When mammy left missus : the southern lady in the house divided
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Since Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1972), Southern social historians have written extensively on the mammy/missus dyad in the antebellum American South. This dissertation rereads the diaries, memoirs, and fictions of black and white women of the Civil War South using literary and rhetorical analysis. Representation—how women lived with and against powerful cultural images of Southern womanhood—figures largely in this work; women forged narratives from the cultural stories available to them. Southern white women of this period lived with the representation of the Southern lady and her mammy, which tried to bind them together in a story of romance, a happy story of the Big House. Northern abolitionists and fugitive slaves contested this representation, reversing it from romance to gothic, a ghost story of the house divided. Elite Southern women like Mary Boykin Chesnut attempted in their postwar revised diaries to recuperate the Southern lady; but competing stories of sexual transgression undermined their ideas of honor and chivalry. Other postwar narratives by ex-slaves like Elizabeth Keckley adopted the representation of the virtuous lady as their own, making themselves equal with their mistresses. Caroline Seabury, a Northern white woman in the South, recognized that for women without status or women of color, there was no American romance—a point reiterated by Susie King Taylor, an ex-slave who worried in her turn-of-the century memoir that black people were still struggling to attain equal rights. Powerful stories of mammy and missus persist in our culture, and as we continue to read their works, we sense them rubbing up against one another, shifting and changing, such that the Southern Waverly has given way to the House of Usher. No longer romance or gothic, it seems some hybrid genre, a story of profound complexity still painful to read. When we read their story now, how do we image mammy and missus—together or apart, loving or hating? And how did it end? Did mammy leave missus happy or sad?
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