Princes of Cotton: Four Diaries of Young Men in the South, 1848-1860

Princes of Cotton: Four Diaries of Young Men in the South, 1848-1860

Princes of Cotton: Four Diaries of Young Men in the South, 1848-1860

Princes of Cotton: Four Diaries of Young Men in the South, 1848-1860


A rogue, a megalomaniac, a plodder, and a depressive: the men whose previously unpublished diaries are collected in this volume were four very different characters. But they had much in common too. All were from the Deep South. All were young, between seventeen and twenty-five. All had a connection to cotton and slaves. Most obviously, all were diarists, enduring night upon night of cramped hands and candle bugs to write out their lives.

Down the furrows of their fathers' farms, through the thickets of their local woods, past the familiar haunts of their youth, Harry Dixon, Henry Hughes, John Coleman, and Henry Craft arrive at manhood via journeys they narrate themselves. All would be swept into the Confederate Army, and one would die in its service. But if their manhood was tested in the war, it was formed in the years before, when they emerged from their swimming holes, sopping with boyhood, determined to become princes among men.

Few books exist about the inner lives of southern males, especially those in adolescence and early adulthood. Princes of Cotton begins to remedy this shortage. These diaries, along with Stephen Berry's introduction, address some of the central questions in the study of southern manhood: how masculine ideals in the Old South were constructed and maintained; how males of different ages and regions resisted, modified, or flouted those ideals; how those ideals could be expressed differently in public and private; and how the Civil War provoked a seismic shift in southern masculinity.


Gender history is at a crossroads. Either it will pursue men’s history with all the rigor it has displayed in pursuing women’s history or it will expire. Such an expiration is inevitable and not altogether a bad thing. Soon enough if not already gender will no longer be something a smaller group of scholars is focused on; it will be something the entire academy is attentive to. For now, though, an important question can have no answer: Is men’s history where gender history goes to die or be reborn?

There are signs of the latter, but what is being born is as yet a rough beast. The field of masculinity studies seems at once a laudable extension of and a questionable reaction to the women’s studies movement of the 1970s and 1980s. While problematized, not lauded, the American male again wrenches the spotlight toward himself. Heedless of intent, masculinity studies drifts along in the dominant culture’s backlash against feminism and the prevailing sense that American manhood, under siege for two decades, is rightly going “over the top” again.

As Susan Faludi and others noted at the time, there was a pervasive sense of a masculine “crisis” in the 1990s. White American men had, since the Founding, been promised that they would always have a frontier to explore, an enemy to vanquish, a wife to adore, and a fraternity to join. That promise was broken after World War II. The final frontier was empty and cold; the “enemy” was massacred at Mylai; the wife had a new job, a new man, and a new attitude; and the white fraternity was downsizing, outsourcing, selling out their little brothers to the Mexicans and the Chinese. And no one felt sorry for them. They were sent on their way with a few prescriptions for being fat, bald, and flaccid—and they were not a little angry about it. The result, Faludi noted, was all over the news: Tailhook, the Citadel, the Spur Posse, gangstas, skinheads, abortion clinic bombers, schoolyard shooters, the right-wing militia, O. J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh, the Unabomber, and the Angry White Male. Clearly, men needed to pull themselves together. And so they did, to the beat of Iron John’s drum, in the menz movement, laddism, the Million Man March, the Promise Keepers, and the triumphant return of the Founding Fathers and other dear DWMS, back from the grave and ready . . .

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