The American South, a History

As an English literature major and history minor, I was introduced to the American South’s turbulent history as well as its great fiction writers (such as William Faulkner, Kate Chopin, and Flannery O’Connor). With this post, the fourth in my ongoing series of recommended historical non-fiction, I highlight five intriguing books that evoke the South’s values, rich cultural history, and distinctly unique take on things.

 Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and  Reputation in Jefferson’s America by Cynthia Kierner. In 1792 rural Virginia, a small party of young adults traveled to a plantation for an extended visit. Once there, one of the women, Nancy Randolph, suffered what appeared, at first, to be a miscarriage. The “scandal” was that Nancy was unmarried and the suspected father was her brother-in-law, Richard Randolph (her sister’s husband). Was the infant murdered? Did Nancy and Richard have an affair? Richard was charged with the crime but the stigma of the “fallen woman” status clung to Nancy for the rest of her life. The book reads like fiction but it’s a true story. The Randolph family was distantly related to Thomas Jefferson, his mother’s surname was Randolph.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz.  And now for some humor. Journalist Horwitz travels to the deep South to collect stories and views from a people still deeply entrenched with the ghosts of “the War of Northern Aggression.” Along the way he meets “super hardcore” Civil War re-enactors, a black woman selling baskets in a market stall abutting another selling Confederate flags and trinkets, and attends boisterous Klan rallies. It’s a wild ride in a whole ‘nother country.

 Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed. In this highly readable and revealing book, historian, professor, and legal scholar Gordon-Reed proceeds to cut down every argument and conclusion that has been made about Jefferson and his sexual relationship with his slave throughout its long and controversial history. She takes apart every single argument and debunks each with solid research, revealing blind acceptance in the historical study of Jefferson scholarship. This book ties in nicely with

  The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed.  The winner of numerous book awards (including the Pulitzer for history), this is a thorough and exhaustive account of the Hemings family which has achieved notoriety due to the acknowledged relationship between slave Sally Hemings and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. She brings alive a family, a woman, and a legacy amid the backdrop of the slave South. Impeccably researched and written, this book is just one of the reasons why I love history.

 A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 by Stephen Ash. Finally, this selection is a poignant and diverse collection revealing the private diaries and lives of four southerners in a single year: a war widow, a newly-freed slave, a former Confederate soldier, and a lost young man trying to find himself in a changed country. Ash is a history professor and each personal story draws you in; it’s a wonderful snapshot in time.



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4 responses to “The American South, a History

  1. Richard Dixon

    It is a stretch to assert that “Gordon-Reed proceeds to cut down every argument and conclusion that has been made about Jefferson,” In her first book “Controversy,” her thesis was to highlight evidence of a possible Jefferson paternity with Sally Hemings that was being ignored by historians. Her goal was to raise the credibility of a 1873 newspaper interview in which Madison Hemings, one of Sally’s sons, asserted he was the son of Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed also wanted a greater acceptance of the stories of slave family descendents that passed down the paternity rumor. She never brings herself to claim conclusively that the paternity story is proved. In her much praised second book, “The Hemingses of Monticello,” she assumes the truth of the paternity story, then uses her training as a lawyer and her considerable literary skill to create the world that might have existed. In doing so, she is forced to employ a device that rebuts the entreaty in her earlier book to impartially consider the evidence. That device is her assumption that everyone in the Jefferson family, as well as the slaves that worked there, and all who visited, who would have been aware of the Jefferson Hemings relationship, acquiesced in a silent pact to keep it secret. It is the great evidentiary chasm of the paternity believers, that in the 35 years Hemings resided at Monticello, through the seven children she supposedly had with Jefferson, and through the eight years that Jefferson was president, no contemporaneous witness left a single oral or written comment that the slightest physical contact or glance ever occurred between Jefferson and Hemings.

  2. redman

    Great books, not big into the South or civil war history but after reading blog i picked 2 books i want to check out and read.
    great music selection too.
    I am a fan.

  3. Pingback: Home Sweet Home | Eleventh Stack

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