American Culture

ArtSunday: A mind of the South – Thomas Nelson Page’s In Ole Virginia

Cover, In Ole Virginia by Thomas Nelson Page (courtesy Goodreads)

I was in a local antique shop a few weeks ago and came across, lying on a school desk from the 1940′s, a small volume with slight water damage. I picked it up (as I am wont to do with any book – call it a mild form of OCD) to discover upon leafing through it that I’d found a first edition of one of the classics of Southern local color – a book I’d last read in the early 1980′s as I prepared for my doctoral exams in Southern Studies: In Ole Virginia by Thomas Nelson Page. The dealer wanted too much for it, and, even after haggling and getting a 15% discount, I knew I’d be paying too much given the book’s condition. Of course I bought it and it leaped to the top of the extended 2013 reading list.

It is a work emblematic of how Southerners like to delude themselves and what our region’s greatest writers, both black and white, have had to overcome to present, against considerable opposition, some kind of truth about Dixie®. It’s a book that needs to be disseminated, discussed, and deconstructed.

The period after Reconstruction is sometimes referred to as the Reconciliation. Memoirs of the conflict (those of Grant and Sherman are celebrated), hagiographic biographies of war heroes (the most famous are those of Lee and Jackson), and, oddly, romanticizations of life “before the late unpleasantness” – as a horrific war that killed 600,000 was termed – were all part of the media’s treatment of the Civil War (as it was known in the North; in the South the preferred term was “War Between the States” – an abstraction designed to distance the South from its own history as much as anything else). These “romances,” whether  celebrations of the plantation system slavocracy like Page’s, sentimentalizations of African-American wisdom like Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, or, slightly later, revisionist historical fiction like Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, served a singular purpose: they excused and justified Southern behaviors, however heinous, before, during, and after the Civil War.

The most famous of the In Ole Virginia stories, “Marse Chan,” is part and parcel of that attempt at reconciliation by mythologization. It is a local color tale of a Virginia planter’s son who goes off to serve the Old Dominion as a Confederate officer and is killed in a heroic charge against an artillery battery. It has all the elements of “Reconciliation” literature: idyllic descriptions of plantation life before the war; the noble Southern aristocrat acting from lofty motives in circumstances forced upon him by “outside forces” (read damned Yankees); and apologia pro vita sua for the Southern system. The kicker? The entire tale is written in a phonetic dialect (explained by the author in a note at the book’s beginning) and the narrator is the late Marse Chan’s former body servant whose mournful sentiment for the loss of his owner borders on the masochistic. It is as perfect in its own way as is John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn – a complete fabrication presented as social history to achieve a political goal.

There are other tales in this volume. “Meh Lady: A Story of the War” and “Polly: A Christmas Recollection” are tales of star crossed lovers with sad and happy endings, respectively. “Ole ‘Stracted” and “No Haid Pawn” are melodramas with elements of the supernatural.  References to noble planter-aristocrats, ignorant – and therefore blissfully happy – slaves/former slaves, and that ever present evil of the post-War South “white trash” (read carpetbaggers) abound. And whether related in “dialect” (if the depiction of speech in a way that degrades people can be considered an acceptable literary device) or written (with all the pomposity of one who has clearly taken Irving and Fenimore Cooper as his literary masters) in Page’s natural style, the aim is the same: the promotion of a vision of the South as a noble and innocent region, far more charming than benighted.

Page’s dedication reads: “To My People: This fragmentary record of their life is dedicated.” In Ole Virginia is a record, to be sure, and it is fragmentary; the problem is that as a record it is inaccurate and the fragment it chooses to preserve is, at best idealized, at worst, imaginary. Still, it is a record that we should acknowledge and be sure we understand – a record of delusion, deception, and disinformation.