The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, JULY 10, 1938
Fanny Kemble's Prejudices:
This Lady Belittled Us
--About An Actress, by W. J. Cash
I HOPE that Margaret Armstrong's "Fanny Kemble," which I haven't read yet and maybe won't read, sets all its little readers (it is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection) to looking up and reading the book Fanny published in London in 1863--"A Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-39."
It was a kind of funny place for a girl who had been playing Sheridan's Julia to thundering applause in London to turn up--a vast plantation on an island off the Georgia coast. But Fanny had come to Philadelphia to give the provincials a treat and take home some of the vulgar American jack which the Kembles, despite their great theatrical success, were somehow always in need of, and there ran into handsome Mr. Pierce Butler, lord baron of the island in question. He was no such scoundrel as Mr. Rhett Butler, but in other ways he was plainly akin to him. And poor Fanny, once set up as the great lady of that island fief of fields and swamps and niggers, speedily began to discover that so far as getting a husband whose mind could be made to fit with her own, she might just as well have married one of the douzepers of Charlemagne's realm or the generic Aurignacian man.
That bewildered and infuriated her. And her bewilderment and fury got into her book. What got into her book, too, was the apriori hatred of slavery which was native to the smug scientific-humanitarian-sentimental 19th century mind as it flourished in England at the time--a mind of which her own was simply a sort of dim mirroring. More than that, Fanny, when she published the book the year of Gettysburg, was grimly doing her best in London (having by that time long since divorced Husband Butler and fled back home) to help the damyankees win the Civil War. And there is plenty of evidence that she was no more scrupulous than women should be, so that it is fair enough to suspect that she may have touched up her account here and there.
I'LL tell you at once that if you are the sort of person who insists on believing that it's true about Dixie, Fanny's journal will make you awfully mad sometimes. But that will probably be an excellent thing for the health of your mind and soul. And it makes interesting reading, for the lady was nothing if not dramatic.
As a matter of fact, the book, granting all its faults, has always seemed to me to be the best of all the accounts of the South written by travelers or sojourners from foreign countries or Yankeedom in the years before the Civil War--save only perhaps those of that busy South-baiter, Frederick Law Olmstead. For a true picture, it is always best to go to somebody who doesn't like you rather than to some drooling admirer. And if Fanny is smug and sentimental and falsely scientific and humane, why, then all these things in her version of them are perfect antidote to a kind of smugness, sentimentality, false science and false humanity which has always been and remains the curse of the South.
Suppose she does paint you in the Old South as damnable? Why, what else, after you have thrown away all the exaggerations and fictions which she, like Dickens in his "American Notes," painted over her statements,--what else do you suppose slavery in the old South was but damnable? Mrs. Stowe didn't invent Uncle Tom. The South invented him. And Christie, the minstrel king, didn't invent Jim Crow, the high-yi-ing, heel-flinging happy jack coon of the levees. The South invented him. And it invented these characters as defense mechanisms against its own terribly uneasy conscience before slavery. More, through the years, it has carefully collected all the available instances of happy relations between superior white men and the slaves in their houses--all the instances that fitted with these defense-mechanism creations--and out of that and out of the wonderful capacity of the coon to mime the roles assigned him, has woven a garment of smug and sentimental vision of slavery in the Old South, which is one of the hardest things in the world to get past, and which gets into presumably sober books like Philips' "American Slavery."
But what do you suppose happened to the field coons, the great majority of them, assigned to the mercies of overseers? or to those who belonged to hard, crude, pushing white men? And there were plenty of such men among Southern planters. Strip away all the nonsense, and, I haven't a doubt, it is still true that, by and large, slavery was pretty damnable in the Old South. If you don't believe that go down and look at the shot-gun houses in which they live in Charlotte sometime. All that you will see there, all that Dr. Shipp has so eloquently celebrated, is, in the last analysis, the heritage of slavery. And, when you look at that, do you still think you get on, as a Southerner, to snoot at Mussolini's manners with the Ethiopians? If so, then maybe Fanny will help to readjust your sense of values.
Ah, but Fanny made the Southern country out, not to be full of grand mansions and stately ladies and gentlemen and a large and gracious life, but houses that, even when they were big, were less than habitable, people full of gaucheries and pretensions, and of loneliness and woeful pines and red bugs. And lied in her throat? No doubt.
STILL, the girl had been around. She knew both the great world of fashion and the literary and arty sets of London. Perhaps no other traveler of the time was really more fit to judge about this sort of thing. And I, for my part, believe, that she was pretty nearly right when she argued that there is no development of civilization here which would justify the price which was being paid for it in slavery. The Old South was mainly lonely and full of pines and red bugs. It had a few mansions, judging by fairly modest standards, but most of its "big houses" were simply draughty farm houses and boxes fitted with columns. And its ladies and gentlemen were mainly only one or two generations removed from the frontiersmen and, in reality, were pretty provincial and crude.
I hope you are mad enough to read the book now. Whether it is in the Charlotte Public Library I don't know. But the University Library at Chapel Hill has it. And I think it might be persuaded to lend it to you, if you can convince the authorities that you won't burn it in your fury.
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