Nell Irvin Painter


"THE MINDS AND HEARTS OF DIXIE," Review by Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post Book World, 1 November 1992, Page x8

Life After Reconstruction

By Edward L. Ayers
Oxford University Press. 572 pp. $30

THE LATE 19th-century South lacks a salient historical identity, for it followed the tumultuous period of Reconstruction and preceded the stifling era of triumphant white supremacy. In 1941 W. J. Cash in The Mind of the South treated this period as an extension of Reconstruction, during which the region supposedly continued under an awful Yankee domination. In 1951 C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South gave the period a name. Now Edward Ayers recasts the era, pulling it away from the issues of Reconstruction (black civil rights and race in general and aligning it towards the agrarian revolt that the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party embodied. With narrative history as only half his concern, Ayers fissures his South, but no longer along the usual fault line of race.

The great divide in The Promise of the New South separates country folk from townspeople, a contrast that takes race into account without becoming its prisoner. This reorientation assumes that Southerners were a heterogeneous people riven by conflict and pulls Southern history together across lines of race, class, and gender. In this regard, The Promise of the New South, a nominee for the National Book Award, marks a major advance in the desegregation of Southern history.

In the 45 years since John Hope Franklin and C. Vann Woodward broke the color bar in the Southern Historical Association, Southern historians have been locked in a genteel struggle that has been all the more intense for the seeming agreement over its outcome. Almost any Southern historian will acknowledge that our field needs to study Southerners who were black and/or female and/or poor and/or unpopular in their time, not just the rich white men who exercised power. But the historians's waysof conceding the need to recognize these groups have tended to preserve the South for those who ran it. For the most part, Southern history has been multiplying sub-fields more than adjusting generalizations about the South as a whole. Now we have Southequalsthe Confederacy and that Southerners equal Confederate supporters.

One part of the problem, as Woodward surmised in the 1930s, was a Southern distaste for conflict. The other part of the problem has been the difficulty of drawing conclusions, once the existence of conflict among Southerners was acknowledged. If Southerners who were not white supremacists are to be counted as Southerners, what can a historian present as the Southern position on, say, the disenfranchisement of black voters, an issue that surged in the period that Edward Ayers addresses?

Woodward's Origins of the New South defined that particular period and, for Southern history as a whole, took many of the first steps away from monolithic characterizations of the South. Woodward's chapters chronicled disagreement among Southern whites and laid out the devastating effect on poor whites of policies ostensibly aimed only at blacks. Although Woodward was not able fully to integrate black Southerners into his analysis, Origins of the New South remains among the rare histories that at age 40 still reward readers. Thanks to its extraordinary vitality, Origins of the New South is the monument that towers behind Edward Ayers's Promise of the New South; it is also a monument that Ayers's exciting new book is bound to replace. Here, at

EVEN THOUGH Southern history, as a field, has tended stubbornly to resist the post-modernist influence of literary theory that is reshaping other historical fields (such as women's history and African-American studies), Ayers takes theory in stride. Recognizing his intellectual debts to thinkers such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu and Raymond Williams, Ayers writes purposefully and effectively from more than one perspective.

Ambiguity, surprise, and gender analysis characterize The Promise of the New South, which bristles with unexpected insights: Charles Macune, a leader of the anti-plutocrat Farmers' Alliance, borrows $2,000 from a railroad-lawyer descendant of John C. Calhoun, the very image of the southern plutocracy; the chapter entitled "Faith" discusses southern religion but ends with two disconcerting images: W.E.B. Du Bois's anguish over his child's death, then a young man committing suicide. Gender pervades the discussion of segregation; sectional reconciliation begins with baseball; white resentment of well-educated, assertive young black Southerners has political consequences. In a synthesis that captures the late 19th-century South in its bewildering complexity, Ayers does get the New South right.

These Southerners are not a flawed or damaged people, and they are far more than just the sum of their problems, as enormous and multifarious as those problems were. The key to Ayers's approach and the means by which he draws so subtle and unerring a portrait is his command of the sources: He builds his analysis from the bottom up, preserving the complexity within groups that usually appear as monoliths and recognizing ironies with a surer touch -- but not more grace of style -- than C. Vann Woodward.

Nell Irvin Painter teaches the history of the American South at Princeton University.

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