Book Reviews -- Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (the Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern Studies) by John Michael Vlach
Yentsch, Anne E., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. By JOHN MICHAEL VLACH. The Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern Studies. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. xviii, 258 pp. $37.50 cloth; $18.95 paper.
VERNACULAR architecture has come to the fore in material culture analysis because folk structures, more than mere buildings, also speak to the relationships between groups within society, to the way social space is constructed, and to the myriad ways in which human beings mold the natural landscape and their man-made environment. John Michael Vlach's most recent monograph is a stellar example of a revisionist history that places objects at its core. Back of the Big House examines in detail all of the buildings found on plantations with the sole exception of "big houses."
Vlach positions plantations in a dialogical landscape to reveal the cultural discourse embedded in their buildings, activity areas, and related social spaces. He begins by noting that plantation landscapes today assume an elitist role because they primarily consist of single relics--stately homes that evoke a more leisurely and graceful life-style. Such mansions, minus their supporting "silent partners," also inhabit a mythic past. When modern people place themselves within this past--such a time bridge is easily made-they often orient them: selves within the mansion. Because most other buildings associated with plantation life have disappeared along with the noises, smells, clutter, and spoken word, this repositioning is frequent when visiting plantation sites. Yet, the process displaces the source of labor on which plantations depended, because mythic history draws its power, in part, from what survives and is extraordinary.
Vlach corrects this misinterpretation by surveying quarters, yards, kitchens, smokehouses, barns, stables, overseers' houses, and the landscape that ties these structures together. Back of the Big House is well written, carries two subtexts (one in words and one in illustrations), and is especially suitable for classroom use. Its geographic scope is broad--from the edge of the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland to northeast Florida, working west through the Deep South as far as Texas. Vlach looks at regional influences, local hybrids, and the ways in which each intersects with varying crops and their distinctive technologies. …