Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Granting Department
Julia Irwin, Ph.D.
K. Stephen Prince, Ph.D.
Brian Connolly, Ph.D.
Rana Hogarth, Ph.D.
Memphis, New Orleans, belonging, cultural history, Redemption
The Suffering South offers a cultural history of a yellow fever epidemic that swept through the Mississippi Valley in 1878. It argues that the yellow fever narratives created during this epidemic constituted a discursive attempt by Southerners to renegotiate Southern identity and social hierarchy following the Civil War and Reconstruction. White Southerners, in particular, used the epidemic as an occasion to foster a return to a more traditional foundation of white supremacy and patriarchy as the basis for Southern identity and belonging. The narratives written by these Southerners, in which they described their experiences with yellow fever and the effects of its epidemic ravages, thereby illustrate an explicit attempt to culturally redeem the South following the successful political Redemption of the region.
Using themes and stock characterizations of heroes and villains that would have been readily familiar to a generation of Southerners who had lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, these narratives presented the idealized Southerner as white and male. In turn, they castigated non-native outsiders, racial and ethnic minorities, and women who went outside of the prescribed social norms of their race, class, or gender. These narratives also acted to justify the racial disparity in the distribution of the relief generated by the national humanitarian response to the epidemic’s incredible scope and severity. In doing so, Democratic Redeemers directed money, medical attention, and rations away from African American communities in the South as evidence of their belief that these Southerners did not deserve equal access to aid as a right of citizenship. Finally, the memory of the epidemic continues to rely on these traditional primary sources which present the experience of yellow fever in 1878 through the written memories of white Southerners. The efforts to solidify the patriarchal, white-supremacist basis for Southern identity and belonging implicit in these sources continues to effect the historical narrative presented in commemorations and official histories.
Yellow fever can be understood, then, not only as a physiological disease, but as a cultural construction encompassing a set of ideas that helped to maintain hierarchies of belonging and identity in the South. This dissertation thus follows in the steps of historians who have studied epidemics and other natural disasters to illuminate social and cultural hierarchies of power. It likewise examines how relief and public health efforts reinforced those hierarchies in the epidemic’s immediate aftermath and builds on the work of memory scholars to illustrate how the collective memory of the event continues to either reinforce or challenge those hierarchies over time.
Scholar Commons Citation
Wells, Jessica, "The Suffering South: 1878 Yellow Fever Narratives and Post-Reconstruction Southern Identity" (2017). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.