When I Say the Word Reconstruction, What Comes to Your Mind?

What is the first answer that pops into your head when you read the title question?  Hold that thought.

One of my summer 2014 anthems is Jenny Lewis’ “Just One of the Guys”, with its catchy chorus and celebrity cross-dressing girl power. A couple Saturdays ago I decided to plug Lewis into Spotify and try to muster some motivation for dishwashing. As the playlist moved into Lewis’ 2008 album Acid Tongue, I found that Reconstruction had once again infiltrated my everyday life. The eighth track on the album, entitled “Carpetbagger,” features a duet with Elvis Costello.

No, Jenny and Elvis, tell me you have not bought into a negative stereotype of Reconstruction? Granted, Lewis did not pen the song. Rather her boyfriend Jonathan Rice, who spent his childhood on both sides of the Atlantic traversing his parents’ native Scotland and their Southern home in Virginia, wrote it. Jenny, on the other hand, hails from Las Vegas, far removed from the traditional geographical boundaries of the South and a more pronounced Lost Cause narrative that popularized the term. An entire ocean separated Costello, an Englishman, from the South. Clearly, the popularity of the term carpetbagger cannot be relegated to Southern identity alone.

In a gendered spin, Jenny croons about a modern-day vixen carpetbagger. This is not the opportunistic, Northerner of the mid-nineteenth century, carrying his carpet bag stuffed with the spoils of the aftermath of the Civil War, preserved in white constructions about the Reconstruction era. A derogatory term today, the word carpetbagger frequently conjures the ubiquitous Thomas Nast cartoon below.

By Thomas Nast, public domain via Wikipedia

By Thomas Nast, public domain via Wikipedia

The lyrics to “Carpetbagger” provide clues as to how Reconstruction and its most carefully crafted villain are generally understood by a large portion of Americans regardless of regional identity. By addressing “soldiers” in the third line of the first verse, the song briefly connects with notions of an “occupied” South filled with federal troops. However, the chorus plays more to general perceptions of carpetbagger characteristics: an outsider who pretends to offer aid when deceit and plunder are the ultimate goals.

“I’m a carpetbagger baby
I’m coming to your town
I’m gonna treat you kind
I’m gonna rob you blind
I’ll smile all the time”

The third verse reinforces this interpretation. “If the door’s left open” to the male heart, a metaphor for the private and public wealth carpetbaggers would have had access to as part of their historical participation in Republican governments or investments and rebuilding, the carpetbagger will hypnotize her prey and “ steal the nose right from under your eyes.”

The end result is arguably the most popular millennial hipster in media at the moment, a critically acclaimed Gen X singer/songwriter and a Baby Boomer legend with the coolest eyewear in the music industry singing about carpetbaggers. Zooey Deschanel, long before finding widespread fame as The New Girl, provided back-up vocals both on Acid Tongue and in this live performance included below of the Jenny and Elvis duet.

 

When I give tours at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, a museum of Reconstruction, the first question I ask is what comes to mind for the visitor when I say the word Reconstruction. Equally, the “post-Civil War period” and “Carpetbagger” are the most prevalent responses. The average visitor generally cannot recall much else. So how did the pejorative word carpetbagger become one of the first and only points of reference many people have for the entire Reconstruction period? History textbooks and the film The Birth of a Nation no doubt played a major role. But how do our everyday encounters with media, music, art and other cultural productions reinforce our ingrained and almost innate ideas about the Reconstruction period?

So I’ll ask again. When I say the word Reconstruction, what comes to your mind?

 

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