Plantation Tradition in Local Color Fiction
Regionalism and Local Color Bibliography
The term “plantation tradition” applies to works that look back nostalgically to the times before the Civil War, before the “Lost Cause” of the Southern Confederacy was lost, as a time when an idealized, well-ordered agrarian world and its people held certain values in common, among them chivalry toward women, courage, integrity, and honorable conduct among gentlemen, and pride in and loyalty toward one’s region. Works in this tradition employed the metaphor of a plantation “family” with white and African American members, all of whom felt deep bonds of loyalty to one another, with the white master as the head of this patriarchal system. In keeping with its hierarchical ideals, stories of this tradition frequently portrayed African Americans as happier and better off under slavery than they would be (or, later, were) if they were free. Within this system exists the racist stereotype of the “happy darky.”
According to Amy Kaplan’s “Nation, Region, and Empire” (Columbia History of the American Novel [New York: Columbia U P, 1991]: 240-266), the “plantation tradition” that romanticized slavery was invented by Thomas Nelson Page. Page’s In Ole Virginia (1887) was “a collection of dialect stories narrated by a faithful ex-slave who reminisces nostalgically about ‘dem good ole times'” (244).
As Kenneth Warren explains the function of the tradition in Black and White Strangers, “The happy-go-lucky darky images of the antebellum South could be contrasted favorably to the images of impoverished, potentially dangerous blacks of post-Reconstruction. Such contrasts were staples of plantation fiction and minstrelsy, both of which were going strong through the 1890s. The needs fulfilled by these images were not solely racial: ‘For many white audiences the black African was the creature of a pre-industrial life style with a pre-industrial appetite,’ allowing whites to indulge their nostalgia for a lifestyle that was no longer available to them as they congregated in urban centers. The promise of black America was an assurance that old ways andold pleasures were recuperable. Of course the old ways were beyond recovery” (119).
See also “Regionalism and Local Color in the South” at the University of North Carolina.
Setting: The “ruined plantation,” a site of desolation and loss. Through the tale, the plantation is reconstructed as an Edenic spot in slavery times for masters and slaves alike. The plantation may be now overgrown and destroyed by the mercantile north. As in other local color fiction, the golden age of the past contrasts with a present of loss and desolation.Characters: The tale is often told by an ex-slave who reminisces fondly about the bravery, kindness, and aristocracy of his owners and fondly recalls the rituals of life before the war.Practitioners
Early to Mid-century
George Tucker, The Valley of the Shenandoah (1824)
John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870), The Swallow Barn (1832), although he later supported the Union cause during the Civil War in Mr. Ambrose’s Letters on the Rebellion (1865).
Caroline Lee Hentz (1800-1856), Linda; or the Young Pilot of the Belle Creole. A Tale of Southern Life (1850);The Planter’s Northern Bride (1857).
Late Nineteenth Century
Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922), In Ole Virginia, or Marse Chan and Other Stories. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895 . See especially “Marse Chan,” a story frequently anthologized, and Social Life in Old Virginia before the War (1887)
Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1881) and several other collections of Uncle Remus stories. The frame stories–an elderly African-American narrator telling tales to a young white boy–recall the plantation tradition, but the tales themselves, which are based on black folktales, are frequently subversive of the tradition. Harris’s “Free Joe and the Rest of the World”is a clear example of this tradition.
Thomas Dixon (1864-1946). The best-known examples of his more than twenty novels– The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907)–represent his racist and extremely conservative political views; the middle volume of this trilogy, The Clansman, is the basis for D. W. Griffith’s 1915 epic motion picture The Birth of a Nation.
James Battle Avirett, The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin Before the War (1901; memoir)
Prominent African-American writers such as Charles W. Chesnutt and Frances E. W. Harper demythologize and satirize portions of the “plantation tradition” in their works.. See especially Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine,” the first story published by an African American in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine (1887), and the stories in his The ConjureWoman (1899).