The Big House After Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and Their Postbellum Domestic Experiment (review)
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The Big House After Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and Their Postbellum Domestic Experiment. By Amy Feely Morsman. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 276. $45.00 cloth)

In The Big House After Slavery, Amy Feely Morsman skillfully captures the subtle domestic transformation that occurred between former planter husbands and wives in the wake of Confederate defeat and emancipation. Adding to the scholarship on postwar southern households in transition by historians Jane Censer, Laura Edwards, and Nancy Bercaw among others, this study highlights the gendered, albeit reluctant, struggle that brought flexibility and mutual dependence into the marriages of Virginia planters. Three chapters demonstrate the profound domestic changes that took place as these men and women went to work after emancipation, renegotiated gender roles and power within their households, and found support in voluntary associations that encouraged mutuality between husbands and wives in the immediacy of Reconstruction. And, indeed, these first chapters will leave readers wondering, like Morsman had herself, if there was "a moment . . . when a more sustained commitment to mutuality could have developed from the very households where patriarchy had previously been the strongest" (p. 197). But alas there was not. The final two chapters expose the marked limits to Virginia planters' postwar domestic experiment.

Planters' adaptation to emancipation takes center stage from the outset. The choices made by freedpeople especially, Morsman contends, prompted the move toward mutuality in elite, white Virginians' marriages. Unwilling to acquiesce fully to free labor, planter men and women "began to abandon previous notions of work, propriety, and traditional gender roles" and economized "wherever they could" (pp. 16, 29). The financial and labor challenges of freedom led the men to scale back operations, partition estates, take up livestock husbandry, and even work the land themselves. But making ends meet also required that they depend on wives. And planter women provided their households much. For at least twenty years after emancipation, Morsman concludes, women's contributions "meant considerably [End Page 254] more . . . because they fulfilled a real need in supporting the family and the plantation enterprise in ways their husbands could not" (p. 53).

But, of course, former planter men were in "a no-win situation" (p. 195). Their manhood and mastery was being challenged from seemingly every angle, and chapter four makes it especially clear that even as they adopted households in which mutuality replaced patriarchy, these "real Virginia men" embraced a political rhetoric and reality that did not (p. 195). As elite white males reclaimed political power and contended with the state debt controversy after 1870, they worked to restore antebellum notions of male duty and southern honor. Gender roles within the household may have blurred, but when planter men "engaged in political combat in the public arena they resorted to the rigid, traditional archetypes of the Old South" (p. 157).

Morsman's consideration of the gendered ideologies at work in agricultural organizations and southern churches is particularly compelling. Noteworthy too are her reflections in the last chapter about the planters' children who began new lives as city dwellers in the New South. Abandoning agriculture and family plantations, this next generation embraced urban life, different career paths, and their own domestic experiments. In keeping with their parents, they created households in which husbands and wives enjoyed more intellectual, physical, and emotional mutuality. But this generation lived in a different time and a different place. They married later. They had fewer children. No longer needed, wives' economic contributions became dispensable and their household influence contracted. The urban environment also sustained more rigid, gendered divisions of space and labor than had existed in the immediate postwar South.

Beautifully written, The Big House After Slavery is an unqualified pleasure to read. It is free of jargon, convincingly argued in a succinct narrative of less than two hundred pages, and overflowing with detailed research that invites readers into both the personal and public lives of former planter men and women as they reinvented themselves in the turbulent and transformative years that followed emancipation. [End Page 255]

Mary Farmer-Kaiser

Mary Farmer-Kaiser is James D. Wilson/BORSF Memorial Professor in Southern Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She...


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