Literature of the New South
By the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period in 1877, a few Southern politicians, thinkers, and writers had begun to critically examine the continued problems of the American South. Looking forward rather than to the past, these individuals expressed a progressive ideology that came to be known as the New South idea. Among the most recognizable proponents of this concept was the influential editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Henry W. Grady, who in the 1880s offered a vision of the modern, industrialized, and prosperous South that Reconstruction had failed to achieve. With a gradually more sympathetic attitude to the North and its commercial concerns, Southerners looked to Grady and other editorial advocates of the New South, such as newspapermen Francis W. Dawson, Richard H. Edmonds, and Henry Watterson, to lead the way. In his 1886 address entitled “The New South” Grady spoke to a national audience on the possibilities of reconciliation between North and South, improved race relations, the diversification of Southern agriculture, and an expansion in Dixie industry. Meanwhile, new developments were occurring in Southern literature that coincided with the rise of the New South concept. Principal among these was the vogue of local color writing, which celebrated the diversity and unique character of the South through the use of regional dialect and atmospheric description. This period also witnessed the ascent of The Century, an important literary magazine that published works by all of the major local color specialists, and the rising influence of its prominent editor, Richard Watson Gilder, who presided over the Genteel Tradition that governed Southern fiction until the mid-1890s. Playing to the tastes of its mostly female subscribers, The Century, and similar “Genteel” magazines, refused to print anything that might ruffle delicate sensibilities, publishing nothing that could be construed as coarse, unseemly, or distasteful. Outside the aesthetic limitations of Genteel writing, however, the New South period also featured a new critical trend in fiction, embodied in the single writer of international stature from this era, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
Fiction writing in the New South was dominated by the local color movement, which offered a proud, nostalgic look back at the old glories of the past while extolling the promise of the present. Its most noted proponent was George Washington Cable, whose stories and novels treated the lives of Louisiana Creoles, the descendents of European settlers in the region. Cable's first collection of tales, Old Creole Days (1879), blends the sentimental and the exotic as it recounts the declining existences of once-dignified Louisianans. More thematically ambitious and political than his stories, Cable's 1880 novel The Grandissimes confronts the problem of racial inequality and injustice in Southern society by implicitly comparing attitudes around the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 with those of his own day. Aside from Cable, other prominent local color writers included Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, Grace King, Mary Noailles Murfree, and James Lane Allen. The enormous popularity of their Southern local color fiction even spread northward, where readers were eager to enjoy the quaint customs and attitudes of Southerners now that the threat of secessionism and violence were gone. The movement took full advantage of the geographical and cultural variety of the South, from the old plantations of Virginia and coastal Carolina, to the rugged Appalachian Mountains (featured in the writings of Murfree) and the vibrant life of New Orleans (in works by Cable, King, and others). After Cable, one of the most renowned local color writers of the period was Thomas Nelson Page. Page's collection In Ole Virginia (1887) features the tale “Marse Chan,” an effective if propagandistic work that defends the aristocratic presumptions and racially ordered society of the Old South. The story's narrator, an aging ex-slave named Sam, recalls his former master, who was killed in the Civil War before he could return to marry his beloved Anne. In his writing, Page followed popular tradition by reiterating old stereotypes: loyal former slaves, Southern belles, predatory carpetbaggers, and honorable Southern gentlemen populate his collected stories and poetry. The Negro dialect songs and tales of Joel Chandler Harris were also widely popular in the 1880s and 1890s. While Harris offered a small improvement on the conventional depiction of black characters with his fictionalized narrator, the charming Uncle Remus, much of the docile “Uncle Tom” mannerisms remained. Nonetheless, Remus's humorous tales of the Brer Rabbit and his adventures in the Brer Patch delighted readers. Though Harris is chiefly remembered for his literary creations, he also devoted twenty-five years of his writing career to journalism as a member of the editorial staff of the Atlanta Constitution, frequently publishing insightful articles on race relations and the racial injustice of his time. A more restrained champion of racial progress in the New South, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, another of the local color writers, also made his debut during this time. Although his race was not revealed to the readers of The Atlantic, the magazine that published his early stories, Chesnutt was among the first black writers to receive serious recognition from critics. Appropriately, Chesnutt refused to portray Negro characters in his fiction according to the obdurate and demeaning racial stereotypes of the period. Local color additionally influenced versification in the New South, with writers such as Page and Irwin Russel making use of Negro dialect in their poetic works. Russel's popular “Christmas Night in the Quarters” (1878) is representative, critics have noted, of the tendency to sublimate white anxieties about ex-slaves by viewing them as idealized icons of lost innocence and simpler times past.
While sympathetic portrayals of the South such as those of Page, Harris, and the other local colorists were popular, the movement also contained within it the desire to express a more critical evaluation of the South, both Old and New. Kate Chopin began her career by writing local color tales featured in her collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). However, it is for her second novel, The Awakening (1899), a forthright study of a woman's sexual desire and psychological conflict within a stultifying culture, that she is generally remembered. Although this novel was given scant regard by her contemporaries, it has since been recognized by modern critics for its sustained avoidance of the gender stereotypes generally associated with fiction of this period. Another woman writer, the Virginian Ellen Glasgow, occasionally demonstrated her ability to critique the rather worn romanticism that had dominated Southern literature for decades. While at its heart a family romance, Glasgow's Civil War novel The Battle-Ground, published in 1902, aims its sights at the injustices of the war era, as perpetrated by Southerners and Northerners, whites and blacks alike. A developing consciousness of the limitations and inadequacies of women's status in Southern society also informs Glasgow's other novels of the period. In addition to Glasgow and Chopin, the New South produced unquestionably one of greatest figures in Southern fiction, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain. Twain's writing developed out of the tradition of the southwestern humorists, but his mature work offered a satirical voice—sometimes brutally so—that other literature in the New South was mostly missing. While the child-like nostalgia and melodrama of his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was in keeping with his contemporaries, the critically-acclaimed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) held up the ingrained hypocrisies of Southern society to scathing ridicule. Confronting the fictional tropes of plantation culture and deep-rooted racism against blacks, the novel follows its young narrator, Huck Finn, along the Mississippi River, detailing his efforts to help his friend Jim, an escaped slave, obtain his freedom. Outside the realm of fiction, Twain's memoirs, contained in Life on the Mississippi (1883), represent another side of his critique of the South. Accompanying his picturesque evocation of the Southern landscape in the work, Twain presents a derisive attack on the Southern state of mind, which he claims is afflicted with a critical torpor and a hazy romanticism that clings to outdated and inhibiting myths of pastoral legend and chivalric honor.
Despite demonstrating some literary innovation, many writers of the New South period continued to look back contentedly to the Old South with a view of its enduring, mythic status as a pastoral paradise. Works that captured the popular imagination especially, like Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales or Thomas Nelson Page's stories of Old Virginia, offered a glimpse of this golden age of Southern tranquility that never was. Even writers like George Washington Cable would still frequently recall this romantic dream of a glorified Dixie, now lost. While these evocations continued to capture the imaginations of readers to the end of the nineteenth century and beyond, subsequent critics have acknowledged that the New South period also represents the birth of a new, analytic attitude in Southern fiction, rarely demonstrated before. Modern commentators have also pointed to important developments in local color writing, the rise of serious women writers such as Glasgow and Chopin, and the clear significance of a major writer like Twain, but most agree that more scholarly attention is needed before a critical consensus can be reached on the transitional period after Reconstruction and prior to the high point of Southern literature in the first half of the twentieth century.
King Cotton was once the heralded “ruler” of the South, but following the Civil War this King shouldered the blame for the South’s losses. Many southern leaders believed that their reliance on one crop had made them vulnerable to the Union’s advances, and they pledged to diversify what they called the “New South.”
Henry W. Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, promoted the vision for the New South at a meeting of the New England Society of New York. Grady shared an optimistic view of the New South’s potential—a strong core, economic diversity, and healthy growth over time. Grady, and other intellects of his time, foresaw an agricultural society based around the growth of several crops. They also saw the importance of following the North’s example and turning toward industrialization.
Proponents of the New South first turned to secondary crops that could thrive in southern soil. Tobacco was the second most vital crop after cotton to the pre-war South. Several factors led to a resurgence in tobacco production following the Civil War. Two new varieties, bright leaf and burley were identified, and a new method for curing tobacco so that it had less “bite” was discovered. As the Union troops came south during the war, they were introduced to this tobacco, which opened up a new export market for southern tobacco production.
In addition, rice and Louisiana cane sugar became critical elements of the South’s agricultural identity. This boom was due in large part to an agriculturalist named Seaman A. Knapp. He moved to Louisiana and used the demonstration method of agriculture education to show farmers how to select the most appropriate crops for their soil and how to care for those crops. His educational exhibitions led way to the development of a network of local and regional extension offices that supported agriculture education and production.
However, Southerners were not willing to turn their backs on King Cotton completely, and that proved to be a wise move. With the textile industry beginning to boom and industrialization in full force, the number of cotton mills in the south increased from 161 to 400 after the Civil War. Partly as a cause of this boom and partly as a result, cotton consumption increased from 182,000 bales to 1,479,000 per year in the late nineteenth century.
Cotton and other crops benefited from the ever-growing rail service. With additional railroad lines crossing the country, both the North and the South were able to profit from the other’s productivity. Additionally, the advent of refrigerated rail cars allowed other southern produce to reach northern markets, which further diversified the southern economy.
Field crops were not the only industry to take advantage of improved transportation. The area around Birmingham, Alabama became known for its iron, limestone, and coal production. Coal was especially important as an energy source for the trains that transported it. Between 1875 and 1900, southern coal production increased by 44 million tons per year, from 5 million to 49 million tons.
Another important energy source revitalized the South. Hydroelectricity, or electricity generated by water, was a growing force in the southeast region of the United States. This power source provided another important step in the industrialization process.
The South also offered Southern Pine trees, which were in demand for their soft, multi-use lumber—which was used in great quantities to restore homes damaged during the war. Lumber camps grew exponentially in the south after 1870, and tree cutting rose to new heights. If not for the warm climate and quick renewal of the Southern Pines, the mass destruction of these trees might have rendered the south an ecological wasteland. Fortunately, scientific forestry grew alongside the lumber camps, and the first forestry school opened in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1898.
A host of other industries also developed in the south. The lumber industry carved the way for a bustling paper commerce. Clay, glass, and stone products were in high demand. Vegetables that were not sold fresh and transported on refrigerated railway cars were canned at one of several canneries in the south. And of course, the mint julep and moonshine reputation of the South perpetuated a thriving beverage industry.
Along with a changing economic profile, the political atmosphere was also being transformed in the New South. With the loss of the Confederate government, southern residents turned to leaders within their community. These local leaders came to be known collectively as “Redeemers,” both for their efforts to redeem the South from being dominated by Yankees, as well as their redemption of the South from a one-crop society.
Republicans, Independents, and Populists alike called the Redeemers “Bourbons,” a derogatory label meant to imply that the Redeemers were not proactive but reactive. These critics believed that the Bourbons had learned nothing from the Civil War. As most Bourbons were Democrats, this label became entrenched in the Southern vocabulary to signify a leader of the Democratic Party.
Furthermore, the Redeemers’ detractors pointed out a major truth about this group—their true purpose was to undue the “progress” achieved by the Civil War and to reassert their dominance over blacks. Although as a group they did not participate in or advocate violence against blacks as did the KKK, the Redeemers benefited from those kinds of aggression. Their main goals were to repress blacks at the expense of whites and to increase their political power.
To that end, the Redeemers brought about a mini political revolution in the south. They believed strongly that a laissez-faire federal government would be more productive than the militarily enforced Reconstruction. This ideology was influenced by their desire to regain local control. The Redeemers also believed that education was important, but the cost should be borne by private benefactors rather than state governments. Most southern states did not have government funds for public education prior to the Civil War, and after the war the Redeemers felt that there were more pressing needs in the Reconstruction effort, such as business and industry.
Several philanthropists did come through with the funds to keep southern education afloat. London banker George Peabody was a major supporter of education through his Peabody Fund, which provided over $3 million to public schools in the south. Another philanthropist, John F. Slater, donated another $1 million, which was designated for the development and maintenance of black schools.
J.L.M. Curry, a former soldier, preacher, and educator, served as the manager of both these funds and developed many programs that are still in effect today, including teacher’s associations and summer schools. With the help of Curry’s programs, literacy increased to 88 percent for the native white population and 50 percent for the southern black population. In addition, the Redeemers’ influence led to teacher education schools, agricultural and mechanical colleges, and even black colleges.
Democrats campaigned for Congressional seats during the election of 1874 on the strength of programs such as the public education initiative and other Redeemer programs such as boards of agriculture and public health. The public bought into the platform of the Redeemers, and with their votes they gave the Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives as well as several prime seats in the Senate.
The changing mindset of the South allowed for several black politicians to emerge as leaders, if only of other blacks. South Carolina and Georgia both had black representatives in Congress throughout the late nineteenth century, although they always represented areas with a high density of black residents.
Most white people, although claiming racial superiority, wished no ill-will upon their black counterparts because they did not see them as threats to their social structure. Even as the white Redeemers were preaching racial superiority, they were practicing tolerance. For a brief period in the 1880s and 1890s, the black population was able to coexist with the white population in relative peace in the south.
Race Relations in the New South
There was a tentative peace in the south between blacks and whites, but it had severe limitations. White Southerners expected blacks to keep to themselves, to socialize and worship in separate venues, to work for white people in menial jobs and for meager wages, and to never request or demand anything, including equal rights.
When slaves were emancipated, the white South lost its labor supply and the slaves lost their shelter. Instead of owning the slaves, white men became landlords, charging high rent to slave families who often could not pay with cash. These slaves effectively became indentured servants to their former owners as they tried to pay off their debts through service—an impossible task, with the interest tacked on by the landlords.
Freedmen also encountered the difficulties of sharecropping. With little land available to purchase and few skills other than knowing how to work in the fields, former slaves participated in the sharecropping system that provided a share of the crop for the worker’s service. A similar practice was known as crop liens, in which the owner of the land—usually a freedman or a poor white man—would offer a lien on his crop to a merchant in exchange for cash or supplies. Sharecropping and crop liens were idealistic plans used by crooked bookkeepers and white land owners who kept black men in perpetual debt.
Blacks did have some allies, albeit self-serving ones. The Populist Party of the 1890s needed numbers to gain power, and blacks were numerous. Populists brought blacks en masse into their folds, even giving them prominent leadership positions. Not surprisingly, these actions stirred up the Redeemers who wanted to repress the northern influence of equality for former slaves. They also did not want to lose elections to the growing Populist Party.
Since the Fifteenth Amendment ensured that the Redeemers could not outright disenfranchise blacks, they had to be crafty. Redeemers developed voting rules for their states that were known as “literacy tests,” although they were impossible tests meant solely to weed out black voters. In addition, the Redeemers implemented poll taxes that they knew many blacks could not afford to pay. While this did eliminate most of the black vote, it also kept many poor, uneducated whites from voicing their opinions at the polls. Still, the narrow-minded Redeemers considered this a victory for the South.
The Redeemers felt further justified when Mississippi took their actions a few steps further. In 1890, at a state constitutional convention, harsher voting requirements were enacted. The first of these requirements was a residency rule, which stated that all voters had to have lived in the state’s borders for a minimum of two years. Furthermore, each voter had to prove residency within their election district for a minimum of one year. Since many blacks were transient, moving to follow jobs throughout the south, few met the strict residency requirements and lost their voting privileges under the Mississippi Plan.
Those who had maintained a proper residence in Mississippi also had to meet other requirements. All taxes had to be paid by February 1st of the voting year. Even those who met this requirement were sometimes not allowed to vote when election officials “lost” the receipt in the months prior to the election. Under Mississippi’s rules, voters also had to pass a literacy test and not have been convicted of certain crimes. Again, these rules prohibited some poor white voters from participating in elections, although the rules were sometimes not enforced for the white constituency. Regardless, it was apparent to all that the harsh rules targeted blacks.
The Mississippi Plan was adopted by seven additional states over the next 20 years. Many of these states added their own exceptions that would qualify white voters who were kept from voting under Mississippi’s rules. For example, South Carolina’s literacy requirement had a loophole that exempted voters from this requirement if they owned $300 worth of property. Likewise, Louisiana invented the “grandfather clause” in 1898, which allowed illiterates to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had been eligible to vote on January 1, 1867. This excluded blacks since blacks did not have voting rights at that time. Exceptions like this were the norm as governments attempted to exclude only black voters without violating the Fifteenth Amendment.
This exclusionary attitude infused the South. A series of seven cases before the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination against blacks by corporations or individuals was in violation of federal Civil Rights laws. However, their rulings did not prohibit states from enacting segregation laws.
Proponents of the New South took up the “Separate but Equal” battle cry. Under this agenda, segregation of blacks and whites became common as long as each had “equal” facilities. However, although blacks and whites might both have facilities that served the same purpose, such as public restrooms, railroad cars, and theater seats, the facilities were rarely equal. The railroad cars for white patrons would typically be cleaner and more comfortable than the car for blacks. The state laws legalizing this practice were known as “Jim Crow laws,” named after a black character in old minstrel shows.
These segregation laws were first tested in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which went before the Supreme Court in 1896. Homer Plessy was a man with one-eighth black ancestry who was ordered to leave the whites-only railroad car. He refused the order and was arrested and later convicted of this crime. He appealed the case all the way to the highest court, but the Supreme Court validated Plessy’s conviction, and the southern states took that as a green light to enact segregation laws on a wide scale.
One Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, dissented in the Plessy verdict. He believed that validating Plessy’s conviction would promote aggressive attitudes toward blacks. Such attitudes were already firmly entrenched in Southern society, and as Harlan predicted, the ruling increased the violence. Lynchings, already a common practice, hit record highs in the late 1800s, with nearly 90% of the victims being black.
Two black men, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, risked their lives to stand up against the violence and lead their fellow blacks, albeit in opposite directions. Washington, a former slave, had overcome the odds to receive an education at Hampton Institution, and he later built the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington encouraged blacks to keep to themselves and focus on the daily tasks of survival, rather than leading a grand uprising. He believed that building a strong economic base was more critical at that time than planning an uprising or fighting for equal rights. Washington also stated in his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech in 1895 that blacks had to accept segregation in the short term as they focused on economic gain to achieve political equality in the future.
W.E.B. Du Bois, born after the Civil War and the first African American to earn a Harvard PhD, was one of Washington’s harshest critics. He believed that Washington’s pacifist plan would only perpetuate the second-class-citizen mindset. Du Bois felt that immediate “ceaseless agitation” was the only appropriate method for attaining equal rights, especially for those he dubbed the “talented tenth” of African Americans who deserved total equality immediately. As editor of the black publication “The Crisis,” Du Bois publicized his disdain for Washington and was instrumental in the creation of the “Niagara Movement,” which later evolved into the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Eventually, Du Bois grew weary of the slow pace of racial equality in the United States. He renounced his citizenship and moved to Ghana in 1961, where he died two years later.Both Washington and Du Bois had loyal followers and both are legendary black leaders for the progress they made—even on different paths—toward equality. Each served as important role models for later leaders of the civil rights movement.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "The New South" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/the-new-south/>.