A New History of the American South edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage. University of North Carolina Press, 2023. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1469626659. $45.00.
A New History of the American South delivers a sweeping synthesis and historiographical review of southern history, from its pre-colonial roots in the Indigenous Americas to the present. Of particular interest to the readers of The Civil War Monitor will be its middle section, featuring five chapters written by Laura F. Edwards, Martha S. Jones, Kate Masur, Gregory S. Downs, and Scott Reynolds Nelson. This section handles the Long Nineteenth Century, and the creation, collapse, and aftermath of the Southern “Cotton Kingdom.” As expected, this section beautifully reflects the new directions scholarship has taken since the pathfinding works on the Civil War and Reconstruction authored by James McPherson, Eric Foner, David Blight, and others. With a stunning mix of historiographical synthesis and reference for further reading and exploration, these chapters center Black experiences in slavery and freedom. They reflect the turn toward emphasizing the agency of Black Southerners in securing their own emancipation.
The volume’s eighth chapter, authored by Downs, provides a particularly excellent survey of Reconstruction—one that incorporates the growing bodies of literature on Black political agency, the violence of white Southern resistance, and the contingencies of the 1870s and 1880s, when the future of racial relations and politics in the South remained uncertain. The rise of Jim Crow, of course, was anything but inevitable.
Taken as a whole, A New History of the American South is indeed nothing short of a monumental achievement that is certain to stand as a statement of the field for the near future. Each chapter (authored by fifteen different outstanding scholars) could stand alone as a masterful expository composition on a particular chronological or thematic segment of southern history. Brundage and the editors have done admirable work in providing both a useful historiographical reference and a sweeping survey of the state of the field. This book is a graduate and undergraduate teaching tool, a primer for lay audiences, and an immense bibliographical reference all rolled into one.
Yet there are warnings for scholars in the field to heed, too. There is no clear, central thesis that binds the incredible individual scholarship collected here together. The claims made are so couched in conditions and exceptions that the South becomes more a sieve than a pail that can hold water. A reader cannot help but feel by the end of this book that the “burden” of southern history now seems to be the simple act of telling it. This synthesis surveys a field that finds itself at a vexing precipice—one not altogether dissimilar from the cliff upon which the practitioners of U.S. Western History perched themselves three decades ago.
In western history’s great debates over the “f-word” (frontier), the field shed prior assumptions and corrected blind spots. The New Western History was praised (and rightly so) for driving toward more inclusivity, both in terms of people and geography. Yet, as the energy of problematizing the West dissipated, western historians found they had also shed the ability to tell a cogent story with a cast of characters, a setting, and a beginning, middle, and end. At the time, scholar Donald Worster ruefully opined that western historians looked enviously at their colleagues who studied the South, searching in vain for a metanarrative as animating and enduring as “The Burden of Southern History.”
Perhaps western historians would look enviously upon southern historians no longer. The car has taken a U-turn and is chasing the dog. Like the new western historians before them, southern historians have unshackled themselves from the “d-word,” (distinctiveness) and have poured great energy into problematizing the South—its characteristics, its geography, its history. This energy has brought necessary revision, long overdue inclusion, and welcome complexity to the field. This new volume reflects all those remarkable scholarly achievements. And yet, A New History of the American South also arrives with an unintended lesson from our colleagues who study the West: we who practice southern history in print and in the classroom must find a way to “re-imagine” it without spinning our wheels in the “re-imagining.” We must avoid tossing the ability to craft a narrative and convey big ideas out with the bath water. We are currently at that cliff’s edge, and we should think carefully about our next steps before following our western colleagues over it.
Aaron David Hyams is a lecturer in the Department of History at Sam Houston State University.