Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations

Article excerpt

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, Feldman 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. …