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Interpreting the Old South

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

The Rise of the Whigs in Virginia, 1824-1S40. By Henry II. Sinnns. Richmond: The William Byrd Press, Inc., $2.25. Life and Labor in the Old South. By Ulrica Bonncll Phillips. Boston: Little Brown and Company. $4.00.

The “Old South,” long a more or less mythical land of song, story, and tradition, is slowly but surely being revealed in all its reality by the ever growing stream of studies, based, not upon tender but defective memory, not upon imagination, more or less vivid, not upon tradition, but upon patient, tireless, and scholarly investigation of historical sources. And while the reality may seem to some less fascinating than the myth, to thoughtful readers and students, to genuine lovers of the South, it is more satisfactory, even if they, do not enter as whole-heartedly, and withal as bitterly, into the revolt against the widely accepted notions of the past as did Broadus Mitchell in his recent “Slippers and Old Sorrel,” in the Baltimore Evening Sun.

Of course Mr. Mitchell is quite correct in his belief that the time has come for realities rather than tender memories. The time, indeed, came long ago, and, to be entirely fair, the efforts of the writers of Southern history for the past quarter-century, in most cases at least, cannot fall under condemnation for lack of historical realism.

Politics in Southern historical writing still holds the center of the stage. This is to be accounted for in a number of ways. So many of us Southerners, for example, are naturally so politically minded that we cannot escape the fascination of the theme. Many, too, have been trained to believe Freeman’s famous dictum, which used to adorn the door of the Johns Hopkins history seminar room, that “History is past politics,” and are unable to perceive the error. Politics, too, offers an easier task to young and inexperienced writers than do economic and social movements and conditions. And, finally, of not least importance, the sources for political history are much more abundant and far more easily available than those relating to any other phase of the past of the South.

Mr. Simms has written a good, brief study of the rise of the Whig party in Virginia. It is carefully, accurately, and thoughtfully done. Based upon good use of all available sources, it is excellently documented. A doctoral dissertation, typically so, with all the stigmata of its class, it is stronger in details than in generalizations, in events than in larger movements, but it is meaty and convincing, proving quite conclusively the author’s thesis that the Whig party, in Virginia in its origins was a conservative movement of men of property, a blending of state’s rights op. position to Jacksonian nationalism and of aristocratic opposition to Jacksonian social democracy.

“Life and Labor in the Old South” is, as its title indicates, a totally different sort of book. Mr. Phillips long ago won a recognized place of leadership in the interpretation of the ante-bellum South. Political history has had for him a place of only secondary importance; rather he has sought to fathom the depths which always lie beyond politics. Social and economic forces and habits have always engrossed his attention, and in this work is found the ripe fruit of his scholarly activity over a period of many years. So original in its approach to its subject as to be well-nigh revolutionary in form, it bears on every page the impress of a master hand. The certainty of the author’s knowledge is quickly communicated to the reader who presently finds himself guided into the past by an intimate of that past, and made genially acquainted with the people in their daily living. One drifts along, paying little attention to events but watching with keen enjoyment the habits, practices, and occupations characteristic of the Old South. And what a charming as well as informed guide the reader has; frank yet restrained, able to stand and watch it all move past with a certain detachment and poise which make his judgments seem eminently sound, sympathetic in his complete understanding of it all yet not unduly prejudiced, serious in his intense interest, yet possessed of a touch of friendly humor which adds to the pleasure of the companionship.

Only a brief discussion of the origins of the Southern states is given as a setting, and that deals exclusively with ways of working and living. The stage set, we are introduced to the growing of cotton, tobacco, cane, rice, and indigo; to the transportation and marketing of the crops; to slavery in all its ways. We meet the masters, visit their fine old plantation homes from Virginia to the Gulf States, and live their life with them. We study plantation economy and oversee the overseers. And a panorama of wonderful views supplement the words of the guide.

It must be said that we see little of town life, pay scant attention to industry, other than agriculture, neglect entirely business and the professions, and watch little labor other than that of negro slaves. Perhaps one is ungrateful to criticize such an illuminating entertainment, but these are things worthy of attention. One misses, too, the plain folks of the South who after all made up the bulk of its people. Only one brief look is given them. Of course they were inarticulate and we know little of them; of course they did not, after all, shape, as did the plantation owners, the destinies of the Old South; but presently their steadfast heroism in the battle to preserve the civilization here portrayed was to win for them, as well as their “betters,” an imperishable glory, and I, for one, find myself wishing to know them more intimately.

All of which does not prevent the book from being a real event in American historiography.


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