Academic journal article American Studies

KATHERINE AND R. J. REYNOLDS: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South

Academic journal article American Studies

KATHERINE AND R. J. REYNOLDS: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South

Article excerpt

KATHERINE AND R. J. REYNOLDS: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South. By Michele Gillespie. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2012.

This is a deeply researched, finely detailed, double biography of Katherine and R. J. Reynolds, husband and wife duo of Reynolds Tobacco fame. In biographer Michele Gillespie's skilled hands, the reader learns much about the Reynoldses, their separate and joint rise to fame and fortune, and their lives, both public and private. Above all, Gillespie succeeds in bringing cousin Kate-thirty years R. J.'s junior-in from the shadows and grants her just due in the success of Reynolds Tobacco without denigrating the legendary R. J. R. That Katherine's role has "been omitted . . . should not surprise us," Gillespie tells us, for there has been "little room for powerful women in virtually any of the iconic self-made man stories" that have permeated the "national imagination" (8-9).

The book, really, is a model of moderation and choosing the middle ground. Again and again, on virtually every possible front, Gillespie presents a judicious and centrist interpretation of the lives, acts, decisions, and effects of the power couple. "Neither" W. J. Cash nor C. Vann Woodward "got it quite right" Gillespie tells us (4). Reynolds was not one of Woodward's proto-typical "New Men," making his way in Horatio Alger-style; nor was he completely the favored scion of old and wealthy planters who simply shifted to industry from agriculture as New South opportuni- ties presented themselves. He was something of both. He had "plenty of brains and talent" but he was "also the beneficiary of a powerful system of social capital" (7).

And so on. R. J. was neither completely dependent on Katherine nor indepen- dently the financial genius. He had already made several fortunes before marrying, but the precocious Kate-profoundly influenced by her father-played a vital role in encouraging R. J. to take risks that paid off spectacularly. Katherine was neither an iconoclastic and obsessed financier who rejected tradition and home, nor was she completely tied to the gender roles of her time and place. …

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