By Colin Woodward
It’s tough to get reading done, let alone quickly. But in 2014, I managed to get through a few books. Some I started a long time ago and finished last year, others I read just in 2014.
Here’s a recap. They are not books published in 2014 necessarily. But here are my impressions.
Deliver us from Evil. This is Lacy Ford’s long awaited follow-up to his classic 1988 book, Origins of Southern Radicalism. Origins is a book that all U.S. history graduate students should read, preferably in their first semester. The scholarship is masterful, but the argument is more implicit than explicit. And as a literary work, it isn’t fun to read.
Deliver us from Evil has the same strengths and weaknesses. The scholarship is astounding. Ford looked at an amazing amount of archival sources, providing a wealth of material for those interested in the Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, or Nat Turner revolts. The book weighs in at a hefty 600+ pages, with the author taking a sweeping look at slavery in the early Republic and Jacksonian period.
Unfortunately, I found the book incredibly dull to read. Some historians think it’s not fair to judge a book on its literary merit. I disagree. It took me four years to finish this book. And it’s not because I’m a slow reader.
I’m also not sure if I bought the book’s main argument, which examines slavery from the viewpoint of paternalism. I felt like Ford was confusing the rhetoric with the reality: the rhetoric was that slaveholders liked to think of themselves as paternalists, but the reality was that they acted like heartless capitalists. Ford, though, sees paternalism as a means of combating the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the North. That’s plausible, but I felt like Ford very often took the slaveholders too much at their word.
And for all the scholarship that went into this book, it stops at the year 1840. Perhaps Ford is working on another book that looks at the remaining 25 years of slavery.
The American Civil War. John Keegan is probably the most respected military historian of the late 20th century. This book, however, is a huge disappointment.
The parts that examine military strategy are, on the whole, well done, especially in regard to the Union side. But the book seems shockingly ignorant of the vast historiography of the Civil War. The endnotes are slim. Keegan didn’t get his hands dirty in the archives. He makes many rookie mistakes in the first chapter that compares North/South that could’ve been caught by a graduate student, let alone a peer-reviewer.
Obviously, the Keegan name goes pretty far in publishing houses, regardless of the quality of the book.
Parts of the book are incredibly bad, and I am not using “incredible” in its common, over-used sense. I literally could not believe how bad they were. The chapter Keegan included on black soldiers is worthless, the worst chapter I have read by a major historian on the subject of African Americans during the Civil War. The concluding pages can only be described as racially prejudiced against black troops. He says, “the reality [is] that blacks were often terrified into passivity when confronted by the most black-hating Southerners, such as Texans and Mississippians.” Apparently, Keegan had not read too deeply in the literature. This sentence reads like he bought the Sambo myth that Confederates put forth when describing black troops.
But it gets worse. He continues: “[Black troops] simply could not stand up to combat as white soldiers did. Forrest, their grimmest persecutor, was simply stating reality when he said that blacks could not cope with white Southerners, who, in the last resort, were fighting to preserve slavery as the mastery of the white over the black.” That sentence could’ve been written by Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Sadly, The American Civil War was Keegan’s last book.
Destruction and Reconstruction. I always wanted to read this memoir, which was published in the late 1870s by Dick Taylor, the son of Zachary Taylor. Taylor was a Louisiana planter before the war, and he did good things for the Confederacy in the East and the West. He served with Stonewall Jackson for a while, fought in the Trans-Mississippi, and then traveled back east in the closing days of the war.
Taylor is the source for the myth that Stonewall Jackson was always eating lemons. James Robertson once called the lemon story “the myth that wouldn’t die. When I saw Robertson talk at LSU back in the 1990s, one of the questions was, “where did he get his lemons?” Robertson had to politely say that “Jackson loved all kinds of fruit!”
Taylor’s book is worth reading, though it’s heavy on the classical allusions. Just skip over those, though. He wrote with wit, and it is one of the more readable of Confederate memoirs. For me, though, Sam Watkins’s Company Aytch is still the best.
Down by the Riverside. Charles Joyner’s classic book looks at slavery in South Carolina. It’s one of the many monographs that examined the slave community in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the early 20th century, southern historians wrote books on human bondage that were essentially proslavery. By the mid-20th century, revisionists began arguing that slavery was inherently evil and exploitative.
Joyner was among the many social historians who emphasized the many ways slaves shaped their own world, how they had agency, how the master did not have total control over his slaves.
And yet, Joyner’s book swings far to the end of the slave community spectrum, to the point that slavery, as depicted in his book, seems more like summer camp than a horrible condition.
Still, Joyner’s book is insightful and an interesting read. As I well know, it’s difficult finding the right balance in a work on slavery. Say that slavery was oppressive, and you downplay African Americans’ agency. Say that slaves had the freedom and ability to challenge their condition, and you make human bondage look to have been not so bad. You may even end up playing into the hands of the pro-slavery argument that said slaves were well-treated and happy.
Other books I read last year:
Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life
Adam Begley, Updike
V. Elaine Thompson, Clinton, Louisiana
Richard Campanella, Bourbon Street
Jim Guy Tucker, Arkansas Men at War
Roseanne Cash, Composed
I also read Ben “Crazy Cooter” Jones’s memoir Redneck Boy in the Promised Land. But that is going to get its own blog entry very soon.