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  October 6, 2003

Tilton's New Book Explores 'Old Virginia'

The term 'Old Virginia' may be anachronistic, but the notion that such a place once existed is still very much alive, according to Robert Tilton, associate professor of English and chair of the department.

Tilton, who is also director of American studies at UConn, recently co-authored a book, Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Ideal (Howell Press), with William Rasmussen, curator of art at the Virginia Historical Society. The book also served as the catalogue for a major exhibition held there in the spring.

Image: Book cover.

The authors explore how the rural society that emerged in Virginia in the 18th century was based on English models, says Tilton. It traces the idea of 'Old Virginia' from the 19th century through the present.

Tilton says during the antebellum period, 'Old Virginia' most often referred to the state's contemporary agricultural society. "The term was used longingly by those who tried to defend the state against the forces of change, and thereby to retain the social status quo," he says.

"It was interesting to oppose how the notion of 'Old Virginia' was used by popular Southern novelists - such as John Pendleton Kennedy, whose Swallow Barn or A Sojourn in the Old Dominion were among the best-known accounts of plantation life - to the arguments of their antagonists, among whom was Charles Dickens, who spoke out against slavery following a visit to the American South."

After the Civil War, says Tilton, mourners for the 'Lost Cause' again connected the term to the defunct plantation society. In the late 1870s, James A. Bland, a black songwriter, used the term in the well-known song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny."

Tilton suggests that "to early 20th-century Virginians, the colonial era came to be seen as a past that had a future, to the point where an entire city - Colonial Williamsburg - would be built so that Americans could be entertained by the illusion that they were viewing 'Old Virginia' first-hand."

Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Ideal is Tilton's third collaborative project with the Virginia Historical Society.