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FW: H-South Review: Gross on Feldman, _Reading Southern History_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi..aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@uiuc.edu] Sent: Thursday, May 02, 2002 10:07 AM To:
    Message 1 of 1 , May 7, 2002
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      fyi..aj wright // ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@...]
      Sent: Thursday, May 02, 2002 10:07 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Gross on Feldman, _Reading Southern History_

      Published by H-South@... (May, 2002)

      Glenn Feldman, ed., _Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and
      Interpretations_. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2001. x +
      376 pp. Notes, select bibliography, index. $54.95 (Cloth), ISBN
      0-8173-1099-1; $24.95 (Paper), ISBN 0-8173-1102-5.

      Reviewed for H-South by Jennifer L. Gross (jgross@...),
      Department of History, Jacksonville State University.

      Reading Southern History or Reading the History of Southern History?

      _Reading Southern History_ offers fresh overviews of influential
      interpretations of Southern history and could easily have been titled,
      _Reading the History of Southern History_ because it also -- and perhaps to
      greater effect -- illuminates the interpreters themselves, shedding new
      light on how they developed their readings of the past. Historians and
      especially graduate students will find this book to be a most informative
      resource. By examining the worlds and works of these scholars, various
      topics with enduring importance for modern historians emerge: Southern
      politics, religion, culture, class, identity, gender, race relations, civil
      rights, violence, honor, slavery, secession, war, labor, economics,
      industrialization, "plain whites," Southern sociology, and sectional

      Each essay, historiographical in nature, focuses on the major works and
      themes of a scholar, seeking to understand his or her overall contribution
      to the field of Southern history, not just as the study of a region but as
      an integral part of America's history. The only major limitation of the
      work is one that is readily acknowledged by the editor, Glenn Feldman. In
      the introduction he explains, "The collection makes no claim to be
      exhaustive or exclusive. Doubtless there are more than a few historians
      who, for one reason or another -- certainly not because they are
      undeserving -- do not appear as the subjects of full chapters" (2). In
      particular, the collection excludes historians who are still writing
      because of the inherent problems of perspective and completeness. Yet, many
      of the influential interpreters excluded as essay subjects are indeed
      included in the collection because each of the essays, in addition to
      examining the interpretations of the subject scholar, also addresses
      challenges to and revisions of said interpretations by subsequent
      historians. Though the work at times suffers from the lack of a cohesive
      voice, as do so many other edited volumes of essays, the inclusion of a
      variety of authors, who themselves are among today's most influential
      thinkers, often adds to the readers' understanding of bygone interpreters
      and interpretations by illuminating the direction of modern scholarship in
      the field.

      Despite the unity implied by the subtitle, "Essays on Interpreters and
      Interpretations," this collection can be divided into three separate
      sections: pioneers, activists, and path-breakers. The first four essays,
      devoted to Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Broadus Mitchell, E. Merton Coulter,
      and Frank L. Owsley respectively, examine the pioneers of Southern history
      -- those men who contributed to the creation of Southern history as a
      bonafide area of historical inquiry within the field of American
      history. Anthony Carey, in his essay on Owsley, makes an observation that
      can aptly be applied to all four historians:

      "But one can fairly say that _Plain Folk_, after fifty years, resembles a
      log cabin that has outlasted its usefulness. When raised amid the
      wilderness, the cabin provided welcome shelter and a nucleus for a
      community. As the neighborhood expanded and developed, however, newcomers
      with ambitious designs and refined materials fashioned larger, sturdier,
      and more impressive structures. The first cabin, still standing but
      uninhabited since the children of the original family moved away, continues
      to remind succeeding generations of their origins, even as time transforms
      landscapes and assumptions. The cabin and its builders are honored in
      memory and ritual, but the concerns of the present are not those of the
      past, and the heirs of the pioneers concentrate on constructing their own
      world and their own history (59-60)."

      Though their works are flawed by racist assumptions and have been largely
      discredited and abandoned by the modern historical profession, each did
      make significant contributions to their individual historical
      fields. Whether it was the attention they drew to previously overlooked
      arenas of inquiry like plain folk or slavery or the meticulous ways in
      which they collected and exposed their evidence, all four can be considered
      among the forefathers of Southern history. To paraphrase eminent historian
      C. Vann Woodward (also covered in this collection), historians' Truths do
      not last; the nature of the profession is to confront and question -- the
      children eating their parents (149). In many ways all of us are descended
      from these men. Though it is clear that their "truths" did not last -- and
      for good reason -- they provided the food for the meal that has become
      Southern history.

      The next three essays in the collection assess the contributions of W.E.B.
      Dubois, Rupert B. Vance, and Charles S. Sydnor. All three scholars
      personify the role that historians can and, many would argue, should play
      in the world around them as activists. Too often historians' works are
      little more than a conversation among historians, rarely finding an
      audience beyond the profession. Less often historians use their work and
      knowledge to effect change in the society that surrounds them. Each of
      these three scholars devoted their lives not simply to scholarship, but to
      scholarship with the intent to make a difference in the South. These
      scholar-activists are also pioneers of a sort -- championing a vision of
      history as positive contribution to society.

      The remainder of the essays are dedicated to Southern history's
      path-breakers. While most students and scholars of history are acquainted
      with the historians covered in this section -- W. J. Cash, V. O. Key, Jr.,
      C. Vann Woodward, John Hope Franklin, A. Elizabeth Taylor, David M. Potter,
      David Herbert Donald, Kenneth Stampp, George Brown Tindall, Anne Firor
      Scott, and Samuel S. Hill -- we will all do well to re-visit their
      monumental works. Though many of their conclusions have not stood the test
      of time, being challenged by new and innovative work, the work of these
      scholars remain vivid contributions to the field of history, staples in
      historians' personal libraries, a constant reference source for facts and
      historical evidence, and a point of departure for many of today's most
      thoughtful and creative historians. All too often, these individuals do
      not even merit a footnote though it is clear their work was influential as
      continuing scholarship builds upon the paths they constructed.

      This collection should be required reading for anyone doing graduate work
      in Southern history. Moreover, those of us already in the profession can
      use a reminder of our forebears as well. Though it cannot replace reading
      the original works, it can serve as a concise reference work on the history
      of Southern history and inspire today's interpreters to look to the
      pioneers, activists, and path-breakers for inspiration.

      Copyright (c) 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied
      for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and
      the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@....
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