Culture  /  Retrieval

Specters of the Mythic South

How plantation fiction fixed ghost stories to Black Americans.

One white Virginian surmised that Black children were born with a fear of ghosts because their parents told them ghost stories every night. Another white writer said that the belief in the supernatural was so strong among Black households that removing the “restraining hand of the white man and the influences of Christianity” from the Black community would result in their “relapse into barbarism” and renewed practice of “voudouism, witchcraft and other superstitions” that were, he argued, “characteristic of their African ancestry.” As these ideas were firmly established in scholarship and within the culture, white Americans equated their knowledge of Black culture, and their own ability to take in superstitious ideas without adopting them, as a sign of their perfectly brotherly, if not paternalistic, relationship with Black Americans.

The New South’s Old Ghosts

Nowhere was this clearer than in the pages of the popular plantation fiction that redefined the antebellum South as a land of myth and fantasy. In the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction, white southern leaders were eager to reframe and redefine the region. Business boosters knew that postwar violence had created instability and made investment in the region seem riskier. To combat the perception of unprofitable chaos, they dedicated themselves to the South’s present and future potential. In 1886, journalist Henry Grady proposed the region move beyond the antebellum world of “agriculture and slavery” and embrace a “New South” of “diversified industry.” The rural economy held only memories of slavery and the war for Grady. He assured listeners that the South had “nothing for which to apologize” and “nothing to take back,” that it was “enamored” with its “new work” far more than the old. In place of the old rural planation order, Grady’s New South was stronger, “less splendid,” and urban, like a living symbol of the Protestant work ethic. Boosters agreed and tried to will southern metropolises into being by making them out to be new promised lands of able and willing workers.

The majority of popular southern writers had a different plan. At the same time businessmen were trying to create an urban South, writers like Thomas Nelson Page, John Pendleton Kennedy, Marion Harland, and Joel Chandler Harris produced story after story treating readers to aristocratic tales of love, adventure, and peril set in the old rural South. While writers like Charles W. Chesnutt and George Washington Cable pushed back against this depiction in their writing, most stories coming from southern writers promoted and spread the Lost Cause mythology. By and large, they depicted the antebellum world as outdated but unproblematic, transforming the Civil War into a battle between tradition and progress. Avoiding discussion of either side’s morality, popular plantation fiction promoted interpretations of the past that allowed white northerners and white southerners to come together in fantasizing about the lives and adventures of the noble American gentry, the few wicked planters, and their dedicated and amiable enslaved sidekicks.