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FW: H-South Review: Hubbs Responds to Myers' Review

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of Ian Binnington Sent: Tuesday, December 05, 2006 7:14 AM To:
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2006
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...] On
      Behalf Of Ian Binnington
      Sent: Tuesday, December 05, 2006 7:14 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Hubbs Responds to Myers' Review

      Guy Hubbs Responds to Barton Myers' Review of _Guarding Greensboro_:

      Allow me to begin by thanking H-South for this opportunity to respond to

      Barton Myers' review of _Guarding Greensboro_. Before moving to larger
      issues, I want to spend just a few lines addressing some inaccuracies in

      his review, particularly that I asserted things that I did not (such as
      that no community exists where individualism is strongest) and that I,
      curiously, failed to demonstrate what I could not find (an antebellum
      _gemeinschaft_ community). As to the former, of course individualists
      create communities, but not of the _gemeinschaft_ sort. This study is in

      fact largely an argument for a much broader understanding of what
      communities can be. I suggest a definition something along the lines of
      social warmth or enduring commitments among those who would otherwise
      remain apart. I freely admit that this is broad. But communities are
      relationships among individuals, constantly changing and adapting to new

      conditions and personalities, and so are endlessly varied and
      notoriously "slippery." As to the latter criticism, I examined carefully

      every word I could discover written from Greensboro and found little or
      nothing approaching Tonnies' notion of _gemeinschaft_ in the years
      before the war. If one looks closely at the establishment of Southern
      University in the 1850s, an example used by the reviewer, one finds that

      the cornerstone ceremony was organized by voluntary associations;
      postbellum Confederate memorial ceremonies, by contrast, were never
      organized that way. Rather than look at isolated examples, however, the
      strength of the argument is to be found in the way that thousands of
      such events and documents fit together neatly in the way that I

      Of course I particularly liked the generous comments in Myers'
      concluding paragraph. There he recognizes that the book presents
      theoretical questions that extend well beyond the nineteenth-century
      South, in particular questions about the premises on which individuals
      build communities and the conceptual frameworks by which historians
      understand them. It is these questions that particularly interest me.

      This study of Greensboro, Alabama, proceeded from the ground up. I
      scrounged archives and attics for every scrap of paper written there
      during the nineteenth century. As I plunged into the lives of hundreds
      of ordinary people, I came to see that this postage-stamp-of-a-place was

      far more complex than I had anticipated. These people did not articulate

      their ideas in learned treatises; they did, nonetheless, vigorously
      engage in intellectual problems and civic challenges. Their solutions
      and their actions rested on fundamental premises that I sought to
      reconstruct, despite the inherent difficulties of dealing with
      unsophisticated sources. Life on a small scale, I concluded, is an
      extraordinarily rich resource that warrants our attention.

      These materials are too often passed over in favor of studying Big
      People in Big Places. The implicit assumption seems to be that we can
      just extrapolate downward to the workaday people in Greensboro and
      thousands of other small towns across America. But analyzing voting
      records in the Halls of Congress or detailing the tactics of a great
      commander misses the critical but quiet revolutions in the hamlets and
      villages throughout the country. I finished this study convinced that a
      careful look at a small place, when shorn of preconceptions, has the
      potential to change significantly how we understand Americans both past
      and present.

      Nowhere is this more apparent than in community building, and here I ran

      up against one of those preconceptions: the declension model. Anyone who

      travels to Greensboro today will wonder if it had been a set for _Gone
      With the Wind_. Houses on Main Street could be confused for Tara or
      Twelve Oaks. Historians have rightly blasted _GWTW_ for its patronizing
      and fanciful depiction of the mid-nineteenth century South. But if the
      book and movie fail as history, they succeed on an emotional level when
      portraying the inevitability of community decline. _GWTW_ creates a
      powerful image of an idyllic era when families lived near to the earth
      and near to their children, cousins, and friends. Everyone knew each
      other well, for they had grown up together. Honor and personal virtue
      were a way of life. "Personal" was the key word here. Life was conducted

      on an intensely personal basis. Then the war came. Scarlett O'Hara's
      closely knit community of extended families and reliable neighbors was
      destroyed. In its place arose a new and competitive world run by
      money-hungry self-seekers. Scarlett vows to rebuild Tara, but we all
      know that it will never happen. _GWTW_ resonates because we all know
      what it is to have others destroy what we hold dear. The Confederates
      defended their homes from evil Yankee soldiers with their rifled
      muskets; today we defend our homes from rapacious land developers with
      their bulldozers.

      I, too, was prepared to use this declension model on Greensboro. But the

      more I examined their letters and diaries, the more the town's
      antebellum years began to look nothing like the mythic closely knit
      communities of legend. The postbellum years, however, did. Before the
      war, the town was filled with transients who joined and soon left the
      many overlapping voluntary and temporary associations organized for
      specific purposes. The war changed all that by providing white
      Greensborians, both those at home and those at the front, with a new and

      encompassing sense of purpose. For four years, Greensborians marched
      together, ate the same hardtack, slept on the same ground. Some even
      died for each other. They shared a common goal, a common fate, and
      emerged from the war with a common story. The closely knit traditional
      Southern community of legend was at last a reality--but _after_ the war
      and not before. _Gone With the Wind_ had been turned on its head. The
      story of Greensboro's first fifty years was not one of a declining
      community, but of an emerging one.

      However much nostalgia plays in predisposing us to see communities as
      declining, nostalgia does not explain it all. Let us instead consider
      another source, however unlikely: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yes, Rousseau,
      the eighteenth-century French philosophe. Simplistically put, Rousseau
      advances a notion of humankind living blissfully as equals in the State
      of Nature. Then someone got the notion of private property, and things
      were never the same. Private property led to covetousness and a corrupt
      civil society established by the powerful to maintain their domination
      over the weak. Happiness can be reestablished if only the downtrodden
      destroy the powerful and return us to our natural Edenic equality. The
      vast majority of historians are, I suggest, Rousseau's intellectual
      grandchildren. They may not want to recreate a world before government,
      they may in fact hold great faith in government, but they do want to
      isolate and remove the powerful forces--usually associated with race,
      class, gender, and now religion--that have intruded into our otherwise
      contented, peaceful, sociable lives. The historian has a particular
      moral and professional duty to identify those powerful forces in the
      past whose selfish actions have created today's misery.

      But what if Rousseau had it exactly backwards? What if humankind's
      natural condition is not amiable sociability, but solitude and merciless

      competition?[1] What if communities need less to be rescued than to be
      created and sustained? What if we look through a microscope instead of a


      Southern history--with its archetypical planters, slaves, belles,
      yeomen, demagogues--is tailor-made for Rousseau's grandchildren. My
      shelves sag with their studies of how one group exploited another. Let
      me make clear that I am _not_ in any way trying to dismiss or even
      downplay the horrors that some have committed against others. I _am_,
      however, concerned with how historians have treated these horrors; and I

      am equally concerned with how these horrors have influenced historians.
      The assumption that identifying the evil doers is the historian's
      responsibility has created smug, self-congratulatory scholars who rest
      satisfied in their own moral authority. (Fortunately for us, we will
      never learn what historians of the twenty-second century will think of
      our own sins.) And such an assumption has allowed us to quit after
      having tackled only half the problem: fingering the sources of social
      divisions. Historians seem far less interested in the more daunting task

      of understanding how social divisions are overcome, often through
      community building.

      People are much more complex than Rousseau or his grandchildren would
      have it. The same person can do wonderful things and evil things. The
      same person can belong to multiple communities. And communities are just

      as complex. Communities can be sources of social warmth and mutual
      dependence, and they can be sources of exclusion and violence.
      Communities can be voluntary, and they can be mandatory. Communities can

      grow, and they can decline. Our world cannot so easily be divided
      between the righteous and the unrighteous.

      Complexity suggests that the past is less a morality play than a
      tragedy. Life constantly fools us--and disappoints us. More than mere
      irony, this study of Greensboro demonstrates the inherent moral
      conflicts at the core of the human condition. In the 1860s the end of
      slavery--a great good--was purchased with the lives of over a half
      million individuals, not to mention the pain of the widows, wounded
      veterans, and the fatherless children left behind. In small towns and
      villages across the South, the creation of closely knit
      communities--another great good--was purchased by the exclusion of much
      of the population, by the constant undermining of their dignity and
      humanity. Former Confederates created something admirable. They also
      created something terrible. Greensboro's story reminds us how often our
      successes are purchased at a crushing price.


      [1]. Modern anthropologists would find Rousseau's buoyant description of

      the State of Nature amusing. See, for example, Nicholas Wade's _Before
      the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors_ (Penguin, 2006).

      Guy Hubbs
      Birmingham-Southern College
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