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Mr. Henderson’s North Carolina

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

North Carolina: The Old North State and the New. Volumes I and II. By Archibald Henderson. The Lewis Publishing Company. The five volume set, $35.00.

Benedetto croce, profound and courageous Italian scholar, opens the first chapter of his recent work on “History as the Story of Liberty” with the words: “Criticism of historical works encounters the same difficulties as the criticism of poetry, or analogous difficulties. Some critics are simply at a loss, with the one as with the other, to know how to take them, and cannot catch the thread which connects them with their own mind.” Perhaps the “taking” of historical works is a more or less arbitrary act of thought—deliberate or surreptitious thought. At all events the first function of a reviewer is to describe the volumes under scrutiny as accurately as possible within his limits of space, and to indicate, as carefully as possible, what the author has undertaken to do.

These two volumes, entitled “North Carolina: The Old North State and the New,” by Archibald Henderson, for which he has full responsibility, belong to a set of five volumes; the remaining three, devoted to biographies, come from other hands. Mr. Henderson directs his volumes to the general reader and does not encumber his pages with footnotes or other scholarly apparatus. This does not mean that he writes superficially on the basis of secondary works; on the contrary, in the midst of a busy life he has devoted days and years to laborious searches in the original sources of North Carolina history, Besides, as his pages show, he has a strong sense for the values of evidence, especially in cases involving controversial points.

In respect of time-span, his two volumes, embracing more than fifteen hundred pages, extend from the founding of the Roanoke Colony, 1584-87, to recent years, including such facts as some preliminary census figures of 1940. With reference to scope—the classes of historical ideas, interests, and activities covered—the volumes go far beyond ordinary military, political, and constitutional history to take in the people and the culture of the state, by no means overlooking slaves and Negroes at any period in the long story. In other words, Mr. Henderson, with persistence and skill, seeks to encompass the whole life of the people in the old North State, from top to bottom, in all regions, and in their relationship to the whole country.

The ever perplexing, never solved problem of organization our author attacks by combining the chronological with the topical. That is to say, as political, constitutional, and military activities are described in time sequence, the narrative is broken at successive stages by chapters on the varieties of people and their settlements, education for the higher classes, internal improvements, educational programs, and “cultural development.” Under the head of cultural development come all the main interests, activities, and creations usually associated with that term—science, religion, the fine arts, theater, drama, and architecture. In treating the relations of North Carolina’s internal life to the contexture of American history in general, Mr. Henderson, with ingenuity, I think, gives enough of the general to provide the reader with the necessary threads of interconnection,

Controversial questions which have long worried historians he handles with patience; such matters, for instance, as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the birthplace of Andrew Jackson. While he does render judgments, he exhibits his materials and, so to speak, conducts his mental operations in full view of the reader. The style is flowing and vigorous, for the most part, and what reviewers may call “eminently readable.” Being mortal, the author, in his long and toilsome journey, occasionally grows tired and drops into a pedestrian stride, but even then he does not become confused, nor does he cease to be intelligible. Now and then he renders an oracular judgment but on the whole his temper is equitable and inquiring.

What final verdict may be rendered? By whom? Specialists, with their microscopic eyes, coming upon passages in which Mr. Henderson tries to compress and summarize hundreds of pages of materials swiftly, will doubtless have much to say about spots that appear to them to be “thin.” To this type of critic I suggest: Try to do the same thing yourself—and submit it to the judgment of your peers! On a point or two, I myself confess to some heat, but conceivably I might be wrong. My verdict is that I have derived new information from these pages, a more sympathetic understanding of the people of North Carolina, a greater delight in American history, and an enlarged vision of the potentials and possibilities of my country. Mr. Henderson has brought nearer the day when the comprehensive history of American civilization is to be written and has made a contribution to showing how it should be written. He has long been among the strong and interesting personalities of the United States. These volumes enlarge his stature.


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