Academic journal article Southern Cultures


Academic journal article Southern Cultures


Article excerpt

Southerners I meet usually get around to asking me how I came by my interest in the South's history. If I were from the South, I think, the question probably would not come up. And if it did (or so I imagine) it would be a different sort of question altogether--something between insiders, more nuanced, more advanced. But because I keep getting asked, subtly but pretty clearly, where my interest in the South comes from, I have come to ask it of myself. It isn't a simple question, as I think many nonsoutherners who study the South would agree. I don't have an answer so much as a set of acknowledgments, a kind of preface to recognition, which I hope others will share.

Of course, like most historians of the South, I have learned to be interested in the region for large-scale reasons, canon reasons, such as the South's centrality to the founding and foundering of the Union. The distinctiveness of southern society and culture has been long debated, too, and is a wonderful source of conversation and research. But these are established, disciplinary reasons for doing southern history. They don't answer the question put to me and other nonsoutherners--"How did you get into southern history anyway?" -- because they don't go back to origins.

There is an assumption about "outsiders" and "insiders" in the question. It makes sense for a southerner to be interested in southern history. It is not difficult to see how a person's own past in a place so haunted by history could develop into a historical interest in the place itself. In one way or another, southerners doing southern history are studying their own backyards and can find great company doing it. This isn't to say that belonging to the South simplifies doing its history; some fearsome personal briar patches can get in the way. But, compared to whatever is behind an outsider's curiosity, being southern makes it possible to locate one's interest in the South in some way. It's an anchor, a base camp. A non-southerner's interest, on the other hand, seems to float free. How boundless is it? How misguided? It might be awkward, maybe dangerous. Just why would any outsider spend time and resources traveling through the southern countryside, going through the southern archives, and asking questions about a place where he or she has no kin, no deep memories, no native-born conundrums or delights?

Behind this is another assumption, about the fit between biography and historical curiosity, and how risky it might be to acknowledge it. How much do we want to know about the ways in which each of our lives--southern or nonsouthern--has either stayed South or led South? It is even a question about whether we can know how biography gets tied to historical inquiry, and about how that knot wraps around all the things that get discovered about the South. I think these things matter, and although the question "How did you get interested in the South?" is put to me by southerners, I have made it my question, too. These things matter because they are behind the kinds of questions we ask of southern history, shaping the answers we come up with. They matter because outsiders and insiders have always mattered in the South.

Some years ago I met a woman, let's call her Mrs. Cooper, who lived in one of the grandly porched frame houses off the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina. A woman then in her seventies, she had kindly agreed to let me see some of her family's letters from the antebellum years. "Ah, Mr. Stowe," she said upon taking my hand, eyes alight with mischief and generosity, the packet of letters on the table beside her. "Mr. Stowe. At least your name isn't Sherman." She drew the line so that it included me, but she drew it anyway. And she drew it so quickly that I was left a little breathless by the way it foreshortened history, bringing Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Tecumseh Sherman to stand for a moment with the two of us in the parlor.

In a way, I was grateful that she had moved so swiftly to the answer she needed. …

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