Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 2 - Review
Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations.
Edited by Glenn Feldman.
Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2001. xii, 376
pp. $54.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.
Editor Glenn Feldman provides a most interesting and valuable compilation of essays on the region's chief historians, with
each one stressing the interrelationship of the subject's life and major contributions. Feldman begins: "The South is a special
place" (p. 3). "Special" the South may be--along with mysterious, ornery, mindless, enchanting, raging, and a score of other
adjectives. But in the course of reading this volume, another term--depressing--seems fitting and for more than one reason.
Liberal-minded scholars like Kenneth Stampp, as James Oakes points out, found nothing to commend in antebellum slavery
nor in the romantic gloss so long piously lavished on it. Susan Ashmore's essay on George Tindall, on the other hand, reveals
his emphasis on dynamic change, particularly in recent years. But even Tindall had to report the gloomy prospects for the poor
and forgotten, black and white. As a pioneer of southern women's studies, Anne Scott took shrewd account of women's plight
under tradition-bound patriarchy. In Ted Ownby's fine essay, Sam S. Hill, father of southern religious history, broke forcefully
with the filiopietistic church historians to note how southern Christians, lay and clerical, lamely forgot the Gospel message
when it came to racial matters. The South, these writers observe, has had much to answer for.
Likewise, conservative scholars, who are exhaustively represented herein, try the
reader's good humor with their querulous defense of Old South glory in war and
peace. Certainly such sentiments pervaded the work of Ulrich Phillips, whom Junius P.
Rodriguez most judiciously treats as the professional scholar he was--despite his
abysmal racism. Similarly, with admirable detachment, Fred Bailey discloses E.
Merton Coulter's peremptory rejection of any new idea and records his grave distress
with the liberal school that traitorously arose, he thought, in his latter years.
Anthony Carey's Frank Owsley, a Vanderbilt Agrarian, also rang the romantic
changes on the Confederate cause but resurrected the culture of the nonslaveholding
yeomanry. But, among the genteel mossbacks, Feidman situates an exemplary piece
by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall on Broadus Mitchell, perhaps the first serious economic historian of the region. A writer with a
journalistic bent, Mitchell was refreshingly ahead of his time in deploring the subjugation of the black race. Yet he too fell victim
to southern romanticism in his portrayal of New South textile mill owners. That position contradicted Mitchell's championing
of radical and anti-racist causes throughout his prolific career.
Like Mitchell, W. E. B. DuBois was acutely aware of social and racial conflict
as ingredients of the southern past, but he was the first to explore the history of the
migrating southern black who inhabited urban centers. In his thoughtful evaluation
of DuBois as a "southern" historian, Joe Trotter illuminates the brilliance of the
Harvard-trained intellectual. However refreshingly uplifting the description,
DuBois was sadly denied the respect he deserved from white academia during his
lifetime. Such was not the fate of Rupert Vance, whose contribution to southern
social science is handsomely developed by John Shelton Reed and Daniel Singal.
Critical of the Lost Cause legend and other myths, Vance saw the foolishness of secession
and war, the long-term consequences of which left the region undercapitalized to
match northern industrialization and prosperity, Reed and Singal note, however, that
in the 1950s, Vance, a gentleman of the old school at heart, had trouble adjusting to a
sociology appropriate to a prospering post-war South.
One of the more poignant essays concerns the career of Charles Sydnor, whose
studies have a critical edge and freshness of vision that materializes unexpectedly in this
category of scholar-gentlemen. Fred Bailey notes the nostalgic Whiggishness of
Sydnor's choices of subjects, from the Revolutionary elite of Virginia to Benjamin
Wailes of Natchez. No friend of mobocracy or racist vulgarity, in 1954 Sydnor delivered
a blistering public attack on two contemporary demagogues, Theodore Bilbo and Joe
McCarthy, but died hours later from heart failure. Like Sydnor, W. J. Cash turned a
critical eye on the South's past and present, repudiated southern truculence, and died
prematurely, in this case by his own hand in 1941. Child of the middling poor. Cash,
however, took aim at the aristocracy that Sydnor over-warmly admired. Bruce
Clayton's perceptive study stresses Cash's vigorous love-hate relationship toward his
native land as expressed in his single and singular book, The Mind of the South.
Likewise, V. 0. Key, although a prolific political scientist, is best known for only
one work, Southern Politics, which exposed a hopelessly backward, fragmented, good-ole-boy
style of Democratic partisanship. As Kari Frederickson explains, it remains a classic still useful
despite the development of a two-party South and a radical expansion of the suffrage since the passage of the
Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Belonging to Key's generation, C. Vann Woodward, as ably portrayed by John
Herbert Roper, deeply concerned himself with the imperfections and breaks in the
continuity of southern political life. Roper, however, points out that Woodward's interpretations
have largely been discarded, superseded, or modified almost beyond
recognition. But, as Woodward once wrote, historians in retirement have no House of
Lords. The first to give shape to the post-Civil War South, Woodward proposed
forward-looking approaches--albeit with a twist of irony. His contemporaries, David
Herbert Donald and David Potter, also contributed to a richer understanding of the
South, though dealing chiefly with the antebellum and war periods. As only the second
African American to be represented, John Hope Franklin well deserves his place in
these pages. Like Woodward, he has shown an intellectual integrity and a personal
resiliency that defied the obstacles that a person of color had to endure in archives
and scholarly gatherings, not to mention in public places everywhere in the South. As
John White astutely explains, his historical vision embraces every racial color, touching
us all. Although one misses a better representation of women scholars, this book is
surely a worthy monument to southern historiography. Yet, Reading Southern History
reminds us of the melancholy, darker side of sectional history, a contrast with the
more gladdening story of other American regions.
University of Florida