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Imperfectly Imperial: Northern Travel Writers in the Postbellum U.S. South, 1865–1880

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Travel accounts of the Reconstruction U.S. South (1865–1880) played a formative role in the process of determining where the region fit within the nation-state after the Civil War. Postbellum travel narratives by northern men and women, in particular, dealt with the South's contradictory placement as both an occupied territory of the North/nation and part of the national body itself through a discourse of imperialism that translated a North-South regional binary into a colonizer-colonized distinction and framed the South as an imperial holding of the U.S. This article uses postcolonial studies and postcolonial geographies of North America to examine three textual themes that sustained this imperial framing of the South within northern travel narratives: discourses of civilization, descriptions of nature, and discussions of whiteness. The first two themes bolstered northern travelers' positioning of the South as an imperial holding, although gender contoured how northern travelers participated in a civilizing mission directed toward newly emancipated African Americans and how easily these travelers assumed the role of imperial explorer in rural and marginal southern sites. By contrast, white rural poverty in the postbellum South, through its simultaneous racial similarity to and class difference from white northern travelers, problematized a clean separation of North from South and highlighted the imperfections and contradictions of the postbellum South as an imperial holding of the North/nation. This article argues for more critical attention to the production of southern difference in the mid-nineteenth century and the postbellum South's place in relation to future American imperial projects.
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Keywords: American South; gender; postcolonial studies; travel writing; whiteness

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography, Syracuse University

Publication date: 2005-06-01

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