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Southern History Across the Color Line. By Nell Irvin Painter (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2002) 256pp. $37.50 cloth $17.95 paper
This collection of essays—chiefly written between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s—is a provocative investigation of the ways in which participants and historians have defined past worlds through ideologies given meaning by, or expressed through, race, gender, class, region, and politics. It is not merely social, intellectual, or political history. It is all of them and more. Indeed, it is fruitless to apply strict methodological boundaries to Painter's work, as Painter probably hopes.
The title of the work suggests a movement beyond at least one major tenet of how we understand the South. Although race continues to define so much of what it means to be a southerner (not to mention an American), Painter urges her readers to contemplate the many different forces that were constantly operating in the South and giving it meaning. To be sure, gender relationships, violence, sex, political ideology, and even memory—all issues that Painter explores—were often guided by racial notions of society. However, as Painter points out in her introduction, [End Page 100] "race is not all there is to life or to history. Much more remains to be said" (3). Such is the task that she has set before herself throughout her career. These essays catalog how well she has addressed it and what remains to be done.
Painter examines, in turn, slavery's legacy of violence; the private journal and journey of a southern plantation mistress turned suffragist; the applicability of Freudian theory to race, gender, and class in the South; the "personal, intimate, and psychological" nature of white supremacy (8); the effect of race and class distinctions upon memoir, biography, and autobiography; and the troubling motivations behind the celebration of W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South (New York, 1941).
The book covers a broad expanse of material, and Painter moves freely from one topic to another, critically employing a variety of "master's tools" to navigate and reinterpret the past. The book's introduction, however, reveals the filaments that connect all of the essays together. Sometimes the threads seem gossamer, but upon closer examination, they evince a constant, tensile strength.
The strongest and most consistent theme is Painter's dedication to finding the individual in history. In order to locate the hidden motivations crucial to individuality, Painter relies upon the tools of psychoanalysis. That historians may criticize her for premising theses upon the unknowable Painter acknowledges with a shrug. She is impatient with the constraints of hardened disciplinarity and seeks to move the act of historical inquiry beyond it. In this book's strongest essays—those exploring "soul murder" and the life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas (the first and second chapter, respectively)—she succeeds absolutely. She asks questions about the permeability and malleability of race, gender, power, class, and place with which future generations of scholars will have to reckon. Even in those essays that frustrate, like her attempt at a meta-conceptualization of white supremacy, Painter has left a bushel of ideas through which future scholars must parse.
Painter concludes with a commentary about the contemporary relevance of Cash's The Mind of the South. She laments that "Southerners and Americans of all races still confuse race with class and political power with sex so that their maps of power and sexuality are still likely to be as misleading as Cash's" (198). Perhaps so. But those readers who join Painter in her journey across various lines of social and psychological demarcation—those who have the pleasure of reading and wrestling with the ideas in this collection—are sure to experience a more subtle and imaginative cartography of life and individual possibility.
Jonathan Scott Holloway