Reading Jack Temple Kirby’s “Media-Made Dixie” (1986)

Historian Jack Temple Kirby’s 1986 book Media-Made Dixie focuses on how the overall image of the South, including the South’s own understanding of itself,  was created, to some extent, by portrayals in fiction, drama, film, television, music, and other popular media. The cover features the family photo from the TV show The Waltons – who could forget John Boy? – which aired from 1972 to 1981 and showed us the lives of a rural Virginia family during the Depression. Though the most of the book covers time periods that precede the scope of this project, reviewing those earlier images do lead to a better understanding of how modern myths and narratives since the 1970s are undergirded by images that already existed. 

Kirby’s subtitle here is “The South in the American Imagination,” and his approach to the subject is different from the approach of Nobody’s Home, which considers beliefs, myths, and narratives not as the products of scholarship but as the result of multitudinous everyday conversations among ordinary people— folklore. Kirby explains in his preface: 

Pervading scholarship is an assumption that once the generation involved in an event has passed on, scholars control communication and understanding about the event. These historians have constructed without serious reflection or criticism a pyramidal model representing the transmission of historical knowledge: At prestigious history departments hypothesizing dons develop research and publish monographs and syntheses that break interpretive barriers.

I am more interested in how beliefs and narratives come from a constant, ongoing bottom-up reification of ideas, which inevitably includes evolutionary changes. Kirby describes more of a top-down endeavor, in which university-level scholars take up the mantle by interpreting events from those who leave them behind. The purpose then is crafting the understanding that gets perpetuated. Kirby and I might be arriving in the same place via different roads.

It is also important to share another section of Kirby’s preface, where he informs us clearly of what he’ll be covering:

. . . the main object of inquiry— popular historical images of the South since the advent of feature movies and annual bestseller lists. The object of this study is first simply to survey this imagery in mass communication media: films, bestselling fiction, documentary books and films, popular (i.e. nonacademic) histories, school texts, music, and television. Some attention is also given to radio, drama, sports, and to advertising through the printed and television media.

This seems cut-and-dried, though a massive subject for a relatively small book. But there is one extra thing to be aware of, as one begins reading: “by South,” he writes, “I mean the white majority. ” Because he is dealing with popular conceptions, not actual realities, the book will take that primary focus since “Americans typically intend southerner as descriptive of whites only.” (Remember, this was 1986.)

Chapter one begins – where else? – with DW Griffith, the maker of Birth of a Nation and the son of a Confederate veteran, and we also meet a man less familiar in modern circles: Columbia University professor William A Dunning, a “northern man of southern sentiments who believed that an objective, ‘balanced’ history of the Civil War era required the southern white point of view.” The way Kirby handles these two men, both were brilliant in their respective fields in addition to being pro-Southern, conservative, and racist. Griffith’s film and Dunning’s scholarship set up the model for interpreting the Civil War this way: “North-South reconciliation at the expense of blacks” and “Dixie as a superior breeding ground for physical courage.” This kind of Lost Cause mythology prevailed for a long time but is currently the target of many scholars, activists, and leaders who prefer a more well-rounded, fact-based approach.

Next, we meet Claude Bowers, who “never went to college but wrote a shelf full of histories.” According to Kirby, “more than anyone he educated Americans on their early national period,” yet was one of many such writers who “rewrote” the history that they believed had been written to serve Northern economic and cultural interests. Bowers was a guy who “shared with his white contemporaries a swelling generosity towards Dixie” and who believed that we should “overcome bitterness, recognize the manly heroism of the rebels, and celebrate the new nationalism forged by the war and its aftermath.”

With Griffith, Dunning, and Bowers in the rearview mirror, Kirby then moves into a three-pronged examination of the early to mid-20th century South: “The Embarrassing New South” in chapter three, “The Grand Old South” in chapter four, and “The Visceral South” in chapter five. The first of the three sees a marked shift in portrayals of the region, after a relative dry spell: “From 1916 through 1928, not a single book on a southern subject appeared on annual best seller lists.” What emerged from that drought was a not a continued canonization of cavaliers and belles, but a degraded people worn down by poverty and moral destitution. The discussion includes the book-turned-film Cabin in the Cotton, as well as the novels of William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. Kirby then moves his attention, in chapter four, to another version of the South:

The quasi-Marxist, liberal-chic intellectualism of the late twenties and thirties, then, reinforced the embarrassing New South-grand Old South dichotomy. The mass-media managers, especially moviemakers, experimented as usual with genre, and discovered for themselves the cash power of that grand Old South.

This was the South of Gone with the Wind— the money-making image of the South in film and fiction, which required a disposal of the harsher realities to focus on carefree happiness and/or deeply involved drama. Finally, in chapter five, Kirby examines a third perspective. Here, he steps outside of the dichotomy to discuss WJ Cash’s The Mind of the South, the country music of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers, and the plays of Tennessee Williams— all counterbalances to outsiders’ notions of a “southern ‘laziness'” that produces “happiness and at least the species of peace that lobotomies bring.” 

Chapter six, then, moves solidly into the middle 20th century with a collection of examples and ideas that involve portrayals of race and African Americans. We learn about the movie industry’s connection to images of the South: “Thirty percent of American movie houses were located in the south, and Hollywood business people believed the ‘southern market’ could make or break a movie.” This fact is built into a discussions of race relations, demagoguery, and “negrophobia,” and reading it, I thought about how Hollywood maintained its imagery for the same reason that 19th- and early 20th-century Democrats let slavery and then Jim Crow go on unabated— you’ll lose Southern support if you make an issue of it, so let it be and keep their support. Here, Kirby discusses the movies Pinky and Carmen Jones before moving on to novelists Frank Yerby and Harper Lee.

Next, in “The Devilish South,” we see the Civil Rights era through a different lens. Kirby opens by mentioning race-focused historical and sociological publications by Gunnar Myrdal, C. Vann Woodward, and Kenneth Stampp as an introduction. But most people weren’t reading those works, they were seeing movies, and . . . 

Hollywood, in the meantime, moved very slowly toward a development of the neoabolitionist genre. The break with the Old South sentimentalist tradition which had sold so many movie tickets was difficult.

But 1950s Hollywood did produce films that moved beyond Gone with the Wind stereotypes: Band of Angels, Mandingo, and The Defiant Ones. These stories may have provoked more questions than they provided answers, but it was a shift in what Hollywood was showing to America, which pointed the way to movies Nothing but a Man and Slaves in the 1960s. To end the chapter, Kirby spends a good bit of space on white novelist William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which was based on a real man from a 1830s slave revolt. Styron’s heavily psychological narrative both uses historical facts and makes big assumptions about what this man would have been thinking and feeling. His approach, coupled with the time the novel was published, led to a great deal of controversy— some calling it a thought-provoking work that encouraged “soul-searching” among white people, others deriding it as wrongheaded and downright racist. 

By the last two chapters, eight and nine, Kirby has moved into the time period covered by Nobody’s Home. Chapter eight, titled “Dixie Redux and Demise,” finds the South in the post-Civil Rights 1970s, when yet another type of imagery will become associated with it: advertising that used Southern imagery as symbolism for what is down-home and relaxing. This is a far cry from what Americans had just seen on TV for more than a decade, with racist whites using firehoses, dogs, beatings, lynchings, and bombs to combat racial equality.  Yet, Kirby writes, “the message about the region was clear: the white South represents home, family, good old values.”  Instead of Bull Connor or Selma, think Kentucky Fried Chicken or Andy Griffith.

According to Kirby, many blacks also bought into this image and this idea that things had changed. He writes about a Gallup poll that found about half of American blacks and about two-thirds of Southern blacks believed that “the South is better for blacks.” Attitudes among white Americans (including some Southerners) about the truths of history were changing, certainly, but not into a complete regard for the truth.  Kirby refers to a 1974 book titled Time on the Cross that showed how most Southern whites now believed that slavery was simply an economic system whose negative effects on enslaved people was an unfortunate side-effect. Other myths that were commonly held included a denial that sexual exploitation of enslaved women was commonplace and an insistence that enslaved men were respected as heads of household in nuclear families.

On TV and in film, these mixed messages thrived. On the one hand, there were The Waltons, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Andy Griffith Show, which showed the South as a harmless, albeit quirky place where tensions were mild. On the other hand, there were movies like Sounder, tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . , and The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones that showed inequality, racism, injustice, and hate in clear terms. Yet neither of those groupings would contain other people and works that Kirby mentions: the violent revenge film Walking Tall, the enlightened-white Conrack,  and the often-unorthodox stylings of non-Nashville, often hippie-inspired country acts like Kris Kristofferson and David Allen Coe. If those example aren’t enough to give a someone socio-historical whiplash, the chapter closes with brief discussions of the movies Nashville (a “three-hour-long bore”) and Deliverance, which is of course famous for its homosexual rape scene. In the chapter’s final paragraph, Kirby calls the South:

a media colony, an elsewhere for the American majority’s amusement or negative example. Some Southerners have capitalized upon the imagery, reifying at times the most outrageous stereotypes. Yet colonials they remained, along with those of us who chafed and snarled at imperial manipulations.

He closes by stating that, when the North finally accepted the South as its own region, which occurred at least in part due to this stream of imagery, then the South “died” . . . but not completely.

Chapter nine gives Kirby’s answer to question, If it died, then what? Remembering that the book was published thirty-six years ago, Kirby somewhat-dated summation is that modern mass media, now deeply ingrained in American culture, now has a full bag from which to pull images and tropes that viewers and readers will recognize and accept. He begins with the Dukes of Hazzard, which he tells us is a comedic combination of Tobacco Road and Thunder Road. In discussing Roots, he puts it in a context of how research and marketing have to meet in the middle to turn something true into something palatable. Later, he refers to President Jimmy Carter as “John-Boy Walton all grown up. Or better – considering his political partnership with blacks – he was a magisterial ‘Conrack.”” 

But now, in the mid-1980s, we’re still in that place where wildly disparate images form a whole variety of myths and beliefs about the South, even within the South itself. In Atlanta, there’s the big shot Ted Turner who has produced a distinctly Southern television network. At the movies, we could see an Army sergeant face off with a corrupt small-town sheriff in Tank or a desperate farming family’s struggle against nature in Places in the Heart. At the chapter ends, Kirby gives space the farming-focused Country and The River, neither of which has maintained its popularity, and finally, The Color Purple, which he defends vigorously. Ultimately, there is this:

This is, I believe, the emerging message of the South in the eighties: reconciliation within and without, between regions, races, and sexes. Reconciliation does not mean bland homogeneity, amalgamization, or passionless androgyny. It is merely a sure step towards every sane person’s goal on this earth. Heaven, it has been said, can wait. 

You can also read the editor’s blog on another of Jack Temple Kirby’s books, The Countercultural South.

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