A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth-Century South in Comparative Perspective

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A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth-Century South in Comparative Perspective. By Peter Kolchin. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 124. Acknowledgments, introduction, afterword, index. $22.95.)

The three essays in the comparative history of the South that constitute this book are based on Peter Kolchin's Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History delivered at Louisiana State University. Well known for his work comparing southern slavery with Russian serfdom, Kolchin contrasts the South with the North (what he calls the "unsouth"), makes differentiations within the South, noting the "many souths," and, finally, compares the region with "other souths" in the world, dealing in particular with emancipation in the U.S. South and the end of serfdom in Russia. The three chapters and a brief afterword make a pitch for gaining new insights into commonly known aspects of southern history by comparing them with similar developments elsewhere. For instance, placing the numbers of Civil War dead against mortality rates in other conflicts, Kolchin reveals that the over 600,000 dead that looms so large in United States history pales in comparison to the millions who have perished in more protracted and violent internecine strife across the globe.

Much of this book is a synthesis of some recent historical literature on the South interspersed with some interesting observations. In his essay contrasting the slave South with the free North, Kolchin recapitulates the long historiographical debate over southern distinctiveness. Following the Genoveses, he argues that slavery shaped southern society and economic development in contrast to a free labor North. He points out that "slavery and Confederate rebellion" defined southern identity in the nineteenth century (p. 15). He correctly notes that support for secession in individual southern states corresponded to the extent of slavery there. After emancipation and the war, Kolchin contends that southerners defined themselves not against America but against "Yankees." One could also argue, however, that, starting with slaveholders, southern elites developed a conservative critique of revolutionary and democratic principles that has informed the national identity of the country, and, with the fall of Reconstruction, they attempted to redefine that identity along explicitly racial and reactionary lines. The Confederacy was not "born in revolution" like the United States and the Soviet Union but in counterrevolution (p. …