Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South … here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.  Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave … Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered … A Civilization gone with the wind …

The preceding is the title card screen prologue to a 1939 epic film that was so tightly woven into the fabric of popular culture that no American of my generation, or the two generations that preceded it, could be unfamiliar with it. Its musical score was as imprinted upon our DNA as were any number of snippets of dialog, such as the frightened slave Prissy screeching “De Yankees is comin!,” the antihero Rhett Butler uttering the scornful retort, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and the manipulative vixen Scarlett herself, in the final scene, voicing an irrepressible optimism with “Tara! Home. I’ll go home … After all … tomorrow is another day.” Tara.  That was the storybook plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara, the locus for the romantic legend in the novel by Margaret Mitchell and its movie adaptation, that title card writ large in an imaginary dimension where gallant giants walked the earth and dutiful slaves like Mammy and Prissy lived in terror of invading Yankees instead of in gleeful anticipation of fleeing to freedom in their lines.  And much more than a classic movie, Gone with the Wind served as the most successful paean to the myth of the “Lost Cause” since Birth of a Nation, with less malevolence and a much larger and more enduring audience.

In her highly original, thought-provocative study, Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, Catherine Clinton walks back from the Tara of that iconic spectacle to its historical roots in an antebellum era erased by war that then spawned a revisionism that has not only stubbornly persisted but has seen a disturbing late renaissance as a similarly fanciful emergent heritage claimed by present-day right-wingers wrapped in Confederate flags. The current generation of the latter not only promotes the justice of rebellion, but even imagines tens of thousands of African-Americans garbed in gray and willingly wielding carbines to defend the Confederacy!

The scholarly consensus is that a narrow slice of elite planters committed to an expansion of slavery brought on the secession crisis and subsequent Civil War that resulted in the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans. The north at first put men at arms only to preserve the union, although emancipation later became a war aim. The south lost the war but in some sense won the peace. As Reconstruction gave way to “Redemption,” former Confederates regained control of the south and the freed African-Americans – who had enjoyed a brief period of near equal protection under the law – were terrorized, murdered and reduced to a second class status that persisted into the 1960s and beyond. The defeated promulgated a myth of the “Lost Cause” that rewrote history to claim that the conflict was about states’ rights rather than slavery, focused upon the depredations of Northern carpetbaggers, and especially upon the imagined threats of black men preying upon helpless white women.  The “Lost Cause” was the creation mythology of this post-war south, and its vast success can be measured by the fact that its tissue of lies managed to convert much of the north in the decades to come, as reconciliation turned into a universal goal and the institutionalized abuse of African-Americans was rarely even acknowledged.

In Tara Revisited, Clinton focuses upon the plantation legend that is integral to central elements of the “Lost Cause” myth and turns it on its head. While she acknowledges there were indeed women like Scarlett O’Hara from families of extreme wealth who lived on large plantations with many slaves and busied themselves with social dalliances, her cohort comprised the tiniest minority of antebellum southern women.  In fact, plantation life typically meant hard work and much responsibility even for affluent women.  More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Plantations like Tara probably accounted for less than ten percent of the total, which is why its persistence in Lost Cause plantation legend is so notable. As such, Clinton takes us on a tour of the real antebellum south and the real white women who inhabited it: typically wives and daughters with no slaves who had very modest means, deprived of husbands and fathers away at war while they struggled to survive. Some worked in manufacturing to support the war effort, some volunteered to care for the wounded, some served as spies – for both sides – but most focused simply on keeping themselves and their families alive in a time of little food and great deprivation. She also reveals those who are often invisible to history, enslaved African-American women who lived hand-to-mouth in lean and dangerous times, most of whom were unable to escape to Union lines yet eagerly anticipated a northern victory that would ensure their liberation. Masters tried to instill fear in their slaves about the coming blue marauders, but most blacks saw right through this; if there was a cry of “De Yankees is comin!” it was more likely to be in celebration than distress.

Clinton also traces the growth of the legend of “rose colored plantation life” from its roots in a kind of forbidden literary tradition dubbed “Confederate porn” [p203-04] that glorified whites while demeaning blacks, to its central public role within “Lost Cause” theology from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind and beyond. The living breathing cheerleaders of this fantasy are the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an organization founded in 1894 to celebrate Confederate culture that continues to thrive today.  It is no coincidence that there was both a rebirth of the “Lost Cause” and a resurgence of Confederate heritage during the Dixiecrat resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The controversial Stars & Bars that was recently removed from the South Carolina statehouse was only first raised in 1962 by the then governor to protest desegregation. Since 1965, the UDC has coordinated an annual “Massing of the Flag” ceremony in Richmond on Jefferson Davis’s birthday in which the participants pledge “I salute the Confederate flag, with affection, reverence and undying remembrance.” [p186] There is of course for us in 2016 something both disturbing and surreal about this event, which seems to lionize the forces of rebellion while dishonoring the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in blue who died to preserve the United States, not to mention the millions of African-Americans who were first enslaved beneath this flag and then terrorized and degraded by it for a century afterward.

Catherine Clinton, who is currently the Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has a long resume as a historian that goes back to the PhD from Princeton that she earned with the completion of her dissertation under the direction of eminent Civil War scholar James M. McPherson.  She wrote Tara Revisited in 1995, and I cannot help but wonder if she is at all surprised by yet another generational resurgence of the “Lost Cause” as an element of contemporary right-wing politics.

I recently screened Gone with the Wind on DVD. In retrospect, it is not really a very good film and it does not stand up well over time; the acting is often histrionic, the dialogue overwrought. It is dwarfed by other notable films of the same era.  Unlike those of my generation, most millennials have probably never seen it. Yet, there remains a stubborn resilience in the notion of Tara, as underscored by the ongoing popularity of pilgrimage weeks in the south, “in which plantations recreate the Old South with costumes and other trappings,” and, as the author articulately observes, “in many ways embalm a departed south that perhaps never lived outside Confederate imaginations.” [p187] As such, the central theme of this well-written and eclectic work retains its relevance today.  I highly recommend it.

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

11 thoughts on “Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton”

  1. I love Gone with the Wind perhaps in my mind the best movie ever made and judging by the massive celebrations held for its actors and director in the south and the north as well
    My feelings are not the only ones. I can’t help but think that a person of your thoughts on our history is very sad, today this country has more than apologize to the negro for the slave trade days and yet you and people like you constantly need to put down white people for olden days, you can change history it’s not possible all we can do to to make sure it never ever repeats and that has been done, we’re the only country that freely elected a negro president !!!! What more can we do ??? I’m tired of apologizing for being white, get off our backs and move forward once and for all.

    1. This may be the most bizarre comment that has ever been posted on one of my reviews, but I will attempt to reply to it as best I can. First of all, whether or not either of us loves or loathes the film “Gone With the Wind” is hardly the point of this fine book, which instead probes the myth of plantations in the old South and how that myth served as a foundation to justify both the institution of slavery and the long disenfranchisement of African Americans after the Civil War, something that only recently has not been a central component of American life, although racism lingers on and remains a burden on our culture, north and south. Of course you cannot change history, but you can make strides by recovering the truth of what occurred rather than basking in the false memories that still persist throughout many parts of the south today even as the sesquicentennial of the war’s end has come and gone. Rather than taking umbrage at the author’s thesis, you should treat this as an educational opportunity and do some research about the causes of the Civil War (Confederate states wanted to transplant slavery to the territories) and the terrible consequences for the enslaved who won freedom in the course of the war when ex-Confederates used terror (including widespread murder of blacks) to prevent them from exercising rights granted to them in the amendments to the Constitution. Finally, your use of the anachronistic term “negro” makes me wonder what era you are currently living in and whether you yourself have moved on from the bad old days of the 1950s and 1960s? And by the way, there have been plenty of black Presidents and Prime Ministers in the world; have you never heard of Nelson Mandela? One more thought: electing President Obama hardly expiates the sin of human chattel slavery and more than a century after that of segregation and oppression and the racism that still plagues us, but no one expects you to apologize for being white nor even for showing empathy to those who have suffered while walking among us in the land of the free, only to take the time to educate yourself as to what occurred and to set aside false legends of a south that really never existed; only then could we hope to, as you put it, “move forward once and for all.”

    2. Why is the offspring of one white parent and one black parent a “negro”? Because of slavery and the lingering racism that is its legacy. Skin color is just that: color, shades of color. We are all out of Africa, some more recently than others, some voluntarily, some forced by violence of the slave trade and imperialism.

  2. why are white liberals obsessed with slavery and the civil war? Maybe because it gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their self righteous indignation and to point out that anyone who doesn’t agree is ‘bizarre ‘ and needs to be educated. Move on yes. Liberals are naive to think that the Good will triumph if everyone just has the right information. Sorry to break it to you but ‘sin’ is not an aberration, it’s the norm. The history of humans is full of violence prejudice exploitation disagreements etc. Educate yourself

    1. This has nothing to do with liberal or conservative and current political persuasions. History–like science–is what it is: whether or not you want to accept it. Ignoring or denying history is the height of ignorance. As was noted long ago in Ken Burn’s “Civil War” series on TV, everything that is America today that we can celebrate or condemn is the result of the Civil War. A failure to recognize that is a failure to acknowledge reality and your role and responsibility as a citizen. Your argument is not with me nor this book nor this review nor the historical reality it is based upon, but rather your unwillingness–for whatever reason–to come to terms with it. Rather than snarky rebukes, your time would be better spent researching and reading. There’s a lot of material out there. When you are done, then I welcome you to return with a responsible counterpoint.

    2. While I do not always agree with Regarp’s reviews, I do agree with him on this. I believe that Elis Bergier and Laura James need to either (a) go back to school or (b) at least do some reading that is not influenced by the Lost Causers.

      I am a white Conservative and I am, as Elis might think, “obsessed with the Civil War and slavery.” Regarp was not saying that Laura was “bizarre.” What he was saying was that she (and now it seems Elis) is wrong.

      But beyond that, I am having a bit of a problem figuring out exactly what Elis is saying. I think he must have posted his remark on the wrong thread, because it has nothing to do with anything here.

  3. You are a condescending white liberal. Ken Burns?! How ‘bout a TED talk? “History is what it is”? History is interpretation; there are various interpretations, lots of ‘historical realities.’ If you think that “Everything that is America today…is the result of the Civil War” then you have disqualified yourself and confirmed my suspicion that you are obsessed and your understanding is simplistic.

    1. I recommend reading history. I think you have missed a lot. It’s not too late. Turn off FOX NEWS and pick up a book …

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