Mark M. Smith, ed. The Old South. Blackwell Readers in American Social and Cultural History. Oxford, England, and Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2001. xviii + 297 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-631-21927-9.
Reviewed by Ruth Doan (Department of History, Hollins University)
Published on H-South (May, 2001)
Teaching and Interpreting the Old South
Teaching and Interpreting the Old South
Historian Mark M. Smith offers The Old South as a selection in Blackwell's Readers in American Social and Cultural History. True to the editors' statements of intent, this volume brings together high quality examples of cutting edge scholarship along with primary sources on which such scholarship is based. Not a survey of the history of the Old South, this book succeeds by limiting its scope.
After an appropriately short introduction, editor Smith organizes his offering in six parts, each including two chapters. Within each chapter, a few brief primary source selections precede a selection from a secondary source. Thus, students begin with the sources themselves, and then move on to an interpretation based, in part, on those sources. Part I asks whether the Old South was modern and draws on the work of Raimondo Luraghi and of Smith himself in addressing that question. Part II examines honor and violence through the work of Kenneth S. Greenberg and Eliot J. Gorn. Part III looks at proslavery, including the religious defense of slavery discussed by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese and the relationship between proslavery and gender relations as interpreted by Stephanie McCurry. Part IV uses slaves' economies as a way of entering into questions about slave communities and levels of autonomy among slaves; here Philip D. Morgan and Lawrence T. McDonnell provide the interpretations. Part V brings the issue of the selling of slaves to the forefront; Michael Tadman writes on the slave trader, while Walter Johnson "reads" the bodies of the slaves being sold. Finally, Part VI looks at southern womanhood through the work of Sally McMillen on white women and breastfeeding and the work of Brenda Stevenson on slave women's definitions of womanhood.
A refreshing difference between this work and many readers edited for undergraduates is that the selections here are not subjected to over-editing. Smith gives enough of an introduction to place a given document or essay, but he leaves it to the reader to glean arguments and evidence. Too often editors tell students what the argument of an essay is; Smith allows students to practice teasing out arguments for themselves. Each section of the book also includes a list of books and articles for further reading. These lists range from about 10 to 25 sources--an appropriate length to assist students who seek materials for longer reading or research projects.
Inevitably, readers will ask about missing selections or missing subjects. For example, religion shows up in this volume primarily in its relationship to the defense of slavery. Given the scholarship of the last thirty years, surely religion in African-American culture, or religion as a central subject through which to discover the interpenetration of white and black cultures, would rank high in significance.
Geographical balance may not have been a high priority for editor Smith, since his aim has more to do with live questions and interesting scholarly interpretations. Some teachers will want to note, however, that the geographical reach of this collection is somewhat skewed. South Carolina and Georgia are over-represented. Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas do appear. Other states are either missing or virtually so.
Some quibbles about design and organization may be in order. The selections from secondary sources are generally more than three times as long as the primary source selections. Sally McMillen wins sixteen pages to interpret women and breastfeeding while only four pages of primary sources illuminate the same story; Smith gives himself twenty-two pages and his sources a scant five. If part of the purpose of the design of the book is to allow students to work with the primary sources themselves, perhaps this balance should have been closer to fifty-fifty. The fact that the primary sources have been selected from those used to support the secondary piece included in the book allows students to see the connection between sources and the building of an argument. In an ideal world, however, one might have wished for examples of primary sources that could contradict the argument or, alternatively, secondary sources that reflect contrasting uses of the same primary source.
Blackwell intends the books in this series for undergraduate audiences. This reviewer has taught three courses in which this book could be assigned: a one-semester History of the South; the first half of a two-semester South sequence; and Antebellum United States. At Hollins University, all of these are undergraduate classes, the first two land at the middle level--above surveys but below advanced seminars--and the third is an advanced seminar. When trying to envision where this book might fit into the curriculum, it is necessary to note that Smith means the Old South here in its narrowest chronological sense: the antebellum South, the South since 1830. Only one document included here was written before 1800, and that one is included because it was reprinted in the 1830s. As a result, the book is probably too narrowly focused to fit into a one-semester History of the South. The kind of run-through history required to get from encounter to the late twentieth century allows for very few pages on any given time period and for touching only on the very largest issues in the history of the South. The book will fit more easily into the first half of a two-semester sequence. In this case, however, it might be difficult to match Smith's book with appropriate readings to cover the period through the 1820s. It may still be easier for teachers to select Major Problems in the History of the South or Alan Gallay's Voices of the Old South when they are seeking books that include primary sources on the Old South broadly defined.(1) Perhaps surprisingly, then, this reviewer is most likely to use Smith's book in an upper-level seminar on the antebellum period as a whole. The design is one that upper-level students should be able to work with. As they prepare for the writing of research papers and senior theses, close observation of how scholars enter into dialogue with primary sources can be a very effective part of their preparation. An upper-level class also takes on the job of introducing cutting-edge scholarship to a greater degree than does a survey. Smith's Old South would fit well into a unit on southern society and culture in such an antebellum class.
Smith's The Old South offers undergraduates an opportunity to discover some of the questions, subjects, and evidence central to scholarly conversation on the history of the South. Smith asks students for engagement without either expecting too little or assuming too much. He opens up areas for discussion that will engage undergraduate students with varied interests and at the same time bring students who are interested in advanced study in history into contact with current issues and approaches.
1. Paul Escott, et. al., eds., Major Problems in the History of the South: Volume I: The Old South, second edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1999); Alan Gallay, ed., Voices of the Old South: Eyewitness Accounts 1528-1861 (Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 1994).
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Ruth Doan. Review of Smith, Mark M., ed., The Old South.
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Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.