Woodward was perhaps the most eminent historian of the South in the 20th century, but his stature surpassed regional boundaries. In fact, Drew Gilpin Faust (2000) suggested that Woodward was the greatest American historian of the past century. One of the areas in which Woodward made his most influential contribution was in the analysis of Southern identity. In 1960, Woodward's essays "The Search for Southern Identity" and "The Irony of Southern History" were published in his book The Burden of Southern History. (2) In "Search," Woodward argued that the historical experience of Southerners was the foundation of Southern identity; for Woodward, the Southern experience was characterized by grinding poverty, political impotency, military defeat, racial conflict, and social guilt. In "Irony," Wood ward claimed that the lessons of Southern history have something salutary to offer the United States in the international arena. These views were greeted in academia with much appreciation and acclaim (e.g., England 1961; Ochs 1961; Donald 1961; Abbot 1962).

The purpose of this paper is to focus on the arguments developed by Woodward in "The Irony of Southern History." In particular, I examine Woodward's thesis that Southern identity and experience--steeped in frustration, failure, and defeat--may potentially temper the national legends of innocence, virtue, success, and victory, specifically in the context of U.S. foreign policy. I also interrogate Woodward's assumptions behind what he calls "Southern history" and "Southern identity" to reveal their problematic nature. My analysis applies the framework of internal orientalism (Schein 1997; Jansson 2003), which (in the case of the U.S.) holds that the South serves as an internal spatial other and that a privileged national identity is produced in part through representations of the South as the opposite of everything for which "America" (as an imagined space) stands. (3) The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how by reading Woodward's essays on Southern identity through the framework of internal orientalism we can uncover ironies within his own arguments. …

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