Imagining Southern Spaces: Hemispheric and Transatlantic Souths in Antebellum US Writings
By Deniz Bozkurt-Pekár
Let me set the scene: A rich meadow expanding by the bountiful river, a gentleman leaning on the white column of the porch of a haint-blue mansion, a pale-white lady in flamboyant attire sitting on a rocking-chair behind him, away from them yet within their eyesight are the cotton, corn, or tobacco fields hiding behind their crop the tired bodies of black men, women, and children. This scene is at once idyllic and inviting but somehow implicates a sense of clandestine danger, a lingering apprehension of chaos breaking with a crash of thunder or a lash. Whether embroidered on a piece of canvas centuries ago or portrayed in a contemporary TV show, similar portrayals of a pastoral yet tainted plantation unbothered by any outside influence has dominated the imagery of the Southern United States perhaps ever since the very first enslaved people from Africa arrived in what was once a colonial setting in 1619.
This imagery has for long put an overemphasis on the insularity, lethargy, and regionalist chauvinism in the portrayal of the Southern slaveholder. It reduces the South to a disparate, backward, oppressive, racist, and peripheral regional space against a progressive, industrialized, and slavery-free national space of the United States that is connected with the rest of the world through commerce, diplomacy, art, and philosophy. As time passed, similar connotations of being from the South have been perpetuated through deprecating good-for-nothing characterizations such as “hillbillies” and “red-necks.” The South’s defeat in the Civil War (1861-1865) allowed for a historiography whereupon the Southern region emerged as the sole scapegoat of a history inflicted by racial slavery, sectionalism, and secessionism. Combined with the accelerated industrialization in the North next to the continuing dominance of agriculture in South in the Reconstruction period (1865-1877), which, followed by the racial segregation during the Jim Crow Era (lasting until the mid-1960s), accentuated the ongoing racist structures in the region. This defeat has solidified an image of the “problem South.” The image of the “problem South” has, first of all, served to isolate the guilty region apart from the rest, especially the North, of the country as well as from the world. For the sake of whitewashing the history of separatist sentiment as well as commercial benefit from slavery elsewhere in the county, the othered depiction of the region overlooked the diversity of opinions and spatial imaginations about the region cultivated among actors with different racial belongings, genders, and ideological convictions both inside and outside the region.
This is especially evident in the ways the antebellum period in the region has been depicted, given the epoch’s symbolical value as the era of heightened proslavery, secessionist and sectionalist sentiments. However, the nineteenth century in the world was an era of several respatialization practices resulting from many concurrent processes of globalization accelerated by technological progress in communication and transportation. Among all these processes, most-immediately experienced in the US was the national consolidation process aimed at harmonization of an American nation, which was somewhat paradoxically accompanied by imperial expansion across the continent, commonly seen as a racial (white) or national (American) providence, that is, Manifest Destiny. Already positioned in a setting of multiple coinciding yet sometimes also conflicting respatialization practices, the South was under the (re)spatializing influence also of abolitionist waves from both within and without, which resulted in a semantic field about the region’s defining features, borders, and position in the Union and the world.
In Imagining Southern Spaces, I identify such spatio-temporal settings as transitional. Transitional settings are characterized by a spatial ambivalence arising from the multitude spatialization processes taking place concurrently because existing spatial structures fail to satisfy the changing needs and desires of a variety of actors. The uncertainty of such transitional settings leads to proliferations in spatial imaginations by actors with unique opinions about the result of the ongoing transition regardless of whether they are aware of the transformation taking place around them in such technical terms or not. I argue that during the antebellum era, which constitutes such a setting, actors with diverging backgrounds and opinions produced spatial imaginations about the South that did not necessarily conform to our conventional image of the region today.
Published in February 2021, Imagining Southern Spaces studies antebellum spatial imaginations about the Southern United States found in the literary writings by actors with varying ideas on the future of the region. The dynamic and cognitive nature of spatial imaginations makes them hard to pinpoint and analytically study. Yet, following the premise that space is embedded in social actions, I argue that spatial imaginations are intrinsic in texts, which are products of social actions. In texts, spatial imaginations gain a material quality. In being penned, imaginations become momentarily stabilized, allowing access to the mental constructions of actors who lived several decades before.
Benefiting from this function of literature, I study texts by five antebellum American authors from different social and economic backgrounds, of different genders and regions, and with differing political stances and target audiences. Following the subject matter that has shaped the popular portrayal of the region the most, that is, the debate over slavery and its abolition in the region, I study these texts in two large chapters, which respectively focus on the proslavery texts by William Gilmore Simms and Lucy Holcombe Pickens and abolitionist narratives by William Wells Brown, Elizabeth D. Livermore, and Martin R. Delany. Admittedly, this categorization follows a similar binary logic to placing the South in opposition with the rest of the US. Yet, the diversity of spatial imaginations about the region present in these texts serves the exact opposite end. These imaginations do not only reveal the multifariousness of identities, affiliations, opinions, and sentiments within the seemingly monolithic stances pigeonholed under the umbrella categories of abolitionism and proslavery. Equally significantly, the spatial imaginations generated from various stances also attest to a diversity of understandings and visions about what constituted the antebellum South and what would become of it in the future, against the stereotypical and one-sided portrayals of the region.
None of these spatial imaginations stood in isolation. In juxtaposing these texts both with each other and other textual productions of their time, my book shows the parallels as well as divergences within as well as between each discursive cluster. It illustrates that, through allusions to the events and phenomena of the era with significant spatial implications such as the Haitian Revolution or the schemes of annexing Cuba, these texts engaged in dialogues with each other, and shaped and were shaped by various public discourses of the antebellum US. However, these references appeared with different connotations in each spatial imagination that these texts created. The Haitian Revolution, for instance, emerged both as an excuse for and an argument against Southern expansionism by invading other Caribbean islands in proslavery imaginations, and as a warning against or inspiration for a similar war of emancipation in US in abolitionist writings.
Perhaps the most important findings of my book are those pointing to the entanglements and networks beyond regional and national borders. Especially the American Hemisphere appears as a common point of reference in both abolitionist and proslavery spatial imaginations, although serving divergent ends. In Holcombe’s and Simms’s writings, the rest of the hemisphere offers spaces of potential territorial or political expansionism in discursive efforts to ensure the continuance of the slave economy both in the South of the US and in the hemisphere. In these imperialist visions, white Creoles and slaveholding classes of the Americas appear in entangled networks and form identities that at times were more significant than their identities as Americans or Southerners. For the abolitionist visions in Brown’s, Livermore’s, and Delany’s literature, especially the Circumcaribbean with its successful independence and emancipatory movements beginning with the US and Haiti becomes a space of inspiration for various visions of slave emancipation in the US South or a space of continuing revolution and resistance against oppressors, be they colonial powers or slaveholders. For instance, encompassing the South, the Circumcaribbean, in the spatial imagination that I discern in Delany’s famous novel Blake, points to overlapping spaces of a united Black nation that stood against the oppressive spatial networks of the slave economy.
Similarly, the Circumatlantic emerges as a common focus in the spatial imaginations found in the abolitionist narrative studied in my book, although it remains largely neglected in the proslavery ones. In the visions emerging in Brown’s and Delany’s writings, the Transatlantic experience of the slave trade unites the Black people of the Americas to Africa or renders the ocean a space of Black knowledge. The attentiveness to the entangled histories of colonization and slave trade in these narratives leads actors to seek solutions to the problem of slavery in the South similarly in Transatlantic contexts via abolitionist networks between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. In the spatial imagination produced in Northerner Livermore’s 1855 novel Zoë, the oceanic space divides the world into two poles: one inflicted by racist structures in the Americas and another that has freed itself from these in Europe. My book highlights that the abolitionist texts take the Atlantic as a space of high symbolic and historical significance both in building their arguments for slave emancipation and in positioning the South within the globe.
The findings of Imagining Southern Spaces allow for a positioning of the South as entwined in much larger spatial contexts than the established narratives on and representations of the region suggest. My book helps to position the region not only in the rather restricted spatial framework of the nation state but also within networks and entanglements beyond the region and the nation, hence situating the South on the globe. In this sense, it contributes to a transregional approach to the study of globalization processes. Moreover, my book reveals an array of spatial imaginations that define and signify the South in diverging ways and challenge the peripherality of the region by assigning it central roles. Hence, my book points to “the constructedness and plurality of the Souths against the essentialist otherings of the region” not only via the spatial imaginations that it studies but also by pointing to the existence of unstudied or undocumented ones.
 Natalie J. Ring, Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880–1930, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012, p. 6.
Deniz Bozkurt-Pekár is an independent postdoctoral researcher. She completed her PhD in American Studies at Leipzig University. Currently she is developing a research project on the recent history of literary entanglements between Eastern Central Europe and Turkey via translation within the conceptual framework of world literature.
Citation: Deniz Bozkurt-Pekár, Imagining Southern Spaces: Hemispheric and Transatlantic Souths in Antebellum US Writings, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27124.