Reframing the plantation house: preservation critique in Southern literature

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Cynthia Montgomery Webb (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Scott Romine

Abstract: This dissertation contextualizes southern narrative critiques of plantation house preservation through the historic preservation movement, from its precursory development in the 1930s through today. Examining literary representations of plantation houses as historic relics in the contemporary moment, I demonstrate how a range of twentieth- and twenty-first century southern writers critique or challenge its architectural preservation. The southern plantation house has been coded in American popular culture as an exemplar of architectural heritage and a symbol of southern history, both of which beckon its preservation. Various modes of preservation, from nineteenth-century plantation fiction’s reminiscence of family homes and heroes to twenty-first century’s thriving tourism industry, figure the plantation owner’s house in romanticized ways that celebrate its architectural aesthetics, present its history through a narrow register of racial relations, and promote its nostalgic embrace. I argue that against prevailing tendencies toward various uncritical ethos of preservation, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Alice Randall, Attica Locke, Allan Gurganus, and Godfrey Cheshire reframe the plantation house within complex historical and cultural contexts that counter the developing historic preservation movement’s popular following by illuminating the mythologies undergirding the iconic white-columned architecture and their perpetuation through its preservation. Through an interdisciplinary approach, Reframing the Plantation House combines architectural history, historic preservation, and a significant level of textual literary analysis to reveal counter-narratives that unsettle an assumed historical integrity and cultural significance associated with extant plantation houses. Beginning in the 1930s with the first federal initiatives to preserve architectural heritage as a precursor to the preservation movement, I argue that Faulkner’s narratives reframe ruined plantation mansions within historical and cultural contexts that substantiate their ruination and abandonment. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 heralded piquing restoration sentiments and popular historicism. Against this cultural drive, I argue that Walker Percy aligned plantation house restoration and the desire for historical authenticity with parodic fantasy. Slave histories have been predominantly silenced in plantation mythology and tourism. Contemporary writers Alice Randall and Attica Locke each address this selective history as I argue that they reinscribe symbols of slave history within plantation architectures and narratives. An enduring desire to preserve the plantation house without also preserving the traumas of slavery remains today, which Allan Gurganus and Godfrey Cheshire illustrate and attempt to remedy through narrative.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2015
Historic preservation, Language, Literature and linguistics, Plantation architecture, Southern literature
American literature $z Southern States $x History and criticism
American literature $y 20th century $x History and criticism
American literature $y 21st century $x History and criticism
Southern States $x In literature
Plantations in literature
Architecture in literature
Historic preservation $z Southern States

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