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.