A uniquely comprehensive cultural, political, and social history of post-Reconstruction, exploring not only ``the South's deep poverty and institutionalized injustice'' but also ``the complexity of experience in the new South.'' Ayers (History/Univ. of Virginia; Vengeance and Justice, 1983) aims ``to understand what it meant to live in the American South in the years after Reconstruction.'' To achieve this, he examines the matrix of economic and societal forces that shaped the South's singular culture. He argues that the political and social milieux in the South in the initial years following the end of Reconstruction were fluid, and that as conservative Democrats, and factions sympathetic to their objectives, gradually came to dominate the public life of the region, the post-Reconstruction South slowly assumed its distinctive character. Ayers sees the railroad in particular as a powerful catalyst of socioeconomic change. The rapid expansion of the railroad, he contends, engendered new cities and gave rise to commercial and industrial growth while encouraging the development of racial segregation (the segregation of railroad carriages, a concession to the laws of a few reactionary states, led to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which approved the ``separate but equal'' doctrine). While there were, then, reactionary aspects to southern political life in the post-Reconstruction era, the great Populist movement of the late 19th century, Ayers theorizes, had its roots in the political interest groups that coalesced in the South. The author also surveys the major social institutions and significant literary and cultural activity in the South during this period. Ayers succeeds in depicting the post-Reconstruction South not as a repressed backwater of American life, but as a region that, despite substantial injustices, made significant contributions to American life.