Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The South and the World

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The South and the World

Article excerpt

THE SOUTH IS A PARTICULAR PLACE WITH ITS OWN DISTINCTIVE HISTORY and character. The South is also part of larger geographical entities: the United States, the Americas, the Atlantic region, and the world. Although these characteristics are not incompatible or mutually exclusive-indeed, assertions about the particular nature of the South are of necessity based at least in part on understandings of conditions elsewhere--a continued tension between the two has marked the study of southern history. Traditionally, most practitioners of southern history emphasized the particular over the general, narration of developments in specific localities (or the South as a whole) over exploration of patterns, contrasts, and interconnections between the South (or parts of the South) and other places. Nevertheless, even before the recent explosion of interest in comparative and transnational history, a surprising number of southern historians--including such luminaries as David M. Porter and C. Vann Woodward--recognized the inherently comparative nature of southern history and explored ways of studying the South in broader national and international contexts. (1)

The past two decades have witnessed a significant acceleration of such efforts. As the South has become more obviously interrelated with the world, so too has southern history. In an era that appears increasingly globalized, it has become evident that southern history, like local and regional history in general, is by nature at least implicitly comparative. Not only does understanding the South, even if in order to emphasize its distinctiveness, require attention to what the South was not, but southern history also can hold important lessons for historians striving to make sense of developments elsewhere.

In this essay, I will explore some of the ways in which historians have reconceptualized southern history by placing it in broader context. My aim is not to provide comprehensive coverage of such efforts--a task that would require a work vastly longer than this one--but rather to sketch an analytical framework for considering them, using a few highly selective examples for illustration. My focus will be on works of the past two decades, but I will not hesitate to ground these works in the earlier historiography. (2)

The most common way of contextualizing the South, and the earliest to develop, is to compare it with the North. Historians have for decades sought to characterize the nature of the antebellum South, for example, by comparing its economic structure and performance with the North' s. Such comparison has sometimes been primarily implicit, in works focusing on the South against a northern backdrop, as in Eugene D. Genovese's attempt to establish the distinctive--noncapitalist--nature of the South's slave economy and in Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman's contrary contention that the southern economy was fully capitalist and slaveholders were just as much profit-maximizing businessmen as were northern industrialists. (3) Often, however, the comparison has been more direct and frontal: in the most recent salvo in the ongoing debate over southern versus northern economic performance, Gavin Wright countered Fogel and Engerman's assertion that between 1840 and 1860 the southern economy was more efficient and grew significantly more rapidly than the northern economy. Wright suggested that determining who won what he termed the economic "cold war" between the antebellum North and South depended on the specific criteria used to measure it. Although in the long run slavery impeded southern economic development, "each side in the cold war could declare itself the winner according to its own scoreboard." (4)

Historians have produced North-South comparisons, whether implicit or explicit, on a wide variety of other topics. Such comparisons have been especially prevalent in antebellum and Civil War-era history, as historians have sought to show either the distinctiveness or Americanness of the slave South. …

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