Essays by a Southern historian reflecting on what makes his region distinctive.
Ayers (History/Univ. of Virginia; In the Presence of Mine Enemies, 2003) begins with an autobiographical essay about growing up in the South and coming to understand its effect on his life. In fact, it wasn’t until grad school—at Yale—that the author began to recognize himself as somehow different from his fellow students. A second essay attempts to clarify the region’s distinctive character, at the same time emphasizing a theme that recurs throughout: the great complexity of the South and of its history. Even slavery, usually cited as the defining issue of the region, was far more complex than many historians recognize. Enthusiasm for secession didn’t correlate with local patterns of slave-owning, nor did ending slavery emerge as the main justification for the Civil War until late in the conflict. Civil War historians have argued back and forth about the causes of the conflict. The dominant school long argued that economic issues such as tariffs and industrialism were more critical in causing the war than the slavery issue—and that the conflict might well have been avoided. More recently, the focus on slavery in such works as Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom has presented the image of a tragic and inevitable—but finally cleansing—conflict. The truth, Ayers argues, embodies some of both viewpoints and resists “bumper-sticker” answers. An essay on Reconstruction compares the Southern experience to America’s attempts over the last century to rebuild other conquered nations and suggests that important lessons for the Iraq invasion and similar future ventures might arise from it. A final essay pays homage to C. Vann Woodward, the great chronicler of the New South.
Thoughtful, balanced, well-written American history.