The term "New South" entered public discourse in the United States after 1877, the year Reconstruction ended and the last federal occupation troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy. State governments (often called the "redeemer" governments) across the South could finally reassert the power of the white majority, but the whole region faced systemic problems deriving from the Civil War, Reconstruction, and an outdated agrarian economy that had lost its chief labor unit, the slaves. Intentionally a politically neutral slogan behind which a wide range of individuals and groups could line up, the New South suggested a future-oriented, pragmatic, and conciliatory vision that could move the region beyond the trauma of the defeat of the Confederacy and into alignment with the rest of the nation. Its governing ideas were free-enterprise economics, a meritocratic social hierarchy, and harmonious (but not equal) relations between whites and African Americans.
The modernizers of the New South—those businessmen, political leaders, and journalists who wanted to direct the region toward the industrial model of the North—had to be cautious when it came to the sensitivities of many of their fellow southerners. During the last decades of the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, a significant number of people throughout the South saw their feelings and attitudes reflected in a more powerful term, the "Lost Cause." The name designated a particular Southern motif launched in 1866 by the Richmond newspaperman Edward A. Pollard (1831–1872). The meaning of the Lost Cause was abundantly clear: in the Civil War the South had fought a legitimate battle for the cause of states' rights, one that had not been compromised by the surrender at Appomattox, but had, if anything, been glorified in defeat. The Lost Cause drew upon the memory of the blood sacrifice of the war and an inflexible belief in the superiority of Southern agrarian civilization. The New South idea was, in their view, an attempt "to "corrupt Southern principles by bringing material prosperity to the South" (Wilson, Baptized, p. 84). The partisans of the Lost Cause took an uncompromising position on any transformation that involved jettisoning a social order based on the concept of honor, an evangelical moral code, and the maintenance of a clear racial hierarchy. Whether or not these ideals were useful or appropriate for postwar southern society, they were articles of faith for many people, and those who proposed an alternative path for Dixie had to proceed with caution.
A GEORGIAN IN NEW YORK
When Henry Woodfin Grady (1850–1889), the managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, stepped off the train in New York in December 1886 to deliver a speech to the annual banquet of the New England Club, he faced a major opportunity. As a young newspaper owner in the southern metropolis, itself only recently arisen from the ashes of General Sherman's punitive campaign twenty-two years earlier, he arrived in the North uncertain of his status. On his side Grady had relative youth (born in 1850, he had not served in the war), commercial and journalistic achievement, and the sense that he would have a curious, if not sympathetic, audience. Working against him, however, was a subsoil layer of Northern beliefs about the South that still carried some of the animosity of the war years and the early Reconstruction period. Grady knew also that his words would find their way back to Atlanta and the wider South, where sensitivities could be offended by even a mild note of criticism of the Confederate past, particularly from the editor of the Constitution.
Grady's speech, "The New South," is in many ways a masterpiece of tightrope walking. In its course he plays with motifs of New England moral rigor, Virginia liberality, the efforts of Confederate veterans to revitalize their devastated farms, amicable race relations, and most importantly the idea of a region committed to a commercially and industrially progressive future. He paints a picture of a defeated South conscious of the honorable struggle in which it had engaged, but prepared to face the future without rancor. Grady also cleverly turns the direction of his speech toward the one region of the country that had contributed the most to the decades-long battle against slavery, when he asks
Now, what answer has New England to this message? Will she permit the prejudice of war to remain in the hearts of the conquerors, when it has died in the hearts of the conquered? Will she transmit this prejudice to the next generation, that in their hearts which never felt the generous ardor of conflict it may perpetuate itself? Will she withhold, save in strained courtesy, the hand which straight from his soldier's heart Grant offered to Lee at Appomattox? (Pp. 40–41)
This was, to an extent, humbug. In no sense could the "prejudice of war" be said to have "died in the hearts of the conquered." If anything it was sharper in 1886 than it had been in 1866. Neither did the gesture toward Grant echo a southern consensus; rather, more southerners were concerned (and would continue to be for many decades) with reducing the status of Grant in every way in order to elevate the historical reputation of Robert E. Lee.
Nevertheless Grady was successfully articulating an important strand in postwar southern thinking. Behind the sentimental invocations of plantation life in popular fiction and the obsessional nurturing of pieties regarding the military prowess of the Confederacy was a recognition that the economic, commercial, and infrastructural lag visible across much of the South had been the principal reason for defeat, and that a livable future would come only through increased—and increasingly harmonized—connections with the rest of the country. That meant finding some way of improving agricultural efficiency, expanding the rail network, and exploring new industrial relations in a region largely dominated for generations by a mentality that despised the economic and social model represented by the North.
"BAWN IN A BRIER-PATCH!"
The most memorable cultural manifestation of the theory of the New South involved the popularization of the rich assets of southern black folklore through the work of Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908), a white journalist who had grown up as the child of an unmarried mother in the poverty of rural Georgia. Originating in a series of sketches Harris began writing for the Atlanta Constitution in the late 1870s, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880) is one of the best-loved literary works in American history. The collection is centered around allegorical stories written in Harris's rendition of the speech of plantation slaves and recounted by the fictional Uncle Remus, a former African American slave, now a trusted servant and farmworker in the postbellum South. In Harris's framing narrative the audience for Uncle Remus's tales of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit is the young son of the southern lady and the former Union soldier who are now Remus's employers. One of the more substantial pieces in the book is a short narrative called "A Story of the War," in which Uncle Remus saves the life of his master, a Confederate soldier about to be shot by a Union soldier. Though in the newspaper version of the tale Remus kills the Union soldier, in the book's revised version the Union soldier is only injured by Remus's bullet, losing an arm as a consequence. After the war the Union soldier marries the woman who nursed him through his injury—the sister of the Confederate he almost killed (Sundquist, p. 325). The couple's son is the boy enthralled by Remus's folktales and songs.
The implications of the Uncle Remus stories are manifold, touching on issues of culture, folklore, anthropology, and the range of national attitudes regarding the status of African Americans in the decades after the Civil War. The dynamic of the tales reflects Harris's dual role as conscientious folklorist and creative writer, and the implications of the work—both Uncle Remus's natural intelligence and the moral architecture of the Brer Rabbit narratives—could be construed both to support and to attack efforts at black self-improvement and the exercise of political rights. The ambiguity of the New South is unmistakably present in Harris's writing. The narrative atmosphere is a heady mix of genuine affection for faithful black servants, belief in an established social hierarchy, commitment to economic improvement, paternalistic respect for folkloric authenticity, and a sense that the South had something particular—a warmth and feeling for local human experience—to offer an increasingly depersonalized and standardized American nation.
It was a winning combination. The character of Remus and his stories brought Harris wealth and fame, propelling him from his niche as a shy and inarticulate amateur folklorist working in an obscure corner of feature journalism into the exposed position of a nationally known writer. After the success of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, nine more volumes of Uncle Remus stories were published up to and past Harris's death in 1908. Their popularity with several generations of both children and adults, both in the United States and abroad, seemed to defy changing social history and the invention of twentieth-century entertainment technology: the stories reemerged, for example, in sentimental and nostalgic triumph in the 1946 Walt Disney movie Song of the South. Despite the strand of cultural resistance in Uncle Remus, the stories embody what almost all white Americans wanted to believe about the consequences of the Civil War: that reconciliation between North and South was achieved; that a constructive relationship between former slaves and their masters was possible; and that the racial hierarchy was stable. With its dramatic allegories and emotional clarity, the black folklore newly packaged by Harris became for many years an important part of American children's literature.
WASHINGTON AT ATLANTA
The New South was not, however, an exclusively white southern vision. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the Tuskegee educator and one of the most influential black Americans in the latter part of the nineteenth century, was the most tenacious promoter of the ideal of the New South among African Americans. Himself philosophically and politically conservative in important ways, he recognized nevertheless that an expanding and technologically innovative southern economy could protect the emancipated slaves, as increasing prosperity would mitigate racial tensions and the South would become a place where the African American worker could prove himself and gain a command of useful skills.
Washington was suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that pushed black professional and political ambitions in a way that failed to recognize either the debilitating legacy of slavery or the potential for a racist backlash from southern whites. Washington looked to a stable environment in which basic economic security could be achieved by a large number of individuals. The most dramatic platform from which he expounded his ideas was at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in September 1895, when he offered himself as a spokesman on behalf of the African Americans of the South. The Exposition was itself one of the achievements of the New South, as it sought to reopen connections between the region and the wider nation and the world. Washington's speech and its motif of fingers and hand became famous: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers," he declared, "yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress" (p. 148).
Washington expressed in those few words the idea of the New South, this time from a black leader's perspective. His vision was, however, broadly the same vision as that of the white southerners who wanted an exit from the hatreds and resentments of the postwar era and to steer the economy and political structure of the South toward that of the rest of the United States. The idea of an economic and social harmony between blacks and whites that would benefit all, without any revolutionary disruptions from angry parties on either side, was at the heart of the New South paradigm. Like many of the key elements of the New South vision, it was presented well but foundered ultimately on the rocks of southern history and a defensive racial order.
The New South was never as popular a slogan as the more poetic evocations of Confederate memory, but a wide spectrum of people—including not only entrepreneurs but also a folklorist from rural, working-class origins like Joel Chandler Harris, a moderate opinion maker like Henry Grady, and a conservative African American leader such as Booker T. Washington—worked toward manifesting this vision of the New South. The New South project was a courageous attempt to get past the legacy of frustration and intransigence that had dogged southern life after the humiliating defeat of 1865. It also represented the unavoidable arrival of modern American capitalism in an agrarian society. It had its own internal contradictions, but it embodied at its best a spirited ideal and signaled, if not a reality, then at least a viable hope for a different future.
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Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. 1900. In Three Negro Classics. Introduction by John Hope Franklin. New York: Avon Books, 1965.
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Gaston, Paul M. The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking. New York: Knopf, 1970.
Genovese, Eugene D. A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
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Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951.