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Antebellum, Inc: Hollywood and the Construction of Southern Identity, 1920–1940


During the first half of the twentieth century, Americans understood the history of the south as singularly significant in the construction of the modern U.S. nation-state, due to an intense revival of popular interest in the Civil War, the development of a public discourse around the socio-political idea of the “New South”, and a cultural zeitgeist that valued both nostalgia and authenticity. “Antebellum, Inc.: Hollywood and the Construction of Southern Identity, 1920 - 1940” explores the process by which Hollywood crafted a mainstream socio-political narrative of “the south”, by using what I describe as the southern genre of film as the primary lens to understand the formation of a collective cultural knowledge and historical memory of that region. American audiences eagerly consumed the fictionalized antebellum and gothic narratives that were a hallmark of the southern genre, as evidenced by the popularity of Faulkner as a screenwriter, and the watershed moment in popular culture that occurred around release of GONE WITH THE WIND’s 1940 film adaption. Crucially, that interest extended beyond the movie theatre, as Americans also engaged in discoursing about distinctly contemporary “southern” issues, like prison chain gang labor, and a partial and unjust court system. The southern genre was crafted through the cooperation of producers (film studios), consumers (audiences), and interpreters (academics), and “Antebellum, Inc.” evinces its parameters by pressing the primary source material to reveal a mutually-dependent relationship between movie studios, audiences and scholars. The repercussions of this national moment, and of the southern genre, have been retained in the way Americans talk about the south and southerners as homogenized, anachronistic, and predictable while still seeming strange, unknowable, and just foreign enough to be palpably different and separate from the rest of the Union.

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