John Kvach’s study of De Bow’s Review combines biography with an insightful reading of the changing content of the leading reform [End Page 119] journal in the antebellum South. The result is a complex portrait that undermines stereotypical views of the “Old” South as a static and backward region by highlighting the existence of a vibrant community of southerners interested in the development, diversification, and improvement of the southern economy. Kvach effectively demonstrates a level of continuity between “Old” and “New” South reformers through his narrative linking the life and career of editor James Dunwoody Brownson (J. D. B.) De Bow to regional developments from the 1820s through the early years of Reconstruction.
Kvach fills a notable historiographical gap by providing a sustained biography of De Bow from his early background in Charleston, South Carolina, through the creation of his Review as a platform for promoting an agenda of regional economic diversification and development to his strident defense of slavery and rabid secessionism in the years leading to the Civil War. That De Bow died in 1867 meant his influence on Reconstruction was minimal, yet Kvach demonstrates that De Bow remained committed to a vision of regional diversification and development while accepting the failure of secession and Confederate independence. Kvach links De Bow’s personal history to the ups and downs of his Review, which struggled to collect subscription fees and often only survived due to De Bow’s considerable determination and efforts. Kvach also traces the shifting themes and emphasis of the Review’s content. The journal began with a focus on regional economic development and diversification within a national framework but transitioned to a defense of slavery amid rising sectional tensions before eventually arriving at a position of staunch southern nationalism. In the years prior to the Civil War, the Review’s proslavery secessionism argued that the region’s economy could only thrive outside the restrictive confines of the United States.
Kvach’s deeply researched work goes beyond De Bow’s personal and professional history to re-create a list of nearly fifteen hundred individual subscribers to his journal throughout the South. By examining this group via the snapshot provided in the 1860 census, Kvach presents a revealing portrait of the Review’s readership: a community of reform-minded southern planters, professionals, entrepreneurs, and [End Page 120] merchants. De Bow and his Review mirrored their readers’ commercial and regional interests. The appendix listing “The Identified Readership of De Bow’s Review” demonstrates the meticulous labor that went into Kvach’s work and will be of particular use to those who hope to utilize the Review in their own research. Tables, figures, and Kvach’s analysis highlight important patterns in the Review’s readership and content.
The work’s subtitle accurately summarizes the significance of De Bow’s Review in providing “the antebellum vision of a New South,” but it also suggests the importance of Kvach’s contribution, namely to complicate what is too often viewed as a neat distinction between the “Old” South and the “New.” Given this recognition of continuity between periods of southern history, it is perhaps surprising Kvach placed no more emphasis on the similarity of obstacles that undermined efforts to reform the region’s economy in both De Bow’s lifetime and beyond. De Bow’s death in 1867 limited his influence on Reconstruction, but New South prophets struggled to realize their vision of a modernized economy because many white southerners were unable to overcome the legacies of slavery, the very institution that warped De Bow’s Review from a journal promoting regional economic reform within the framework of the Union to a zealous mouthpiece for southern nationalism. Nonetheless, Kvach’s work makes a significant contribution by highlighting underappreciated aspects of the antebellum South.
ANDREW PARKER PATRICK is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky working on a dissertation examining the transformation of the central Kentucky landscape from the pre-contact period through 1900, with an...