The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina

Article excerpt

The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina. By Milton Ready (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 404; $39.95, cloth.)

Students and teachers alike should welcome the publication of Milton Ready's The Tar Heel State, the first full-length, college-level history of North Carolina to appear in almost twenty years. The broad outlines of his narrative are familiar, but Ready gives new depth to the old stories, and reflecting contemporary sensibilities, he attempts to give more attention than did earlier North Carolina historians to minorities, urbanization, the environment, and the twentieth century generally. He is largely, but not entirely, successful.

Ready, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, begins with an innovative-for a history text-survey of the geological origins of North Carolina and then, with an account of the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke, moves to more conventional history. The Lost Colony may receive a bit too much attention; it was, after all, lost. For the most part, however, The Tar Heel State excels at leisurely treatments-again, by textbook standards-of topics of obvious interest to Ready. Less encyclopedic than its most obvious competitor, William Powell's North Carolina through Four Centuries (1989), Ready's text nevertheless covers all the major periods in the colony's history and still finds space for separate, topical chapters on slavery and on the Cherokees.

Ready's treatment of the American Revolution is especially impressive. It showcases his ability to combine telling facts with vivid descriptions. How many readers, for example, will know that North Carolina, of all the thirteen colonies, made the smallest per capita contribution of troops to the Continental Army? At the same time, Ready can describe the fighting at Camden, King's Mountain, and Guilford Courthouse in prose as compelling as the best historical fiction.

Committed to weak and ineffectual government, the state languished after the Revolution. It enjoyed a brief spurt of economic development under a series of Whig governors in the 183Os and 184Os, but the Civil War brought progress to a halt. Ready provides particularly sure treatment of Reconstruction and thorough coverage of the Fusion movement, the illfated, late-nineteenth-century alliance between North Carolina Populists and Republicans. One of the book's more distinctive themes is its attention to urbanization, which dominates much of last two chapters. Extolling the allure of North Carolina's small towns and the virtue of a state policy of encouraging population dispersal, Ready lapses perilously close to boosterism before returning to reality in the nick of time-the last chapterand acknowledges the consequences of the state's Mayberry approach to urbanization: sprawl, environmental degradation, and overcrowded highways. "The new modern megastate that has emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century," Ready concludes, "also contains the seeds of its own destruction" (p. 387).

As a text, The Tar Heel State has its strengths and weaknesses. Ready can occasionally turn a nice phrase, as when he describes the North Carolina Federalists who expected the University of North Carolina "to turn out well-rounded young men who would take as their religion the American republic and the commerce by which it stood" (p. …