Book review: Essays mine paradoxes of Southern history

CorrespondentDecember 14, 2013 

  • Nonfiction

    Dixie Redux: Essays in Honor of Sheldon Hackney

    Edited by Raymond Arsenault and Orville Vernon Burton

    New South Books, 467 pages

Historian Sheldon Hackney, a native Alabamian, wrestled with the ironies of Southern identity during his career as Princeton University’s provost, president of Tulane University and the University of Pennsylvania, and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Deeply committed to promoting social change, in 1969 Hackney noted: “From the southern past arise the symbiosis of profuse hospitality and intense hostility toward strangers and the paradox that the southern heritage is at the same time one of grace and violence.”

In “Dixie Redux” historians Raymond Arsenault and Orville Vernon Burton honor Hackney, gathering eclectic essays that ask what historian Charles W. Joyner terms “large questions in small places.” The articles succeed in relating Southern to national and international themes and emphasizing paradoxical elements of southern history.

For example, Stephanie McCurry considers the American Civil War less “exceptional” than Americans generally assume. Though she credits America’s internecine struggle with some unique qualities, McCurry finds Americans’ historical memory of the conflict – the ways that they interpret and commemorate it – more distinctive than the history of the war itself.

Unlike other societies that experienced civil wars, Americans identify with the war – as the victors, as those freed from horrific enslavement, as the vanquished. Americans have an insatiable appetite to relive their Civil War. “And that in the end is what sets us apart from every other people with this bloody past.”

J. Mills Thornton III examines Reconstruction-era white Alabamians’ racial fears and how the precise timing and circumstances of emancipation of African-American slaves influenced legal affairs during Reconstruction. Because state courts considered emancipation as resulting from martial law, not from Alabama’s 1865 revised state constitution, judges denied ex-slaveholders’ appeals for compensation for their former slaves. This matters, Thornton writes, because awarding what would have constituted reparations to former slave masters “would ... have bankrupted the state and enraged the entire Northern populace.” It also would have raised important questions of who deserved redress for slavery.

Michael O’Brien contrasts the Old South’s proslavery argument and Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitism, defining both racial systems as societal responses to the stresses of modernization. White Southerners defended slavery to defend their emerging labor and social systems and to ward off the threat of slave revolts. Hitler’s National Socialists considered Jews inferior internal enemies who, by necessity, must be exterminated or made into enslaved laborers. Though O’Brien identifies no direct linkage between the two systems, he nonetheless notes an essential paradox in comparing them.

“The Nazis believed in modernity less, but used its techniques with extraordinary sophistication and violence, so the contradiction for them was intense, however denied. The Southerners believed in modernity more, but used its techniques less, and so for them the tension was modest, though enough to make them walk away from the United States and its differing version of modernity in 1861.”

Analyzing a later moment in Southern history, the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, Arsenault faults President Dwight D. Eisenhower for misjudging the boycott’s larger meaning. “For an ex-military man who was more interested in social order than social change, the boycott raised issues that were either too troubling or too complicated to sort out.”

Fortunately for those who favored integration, Eisenhower unwittingly appointed Frank M. Johnson U.S. attorney for the North Alabama district. In the end, Johnson’s “pro-civil rights rulings disappointed racial conservatives both inside and outside the administration.” In June 1956, the district court overturned Alabama’s racial segregation laws.

Though Southerners today are less ambivalent about their status as Americans than when Hackney researched in the 1960s, the essays in “Dixie Redux” underscore how paradoxes nevertheless remain central to the region’s history.

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte.

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