Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South

Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South

Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South

Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South

Synopsis

In this in-depth and detailed history, Timothy J. Williams reveals that antebellum southern higher education did more than train future secessionists and proslavery ideologues. It also fostered a growing world of intellectualism flexible enough to marry the era's middle-class value system to the honor-bound worldview of the southern gentry. By focusing on the students' perspective and drawing from a rich trove of their letters, diaries, essays, speeches, and memoirs, Williams narrates the under examined story of education and manhood at the University of North Carolina, the nation's first public university.

Every aspect of student life is considered, from the formal classroom and the vibrant curriculum of private literary societies to students' personal relationships with each other, their families, young women, and college slaves. In each of these areas, Williams sheds new light on the cultural and intellectual history of young southern men, and in the process dispels commonly held misunderstandings of southern history. Williams's fresh perspective reveals that students of this era produced a distinctly southern form of intellectual masculinity and maturity that laid the foundation for the formulation of the post-Civil War South.

Excerpt

This is a book about the intellectual culture of men’s higher education at the University of North Carolina, which opened its doors to students in 1795 before any other public college or university in the United States. This is not, however, an institutional history. Rather, it provides a deep look into intellectual life—into the transmission, reproduction, and consumption of knowledge about self and society—and its role in creating a distinctively bourgeois culture in antebellum North Carolina. Most standard narratives of American higher education depict antebellum southern colleges as crucibles of an elite regional identity, where young men learned to be gentlemen and southerners above all else. Accordingly, historians have painted a fairly bleak picture of intellectual life on southern college campuses. Echoing the oft-repeated sentiments of the great American intellectual Henry Adams— “Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament” —these narratives portray southern students not as intellectual agents, but as brash and unthinking rabble-rousers, whose collegiate shenanigans uniquely derived from a ruggedly individualistic and honor-bound southern culture. Even more problematically, some historians have offered these arguments as proof of inevitable sectional conflict and civil war.

Intellectual Manhood challenges these narratives and reveals that students cared about these matters far less than historians have claimed. As agents in their own education, students created a world of intentional intellectualism that favored bourgeois values and both national and regional belonging. Misbehavior may have impeded education at times, but this was not a regional peculiarity. Tensions between mind and temperament, which Henry Adams associated with his southern classmates at Harvard, emanated instead from a much broader process of maturation that occurred among collegians throughout the United States whenever young men attempted to leave boyhood. This intellectual culture did not displace . . .

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