The savage South: Reflections on an image



24 May 2012

This talk by University of North Carolina Professor of English, Fred Hobson, examined the prevailing image of the US South from colonial days of the 17th and 18th centuries forward, as the backward, violent, uncivilized and generally benighted part of the United States.

The image is grounded to a certain extent in reality: the South still tops US surveys in homicides, poverty, inadequate educational standards, and so forth. And in the beginning the image focused on several conditions within the southern colonies (after 1776, states), most notably slavery and its abuses, but even here things were more complicated than they might seem. Was it slavery or, in great part, simply the presence of blacks in the South to which Northerners (themselves firm believers in white supremacy, after all) objected?

Other elements also helped to define a benighted South - an oppressive climate, tropical diseases, sloth, poverty, anti-intellectualism, a lack of organised religion (particularly in the backcountry), and so forth.

With the abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s the image of the South grew even worse. In the 20th century the image remained, although with several modifications: the antebellum South, for example, had been seen as irreligious; the South of the 1920s, however, was faulted for being excessively religious, or at least religious in the wrong way.

Professor Hobson will be dealing with the changing nature of perceived southern savagery (and, among other things, the contributions of the South's writers to that image), a perception that is still with us in the early 21st century.